Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer a Would-Be Assassin? (Review of a New Book)

Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer a Would-Be Assassin? (Review of a New Book) October 12, 2013

Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer a Would-Be Assassin?

We’re in the middle of another Dietrich Bonhoeffer renaissance. A new wave of interest in the German theologian is being lifted by new biographies and examinations of his theology. Everyone seems to want to claim Bonhoeffer for their own causes. This was the case, of course, in the 1960s when radical theologians such as John Robinson and Harvey Cox attempted to appropriate him for secular theologies. And it has happened every few years since.

I was surprised to learn, when studying theology in Germany in the 1980s, that there, in Germany, he’s generally not considered one of the “giants” of twentieth century theology alongside Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, Tillich or even Niebuhr. There his legacy is tied to his role in the Confessing Church movement and his participation in a plot to overthrow the Hitler regime. I sometimes wonder if it weren’t for the latter, including his execution by the Nazis, and his enigmatic sayings in Letters and Papers from Prison whether he would be as well remembered and widely discussed as has been the case.

Years ago I read Eberhard Bethge’s magisterial biography of Bonhoeffer entitled Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision, Man of Courage (1967, ET 1977). Bethge was, of course, one of Bonhoeffer’s closest friends and confidantes. He was his student and they lived together in the “underground seminary” that Bonhoeffer led for the Confessing Church movement. Eventually, Bethge moved into Bonhoeffer’s family home in Berlin and married his mentor’s niece. After the war and after Bonhoeffer’s execution Bethge took it upon himself, with the support of the Bonhoeffer family, to collect Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s papers and publish them. Throughout the 1950s through the 1970s he became the expert on Bonhoeffer. His biography is 841 pages long in English translation (not including the index).

I think it’s fairly safe to say that if it were not for Bethge, Bonhoeffer would largely be forgotten. I have trusted Bethge about Bonhoeffer implicitly, as have most others. Bethge was a scholar and member of the Bonhoeffer family and does not seem to have had any axe to grind that would cause us to consider his accounts unreliable.

A few days ago a new book arrived: Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel (Foreword by Stanley Hauerwas) (BakerAcademic, 2013). The “myth” referred to in the title is that Bonhoeffer participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. That is clearly expressed and argued (viz., that it is a myth) in Chapter 3, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Assassin?” (pp. 71-97). The authors’ thesis is expressed in several ways, but I find this passage especially concise: “There is no evidence that Bonhoeffer was ‘involved in the plots to kill Hitler.’ Hopefully we have also shown that there is no real evidence that Bonhoeffer himself affirmed the killing of Hitler.” (p. 93).

The authors of Bonhoeffer the Assassin? argue for continuity between Bonhoeffer’s pacifist theology, as expressed in writings such as The Cost of Discipleship (or just “Discipleship” depending on the edition) and his life in the Abwehr—the German military intelligence agency that was the breeding ground for some of the plots to overthrow Hitler and the Nazi regime. They furthermore argue that there is no evidence that Bonhoeffer ever actually participated in any conspiracy to kill Hitler even though his ecumenical contacts on behalf of the conspirators to overthrow Hitler (in Switzerland and Sweden) involved him indirectly in the resistance to the Hitler regime. According to them, Bonhoeffer remained a pacifist throughout his adult life and never encouraged killing anyone.

The authors admit that Bonhoeffer knew some of the plotters, even those who were conspiring to kill Hitler and others, very well and had personal conversations with them. His brother and brother-in-law were members of the conspiracy and almost certainly had few, if any, qualms about killing Hitler (after a certain point when simply overthrowing him did not seem feasible). They are right, however, to point out, as Bethge does, that Bonhoeffer’s own actual role in the Abwehr conspiracy was remote. It was confined largely to traveling to neutral countries (mentioned earlier) to meet with religious leaders (mostly British) to talk about German surrender and cessation of war should the conspiracy (either to overthrow Hitler or kill him) succeed. A few remnants of those conversations remain in letters and memories (later written).

