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 ).

This is how I would summarize the issue. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a remarkable young theologian quickly rising to prominence in Germany in the late 1920s and 1930s. When he was in his mid-20s, he experienced what he termed a “conversion” stemming from his close reading of the Sermon on the Mount. One fruit of this conversion was a commitment to pacifism. Probably everyone who has looked a his life would agree that Bonhoeffer did have this profound clarity in his convictions, and that his life reflected those convictions.

Bonhoeffer was one of the early opponents to Nazism and courageously spoke out against Hitler’s new government from the start, especially focusing on challenging Christians in Germany not to support what Bonhoeffer, with his friend and mentor Karl Barth, understood to be Nazi idolatry. Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship during this time and seriously considered going to India to study with Gandhi. He was in touch with Gandhi and arrangements were made, but in the end Bonhoeffer felt the urgency to stay in Germany.

During the 1930s, Bonhoeffer devoted himself to church work, training pastors, preaching, and writing—embodying the resistance he advocated. So, if we want to talk about three stages to this story, stage one shows Bonhoeffer the embodied pacifist in a terribly dangerous setting. Part of what is most remarkable about Bonhoeffer in this stage is how unfriendly Germany was to pacifism, even long before the Nazis. He was indeed a voice crying in the wilderness.

Then, if we skip ahead to stage three, we see Bonhoeffer in prison. Arrested by the Nazis, he was well aware that the likelihood of execution was pretty high. During these several years, he served as a pastor to his fellow inmates, wrote when he could (a collection of these writings, Letters and Papers From Prison, has become a theological and spiritual classic), and strove to sustain what relationship he could with his loved ones outside. The account of his final months is extraordinarily moving, and reinforces the picture we have from stage one of a remarkable Christian disciple embodying Jesus’ peaceable way.

My overly brief summaries of stages one and three, as far as I know, reflect the consensus view of Bonhoeffer’s life—a thoroughly pacifist life and death, lived in the light of Jesus’ life and teaching.

So, it is with stage two that the debate arises. According to my colleague Mark’s lecture, the assumptions that Bonhoeffer stepped outside his pacifist way of life to join directly in an attempted murder simply do not withstand scrutiny. I don’t have time here to describe his case beyond a brief summary (listen to the lecture, it really is solid—or wait for the book!). It’s not like Mark has uncovered a bunch of new evidence so much as he simply shows that evidence to support Bonhoeffer’s repudiation of pacifism (in theory or practice) simply does not seem to exist. That is, the standard account regarding Bonhoeffer has been based on assumptions not evidence.

Bonhoeffer was labeled by the Nazi Gestapo from 1933 on as “a pacifist and enemy of the state.” He avoided military service because he could not allow himself to take human life, especially as an agent of the Nazis. Through family connections, he managed to evade military induction by working for a military intelligence agency—but his work there did not involve anything that directly supported the war effort and in fact served as a cover for him to pursue ecumenical contacts in western Europe. The purpose of these secret contacts was to make possible postwar church relationships.

Bonhoeffer was part of a collection of about 100 Nazi resisters in this intelligence agency, and a handful of those were directly involved in the assassination plot. But there is no evidence that Bonhoeffer himself was. After the conspiracy was discovered, thousands were arrested, the vast majority of whom had nothing to do with the plot. At Bonhoeffer’s trial, he was convicted of draft evasion (which itself would have been a capital offense). That is, the Nazis themselves never claimed Bonhoeffer was involved in the plot.

In this scenario, then, stage two is actually fully consistent with stages one and three. Bonhoeffer refused to fight in the military and found a way to do constructive ecumenical work while not violating his convictions. He was arrested mainly because he was known to have connections with assassination conspirators, but was convicted of draft evasion (in his case, a profoundly pacifist stance), not involvement in the plot. In the end, he was executed. We don’t know exactly why, but quite likely simply because he was seen as an enemy of the state (which had been his label from 1933)—one of thousands the Nazis put to death in the final months of the war as a concluding act of revenge.

In a nutshell, Mark seems to be making the case that present-day Christians should indeed recognize Bonhoeffer as a Christian martyr. This designation, a common one in relation to Bonhoeffer for many years, has always seemed a bit problematic to me. According to the standard account, Bonhoeffer was not a martyr due to following Jesus, really, but for recognizing the need to quit following Jesus in this extreme circumstance.

