Bonhoeffer: Was he really involved in the attempt to kill Hitler?

First, some context for me. In writing my Sermon on the Mount I struggled with how to deal with Bonhoeffer, or with which Bonhoeffer. I wrote up a section for early in the commentary that set out how I had learned to interpret Bonhoeffer’s ethics in the unfolding of his life and thought. This is what I wrote:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Before offering a new way of framing the ethics of Jesus we need to consider the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man whose status has arisen of late due to the completion of the critical editions of his works and due to a popularity uptick from several recent biographies and studies. Bonhoeffer had the courage of a hero in his singular defense of Jews over against a developing German Christian movement and in his razor-sharp perception of Hitler’s manifold evils.[1]

His theological career can be divided into three periods:

Early: theological discovery (1923-1931)

Middle: pastoral theologian (1932-1940)

Late: conspirator (1941-1945).

Discipleship, in which his brilliant exposition of the Sermon on the Mount is found, belongs to the second period of his life when he was pastoring and teaching students in the underground seminary at Finkenwalde. His understanding of ethics grew and shifted. The middle period differs from the early period[2] and his ethics in the second period vary from his ethics in the later period. It was during that third period that two other works emerged: his Ethics and his Letters and Papers from Prison.[3] The important consideration for understanding Bonhoeffer and the Sermon is that the Bonhoeffer of Discipleship is not identical to the Bonhoeffer of those latter works.[4] A case can be made that the Bonhoeffer of that later period is at odds with the Bonhoeffer of Discipleship. The contrast between the two periods, which the quotation in the next paragraph will illustrate, could be explained by Bonhoeffer’s reluctant move toward a version of the two realms theology in Lutheran theology.  That is, in the realities of life, in the realm of the world, Bonhoeffer lived in a way at odds with the ethics of the Sermon, an ethics for the kingdom of God. Importantly, Bonhoeffer does not justify his life as a double agent in the Military Intelligence in his later period, a time devoted to deception, to the conspiracy against Hitler and to founding a different Germany and German church. In this later period Bonhoeffer surrenders to a kind of irresistible reality, to worldliness, that is, to the guilt and shame of German corruption in order to rid Germany of that corruption by praying and working for the defeat of Hitler.[5] How he lived during this period contrasts with the vision he articulated in Discipleship. Here is how Bonhoeffer put it in the last year of his life: “For a long time…. I thought I myself could learn to have faith by trying to live something like a saintly life. I suppose I wrote Discipleship at the end of this path. Today I clearly see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by it.”[6]  There is tension here between his “this-worldliness” and his earlier Discipleship. That he has to say he still stands by the early work is a telling concession that emerged in his thinking as a result of his participation in the conspiracy.

Bonhoeffer knew what was involved at the deepest level of life when he chose to enter into the conspiracy. Listen to these words that reflect his experience in the conspiracy and what it was doing to character: “We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds. We have become cunning and learned the arts of obfuscation and equivocal speech. Experience has rendered us suspicious of human beings, and often we have failed to speak to them a true and open word. Unbearable conflicts have worn us down or even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? We will not need geniuses, cynics, people who have contempt for others, or cunning tacticians, but simple, uncomplicated, and honest human beings. Will our inner strength to resist what has been forced on us have remained strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves blunt enough, to find our way back to simplicity and honesty?”[7] The admission of the need to “find our way back” is the revelation of the contrast between the two periods in his life.

Because Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship is one of the most important studies ever on the Sermon on the Mount, and because I will make him one of the principal scholars with whom I interact in the pages that follow, it is important to locate his classic work in its proper place in his life and theological development. Bonhoeffer’s own journey is the struggle the church has always had with how to live out the Sermon on the Mount.


[1] For the “German Christian” (technical expression) movement, see S. Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[2] E. Bethge, Biography, 457.

[3]Ethics (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works; ed. I. Tödt; trans. R. Krauss; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), and Letters and Papers from Prison Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works; ed. C. Gremmels; trans. I. Best; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010).

[4] For more continuity in the relationship of Discipleship to the later Ethics, see G. Stassen, A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 175-195. Because of the complexity of the relationship of the middle period to the later period and various versions of sections in Ethics, I have avoided discussion of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics.  Yet it is important to observe that Bonhoeffer did not move from youthful, Platonic idealism in Discipleship to mature realism in the conspiracy years. Instead, it was a (tragic) shift from kingdom realities to this-wordliness realities.

[5] For a full study, the one indispensable biography is the mammoth work of E. Bethge, Biography, e.g., 628, 675-678, 720-721. For Bonhoeffer’s exploratory statement on the relation of church and state, D. Bonhoeffer, Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works; ed. J. Glenthøj; trans. L.E. Dahill; Minneapolis Fortress, 2006), 502-528.

[6]Letters and Papers from Prison, 486.

[7]Letters and Papers from Prison, 52.

