Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer a Would-Be Assassin?

We’re in the middle of another Dietrich Bonhoeffer renaissance. A new wave of interest in the German theologian is being lifted by new biographies and examinations of his theology. Everyone seems to want to claim Bonhoeffer for their own causes. This was the case, of course, in the 1960s when radical theologians such as John Robinson and Harvey Cox attempted to appropriate him for secular theologies. And it has happened every few years since.

I was surprised to learn, when studying theology in Germany in the 1980s, that there, in Germany, he’s generally not considered one of the “giants” of twentieth century theology alongside Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, Tillich or even Niebuhr. There his legacy is tied to his role in the Confessing Church movement and his participation in a plot to overthrow the Hitler regime. I sometimes wonder if it weren’t for the latter, including his execution by the Nazis, and his enigmatic sayings in Letters and Papers from Prison whether he would be as well remembered and widely discussed as has been the case.

Years ago I read Eberhard Bethge’s magisterial biography of Bonhoeffer entitledDietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision, Man of Courage (1967, ET 1977). Bethge was, of course, one of Bonhoeffer’s closest friends and confidantes. He was his student and they lived together in the “underground seminary” that Bonhoeffer led for the Confessing Church movement. Eventually, Bethge moved into Bonhoeffer’s family home in Berlin and married his mentor’s niece. After the war and after Bonhoeffer’s execution Bethge took it upon himself, with the support of the Bonhoeffer family, to collect Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s papers and publish them. Throughout the 1950s through the 1970s he became the expert on Bonhoeffer. His biography is 841 pages long in English translation (not including the index).

I think it’s fairly safe to say that if it were not for Bethge, Bonhoeffer would largely be forgotten. I have trusted Bethge about Bonhoeffer implicitly, as have most others. Bethge was a scholar and member of the Bonhoeffer family and does not seem to have had any axe to grind that would cause us to consider his accounts unreliable.

A few days ago a new book arrived: Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel (Foreword by Stanley Hauerwas) (BakerAcademic, 2013). The “myth” referred to in the title is that Bonhoeffer participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. That is clearly expressed and argued (viz., that it is a myth) in Chapter 3, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Assassin?” (pp. 71-97). The authors’ thesis is expressed in several ways, but I find this passage especially concise: “There is no evidence that Bonhoeffer was ‘involved in the plots to kill Hitler.’ Hopefully we have also shown that there is no real evidence that Bonhoeffer himself affirmed the killing of Hitler.” (p. 93).

The authors of Bonhoeffer the Assassin? argue for continuity between Bonhoeffer’s pacifist theology, as expressed in writings such as The Cost of Discipleship (or just “Discipleship” depending on the edition) and his life in the Abwehr—the German military intelligence agency that was the breeding ground for some of the plots to overthrow Hitler and the Nazi regime. They furthermore argue that there is no evidence that Bonhoeffer ever actually participated in any conspiracy to kill Hitler even though his ecumenical contacts on behalf of the conspirators to overthrow Hitler (in Switzerland and Sweden) involved him indirectly in the resistance to the Hitler regime. According to them, Bonhoeffer remained a pacifist throughout his adult life and never encouraged killing anyone.

The authors admit that Bonhoeffer knew some of the plotters, even those who were conspiring to kill Hitler and others, very well and had personal conversations with them. His brother and brother-in-law were members of the conspiracy and almost certainly had few, if any, qualms about killing Hitler (after a certain point when simply overthrowing him did not seem feasible). They are right, however, to point out, as Bethge does, that Bonhoeffer’s own actual role in the Abwehr conspiracy was remote. It was confined largely to traveling to neutral countries (mentioned earlier) to meet with religious leaders (mostly British) to talk about German surrender and cessation of war should the conspiracy (either to overthrow Hitler or kill him) succeed. A few remnants of those conversations remain in letters and memories (later written).

If we are to agree with Nation, Siegrist, and Umbel, that Bonhoeffer never advocated, condoned or participated in an actual plot to kill Hitler (or anyone else), we have to question Bethge’s testimony which is clear. And the authors do question it. They suggest his memory of Bonhoeffer’s own sayings to him and to others was faulty. (pp. 92-93)

But let’s look again at Bethge’s own recorded memories in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And let’s remember that much of the material in that biography was not first “remembered” by Bethge in 1967 when he wrote it. He had been deeply involved in Bonhoeffer scholarship for over a decade then—collecting, compiling, interviewing, reviewing, writing. So we should not picture Bethge, at age fifty-something (we don’t know exactly when he wrote the parts of the biography but only when it was published) for the first time sitting down to write about these events and conversations and striving to remember them.

The relevant section of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is “Section Two: Conspiracy” of “Part Three: Sharing Germany’s Destiny.” It comprises pages 627-702 of the 1977 Harper & Row paperback edition. Bethge there leaves no doubt that he believed Bonhoeffer at least tentatively gave up his pacifism in a “boundary situation,” namely, the extremity of having to end the war and the holocaust.