If we are to agree with Nation, Siegrist, and Umbel, that Bonhoeffer never advocated, condoned or participated in an actual plot to kill Hitler (or anyone else), we have to question Bethge’s testimony which is clear. And the authors do question it. They suggest his memory of Bonhoeffer’s own sayings to him and to others was faulty. (pp. 92-93)

But let’s look again at Bethge’s own recorded memories in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And let’s remember that much of the material in that biography was not first “remembered” by Bethge in 1967 when he wrote it. He had been deeply involved in Bonhoeffer scholarship for over a decade then—collecting, compiling, interviewing, reviewing, writing. So we should not picture Bethge, at age fifty-something (we don’t know exactly when he wrote the parts of the biography but only when it was published) for the first time sitting down to write about these events and conversations and striving to remember them.

The relevant section of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is “Section Two: Conspiracy” of “Part Three: Sharing Germany’s Destiny.” It comprises pages 627-702 of the 1977 Harper & Row paperback edition. Bethge there leaves no doubt that he believed Bonhoeffer at least tentatively gave up his pacifism in a “boundary situation,” namely, the extremity of having to end the war and the holocaust.

Bethge opens this section of his biography with a quotation attributed to Bonhoeffer by one of his ecumenical contacts, Bishop Bell with whom Bonhoeffer met in Sweden in 1942. According to Bell, Bonhoeffer told him that he once responded to fellow resistance members who proposed ceasing subversive activities that could result in Hitler’s death, thus making him a martyr, “If we claim to be Christians, there is no room for expediency. Hitler is the Antichrist. Therefore we must go on with our work and eliminate him whether he be successful for not.” (pp. 626-627) Bell published this quote from Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer quoting himself to Bell) in 1945—two to three years after the fact (assuming it happened at all). Bethge did not doubt anything except that Bonhoeffer called Hitler the “Antichrist” (p. 627) and Nation, et al., call on this doubt to cast doubt on the whole quotation. What’s interesting, though, is that Bethge wrote about Bell’s account (of what Bonhoeffer said he said to his fellow resisters) that it “contains accurate and improbable parts.” (p. 627) The only “improbable part,” according to Bethge, who knew Bonhoeffer very well throughout this whole time, is Bonhoeffer’s calling Hitler the Antichrist. He did not call Bonhoeffer’s calling for Hitler’s “elimination” into question. In fact, in effect, he called it “accurate.” After wrestling with whether Bonhoeffer would have called Hitler the Antichrist for an entire page (p. 627) Bethge concludes thus: “If that rather crude theological expression [viz., Hitler as the Antichrist] could really have encouraged his friends, Bonhoeffer might perhaps have used it verbally.”

Bethge’s chapter argues convincingly for “Bonhoeffer’s actual complicity in the plot against Hitler.” (p. 628) And by that he clearly did not mean some kind of remote knowledge of the plot. According to Bethge Bonhoeffer was remembered, after the war, as saying things like “You can rely on it, we shall overthrow Hitler!” to his ecumenical contacts and others during his trips to Switzerland and Sweden. (p. 632)

Bethge nailed down what he meant by Bonhoeffer’s complicity with a saying he remembered Bonhoeffer uttering in September, 1941 at Sakrow, where Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, a major player in the plot lived then. First, notice the time and place. Clearly Bethge was not merely going by (faulty) memory. Here is what he recorded Bonhoeffer as saying then and there: “That if it fell to him to carry out the deed [viz., killing Hitler], he was ready to do so, but that he must first resign, formally and officially, from his Church….” (p. 656)

Nation, et al., cast doubt on Bethge’s “decades old memory” (pp. 92-93). I find that rather cavalier given Bethge’s naming the month, year and place where the conversation took place.

Bethge left us no doubt what he thought. On page 659 he recollects from conversations with Bonhoeffer about other, non-violent resisters, that “Bonhoeffer…was already pleading the need for assassination.” This is specifically in contrast to resistance leader Helmuth von Moltke of the “Kreisau Circle” who urged non-violent resistance to Hitler. Nation, et al., make much of Moltke at the beginning of their book and hold him up as a model of non-violent resistence to Hitler. Bethge clearly thought, from personal conversations with Bonhoeffer, that Bonhoeffer thought the Krisau Circle, von Moltke, and non-violent resistance to Hitler was useless.

