I can't believe I have just been in Germany and failed to buy a book I want to read. OK, I didn't know it existed until I got back and saw it reviewed in Wednesday's Der Tagesspiegel.
Keine gewöhnlichen Männer, by Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern, tells the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi in the resistance to Hitler. Both were executed before the end of the Second World War, the former having got the latter into active resistance and espionage.
One of the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I will never forget was having dinner with Klaus von Dohnanyi in Berlin in early 2006. I was invited along to a Meissen Delegation Visit led by the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams. We stayed on the Wannsee (close to where the Final Solution was firmed up), flew to Wroclaw, Poland, for 24 hours to celebrate the centenary of Bonhoeffer's birth, and came back to Berlin for a couple of lectures at the Humboldt University. Dinner followed at a Berlin restaurant and I found myself at the end of the table with von Dohnanyi, of whom I had read a lot when he was Finance Minister in the Schmidt government. I listened to the long conversation about German politics, negotiations with Margaret Thatcher, and memories of his father and Bonhoeffer.
The review of the book begins by de-linking courage from heroism. This is what it says:
Mut hat nicht unbedingt etwas mit Heldentum zu tun. Eher mit: Zivilcourage und Verantwortung. “Die letzte, verantwortliche Frage ist nicht, wie ich mich heroisch aus der Affäre ziehe, sondern wie eine kommende Generation weiterleben soll”, schrieb Dietrich Bonhoeffer Ende 1942.
This is not the wet, liberal theorising of armchair generals, but the reflected conclusion of a man who chose the path that would lead to the gallows. But, it puts into perspective the overuse of the word 'hero' in popular parlance today. Is everyone who dies in Afghanistan a hero – even though they were doing their job as soldiers? Is everyone who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11 automatically a hero – simply because they were there?
The relationship between courage and heroism is an important one. Questioning it is risky.
But, if the publishers want a review from an English perspective, I will, of course, be happy to oblige. (Neither heroic nor courageous; just shameless.)