Germany in the 1930s was a terrifying place to be. After Hitler assumed power, Jews were indiscriminately beaten, books banned, journalists expelled, and even the mild act of telling a joke could result in harsh imprisonment. And, as we all know, much worse was to come.
In his new book, “White Knights in the Black Orchestra,” Tom Dunkel writes that “Hitler’s Germany could be viewed as a battle for the soul of a nation.” But while “millions of Christians had convinced themselves it was possible to be a God-fearing, Bible-believing Nazi,” there was one group of people who decried the injustices and rose up to defy Hitler. The Gestapo dubbed them the “Black Orchestra.”
Hans von Dohnanyi was a staff attorney in the Ministry of Justice who “began secretly compiling a running list of Nazi transgressions, which he referred to as the ‘Chronicle of Shame.’” If his treasonous act ever came to light, he would be summarily executed. His hope was that his documentation would help to prosecute Nazis for their atrocities once Germany returned to a more stable political climate.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who denounced Hitler’s perse-cution of the Jews and reminded Christians of their moral imperative to oppose injustice. He practiced what he called “costly grace.” Eschewing the “casual piety of casual Christians,” he sought to live his faith every day without compromise. “It is costly because it costs a man his life,” he wrote, “and it is grace because it gives a man his only true life.”
Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer, along with a cadre of like-minded military officers, diplomats, politicians and others both within and outside the German government, were part of the “Black Orchestra” conspiracy. Their goal was to bring down the Third Reich and put an end to what was quickly becoming a bloodbath. With little support from the allies and at great risk to themselves, they plotted bombings and assassination attempts—which Hitler somehow escaped, but which sig-naled to the world that not all Germans embraced Nazism.
In 70 fast-paced chapters, Dunkel’s seamless narrative gives these brave men and women their overdue eulogy. In the end, about 200 people directly involved in the conspiracy were execut-ed, and of the additional 7,000 suspects snared in Hitler’s wide-ranging investigation, nearly 5,000 were put to death. While Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer were among the casualties, Dohnanyi’s “Chronicle of Shame” survived, as did Bonhoeffer’s posthumous letters and papers, which became an international bestseller.
Now “White Knights in the Black Orchestra” can be added to their legacy, along with a line that could well serve as an epitaph: “In darkest days,” writes Dunkel, “righteous souls must let in-stinct light their path and follow it come what may.” With threats arising from various fronts these days, we can only hope that our times will produce our own share of righteous souls.
Hill journalist and author Tom Dunkel has been a long-time freelancer for publications such as The Washington Post Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and Smithsonian. He is the author of “Colorblind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Line.” www.tomdunkel.com
Virtual Book Club
The renovated Folger Shakespeare Library won’t be open to the public until next year, but that doesn’t mean it’s idle. The online Book Club, “Words, Words, Words,” which meets the first Thursday of every month, is still going strong.
The November session will feature “Ramón and Julieta” by Alana Quintana Albertson, a romance focusing on the Latinx community that was chosen by NPR as one of the “Books We Love.” And on December 1, the group with discuss “Black Cake” by Charmaine Wilkerson, a New York Times bestseller that deals with estranged siblings exploring their puzzling inheritance.
The Book Club is free and open to all. Folger staff moderate the discussion and provide historical context, trivia, and items from the library’s collection that connect to the books. To regis-ter, visit www.folger.edu and click on Performances & Events.