Bethge opened his final section (of the chapter) entitled “The ‘Boundary Situation'” thus: “Today, in more orderly times, some people are reluctant to call Bonhoeffer a ‘conspirator’, and to give primary importance to such an originally degrading term. The further we are from the events, the more we hesitate to use the term. But it seems as if all attempts to tone it down fail to see the exceptional reality that Bonhoeffer faced, and merely cover up what is shown to us here.” (p. 696) I suspect if Bethge were alive today he would say the same about Nation’s, Siegrist’s, Umbel’s, and Hauerwas’s reluctance to identify Bonhoeffer as a conspirator to kill Hitler. Nobody calls Bonhoeffer an “assassin,” so the book’s title is a bit misleading. There is no “myth” of Bonhoeffer “the assassin” (that I’m aware of). “Participating in a plot to assassinate” would be a better, more descriptive term for what many, including Bethge, believe about Bonhoeffer. But Nation, et al., also deny that.

Bethge did not use the nearly worn out phrase “teleological suspension of the ethical” (often attributed to Kierkegaard) to describe Bonhoeffer’s own sense of justification for his involvement in the conspiracy to overthrow and then to kill Hitler. However, this entire final section of the chapter amounts to that. For Bethge, Bonhoeffer found himself in a “boundary situation” where he had to act contrary to his own best ethical principles and throw himself on the mercy of God. Bethge quoted (p. 700) from a sermon of Bonhoeffer’s in which he prophecied a time “when martyrdom would be called for” but in which “this blood…will not be so innocent and clear as that of the first who testified. On our blood a great guilt would lie….” Clearly Bethge believed that Bonhoeffer foresaw a glimpse of his own fate.

My conclusion is that the authors of Bonhoeffer the Assassin? (and Foreword author Hauerwas) fail to give us a strong enough statement of Bethge’s proximity to Bonhoeffer throughout the time of his involvement in the resistance against Hitler and unjustly cast doubt on his veracity about Bonhoeffer’s role in it. Anyone who reads the book must also read Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer, or at least the portion of it dealing with the conspiracy, and then make up their own mind. Believing Nation, et al., will require more than doubting Bethge. And if Bethge could be wrong about this, he must not be considered a reliable witness to the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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  • Matt W

    Do you think that
    the reason why some many groups want to ‘appropriate’ Bonhoeffer is because he
    was such a high profile martyr? That there is something about dying in a Nazi concentration
    camp that gives his life something that various groups want to identify with?
    On another note, Bonhoeffer had some harsh things to say about Pietism and yet
    Bloesch shows a deep admiration for the side of Bonheoffer’s thought that
    applied to personal piety.

    • Roger Olson

      The “pietism” Bonhoeffer reacted against was the same as that Barth reacted against–not classical Pietism but a stereotyped super-spirituality and quietism found in some German groups they were familiar with. Watch for my next book Reclaiming Pietism (with Christian Collins Winn) to be published by Eerdmans next year. We set the record straight.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    I don’t know what’s wrong with calling DB an assassin. He was in league to commit assassination. To somehow try to distance him from it by saying he was participating in a plot of assassination . . . Today, we rightly recognize co-conspirators as guilty of the same crime, whether it was pulling the trigger or driving the get-away car or planning it out.
    The issue that most interests me is the morality behind such an attempt.

    • Roger Olson

      Bonhoeffer’s participation in the plot was so remote from the act that to call him an “assassin” is, in my opinion, a stretch. We usually reserve that label for people who actually plant the bomb or pull the trigger or directly facilitate it. But, my point is that, contrary to the book and its authors, Bonhoeffer knew very well (according to Bethge) that some people in the conspiracy were planning to kill Hitler and he supported that verbally.