Bethge opens this section of his biography with a quotation attributed to Bonhoeffer by one of his ecumenical contacts, Bishop Bell with whom Bonhoeffer met in Sweden in 1942. According to Bell, Bonhoeffer told him that he once responded to fellow resistance members who proposed ceasing subversive activities that could result in Hitler’s death, thus making him a martyr, “If we claim to be Christians, there is no room for expediency. Hitler is the Antichrist. Therefore we must go on with our work and eliminate him whether he be successful for not.” (pp. 626-627) Bell published this quote from Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer quoting himself to Bell) in 1945—two to three years after the fact (assuming it happened at all). Bethge did not doubt anythingexcept that Bonhoeffer called Hitler the “Antichrist” (p. 627) and Nation, et al., call on this doubt to cast doubt on the whole quotation. What’s interesting, though, is that Bethge wrote about Bell’s account (of what Bonhoeffer said he said to his fellow resisters) that it “contains accurate and improbable parts.” (p. 627) The only “improbable part,” according to Bethge, who knew Bonhoeffer very well throughout this whole time, is Bonhoeffer’s calling Hitler the Antichrist. He did not call Bonhoeffer’s calling for Hitler’s “elimination” into question. In fact, in effect, he called it “accurate.” After wrestling with whether Bonhoeffer would have called Hitler the Antichrist for an entire page (p. 627) Bethge concludes thus: “If that rather crude theological expression [viz., Hitler as the Antichrist] could really have encouraged his friends, Bonhoeffer might perhaps have used it verbally.”

Bethge’s chapter argues convincingly for “Bonhoeffer’s actual complicity in the plot against Hitler.” (p. 628) And by that he clearly did not mean some kind of remote knowledge of the plot. According to Bethge Bonhoeffer was remembered, after the war, as saying things like “You can rely on it, we shall overthrow Hitler!” to his ecumenical contacts and others during his trips to Switzerland and Sweden. (p. 632)

Bethge nailed down what he meant by Bonhoeffer’s complicity with a saying he remembered Bonhoeffer uttering in September, 1941 at Sakrow, where Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, a major player in the plot lived then. First, notice the time and place. Clearly Bethge was not merely going by (faulty) memory. Here is what he recorded Bonhoeffer as saying then and there: “That if it fell to him to carry out the deed [viz., killing Hitler], he was ready to do so, but that he must first resign, formally and officially, from his Church….” (p. 656)

Nation, et al., cast doubt on Bethge’s “decades old memory” (pp. 92-93). I find that rather cavalier given Bethge’s naming the month, year and place where the conversation took place.

Bethge left us no doubt what he thought. On page 659 he recollects from conversations with Bonhoeffer about other, non-violent resisters, that “Bonhoeffer…was already pleading the need for assassination.” This is specifically in contrast to resistance leader Helmuth von Moltke of the “Kreisau Circle” who urged non-violent resistance to Hitler. Nation, et al., make much of Moltke at the beginning of their book and hold him up as a model of non-violent resistence to Hitler. Bethge clearly thought, from personal conversations with Bonhoeffer, that Bonhoeffer thought the Krisau Circle, von Moltke, and non-violent resistance to Hitler was useless.

Bethge opened his final section (of the chapter) entitled “The ‘Boundary Situation’” thus: “Today, in more orderly times, some people are reluctant to call Bonhoeffer a ‘conspirator’, and to give primary importance to such an originally degrading term. The further we are from the events, the more we hesitate to use the term. But it seems as if all attempts to tone it down fail to see the exceptional reality that Bonhoeffer faced, and merely cover up what is shown to us here.” (p. 696) I suspect if Bethge were alive today he would say the same about Nation’s, Siegrist’s, Umbel’s, and Hauerwas’s reluctance to identify Bonhoeffer as a conspirator to kill Hitler. Nobody calls Bonhoeffer an “assassin,” so the book’s title is a bit misleading. There is no “myth” of Bonhoeffer “the assassin” (that I’m aware of). “Participating in a plot to assassinate” would be a better, more descriptive term for what many, including Bethge, believe about Bonhoeffer. But Nation, et al., also deny that.

Bethge did not use the nearly worn out phrase “teleological suspension of the ethical” (often attributed to Kierkegaard) to describe Bonhoeffer’s own sense of justification for his involvement in the conspiracy to overthrow and then to kill Hitler. However, this entire final section of the chapter amounts to that. For Bethge, Bonhoeffer found himself in a “boundary situation” where he had to act contrary to his own best ethical principles and throw himself on the mercy of God. Bethge quoted (p. 700) from a sermon of Bonhoeffer’s in which he prophecied a time “when martyrdom would be called for” but in which “this blood…will not be so innocent and clear as that of the first who testified. On our blood a great guilt would lie….” Clearly Bethge believed that Bonhoeffer foresaw a glimpse of his own fate.

My conclusion is that…