Because I am not a Bonhoeffer specialist, nor have I read his entire works in chronological order ever in my life, I thought it would be wise to check out what I had written with a Bonhoeffer expert. I chose Mark Thiessen Nation, professor at Eastern Mennonite University, and a leading Bonhoeffer (and Yoder) scholar. We had some exchanges, included in which was his telling me that he was at work with two others on a book about Bonhoeffer that would seek to show that Bonhoeffer was not in fact involved in any plot to assassinate Hitler. In other words, that he was not involved in the conspiracy to eliminate the Führer. I was a bit stunned by his comments, not the least of which reasons was that I didn’t know how else to read the man’s life. But out of respect for Mark’s work, I chose to eliminate the above section and to modify the commentary wherever I had assumed this scheme of reading Bonhoeffer in three stages. The most important element of this scheme was that Bonhoeffer changed his mind from being a pacifist to being a (Niebuhrian) realist. I reasoned, however, that if Nation was going to prove that theory wrong, it would be wise for me to await publication of his book before I both came to a more complete understanding and published anything about it.

Mark Thiessen Nation, along with Anthony G. Siegrist and Daniel P. Umbel, have now published their work: Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2013). They ask if Bonhoeffer was involved in the conspiracy to kill Hitler. They conclude he was not. In part two of this review I will sketch their views and respond to their proposal.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Ted M. Gossard

    Wow. With bated breath I await your thoughts on this, Scot, so to speak. :-) I appreciate your breakdown of his life you share here. I have suspected, I’m sure with many and through at least another, that Bonhoeffer had eventually reasoned something the way you describe with the Lutheran theology of two kingdoms the factor. Never have seen the breakdown as in periods of his life as you share them here.

  • Richie

    Scot, though I will wait to see your part 2 on this topic of Bonhoeffer, I will nevertheless dispute your false contrast of “kingdom realities” vs “this worldliness realities” (footnote 4 above). All biblical ethics are the application of standard principles of truth to real life. That was true in the OT and is also true in the NT. Otherwise, they are totally useless. For Jesus the standard principles of truth are the same as for OT believers: love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength and then to love your neighbor as yourself. Indeed, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount he summarizes the teachings of the Law and the Prophets with the so-called Golden Rule of “do to others as you would have them do to you.” He is not overturning either the OT Law or the carrying out of proper – justice under other law codes either ancient or modern. He is correcting misunderstandings of the OT Law as his very words indicate. Biblical ethics both in the OT and in the NT distinguish between personal ethics in one’s general relations with others in “this world” and the ethics of various responsibilities in “this-world” roles – such as government/citizen, master/slave, husband/wife, parent/children, teacher/student, business owner/employee, etc. The earliest disciples of Christ did not interpret the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount as you would have us understand them, i.e., as a new legalism. Instead, they understood and interpreted them as standard principles of truth to be applied to specific situations in the light of other standard principles of truth found in the Bible. Both the Book of Acts and the NT Letters show this application of biblical principles of truth to real life throughout its pages and the Apostle Paul whose “ways were in Christ” is the supreme NT example of applying “the mind of Christ” to “real world” situations in both Jewish and, often contrasting, Gentile world. Romans 12-13 is a perfect exposition of this and sums up the biblical view of government and the believer’s relationship to it that is the same – with minor adjustments to different forms of gov’t – both in the OT and the NT. In both his NT Letters and in the Book of Acts we see Paul applying the mind of Christ in anything but a legalistic way. Instead, he applied the mind of Christ in many different ways depending on the situation. With respect to both the Jewish authorities and the Roman authorities he expected and insisted that both live up to the tenets of their legal codes. He also constantly claimed his rights as a Roman citizen and relied on the Roman government for protection against those who sought to do him harm. Bonhoeffer, as with many others in times of government oppression, struggled in the face of “real world” situations of totalitarian oppression to understand how to apply the principles of the mind of Christ to his situation. Whatever he eventually chose to do in relationship to the attempt to assassinate Hitler you do him a disservice in how you characterize his struggle, even despite his own self-doubts. As I’ve written elsewhere, an excellent short, but rather comprehensive, overview of biblical ethics that also deals with the proper role of government and the believer’s corresponding responsibilities from a full biblical perspective can be found in the ESV Study Bible p. 2535-2560. I hope your readers will read this more traditional Christian – and I believe, correct – view that contrasts so much with yours.

  • scotmcknight

    Mercy, Richie, that’s a one-paragraph rant with about 20 assumptions at work. The best I can say at this point is to come back Friday when I post the second in this series. So I’m wishing you had waited until part 2 instead of jumping in so fast on assumptions.

  • Clay Knick

    I’m sure you know, Scot, that Roger Olson reviewed this book on his blog a week or two ago.

  • scotmcknight

    Yes, I know… read his review. He illustrates how important Bethge’s own statements are for the perception.