  • Rob

    This seems like one of those areas where someone is abusing the reliability of memory. It is certainly true that memory is not reliable under certain conditions, but overall it is remarkably reliable. (Watch the movie Memento some time to see how much we rely on it.) More importantly, while memory often fails to be sensitive to everything we hear, when we do remember hearing something memory is quite safe.

    If Bethge’s portrait of Bonhoeffer as a conspirator had been based on things that Bethge claimed didn’t happen, it would be easy to come a long and say that that Bethge just didn’t remember certain key events. But to have a memory of something being said, a positive memory, is to stand on pretty solid ground. At that point, they need evidence that Bethge was mistaken if they want to undermine his claim.

    • Roger Olson

      I agree. Also, because Bethge seemed to have made notes of some conversations. He knew the time and place when certain comments were made.

  • Mark Nieweg

    Hi Roger,

    I had been anticipating this book ever since Mark Nation had
    lectured on his studies on Bonhoeffer about two years ago. I am in chapter
    three now. I would agree with two things you mention in your post: first, that
    “everyone seems to want to claim Bonhoeffer for their own causes;”
    and second, in so doing there could always be the possibility of taking a
    “blinkered” view when trying to figure out what actually happened
    with him at that time in Germany. When I mentioned to an old friend of mine
    that the biography of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas had Timothy Keller writing its
    Forward, he chuckled and said years ago he had ventured into a Puritan and
    Reformed book store and was going to buy Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of
    Discipleship.” The worker warned him that Bonhoeffer was not an
    Evangelical and to be discerning in what he was reading! Times sure seem to
    have changed 🙂

    As I was thinking about why I was so excited to read
    Nation’s book, I realized I was looking for a trump card to silence all those
    who seemed to applaud Bonhoeffer abandoning his “naïve pacifism” in
    that time of great distress that was Nazi Germany, doing the “responsible
    thing” in “Christian Realism” style, as if Jesus hadn’t lived in
    our reality himself while teaching and commanding us that because God had to go to extraordinary measures to save us, we needed to understand life and mission in light of that. I know we all can abandon our best insights and passions in great distress, and that is not what bothers me. Jesus said to the world his
    obedience could cause us to be “ashamed of him,” and Paul says it
    would look like a “scandal” and “foolishness” to those whose wisdom is conventional. What makes us think it would not be the same for
    the faithful disciple? But what has bothered me over and over again is that
    evangelicals are more than willing to do what Jesus condemns the Pharisees for:
    replacing the commands of God with the traditions of men. In my own move from a non-pacifist to what I’d rather call a cross-bearing discipleship that would
    have to be more nuanced than what is generally thought of as pacifism, I
    realized how inadequate I had (and have) been in my faithfulness. But being
    outside the church these days, looking back in from a vantage point of
    participation in and understanding of other religious groups that comprise
    minorities in the United States, that has all the more helped me understand why
    Jesus commands what he does. The parochialism that seems to ensconce the
    Christian church in maintaining and securing its identity here makes it
    difficult for someone to see what I am seeing while within it. Through this
    experience I am seeing in Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom of God something that
    challenges and changes this parochialism. And following the Suffering Servant,
    as Paul did, is truly something that has to be focused front and center if
    there is going to be an example by disciples of the kind of God we have. I was
    hoping that Bonhoeffer withstood the test, and that Nation had found out that
    he indeed did. Oh well. But if not, I need to press on.

  • This is a helpful and thoughtful review. Thank you.

  • Lon Marshall

    Roger, Do you have any idea why Bonhoeffer never said directly that he was leaving pacifism, or becoming more realistic or anything regarding his changing of mind? He was so emphatic earlier when he said he was becoming a pacifist and how the reading of the Bible and the sermon on the mount had affected him. He talked about it as a very clear spiritual experience or choice, contrasting it from before when he “was not a Christian.” He had talked so clearly about God revealed in Jesus and His revelation of how we are to live. He seemed so articulate about important theological themes. There is nothing about this change that seemed so important to him at one time. It seems logical that he would have written about it. Any thoughts?