Mark’s picture, though, shows Bonhoeffer as a consistent follower of Jesus all the way. And, it takes away one of the standard examples opponents of pacifism have commonly used. Bonhoeffer died because he was a pacifist, not because he repudiated pacifism.

9 thoughts on “What do we make of Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

  1. Wow! Thank you for this wonderful essay. I know Mark, my wife studied with him at seminary, and I have no doubt as to the thoroughness of his work. I have always been confused by Bonhoeffer’s apparent contradiction and chanced upon your article in an attempt to alleviate my doubts and confusion. Your article indeed did so and for that I am grateful.

    1. Actually, Ted has left out some important issues. First, Bonhoeffer was arrested for assisting some Jews to leave the country (plus having been on the Gestapo’s radar for some time). This was thought to be a minor charge which he expected to beat in court. He was executed after the final failed assassination attempt on Hitler because of his close association with many of the conspirators.

      Second, his “trial” was no trial at all. No jury, no defense and a complete rush job 2 weeks prior to American liberation of his prison. His execution came as a direct order from Hitler as an accomplice to the men he was in prison with who were directly involved in the assassination attempt.

      Third, Bonhoeffer never condemned or even reprimanded his students who went into military service and killed others in their roles as soldiers.

      Fourth, while he was not directly involved in the assassination attempts, he clearly supported those who were involved and had a very high level understanding of what was going on even to the point of waiting to hear the news of one failed attempt.

      So any attempts to paint Bonhoeffer as a pure pacifist fall far from the mark and would seem to be revisionism to support and ideology at best.

      In The Cost of Discipleship in the chapter on turning the other cheek, Bonhoeffer is almost dogmatically pacifist, even denying the Reformation understanding that violence within the role of certain appointed offices was legitimate (and there is adequate and vital New Testament evidence to support this idea). So either he was hypocritical to his earlier profession of pacifism or he relativized his pacifism based on the situation in Germany neither of which are keeping in character with the man. It seems far more likely, and his letters seem to suggest, that considerable study, prayer and introspection lead him to modify his earlier position.

  2. This seems rather absurd to me. I admit that Bonhoeffer was a pacifist for a short time in the beginning 30’s, when pacifism was fashionable. He was intellectually rather an immature person, who quickly took up ideas without integrating them – he was not taken much serious by Barth or other big boys in theology. But most of those fashionable pacifists dropped their convictions in the mid of the thirties, and there’s no reason to believe that Bonhoeffer was an exception – in particular when we take into account his connexion with Barth (who from 1938 on definitely fighted against pacifism). Evading the draft in Germany doesn’t mean anything more than that he was a Nazi opponent. He may well have prayed for the Allied armies. He may as well have prayed for Hitler’s assassination. Did Mark Thiessen ever look for facts which corroborate or refute this?

  3. I’m very glad to have found this, belatedly, Ted. I’ve been trying to read more of your past posts, gradually. It also happens I’m reading “Life Together” by Bonhoeffer now, as part of a class for a few weeks on the book held by my UCC church (which is generally quite progressive, but not pacifist).

    Although I’ve read a bit by B. and some also about him, I’d been in the “typical” camp of thinking he HAD knowingly participated in the assassination plot, indirectly if not in actual planning. Perhaps we’ll never know for sure but Mark’s and your contention does make good sense. It’s good to have pointed out that there is a lack of clear evidence to the contrary.

    On the other hand, I don’t see a need to push even a consistent pacifism to the point where there is NEVER any justification for violence, even lethal violence. I’m sure Mennonite and other pacifist ethicists have considered and written about this at length (refer me to a couple good sources if you’d like). For example, though rare, are there not cases in which it can be as clear as humanly possible that it is necessary to take the life of 1 or 2 (say an active shooter[s] in a populated setting with targeted people unable to escape) in order to save others… who almost certainly will be killed if no quick and probably lethal action is taken? I realize it gets much more complicated when extended out to things like potential assassination of a national or other leader. But I do think the general public’s (and my own) ignorance of how leading pacifists deal with issue is important, and potentially important to try to educate more broadly about.

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