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A Graphic Nonfiction Account of Hitler’s Would-Be Assassin

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

For a man accursed by history, Adolf Hitler led a grimly charmed life. He survived several well-planned assassination attempts through sheer luck. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a double agent claiming to spy for Hitler’s Reich, was actually involved in the resistance movement that planned a few of these plots. John Hendrix’s graphic biography, THE FAITHFUL SPY: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler (Amulet, 176 pp., $16.99; ages 10 and up), intertwines two stories: the insidious rise of Hitler with his creed of hatred and Bonhoeffer’s development as an ethical thinker who believed that radical action was necessary, but that killing was a sin. Hendrix writes, “the conspirators needed to find a place where God would forgive them for plotting an assassination.”

For young readers, one could easily play the near-miss attempts to kill Hitler as a straightforward thriller. The plots involve deception, gut-wrenching timing and concealed explosives: a bomb in a gift package, a rigged docent conducting a tour of captured Russian weaponry and an explosive briefcase spirited into the heart of Hitler’s fortress, the Wolfsschanze. But Hendrix makes the bold and surprising decision to tell it as a tale of faith. He records Bonhoeffer’s powerful experiences, for example, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where the preacher Adam Clayton Powell fulminates: “Obeying God means challenging injustice! You don’t just think about God. … You act!” Some readers will be irked by the focus on God in historical nonfiction; others will be soothed by it. Certainly, Hendrix’s implication that at Bonhoeffer’s execution, he met his God is more emotionally powerful than strictly verifiable. In an author’s note, Hendrix offers a passionate defense of presenting the story through the lens of Bonhoeffer’s Christianity: “If we look for a motivation for his decisions outside his furious belief in God’s certainty, we will miss the very lesson he offers. ”

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What will catch the reader’s eye immediately is Hendrix’s striking three-color art. The book is not a panel-by-panel graphic novel, but rather an inventive combination of text blocks and illustration. Each spread has its own ingenious design, shuttling between the literal and the allegorical: As the text talks about Hitler undermining the power of President Hindenburg and the Reichstag (“teetering like a German spruce”), the illustration shows the Führer literally hacking down the tree of state, a startled German imperial eagle taking flight. Hitler is often drawn as a ravening wolf. Bonhoeffer faces off against the Nazis like David against Goliath. As Bonhoeffer chides those who don’t rouse themselves, “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction,” the illustration shows a Nazi train plunging off a crumbling bridge as a figure sprints along the roofs, trying to avoid destruction — an evocative image, given the dark significance trains would acquire in the Reich.

Even in more reportorial illustrations, Hendrix makes the most of his three-color medium, adding a demonic red glint to Hitler’s eyes or forcing text to strobe like an old 3-D color offset; as we wait to hear about a phone call that might announce Hitler’s death, the caller (in cyan) and the phone and switchboard (in magenta) are both rendered translucent, an unsettling effect, soul and object nervously divorced.

The graphic flexibility also gives Hendrix the opportunity to use maps to explain Hitler’s military strategy: the feint that toppled France, for example, or Hitler’s plans to annex Austria and Czechoslovakia. A recurring “Conquest Map” marks Hitler’s terrifying progress (though it is unfortunately somewhat inaccurate — eastern Poland was occupied by the Soviets, not the Germans, in 1939-41).

Occasionally, episodes could have benefited from being dramatically staged in graphic novel panels, rather than being relegated to a text box — when the assassination attempts fail, for example, or Bonhoeffer is finally arrested at his home. But the moral battles here are more important than the physical ones: “Faith, without action, is no faith at all. Love, without sacrifice, is no love at all.”

M. T. Anderson is the author of books for young readers including “Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 22 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: A Graphic Nonfiction Account of Hitler’s Would-Be Assassin. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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