  • Richie

    “Rant”? “About 20 assumptions at work”? I have no idea what you mean and I think you can do better than that Scot. I just re-read my post. Looks pretty honest, simple, straightforward and common sensical to me. No “isms” at all in it other than what I’m trying to combat. Again, I recommend the ESV and NIV Study Bible notes on the Sermon on the Mount, Rom. 12-13 and the ESV appendix on pp. on 2535-2560. Hopefully, no one will accuse those of being rants.

  • Clay Knick

    I’m looking forward to the post later this week. I’ve not read Nation’s book, but I sure do hear good things about him. I thought Olson’s point about Bethge was very strong, but I’m still listening. Eastern Mennonite is just an hour from here; my wife got her MA in Education from there & we love the school. I love the new commentary, by the way. I’m reading it along with a number of other things.

  • scotmcknight

    Sorry if that word “rant” is too much. After saying you will wait for post 2 you then proceed to propose another way of reading the Sermon on the Mount though I haven’t really posted about that. It’s a post about Bonhoeffer and one way of reading him. I am happy to respond to comments about that reading.

    On kingdom realities vs. realism, one’s words matter here and there have been a number of ways of speaking of Bonhoeffer’s supposed shift, but one was from kingdom realities or kingdom idealisms to a more realistic framework. I don’t think it would be fair to say kingdom living is not real or practical but “realism” has a special meaning in ethical theory discussions, and I was using that meaning.

  • Ben Thorp

    Having only known small fragments about Bonhoeffer until reading Eric Metaxas’ biography last year, I look forward to reading your conclusions next time :)

  • Seth Braverman

    Dear Scot,

    Have you a more thorough examination of Bonhoeffer’s shift during the third period, as you’ve outlined above, perhaps in a past blog post? I’m reading through his collected letters from prison and am working now through the specifically theological letters. I would like a more robust framework with which to think through and contextualize Bonhoeffer’s burgeoning theological shift (or maturation, depending) and after reading the above blog post, I thought perhaps your own thoughts on the subject (even if you are not an engrossed “expert”) would be a good starting place.

    Thank you for any recommendations. And I will be looking forward to the fullness of your response on Friday to what you’ve laid out above.

  • Bill Johnson

    Scot, There really should be no controversy in this. Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, confessor, confidant, and biographer confirmed Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the assassination plot on many occasions. He outlined, as have many in the family, the specific ways in which Bonhoeffer was involved. The most often noted conspiratorial act was to meet with Bishop George Bell of Chichester to offer peace terms once the assassination was implemented, which was rejected by the Allies. I personally asked Bethge if he personally was involved, and he told me of a story where he drove Hans von Dohnanyi, Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, to the Eastern Front with the bomb that was placed on Hitler’s plane. Inexplicably, the bomb did not go off. Bethge was not told he was escorting the bomb for fear he would seem nervous if stopped and questioned. I also asked Bethge what he knew of the conspiracy and Bonhoeffer’s involvement and his reply was, “I knew everything.” Reading Olson’s review suggests that the new Nation book grants that Bonhoeffer knew of the conspiracy but was not involved. That’s a stretch since knowledge in such an act is, in a very real sense, involvement. But it is clear Bonhoeffer was more deeply involved than mere knowledge. His execution was the result of the finding of a list of conspirators. To suggest anything other than Bonhoeffer’s involvement is simply rewriting history–but much has been happening with that lately. You may be aware that Charles Marsh at University of Virginia and eminent Bonhoeffer scholar is coming out with a major Bonhoeffer biography soon (partially to counter Metaxas)–you might want to contact him on this.

  • Tiago de Oliveira Cavaco

    ” The earliest disciples of Christ did not interpret the teachings of the
    Sermon on the Mount as you would have us understand them, i.e., as a
    new legalism. Instead, they understood and interpreted them as standard
    principles of truth to be applied to specific situations in the light
    of other standard principles of truth found in the Bible.” – Great!

  • scotmcknight

    Bill thanks much for this but don’t jump to conclusions. Come back Friday.

  • scotmcknight

    Rasmussen defended the shift thoroughly.

  • Bill Johnson

    Excellent and no problem. I look forward to it.

    I wouldn’t opt for Niebuhrian realism as such. Bonhoeffer is too deeply rooted in a Theology of the Cross and Barth for that.

  • Patrick O

    However he was involved with the plot itself, it seems pretty clear in his Ethics that he was definitely open to the use of violence. The key in his Ethics is that he’s not justifying violence. He calls violence a sin, but points towards how Christians can take on sin, knowing grace, for the sake of others. Lying is another example of this.

    Add to this the fact that Moltmann, who might be the closest living theologian to Bonhoeffer’s trajectory, who likewise lived under Hitler’s rule, and who devoted significant study to his works has said that while he’s a pacifist in almost every regard, if he had the chance to kill a tyrant, he would do so.

    It’s a form of non-absolute pacifism. Moltmann surely isn’t Bonhoeffer’s clone, but he does seem to be a significant interpreter in his study and his own constructive musings.


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