Book #1: How Did Hitler Happen?
I've read a lot about World War II and the Holocaust (haven't we all?), but I've never read a book that explained so clearly how Hitler rose to power and got away with so much. Because World War II and the Holocaust are such enormous topics, narratives tend to jump right into the middle of the action, leaving readers feeling like they've been transported to some strange fantasyland, not unlike the dystopias of today's YA lit (Hunger Games, etc.). But Eric Metaxas pulls way back from the start of World War II, even back before World War I and sets us gently down in the highly cultured, highly educated world of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's admirable family. Through the first world war and the harrowing reparations demanded of Germany and then through Germany's financial crisis and national identity crisis, the conditions become ripe, crisis by crisis, for a madman like Hitler to climb the stairs onto the international stage. If you're interested in the question of how Hitler happened, this book is wonderful, but it doesn't end there.
Book #2: What is true Christianity?
This is another huge topic, and it's explored question by question throughout Bonhoeffer's extraordinary life. Born into a scientific and educationally exacting family, Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood out from the beginning, announcing at the age of 13 that he wanted to be a theologian. His older brother was working on splitting atoms with Albert Einstein and his father was Germany's best known psychiatrist, so pursuing theology was an odd choice. I admire the brave truth-seeking Bonhoeffer exhibited, beginning when he was very young. He explored different religions, admiring the bits and pieces he felt were "true" in each. For example, when he spent time in New York City, he attended church in Harlem because he felt the churches there showed much more true devotion to Jesus Christ than the more intellectual churches in midtown Manhattan. He also talked about "cheap grace," the idea that you only have to confess faith in Jesus Christ but don't have to follow his commandments or strive to live in a Christlike way. Woven throughout the history and biographical narrative are many, many faith-promoting ideas, quote, and stories. I also really appreciated evidence of Bonhoeffer's close relationship with God. For instance, one of the people who saw him shortly before he died happened upon him praying and commented on how he prayed as if he really knew that God was listening to him.
Book #3: How to live a cultured, refined life.
Modern American culture has a lot to offer, but culture and refinement aren't near the top of the list. Paula and Carl Bonhoeffer, however, are models of culture and refinement, and I found myself wishing I could be transported back to their Berlin home of a hundred years ago. From their large family dinners and birthday parties to their Saturday night concerts put on for family and friends, everything they did seems to have been designed to uplift those around them. Their letters to each other are elegant, heartfelt, and full of cultural references. They discuss science, art, and music the way people today talk about the NFL or the Grammys. Their elevated level of culture seems to have pulled them through incredible trauma. Even in prison, their sons had the character and active minds necessary to continue learning, support those around them, and be productive, active members of society.
If you read this, Dietrich Bonhoeffer will become a hero of yours, and so will his mother and his father and his twin sister Sabine and his best friend Bethge and his fiancée Maria. It's wonderful to learn about the German heroes of their darkest days.