What if Bonhoeffer really didn’t try to kill Hitler? [a new theory]

What if Bonhoeffer really didn’t try to kill Hitler? [a new theory] January 22, 2014

I didn’t come across this topic until this morning as I was reading a friend’s blog [check out David Marshall’s good work on theology].

Scot McKnight, back in November, discussed a new book called Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking (BakerAcademic, 2013). Written by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel, this book seeks to dismantle the myth (?) that Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave up pacifism in order to partner with others in an assassination attempt against Hitler.

Excerpt from Scot McKnight:

There’s already a bit of a dustup about the proposals in thatRoger Olson thinks Nation et al have overcooked their theory, and already Mark Nation has responded back (on Roger Olson’s blog’s comments)….

There is no evidence from Bonhoeffer himself — in writing — that he was involved in any conspiracy to kill Hitler. Yes, his brother in law and friends were conspirators, but there’s nothing from Bonhoeffer’s own hand that proves it….

The evidence that Bonhoeffer was involved in the conspiracy comes exclusively from his biographer, Eberhard Bethge (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography), by far the best biography and done by one who personally worked with and knew well Bonhoeffer himself. Bethge says Bonhoeffer was a conspirator and that his conspiracy work involved him in “boundary work” — that is in doing things that were on the border of his ethical beliefs. The evidence, then, is based on Bethge’s memory….

But Nation et al are arguing their case on a profoundly informed basis: they have mapped carefully the development of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethics from his early period (Barcelona in the late 1920s), the most influential Discipleship book in the late 30s when he was leading the underground seminary, and then in the later Ethics where we encounter his “worldliness.” What this book does in the middle chapters, chapters harder to read than the others, is to demonstrate that there is a decisive break between Barcelona and Discipleship, one in which Bonhoeffer shifts from anti-pacifism to pacifism on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ teachings. What the book also demonstrates is that there is no such break or significant shift between Discipleship and Ethics, but that once one understands the role both Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being (his dissertation and habilitation) plays in his development, one sees much more continuity — a Jesus based and christologically shaped ethic — than discontinuity. To argue that Bonhoeffer changed his mind requires that he significantly changed his mind and abandoned his Discipleship themes. Bonhoeffer himself denies this and affirms that he stands by his Discipleship. Without that evidence of shift between Discipleship and Ethics, the argument about Bonhoeffer shifting just doesn’t gain traction….

Put yet one more way: the memory of Bethge is being challenged by the concrete evidence of the texts themselves. This is methodologically reasonable.

After a helpful overview, Scot goes on to discuss his own view in light of this new analysis….

In summary, I consider this book a successful challenge to the ruling paradigm that sees a major shift in Bonhoeffer from his idealism of Discipleship to a realist posture in Ethics… I no longer think Bonhoeffer made a tragic mistake in entering into the conspiracy and so shifted from his pacifism because I’m not convinced he entered into the conspiracy. Bonhoeffer may well have sustained his pacifism.

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