What do we make of Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

Ted Grimsrud—February 27, 2011

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in 1945, might be the most famous theologian of the 20th century. On the surface, based strictly on his written output, this may be a bit surprising. He wrote well, and was prolific given his short and amazingly eventful life—but his writings on their own don’t explain the extent of his fame. It was also his life, or, maybe more specifically, the events surrounding his death.

Bonhoeffer was put to death by his own government, executed by the Nazis in Germany just weeks before the end of World War II. Bonhoeffer’s fame owes itself partly, for sure, to his wonderful books, especially Cost of Discipleship, to his witness to Christian faithfulness in his active resistance to the Nazi regime from the time of Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933, and to his remarkable courage and witness in the years of his imprisonment leading up to his execution.

However, it could be that what puts Bonhoeffer at or near the top of the list of famous theologians may be a misunderstanding concerning why the Nazis killed him. Bonhoeffer was well known as a pacifist in the years leading up to his arrest, based in part on his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount in Discipleship. But then, the story goes, he had a change of heart given the exigencies of Nazi tyranny and joined with the conspiracy that sought to assassinate Hitler. The attempt on Hitler’s life failed, the conspirators were arrested, and most—including Bonhoeffer—put to death.

Bonhoeffer, then, has become kind of a poster boy for “Christian realism,” a recognition that pacifism is a fine ideal but at times in the real world one must, of necessity, turn to the sword and use “evil” methods to defeat a greater evil.

Now, this use of Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom may be, and of course has, been vigorously debated for years. But maybe one of the premises that all sides to the debates have generally accepted—that Bonhoeffer indeed did take part in the effort to kill Hitler—is not actually true. This is the thesis argued by my Eastern Mennonite University colleague Mark Thiessen Nation in a book he co-wrote with Anthony Siegrist and Daniel Umble (Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering the Call to Peacemakingpublished by Baker Academic in 2013). Mark gave an excellent summary of his argument in a lecture at EMU on February 23, 2011 (a podcast of this highly recommended lecture may be heard here ).

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