    • Roger Olson

      I don’t think I said he abandoned pacifism. Did I? My own interpretation from reading Bethge is that Bonhoeffer considered killing Hitler a necessary evil, an exception, a “boundary situation.”

      • Mark Thiessen Nation

        I apologize for misspelling your name. I think Lon has asked a good question. There is nothing in (what is perhaps) chapter four in Ethics that indicates that “boundary situation” refers to something like Bonhoeffer’s affirmation of killing Hitler or a rationale for his own “involvement” in such attempts. As I say in my essay on Ethics, I think it is more likely that Bonhoeffer, in relation to several similar expressions in this chapter, has in mind the actions of his former students who are killing on the front lines. And not only “killing,” but sometimes participating in killing innocent civilians and unarmed surrendered enemy soldiers. Two reasons why I think this is likely is that he refers to soldiers in this chapter. Second, we now can see in his letters to former students on the battlefield as well as letters to family members of fallen soldiers who were his former students (around the time chapter four was written), that they were often on his mind. (And yet we know he had encouraged them to be conscientious objectors. He himself was living this out through his work in the Abwehr. He may be trying to reflect on what it means to reflect on their wrong behaviors in these “extraordinary circumstances” or “boundary situations”.)

      • Lon Marshall

        Did he write about “boundary situations” or exceptions? Is there anything in his writings that would reflect what he chose to do? Anything specific, concrete? If at best, we consider he may have made an exception, or sacrificed himself because he didn’t know what else to do based on Bethge’s report, but we don’t have any evidence with his writings (similar to the change he wrote about when he adopted pacifism in his own words), or known actions; why would we assume he did this and not look for another explaination for Bethge’s report? Jesus told Pilate that His ways were not like Rome’s, and that if they were his followers would fight and kill (reciprocate violence) to make things right. That seems like as good a time as any for an exception. Instead, He went to the cross. If this law of love was known to Bonhoeffer and written about so clearly by him, Why not assume he lived by it until his death with nothing more than hearsay to contradict it? It seems to me that his writings and actions must trump another person’s report of a conversation from memory regardless of the specifics. We have to give him the benefit of the doubt; unless we want him to be implicated in a plot to kill Hitler. If Bonhoeffer was not part of this plot we can not invoke his name when going to war, or when the most recent “evil” tyrant who does not fit in with local interests need removing. If we take his known actions and that he lived and died as he wrote, what a witness to the Reign of God.

        • Roger Olson

          I choose to give Bethge the benefit of the doubt. He knew Bonhoeffer very well throughout the 1930s and 1940s until his death. Of course Bonhoeffer couldn’t write about his decision to be involved in a plot to assassinate the German head of state. But according to Bethge he commented on it in private. I can’t imagine Bethge imagining that.

          • Lon Marshall

            Thank you for taking the time to have this discussion. Lon

  • Mark Thiessen Nation

    Let me offer a response to Roger Olsen. I will begin with a quote, a quote that seems to represent the heart of his critical reflections. “If we are to agree with Nation, Siegrist, and Umbel, that Bonhoeffer never advocated, condoned or participated in an actual plot to kill Hitler (or anyone else), we have to question Bethge’s testimony which is clear. And the authors do question it. They suggest his memory of Bonhoeffer’s own sayings to him and to others was faulty.”

    Olsen’s critique depends mostly on his response to our critique of what is remembered from informal, oral conversations (“Bonhoeffer’s own sayings to him and to others”). I will comment on this later. But first let me name what Olsen has basically ignored.

