Eric Metaxas was born in 1963 in Astoria, New York to a Greek father and a German mother. His books have climbed to the top of the list of New York Times and have been translated into over 20 languages. Every year tens of thousands of people in America and around the world watch his speeches. He is the founder and host of 'Socrates in the City', the discussion series on 'life, God and other small matters', which has featured well-known personalities from all over the place. We spoke with him on the occasion of the presentation of his book in Athens Bonhoeffer: The theologian who opposed Hitler (Library on board, Wednesday July 12, at 19:00).
How did the idea of writing the book begin?
I first heard Boenhoffer's story in 1988 and was amazed. Why hadn't I been told anything about this amazing story? A German priest involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler? It was something impressive and inspired me deeply. Honestly, though, I never intended to write his biography. Actually, I never intended to write any biography. But in 2017 I was asked to write a book, the Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery , about an English parliamentarian who stood heroically and defiantly against the slave trade and led the English people to abolish that institution in 1807. As two centuries passed since the event, a film with starring Albert Finlay was about to be released in theaters, and a publisher thought the book should be released at the same time. It was a challenge. Wilberforce made all those efforts because of his deep faith in Christ, knowing that if England wished to be called a Christian nation she would have to oppose the sin of slavery. So I wrote the book and it went very well. And then people around me asked who would be the next one I would write about. I heard about Bonhoeffer in 1988 and he seemed like the most logical candidate for my next book. He had strong similarities with Wilberforce. Also, my mother is German. She and my Greek father met in an English class in New York in 1956. My mother grew up in Germany during the Nazi regime, and I felt that Bonhoeffer was a voice of faith and courage not only for Jews, but for the Germans, as was my mother. So I decided I had to write this book.
What appealed to you about Bonhoeffer's personality?
It is very rare to find a man of such extraordinary intelligence, of such formidable courage and unyielding faith. For that reason alone, this story is so fascinating. He was a true hero and we need such heroes especially nowadays. His story cannot help but inspire anyone who happens to come into contact with it.
Although he studied theology, he had the courage to express his opinion. Was this courage one of the reasons that got him into trouble?
I would say courage was his strongest attribute. By speaking out when others were silent he gave courage to those around him. Courage is contagious, just like cowardice. We have to choose the right attitude every time, because this choice will affect our surroundings. Most Germans did not make the right choice, and as a result the whole nation and the whole world suffered.
Through your book you emphasize the resistance in Germany. Really, why do we know so little about German resistance actions?
There are many reasons. First, after the war many Germans felt betrayed by those who resisted. Having lost a terrible war, they were angry with the resistance fighters, whom they considered traitors. Only in recent decades have they recognized Bonhoeffer, Stauffenberg and other resistance fighters as heroes. But because of the deep shame of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime, little has been said about them. They seem to feel that the sins of their nation were so great that it would not be right to speak out about the brave few who resisted. But I, as an American of Greek-German parents, feel a strong urge to speak out on this matter. The world must know the truth, that even in the darkest age the light of Christ, truth and courage shone because of a few faithful souls.
Did the bourgeoisie take kindly to the rise of Hitler?
Few had their doubts, and the pressure to conform to the Nazi regime was as overwhelming as the pressure to conform to what we Americans today call "political correctness." Only the truly courageous can stand against this mighty trend and it was the same back then.
Was there any resistance action on the part of the Bonhoeffer family?
Yes of course. In fact Bonhoeffer was led into his most serious resistance action by his family, who were fully involved in the affair. His brother-in-law Hansvon Dohnanyi was a leading member of German counter-intelligence, where the focus of the resistance against Hitler was located. It was Dohnanyi who invited Bonhoeffer to join his group in late 1939, just as war broke out. Bonhoeffer's brother and two brothers-in-law were killed by the Nazis. The family sacrificed a number of their members to do what they thought was right.
How did the Church of Germany react to Hitler's policies?
Not good! The German Church had such good and comfortable relations with the German state for many years that when it suddenly fell into the hands of the Nazis it was very difficult to react. The Germans did not have the pre-history of separation between Church and State that we have here in America. So it was difficult for them to see what Bonhoeffer saw, namely that the Church is the conscience of the nation and not such a close friend of the state that it cannot tell the truth when the circumstances call for it. The faith of the Church is first about Jesus Christ and it is supposed to defend him fiercely in every circumstance, and when the state opposes the principles of Christianity it must raise its voice showing all Christians that sometimes they have to choose between Christ and in worldly power. It is a difficult thing, but if we choose Christ we represent the only hope for the organized state to correct its errors.
What was Bonhoeffer's specific resistance action?
First of all as a priest he was the religious and moral guidance for many resistance fighters before he became officially involved in the cause. Upon joining the German military's Intelligence Service (Abwehr), he immediately became a double agent. On the surface he was working for the Nazi regime, but in reality he was working for its destruction. He knew he was risking his life. He was imprisoned for helping fourteen Jews escape abroad, but what led to his execution in 1945 was his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler.
Although he was able to escape to America, Bonhoeffer stayed in Germany. How do you explain this?
He knew that the most important thing was his faith in God, not his safety. He trusted God over the fear of his life.
His views on the role of Christianity in the world have had a significant influence on theological thought. What is his contribution to theological thought?
This is a somewhat complicated question, and for its answer you will humbly permit me to suggest that the readers read my book.
You live in New York. What are your activities?
I have a two hour radio show that is also available as a podcast where I interview lots of interesting people on a variety of topics. Anyone can listen to my show at www.metaxastalk.com. This is what absorbs me the most at the moment, but of course the most important thing for me is the time I spend with my wife, daughter and parents. My father recently turned ninety (happy birthday!) and every day with him is precious to me. He grew up in Kefalonia, where I am now. We come to Greece every year and it is a great pleasure for me to spend my time with my family over here.
I read in your bio that you are the founder and host of 'Socrates in the City'. Can you tell us a few words about this institution?
Socrates said that the unexplored life is worthless. So I thought it would be a good idea to organize some interviews with great writers and thinkers on the "big questions" of life. Who we are; Where do we come from? Where do we go when we die? How did we get here? Is there a God, and if so, what does he look like, and can we meet him face to face? There is a conflict between science and faith, can these two coexist? These are not ordinary questions, and I was of the opinion that in order to live a life worth living, in the words of Socrates, we must explore these issues. Most of these interviews are posted at www.socratesinthecity.com. My guests include amazing people from author Malcolm Gladwell to Baroness Caroline Cox and many more. I just filmed such an interview in Paris and I hope the same will happen in Athens next year. What could be more fitting than an interview about Socrates in his own homeland?
How did you feel when En plo publications translated your book into Greek?
I got excited. I come to Greece every year and God has given me a deep love for this country. My book Miracles was published in Greek last year by Psychogios publications. In it I talk about the story of my conversion to Christianity and many other things about why reasonable people should believe in God. The thought that these books are now in Greek and can be read by Greeks is a dream come true for me. From the bottom of my soul I thank God for this.
What is your message to your readers?
In difficult times the most important thing is hope. But what is it that can give it to us? The answer to this question has to do, in my opinion, with faith. Faith in God, which Bonhoeffer served, in God who gave him courage. Like I said, it's an amazing story. Even though he was killed he did not fear death because he knew that God is the Creator of life. He didn't just believe it, he knew it. God asks all of us to know this. And if we get to know it, our lives will change completely and become lives of courage and hope.
Translated from English: Apostolos Spyrakis
The theologian who opposed Hitler
Translation: Vasiliki Patriki-Golfinou