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The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler

John Hendrix
Published by Harry N. Abrams in 2018

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a semi-aristocratic German theologian and minister who, through family connections, joined a conspiracy to overthrow the Third Reich. Having decided that a coup d’etat would succeed only with Adolf Hitler dead, the conspirators narrowly missed assassinating him three times – once when a bomb smuggled onto his plane in a brandy bottle failed to detonate, a second time when he unexpectedly broke off from a tour led by a docent strapped with explosives, and a third time when a briefcase bomb smuggled into his headquarters killed four others but left him with only minor injuries. Bonhoeffer and many of his accomplices were eventually rounded up and executed just weeks before the Allied forces took Germany.

Bonhoeffer’s story has the makings of a thriller, and that’s exactly what John Hendrix has written…and drawn! Hendrix, a world-class illustrator who teaches at Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, uses a handwriting-based typeface and vibrant illustrations to tell Bonhoeffer’s story. It’s hard to know how to characterize the resulting book. Hendrix himself calls it a prose/graphic novel hybrid. Designed for middle-grade students, The Faithful Spy will no doubt find fans among grownups as well.

The book, which was a finalist for the 2019 American Library Association’s award for excellence in young adult nonfiction, is first of all a biography of Bonhoeffer. Drawing from the abundance of existing (non-illustrated) biographies, Hendrix organizes the book chronologically according to Bonhoeffer’s story. But he also presents Bonhoeffer’s life against the background of “the rise and fall of Nazi Germany” (170). So it is a historically rich biography that will teach readers a little bit about Bonhoeffer’s obscure dissertation and a little bit about inflation in the German economy between the world wars. Just as readers familiar with Bonhoeffer will still thrill at the near-miss assassinations, readers who know some history will nonetheless tremor at the shockingly brutal rise of Nazism.

The figure of Adolf Hitler looms large. Portrayed as a diabolical madman and frequently drawn as a ruthless wolf, Hitler is the central figure in the historical narrative that frames Bonhoeffer’s life story. In fact, Hitler’s prominence almost pushes the book beyond the limits of a historically contextualized biography into the realm of a dual biography. Hendrix focuses the early pages on Bonhoeffer, colored in teal, before introducing Hitler, colored in red. Teal and red (the only colors in the book) then interweave, increasingly jarring against each other and heightening the tension toward a visual and narrative climax. The tension then resolves in a denouement of teal tranquility.

Hendrix is careful to describe the book as art, not scholarship, and he is generous in acknowledging his dependence on the work of scholars. Ultimately, Hendrix’s most consequential shaping of the scholarly raw material happens through the narrative devices described above, and this shaping sometimes exacerbates problems already present in the scholarship. The dual biography form, for one, makes Bonhoeffer into Hitler’s foil. He plays the earnest, faithful, and conscientious counterpart to the rash and irrational Hitler in a Manichean story of good versus evil. This narrative device threatens to simplify the history by encouraging us to see Bonhoeffer as unimpeachably good.

Beyond this, the fact that these dual biographies culminate so forcefully and inevitably in the assassination attempts encourages us to read Bonhoeffer’s life in light of them. These attempts – in which Bonhoeffer played a minor, peripheral role, it should be remembered – become the narrative event horizon from which no detail of his life can hope to escape. Often the effect is subtle. Often it is not, as when Bonhoeffer’s decision for assassination is apparently retrojected to 1933: Hendrix takes the phrase “jamming a spoke in the wheel” from a 1933 essay and makes it the title of the chapter recounting the assassination plots of 1943 and 1944 (52, 88). This not only makes Bonhoeffer implausibly prophetic, it also downplays the theological and ecclesial elements of his resistance legacy in favor of the military-conspiratorial one. The “jamming” Bonhoeffer called for in 1933 was not assassination but something rather different, a proclamation by the ecumenical church.

The Faithful Spy is nonetheless highly recommended both for adults and for older children who can handle the unsettling history it vividly tells.

Michael DeJonge

Michael P. DeJonge is Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. His most recent book is Bonhoeffer on Resistance (Oxford, 2018).

One Comment

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    That’s about the biggest “nonetheless” I’ve read in a long time! I’m thinking of Q&A 60 in the Heidelberg. Interesting to compare Bonhoeffer to Trocmé.