    We have argued that Bonhoeffer underwent a theological and spiritual transformation between 1929 and 1932 that changed his approach to Christian ethics. In February of 1929 we see Bonhoeffer saying in a lecture that love of his own people will sanctify war, will sanctify murder. He also says in this lecture that the Sermon on the Mount is not to instruct us in how to live in the present. By 1932 he is saying the opposite in lectures he presents. He is telling Christians they should live by the Sermon on the Mount and that this includes not killing in war. What happened in between? In 1930 he finished his habilitation thesis, Act and Being in which he argues for the centrality of Jesus Christ in understanding Christian ethics. In 1930-31 he studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. While there he was deeply influenced by Jean Lasserre, a French Reformed pastor and pacifist, to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount and to embrace pacifism. Bonhoeffer was also deeply formed by his months of serious participation in the life of the African American congregation, Abyssinian Baptist Church. In a letter to his friend, Elizabeth Zinn, in January 1936, he says that sometime before 1933 he came to see “pacifism as self-evident,” which he had previously argued against passionately. (This sentence is left out from this quote, pp. 123-4, in the 2010 biography by Eric Metaxis of Bonhoeffer—indicating the lengths some will go to to establish that Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist.) The views that he here referred to as pacifism are expressed in numerous passionate lectures and given careful articulation in his 1937 book, Discipleship, based on lectures he taught to his students at the Finkenwalde seminary. Questions that beg to be asked are: did Bonhoeffer return to the convictions he held in 1929? Did he reverse his understanding of the centrality of Jesus for understanding ethics? Or somehow re-formulate this centrality so that it caused him to abandon his views on peace? The textual evidence suggests he did not. We have provided an argument in two chapters in the book (and I in a separate essay published this past summer in Perpectives in Religious Studies) that the most careful reading of Ethics sees it as consistent with what he had believed since 1932. Moreover, he specifically affirms the book, Discipleship, in prison in the summer of 1944.

    And what do we see in Bonhoeffer’s life that is consistent with this affirmation of what he on occasion referred to as pacifism? Beginning in 1932 often in ecumenical speeches he called on Christians not to kill in war and to consider conscientious objection. When military conscription was re-introduced into Germany in 1935, he commended conscientious objection to his seminary students. In 1939 Bonhoeffer said one of his key reasons for returning to the U.S. was to avoid military service (i.e. killing on the front lines in the German army). He leaves the U.S. within only a few weeks after arriving. He apparently left because he continued to believe that, as he had said in lectures, “peace is not the way of safety.” Being in the U.S. was the easy, the safe way out; he rather needed to be willing to suffer with his fellow Christians in Germany. It is sometimes implied that he came back to Germany specifically to be involved in efforts to kill Hitler. If that’s true then why did he first try to become a chaplain in the military? Once his application to be a chaplain was denied then and only then did he join the Abwehr, the military intelligence organization. And as Sabine Dramm’s book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Resistance makes clear, the central reason he joined the Abwehr was to acquire a “UK” status, a status that granted him immunity from serving on the front lines, killing as a soldier, because his work was essential to the welfare of Germany. What becomes clear when we read
    transcripts from his trial is that the judge realized his “essential” work for the Abwehr was a fiction created to grant him what was effectively a role as a conscientious objector, but without it leading to his execution (as a straightforward claim to be a c.o. would have done). The judge was furious both
    that he committed this capital crime and tried to help other pastors to have a
    similar status.

    I too have read the magisterial biography by Eberhard Bethge. In fact, I outlined the whole of the first edition of this book. And I have, with the revised 2000 edition, read the section dealing with Bonhoeffer’s role in the conspiracy multiple times and have carefully outlined that section. It took me years to be bold enough to challenge the authority of Bethge. But I’ve come to realize that though of course all of us who study Bonhoeffer owe an incredible debt to Bethge, that does not mean we cannot question some of his interpretations (especially now with the sixteen volumes of collected works available along with lots of secondary sources).

    During my last sabbatical I especially read books on the attempts to kill Hitler, along with Sabine Dramm’s book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Conspiracy and volumes fifteen and sixteen of the collected works of Bonhoeffer (these latter two covering the years 1940-45, in addition to Letters and Papers and the letters to Maria). Dramm, a German theologian, is especially helpful in her discussion of the Abwehr, giving much more and careful detail than Bethge.

