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

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler Book Poster Image
Gripping true story of devout man who tried to stop Hitler.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Explanation of Hitler's rise to power, causes of WWII, Hitler's military strategy, the Holocaust, the German resistance movement, assassination plots to kill Hitler. Accounts of Night of the Long Knives (when Hitler had Gestapo and SS kill 200) and Night of Broken Glass (when Gestapo and SS smashed windows of Jewish shops, burned synagogues, beat Jews). Explanation of various spiritual issues regarding church's positions regarding racism, anti-Semitism, acceptance of Hitler. Discussion of universal, communal nature of Catholic religious services and exuberant style of U.S. African American religious services. Some fine points of Lutheran religious practices, internal theological differences. Wartime vocabulary: "blitzkreig," "panzer," "the Blitz," "appeasement," "conscription."

Positive Messages

Stand up for what's right. Faith demands action. Obeying God means challenging injustice. The church must protect "the other." Christians must see the Jews as their brothers, as "children of the covenant." Faith isn't just about creating a set of comforting thoughts about God; it's living out an ethic that calls for sacrifice. In Bonhoeffer's words: "If we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ's large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and freedom when the moment of danger comes ... Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Bonhoeffer is a compassionate, self-sacrificing, moral, upright leader of his church guided by his conscience and faith. He struggles with self-doubt, taking risks, turning against his country, and making the right decision, but lets his faith guide him. His parents, siblings, friends, and Maria are kind, loving, supportive. The other plotters -- especially those still in Hitler's army -- bravely follow their conscience, willing to pay highest price to stop Hitler, end the war. 

Violence

WWI and WWII battle scenes, mention that Nazis killed Russian prisoners of war, many without food so they died of starvation; references to extermination of Jews in concentrations camps; picture of bomb exploding on a plane; London bombed during Blitz; a meeting room exploding from a bomb; two men huddling together under rubble after plane drops bomb on German prison; German officer facing Nazi firing squad. Hitler depicted as wolf wearing Nazi arm band devouring soldiers. Mention that in 1939, anxious to start war, Hitler dressed his own troops in Polish uniforms, had them "invade" German radio station on Polish border. Picture of apparent German soldier on the ground with explanation that Hitler "dressed prisoners from concentration camps in in German uniforms, killing some and using their bodies to prove the attack on Germany was real."

Sex

Dietrich falls in love with Maria and they get engaged but never have a chance to marry. Their relationship is made up of longing, writing letters to each other, and rare visits, including in prison for only a few minutes under the watchful eyes on Nazi guards, without any touching.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Man shown holding a pipe. One of the assassination attempts involved hiding a bomb in a package of two brandy bottles. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that John Hendrix's graphic novel The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler tells the gripping true story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran theologian who, after much soul searching, became part of a plot to assassinate Hitler -- a plot that would prove unsuccessful and cost Bonhoeffer his life. In addition to being a compelling biography of an exceptional man of great moral integrity, it's an excellent primer on Hitler's rise to power, the causes of World War II, Hitler's military strategy during the war, the Holocaust, and the German resistance. The facts and issues are clearly laid out and imaginatively illustrated, making it a terrific asset for anyone studying World War II. It also deals with Bonhoeffer's personal struggle with his Christian faith, from the time he's a kid pondering the meaning of life and the nature of God (as many kids will) to when he's an adult wrestling with what it means to put your faith into action and questions regarding your duty to God vs. country. Violence includes battle scenes of World War I and II, bombings, mention of the deaths of Jews in concentrations camps and that the Nazis killed Russian prisoners of war or starved them to death. A German officer facing a Nazi firing squad is pictured, and Hitler is depicted as a wolf devouring soldiers in his mouth. Hendrix cleverly represents the "good guys" (Bonhoeffer, the plotters, ordinary Germans) and their scenes in a bold turquoise and the "bad guys" (Hitler and the Nazis) in blood red, which helps readers track the various developments in this complex history. 

 

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What's the story?

THE FAITHFUL SPY: DIETRICH BONHOEFFER AND THE PLOT TO KILL HITLER lays out the story of a German Lutheran boy who from a young age was drawn to questions about the nature of God and the meaning of life, and who grew up to believe in putting your faith into action. This graphic novel tracks his personal and professional journey from divinity student to theologian and pastor to a member of a resistance group to spy for an underground group seeking to murder Hitler. The book lays out Hitler's rise after Germany's humiliation after losing World War I and charts his military strategy, persecution, and attempted extermination of the Jewish people in Germany and other European countries; Bonhoeffer's participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler; two failed attempts to assassinate him with planted bombs; and Bonhoeffer's arrest, stay in prison, and ultimate execution for his role in the plot. 

Is it any good?

This captivating graphic novel is as suspenseful as a thriller, with complex political events and spiritual ideas imaginatively illustrated and clearly explained in kid-friendly language. For example, here's how the author explains Hitler's takeover of Austria: "In March 1938, he annexes Austria with nothing more than blustery speeches and the tactics of a schoolyard bully. The Austrian government was so terrified of war with a lunatic they gladly gave Hitler their lunch money." The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler is a great book for anyone interested in -- or studying -- World War II. And kids and teens can relate to the deep questions Bonhoeffer struggles with: Does God hear me when I pray? Are believers called to action? Do people of faith have a responsibility to stand up against evil and fight injustice?

Author-illustrator John Hendrix does an incredible job of making history exciting, maintaining the story's momentum, and balancing military, political, family, and romantic action with thought-provoking ideas about God and faith. Particularly clever are the times his illustrations veer into the metaphorical, such as picturing Hitler as a snarling wolf (his preferred nickname was the Wolf), soldiers as rats, or Bonhoeffer as a zookeeper when the text describes his doubts about his theological pursuits: "Dietrich felt like he studied God as if he were an animal in a zoo, making careful observations and measurements but always at a safe and comfortable distance." Hendrix calls our hero by his first name, which helps make him relatable as an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary circumstances. And Hendrix quotes from Bonhoeffer's own writing, as well, marking those citations with an asterisk to make clear they are Bonhoeffer's exact words. Also helpful is his use of different colors for the "good guys" (Bonhoeffer, the plotters, ordinary Germans) in a bold turquoise and the "bad guys" (Hitler and the Nazis) in blood red, which helps readers track developments and issues in the story. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the moral dilemma of joining an assassination plot in The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler. Could you justify murdering one evil man to save millions of people? Is there ever a good war? 

  • Even though Bonhoeffer is a pastor and a theologian (someone who studies the nature of God and religious belief), he still has moments of doubt and is even angry at God sometimes. Have you ever felt that way? How did you get through it?

  • How did Bonhoeffer's experience of having an African American friend and experiencing racism against blacks firsthand in the United States affect his response to Hitler's persecution of the Jewish people in Germany and other parts of Europe? How did it make him feel about churches where pastors justified racism, segregation, and the persecution of Jews?

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