It is an interesting question. Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer a pacifist or a conspirator to topple Adolf Hitler? I read a blog post today that struggled with that very question.

Here is a portion of that post…  

A conversation with a friend started me thinking about Bonhoeffer’s resistance during World War II in Nazi Germany and what our North American church can learn from him as our country continues to fight in Iraq. This was his question:

Do I remember correctly: didn’t Bonhoeffer try to assassinate Hitler and almost succeed? He was executed as a martyr for this and probably other actions. Do you think it is ever justified as a Christian to take this type of action?

What a great question. I especially appreciate the appeal to biography, to the concrete life of someone we look to as a faithful follower of Christ. But in appealing to Bonhoeffer’s biography we will learn a great deal if we start ten years earlier at Finkenwalde, the illegal secret seminary of the German Confessing Church. This was the beginning of his subversive activities.

In 1935 Bonhoeffer found himself serving as the professor, president, chaplain, and business manager of Finkenwalde. At this covert seminary in present day Poland the young Bonhoeffer (not even thirty years old) sought to build a community that would sustain a faithful Christian church while the traditional German Protestant one had been seduced by Nazi nationalism. Bonhoeffer sought to create a community that would fight the power of Hitler’s violence with the power of non-violence revealed in Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer’s choice of following the non-violence of the cross can be seen in his 1937 work, The Cost of Discipleship. Notice that he believes non-violence works because Jesus, who knows the “reality and power of evil” better than anyone else, tells us that it is the way we deal with violence:

Jesus, however, tells us that it is just because we live in the world, and just because the world is evil, that the precept of non-resistance must be put into practice. Surely we do not wish to accuse Jesus of ignoring the reality and power of evil! (p.144)

The only way to overcome evil is to let it run itself to a standstill because it does not find the resistance it is looking for. Resistance merely creates further evil and adds fuel to the flames. But when evil meets no oppression and encounters no obstacle but only patient endurance, its sting is drawn, and at last it meets an opponent which is more than its match. (p.142)

For Bonhoeffer, peace is the only way a disciple of Christ can respond to violence in light of Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). Not only is it a question of obedience for Bonhoeffer, but he believes non-resistance works. Contrary to the Christian political realists at the time, Bonhoeffer indicates that the only way to conquer Hitler was through patient non-violence. The type of non-resistance that Christ demonstrated on the cross, where he absorbed all violence into his flesh, is “an opponent which is more than [evil’s] match.”

But history tells us a different story. Bonhoeffer did not persevere in his convictions. Finkenwalde failed. The Confessing Church failed. The communities that Bonhoeffer poured his life into could not endure in the way of Christ’s cross against the Nazis. The members of Finkenwalde compromised under the pressure of the draft. The Gestapo shut down the secret seminary in 1940. There was no more community to cultivate non-violence and Bonhoeffer could not stand-alone. With his Christian community destroyed, Bonhoeffer returned to the only community he had, his irreligious, pro-German, anti-Hitler family in Berlin.

Upon arriving at his parents’ house Bonhoeffer was surrounded by secret plots to seize political power from Hitler and institute a conservative government through violent means. Bonhoeffer had no faithful Christian community in which to locate himself. His geographical context was quite different. His house was the meeting place for violent political action. The desires and practices of a community, whether Finkenwalde or the Bonhoeffer residence, shape its members whether they like it or not. It was only a matter of time before Bonhoeffer submitted to the goals of his new community. He was arrested and executed as an assassin.

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From my understanding of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he did not abandon his views of peaceful resistance. Throughout the 1930’s and up to his point of death, he was a man of convictions.

This is not to say that he didn’t wrestle with what he needed to do as a Christ-follower. As time passed, he realized that pacifism could no longer get the job done. Certainly, pacifism has a time and a place. Yet, there may times when the followers of Jesus must move to other means in order to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

As early as of April of 1933, when Bonhoeffer addressed a group of pastors in Berlin, he talked of the possibility of jamming the spokes of the wheel (see the fourth reason how Dietrich Bonhoeffer can impact us). In other words, as the condition in Germany deteriorated, the response of the church, according to Bonhoeffer, had to adjust.

What are your thoughts about this?

Thank you,