    Having read these I realized that Bethge’s references to Bonhoeffer’s “involvement” in the conspiracy and especially specific plots to kill Hitler were all quite vague. And I discovered there was a reason for this. When one lines up the facts about specific efforts to kill Hitler alongside Bonhoeffer’s life, it becomes obvious that he had nothing to do with any of the details related to any of them. Through vague allusions to “involvement” Bethge gives a very different impression. Moreover, one gets the impression from Bethge that most of the employees for the Abwehr were involved in efforts to kill Hitler, and thus working for the Abwehr in itself was incriminating. I was stunned to discover that of the 13,000 employees only about 50 were involved in efforts to kill Hitler. And then only on certain occasions and in relation to certain attempts. Some attempts were made by others in other military organizations. For instance, the two attempts to kill Hitler in March 1943 were planned by Colonel Henning von Tresckow, of the Army Group Center (not the Abwehr). Bethge implies in the 1983 documentary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Memories and Perspectives, that Bonhoeffer was arrested on April 5, 1943 because of his involvement in these attempts in March. But that is definitely not true. Not only is it the case that it is highly unlikely Bonhoeffer was involved in these two attempts, but no one was arrested because of these attempts on Hitler’s life. They were not discovered by the authorities. Bonhoeffer was arrested because of his involvement in an effort to save the lives of fourteen Jews. Authorities who were suspicious of the Abwehr had discovered financial irregularities related to this act. That’s why he was arrested. And, as stated above, he was imprisoned because the judge realized he had effectively been a conscientious objector as an agent with the Abwehr. He was later executed because after the attempt on Hitler’s life in July 1944 the Reich went on an irrational rampage of executions of any perceived to be “enemies of the state,” which Bonhoeffer had been accused of since at least as early as 1936.

    I opened the book with a discussion of Helmuth von Moltke partly because he is a very interesting character and mostly unknown by U.S. American Christians. But also because he illustrates that one could be an agent of the Abwehr, doing basically what Bonhoeffer did and be opposed to killing Hitler (as Moltke said he was in letters to both his wife and children).

    All of the above, of course, is given in more detail in our book. But in closing let me come back to the central focus of Dr. Olsen’s critique—memories from informal, oral conversations. Yes, I do think it is relevant that Bethge challenges Bishop Bell’s memory that Bonhoeffer had referred to Hitler as the Anti-Christ. As I say in the book, we’ve done what Bethge implies should be done: give the greatest weight to texts and clear facts not memories of informal, oral conversations. The contexts for conversations, tones of voice, facial expressions—those are some components of what are necessary for truly understanding what is meant by whatever was said in oral conversations. Besides, most of us are not as careful in informal conversations. And in fact we might use terms we would never use in more carefully prepared comments, for various reasons. For instance, Bethge says that Bonhoeffer did not believe that Hitler was the Anti-Christ. However, he concedes, “if that rather crude theological expression could really have encouraged his friends, Bonhoeffer perhaps would have used it verbally.” So, likewise, in oral conversations with others who were also opposed to the extreme militarism, nationalism and abuses of the Hitler regime, I could
    imagine Bonhoeffer being relatively affirming of what they were doing (which
    did not mean he was necessarily on the same page with them morally in general). Only recently did I notice that Bethge says that Bonhoeffer “knew and approved” of the coup “for a long time” (since 1937, when he was clearly a pacifist?). Bonhoeffer’s sister-in-law, Emmi Bonhoeffer, says that “Though Dietrich was from the very beginning [1933?] convinced that Hitler has to be abolished, he felt that’s not his business as a theologian.” However, she also replays a conversation she had with Dietrich sometime after he had returned to Germany in 1939, clearly indicating that he had told her that Christians should not kill. How do these two statements fit together? How does her earlier statement fit with his views in Discipleship, etc.? Again, Bethge is right: one should place the greatest weight to what we know from texts and the facts as best we know them, not memories of informal conversations.

