Was Bonhoeffer a Conspirator?

Was Bonhoeffer a Conspirator? December 29, 2013

It is a foregone conclusion among many scholars, and certainly the wider public, that by the late 30’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer had changed his view on violence. While earlier in the 30’s he had articulated a perspective on violence that could be characterized as pacifism rooted in his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount captured clearly in Discipleship, the realities of Nazi German had caused him to see the necessity of violence in the face of such evil. This interpretation of Bonhoeffer finds its plausibility in his later letters from prison and his unfinished Ethics that was later published by Eberhard Bethge.

But a new book robustly challenges this assumption. And it is quite convincing. The thesis of  Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking is that this widely held belief is flat wrong. When one looks carefully at Bonhoeffer’s life and his writings one finds that Bonhoeffer was consistent throughout his life on the question of violence. His work in the Abwehr, which is often pointed to as evidence of his involvement in the conspiracies, does not necessitate his participation in the plot(s) to assassinate Hitler. According to the argument of the book, Bonhoeffer’s decision to join the German Intelligence agency was his way of avoiding service in the military. Further, there is no evidence of his involvement in these plots.

Bonhoeffer was a conscientious objector, but not a conspirator.

Let me summarize the five key arguments (summarized in the conclusion) in this well-argued and well-written protest:

1. It is highly unlikely that Bonhoeffer was involved in any assassination attempts. There is no evidence that during his time in the Abwehr connecting Bonhoeffer to the five assassination attempts on Hitler from 1938-44.

2. Bonhoeffer claimed that he had become a Christian pacifist. He believed it was “self-evident” in light of the Sermon of the Mount. There is no evidence to suggest that he recanted that statement.

3. Bonhoeffer’s rejection of an ethic based on principles does not negate seeing Bonhoeffer closely aligned with pacifism. With Barth, Bonhoeffer rejected principled pacifism for pacifism in practice secured in Christology.

4. Bonhoeffer focused his attention on the attention to the needs of the most vulnerable in society.

5. The interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s legacy as on of a theologian who later became a conspirator needs to be at the very least revised, if not fully rejected.

Here’s what Stanley Hauerwas said in his foreword:

What they have done is nothing short of revolutionary. Through careful scholarship they have called into question the fundamental assumption that seem to make the question about Bonhoeffer’s participation in the plot against Hitler, as well as attempts such as mine to respond to that question, problematic . . . There is no indication in Bonhoeffer’s life or work that he ever abandoned his pacifism to join a plot to kill Hitler.

Those of us who admire Bonhoeffer’s life and writings will need to seriously reconsider our assumptions about him in light of this book. I for one now have another reason to continue to think through the Christian pacifist position. It feels that God’s trying to get my attention on this point. For a recent and well articulated perspective Christian non-violence see my friend Preston Sprinkle’s book Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence.

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  • Y. A. Warren

    Thank you for bringing up this long-abused issue.

  • Paul Smith

    This book was revelatory for me as well. Another volume that supplements this argument is Heinz Eduard Todt’s book, “Authentic Faith: Bonhoeffer’s Theological Ethics in Context.” The belief that Bonhoeffer remained a Christian pacifist makes far more sense to me than the “I was a militarist until I became a pacifist until I changed my mind again” common understanding of Bonhoeffer. Reading these two books was extremely valuable in understanding the consistency of Bonhoeffer’s theology, especially after his experience in New York, 1930-31.

  • jay kay

    So, Bonhoeffer was executed for…not being involved in any conspiracy?

    • jwillitts

      The argument is that he was something like a “draft dogger” and conscientious objection were illegal.

      • jay kay

        I understand it’s not your book, but mind if I ask you to elaborate more? So, he was somehow executed for draft dodging, even though he was serving in the Abwehr?

    • James

      The Nazis basically persecuted, enslaved or killed anyone who wasn’t a good Aryan Nazi. The Nazi repression of their own intelligensia is overshadowed by the Holocaust, Generalplan Ost, etc which resulted in tens of millions of people killed, but the Nazis also persecuted and often killed large numbers of enemies accross the whole political and religious spectrum, from right-wing aristrocrats to radical communists and everything in between. They persecuted atheists for not joining Nazi-affiliated churches; they persecuted Christians for not touting the party line that Jesus was an Aryan who was nailed to the swastika. They killed many Jehovahs’ Witnesses and pacifist Christians for their refusal to serve in the military. Bonhoeffer basically was lumped in with all the other political noncomformists who strayed too far from the party line a nation that was ruled as an absolute despotism. The Nazi’s ideology epitomized the phrase “if you’re not with us, you’re against us;” anyone refusing to swear loyalty to the Nazis, to join Nazi-affiliated organizations which permeated every facet of life and to serve in the military are all offenses which could have had lethal consequences under such a reigme.

  • Geoffrey Arnold

    I haven’t had a chance to read this book yet, but I have many doubts about it given the summary of the main arguments I’ve heard around the web, including on Nation’s blog. You didn’t say it here, but McKnight mentioned in his piece on the book that they argue that Bethge simply “misremembers” the “facts” surrounding Bonhoeffer’s involvement or lack there of in the conspiracy. It seems to me quite presumptuous and arrogant to make this claim about the man whom Bonhoeffer called his best interpreter, who was his best friend, who read more of Bonhoeffer’s works than we will ever be able to (I’m referring the fact that there were letters that Bethge read during the prison time, but which were not published since Bethge lost them or disposed of them due to their sensitive content). If we were expecting Bonhoeffer to simply come out and give us certain evidence in his LPP that he worked with the conspirators in some fashion or another, then we’re fools. Why would Bonhoeffer write something that could so easily win him a one-way ticket to execution. Furthermore, the fact that Hitler read Canaris’ journal and the next day ordered the execution of Canaris, the other conspirators, AND Bonhoeffer seems to present further issues. From what everything I’ve gathered about the book thus far, I sense that I’m going to take serious issues with “silent” facts (that are missing) and the methodology of the project itself. Certainly, I’ll have to read this book for myself, before I finalize any critiques.

    I write this not as someone who is frustrated with the attempt to claim Bonhoeffer for the Christian “pacifists,” because I’m a “just war theorist.” If anything, I’m closest to nonviolence, though non-principled non-violence (as I believe Bonhoeffer was). I find this book somewhat frustrating mostly because I think it distracts from more serious issues to be wrestled with in light of Bonhoeffer–not least the problem of western, masculine subjectivity that I believe we find Bonhoeffer wrestling with throughout his life. I find this to be far more important, because I believe Christian non-violence in the type of Yoder (as these authors are very much in his “camp” and thought) is still implicated in this problematic subjecitivty. I’d like to talk about it sometime when I get a chance to read it, though.