The intent and the methodology of this collection of selected writings from seven Christians living under the Nazi regime are compelling for their timeliness and relevance. The seven are Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Franz Jägerstätter, Alfred Delp, S.J., Sophie Scholl, Jochen Klepper, Bernard Lichtenberg, and Rupert Mayer, S.J. Concerning the lives of these seven, Kidder asks readers to consider “What is it that drove them to confront the authorities at the risk of their own lives?” (p. viii). The reason for asking this question is that “(a)s we trace their spiritual writings we allow them to shepherd us into heeding our own conscience in times that beg for discernment among contending voices of authority” (p. ix). To hear the voices of conscience of these Christians living in a time of oppression does bring a needed and encouraging challenge to Christian churches and disciples today. To underscore the nature of conscience, Kidder uses to good effect a powerful phrase from Lichtenberg–“My conscience as a priest is held captive by the knowledge of such crimes against moral law and federal law” (p. 144). This resonates with Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI’s emphasis on conscience (Ratzinger, On Conscience. San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2007). Readers of this text are invited to learn about and be inspired by the lived example of people who themselves were striving to follow Christ with their whole hearts, minds, souls and bodies.
This book includes a general introduction to the topic, followed by seven chapters, one for each person. These chapters follow the same pattern: an introduction to the person’s life; selected writings, letters and/or journal entries from the person (with some editorial notes), and a list of the sources quoted. The person’s own writings as selected by Kidder generally provide a helpful introduction. Three of the selected subjects were previously unknown to me–Klepper, Lichtenberg and Mayer. Even if someone comes to this book already knowing all seven though, this would still be a worthwhile read. For example, though I had read about his life previously, the selection of material by Fr. Delp particularly struck home in its simultaneous depth and simplicity of faith.
I do have a reservation about the choice of one of the seven as well as about part of the history recounted in the introduction. Under admittedly horrific circumstances–fear that his Jewish wife and one of her daughters would be sent to a concentration camp–Klepper, his wife and daughter committed suicide together at the end of 1942, after deliberating about it for a year. This seems a disturbing choice in a text intended to illustrate the Christian conscience in action, even more so in our day and age of what John Paul II described as a ‘culture of death,’ when pressure to legalize so-called assisted suicide is growing for example.
As well, in her general introduction, Kidder affirms that the sermons of Bishop von Galen of Munster condemning the German ‘euthanasia’ program against impaired children and adults were effective in stopping this program (p. xix). Contemporary historical research (e.g., Friedlander Henry, The Origins of Nazi Genocide. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995) shows both that these killing efforts were carried out on several fronts, not just one, and sadly that they were not stopped but rather changed forms and continued at least throughout the war, and perhaps through momentum even a bit after in some locales.
A few obvious typographical errors were also somewhat distracting and surprising from a respected publisher.
Even with the above concerns in mind, this book could make a good basic text for an undergraduate course or a parish study group for example. Depending on their purpose or time frame, professors or catechists may want to supplement, replace or selectively use only some of the seven persons represented in the text. Reflection and discussion questions, as well as relevant Scripture passages, could also easily be generated or identified to accompany the reading. Some readers might need a little more historical background if they are less familiar with conditions in Germany before and during World War II.
As Christians, we have received a faith handed on to us in word and deed. My hope is that after reading this introductory text, at least some readers will go on to learn even more about Christian individuals and groups who resisted the Nazis explicitly as Christians, and even more to consider what this means for living one’s faith in the face of today’s political structures.