    • Roger Olson

      It would be nice if you at least spelled my name correctly. I appreciate your defense of your book, but disagree about Bethge’s memory. You still do not deal with the central fact I brought out in my blog post–that Bethge reported that Bonhoeffer offered to kill Hitler himself at a meeting at his brother-in-law’s house in September of a certain year (I think it was 1940). Bethge clearly knew this; he was not experiencing false memory. To me it is clear that Bonhoeffer was terribly conflicted about this matter. I think he was a pacifist in principle but felt this (viz., killing Hitler) was, as Bethge called it, a “boundary situation”–outside the norms and perhaps even an evil but a necessary one nevertheless.

      • Mark Thiessen Nation

        No, I did respond to what you said. Bethge is reporting on decades-old memories of informal conversations (shaped somewhat by his own sensibilities about such things). Bethge himself questions Bishop Bell’s memory, which is based on notes taken in a diary about two or three years after the conversation happened. And then when Bethge allows that perhaps Bonhoeffer had said something like this he also says that clearly he didn’t mean it in the straightforward way one might take him to mean it–for after all, says Bethge, Bonhoeffer didn’t really believe that Hitler was the Anti-Christ. Bethge tells us to look at what Bonhoeffer wrote if we don’t believe him. We have followed the route suggested by Bethge.

        You did not respond to what I claimed you were ignoring.

        • Roger Olson

          Our difference is that I simply believe Bethge–about Bonhoeffer’s knowledge of the plot to kill Hitler and his involvement in it–however indirect. In my blog post I gave the details. I would have to think Bethge was an unreliable witness to Bonhoeffer’s thoughts, words and actions to agree with you. I simply don’t think that. I think, as Bethge apparently did, that Bonhoeffer considered the plot to kill Hitler and his involvement in it (indirectly but real nevertheless) a necessity that brought guilt and threw himself on God’s mercy.

  • Bill Johnson

    Roger, I had a conversation with Eberhard Bethge in his home in Villiprot in 1994. I have no transcript of it, only a memory. I asked him if he was involved personally in the conspiracy and he told me the story of driving Hans von Dohnanyi to the Eastern Front to deliver the bomb that was placed on Hitler’s plane. Bethge was not told there was a bomb in the car until later for fear he would appear nervous if stopped. I also asked him if Bonhoeffer told him what was going on in the conspiracy. His answer was, “I knew everything.” There are many other things we talked about that day, some which have certainly faded in memory. That night I slept in the Bethge’s guest room under the “Black Madonna” which had been Bonhoeffer’s. I suppose someone could doubt that story. I have some pictures from that day and some signed books, but little else. It was a momentous day for me. There are some things from that day I will never forget. It might be conceivable that Bethge could forget twenty years later the way a specific phrase was said during the war years. It is not conceivable that the most fundamental part of that journey could be mis-remembered, and that is what Nation is suggesting.

    • Roger Olson

      Thank you for this. I just have one question. When you quote Bethge as saying “I knew everything” did he mean “he [Bonhoeffer] knew everything?” I’m assuming that’s implied, but it would be helpful to know that he specifically said to you that Bonhoeffer knew everything (about the plot).

      • Bill Johnson

        The context was talking about Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the conspiracy, and it was assumed that Bonhoeffer knew pretty much everything which Bethge indicated was true. My question specifically to Bethge was what he knew about the conspiracy given his relationship to Dietrich? In other words, did Dietrich keep anything from him? His answer “I knew everything” clearly meant that he knew everything Dietrich knew, which was “everything” about the conspiracy. Since this discussion (with Nation) involves some nitpicking I wouldn’t presume “everything” to mean every detail of the plot, but a conspirators knowledge of what was taking place. I think it important to remember that while Dietrich was not personally an “assassin”, that Hans Von Dohnanyi was a failed assassin, and Bethge reported that the Bonhoeffer family gathered for music nights as a guise for discussing the conspiracy. That someone could seriously question Dietrich’s involvement in the conspiracy is mystifying to me, but I suppose it will give the Bonhoeffer Society something to talk about.

        • Roger Olson

          Thank you. This is very helpful.