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.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I. Must. Get. This. Book.

    I mean, I’ve ready Metaxas’ treatment and I liked it… but it seemed a stretch the assumptions that Bonhoeffer had anything to do with the assassination attempt….

    I’m GREATLY looking forward to reading Nation’s book…

  • GladwyneDavid

    I do wonder if Bonhoeffer absorbed Barth’s ethical distinction (borderline situations). For Barth no ethical principle was absolute. So one could be very clear, very consistent that the Scriptural imperative was overwhelmingly in the direction of truth-telling, life-preserving. Yet in borderline situations, the command of God might say offer falsehood or take life rather than the principled, normal command. So Bonhoeffer could be a principled pacifist and yet hear the command of God in his situation to take extraordinary action — to do what God might be doing — taking guilty life in order to protect innocent life.

  • Ken Steckert

    If not for Bethge, Bonhoeffer would likely be unknown by most of us today. Bethge’s work towards getting Bonhoeffer’s works and life known was because of the impact Bonhoeffer had on him personally. From my understanding of Bethge his goal was not to clarify Bonhoeffer’s beliefs regarding violence. I agree with Olson that Bethge can be trusted to remember the essence of his personal conversations with Bonhoeffer. The title of this new book indicates to me the author’s want to place Bonhoeffer in their camp, and I am far more skeptical of someone coming along 70 years later with no personal contact with the person than the person who was his close friend while he lived.

  • Chris Falter

    I’ve read both Bethge and Metaxas’ bios. Without a doubt Friedrich knew intimately about the conspiracy and hoped it would succeed. He also tried to use his English contacts to provide the forthcoming German government (after the presumed success of the conspiracy) with a solid diplomatic footing. However, I don’t recall seeing any evidence of his providing active assistance to the assassination attempt. I.e., he did not procure or transport explosives, etc. So it may be possible to say that he did not violate his ethics–though just barely! He seems to have recognized that he was operating in a gray area, but decided he had to act according to his conscience and his situation and leave the judgment to posterity.

  • Michael Snow

    My take (before this new book) has been (whatever Bonhoeffer’s role in the plot) was this thing blessed by God? Did they bear fruit? On the other hand, Bonhoeffer bore fruit in his ministry to fellow prisoners. Sometime we run outside the bounds God has set for us, but he still works it for good.

  • Pubilius

    perhaps the book clarifies this, but I wonder then, why would Bonhoeffer have been sent to prison/camp and executed if he wasn’t guilty of some type of conspiracy… this IS NOT to say the NAZIs didn’t execute innocent people, but it just seems there were millions of German Protestants that weren’t arrested even if they weren’t 100% in-line with the party.