It seems quite often when I discuss the theology of Christian Nonviolence, some folks are quick to drop the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer for many has become a “trump card” in discussions on nonviolence when one wants to give an example of someone who used violence to confront evil, as he has the reputation of being an attempted assassin of Adolph Hitler. Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer is a poor example of the desired point as there is no evidence that was actively involved in planning or attempting to assassinate Hitler– a basic fact accepted by the academy but seemingly missing from common internet discussions on Bonhoeffer.
To address this issue on the blog, I decided to sit down with Dr. Joseph McGarry, a Bonhoeffer scholar, and ask him to briefly explain in simple terms why thinking of Bonhoeffer as an assassin is probably not the best way to view the historical evidence.
Dr. McGarry was awarded his PhD in systematic theology from the University of Aberdeen in 2013, writing on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology of formation in Christ. His doctoral thesis has been accepted for publication by Fortress Press under the title Christ Among a Band of People: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Formation in Christ. He has been published in Theology Today, The Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, and The Bonhoeffer Legacy: Australasian Journal of Bonhoeffer Studies. He has also contributed numerous lectures for the Evangelical Theological Society, the American Academy of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Theology. Furthermore, he is a diehard fan of the Buffalo Bills (who can’t seem to beat the New England Patriots).
BLC: Dr. McGarry, it seems that it is a popular assumption in today’s culture that Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian from Germany who was executed because he tried to assassinate Hitler. However, having attended several Bonhoeffer presentations by scholars at the American Academy of Religion, it seems to me that no serious Bonhoeffer scholar sees him as an assassin or even as a direct accomplice to any assassination attempt. Which version of history is correct? And, if Bonhoeffer wasn’t actually involved in an assassination attempt, where did this myth come from?
Dr. McGarry: Yeah, there’s a somewhat prevalent misnomer, and I’d imagine the myth stems from a series of logical deductions and some assumptions along the way. When people think about the Bonhoeffer’s life and involvement in the resistence, the flow of logic goes something like this:
a) Dietrich Bonhoeffer worked for the Abwehr, and was recruited there by his brother in law, Hans von Dohnányi. b) Members of the Abwehr’s leadership (specifically Hans Oster, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and Dohnányi) actively planned attempts on Hitler’s life. c) When the “Zossen files” were discovered in September 1944 (after the failure of the 20 July plot) von Dohnányi was clearly implicated in assassination planning, and the rest of the Abwehr by extension. Therefore, everyone associated with these files was executed for treason against the Reich. Generally, it is then assumed that— because Bonhoeffer was executed with these other people who actively planned Hitler’s assassination—Bonhoeffer himself was actively involved as well.
Unfortunately, it is this assumption that scholars have again and again called an overstatement of the evidence. Something closer to reality is that Bonhoeffer was (at least) one level removed from the active planning. He was part of the organization but not part of the core. He was surely knowledgeable that *something* was being planned, but he was not part of the inner circle and it is likely he didn’t know what that *something* was.
Rather, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a courier, passing messages—particularly to England through his friend Bishop George Bell—and trying to get assurances from the Allied forces that they would stop bombing Germany when Hitler’s regime was overthrown. Bonhoeffer’s job was to try to find a way to convince England to stop destroying Germany. He was a messenger, not an assassination planner. He likely provided a measure of theological justification for what others were doing (as can be seen in his Christmas 1942 letter “After 10 Years”), but he himself was—at best—a bit player in the overall scheme of things. When we think of Bonhoeffer and Hitler’s assassination, it’s probably better to think of his role as “message boy” and not “core leader”.
Now, there is a current stream of interpretation that says that Bonhoeffer had actually no knowledge whatsoever that the Abwehr leadership was planning an assassination, but this seems to me to be a bit of an overstatement from the other side.
Either way, the general consensus of scholarship is that Bonhoeffer himself was neither a core member of the resistance, nor was he central to any of the planning that the Abwer did.
BLC: If Bonhoeffer’s connection with the role of assassin is an overstatement of the evidence, how did we get here? Was he even focused on finding a way to destroy Hitler’s power?
Dr. McGarry: I think we get to this point from some very well intentioned people who have been truly impacted by Bonhoeffer’s amazing biography. It’s compelling, it’s dramatic. A man who forsakes all in the way he did, especially with how he returned from New York in 1939, believing that he needed to be with his nation if he were to have any right to rebuilt it…..it’s powerful stuff. I think there’s also a tendency for us to look for heroes of the Christian faith–people who encourage us and who give us something to aspire toward. Surely Dietrich Bonhoeffer is that kind of person–a man of conviction who did what he felt was right, what was difficult, and ended up dying for how he lived his faith. I mean, let’s be honest, that was a significant factor in my own study of his work. But, in the midst of telling that type of story, there’s a temptation to overplay the hand, so to speak. It’s easy to forget that a very significant portion of his employment with the Abwehr had to do with his desire to escape the front lines. He wasn’t going to fight for the Reich. First, he tried to escape active combat by becoming a chaplain, but he was denied. His only other option would have been to come forward as a conscientious objector, but that would have earned him a one way ticket to a concentration camp. He ended up going to New York on a theological fellowship in 1939 as a way to escape, but he was overcome with guilt and returned just a few weeks later. So he returns to Germany, certain to be sent into combat, and he was trying to find a way out. And then, he found a way into the Abwehr. A way to escape the war. Though he was very sympathetic to the resistance movement, the main reason he joined the Abwehr wasn’t to be part of the resistance so much as to avoid military service (Bonhoeffer was originally imprisoned as a draft dodger, and it wasn’t until late 1944 that it was revealed that he worked in the same section of the Abwehr as those who planned the assassination plot). Though he was executed for his association with people who planned the assassination, he was put in prison for avoiding conscription.
I think that’s what often happens when we look at Bonhoeffer’s life: we focus on the stuff that shapes the heroic story of David standing up against Goliath–standing for the Gospel. And it’s not as if it’s wrong, it’s just only half of the picture. The other half (which we can’t put to the side) is the well connected pastor from a family who had political connections that could give him an exemption from combat service. It just so happened they worked for the Abwehr and that was his ticket out. If they worked as janitors in a steel factory, then he would have been doing that instead.
The short summary of the whole is this: Bonhoeffer did not want to die in a concentration camp, and he didn’t want to be sent off to fight either. Thus, he used family connections to find a way out of both scenarios: joining the Abwehr. While he was there, some members of the Abwehr did plan an overthrow of Hitler, but the evidence shows Bonhoeffer was at least one step removed from the circle of people who did that. However, because he was likely aware that *something* was being discussed (without knowing what that was), he did use personal friendships to ask the Allies to stop bombing and killing his family and friends (an attempt at peacemaking, not violence) which they declined. In the end, he was executed not because he was part of an assassination attempt, but simply because he was associated with people who were.
Bonhoeffer is one of my favorite people in history, as perhaps he is yours. However, to claim that he was a would-be assassin, is simply an overstatement of the historical facts.
For further reading on this topic, I recommend: Bonhoeffer The Assassin? Challenging The Myth, Recovering His Call To Peacemaking.