Was Bonhoeffer a Conspirator?

It is a foregone conclusion among many scholars, and certainly the wider public, that by the late 30′s Dietrich Bonhoeffer had changed his view on violence. While earlier in the 30′s he had articulated a perspective on violence that could be characterized as pacifism rooted in his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount captured clearly in Discipleship, the realities of Nazi German had caused him to see the necessity of violence in the face of such evil. This interpretation of Bonhoeffer finds its plausibility in his later letters from prison and his unfinished Ethics that was later published by Eberhard Bethge.

But a new book robustly challenges this assumption. And it is quite convincing. The thesis of  Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking is that this widely held belief is flat wrong. When one looks carefully at Bonhoeffer’s life and his writings one finds that Bonhoeffer was consistent throughout his life on the question of violence. His work in the Abwehr, which is often pointed to as evidence of his involvement in the conspiracies, does not necessitate his participation in the plot(s) to assassinate Hitler. According to the argument of the book, Bonhoeffer’s decision to join the German Intelligence agency was his way of avoiding service in the military. Further, there is no evidence of his involvement in these plots.

Bonhoeffer was a conscientious objector, but not a conspirator.

Let me summarize the five key arguments (summarized in the conclusion) in this well-argued and well-written protest:

1. It is highly unlikely that Bonhoeffer was involved in any assassination attempts. There is no evidence that during his time in the Abwehr connecting Bonhoeffer to the five assassination attempts on Hitler from 1938-44.

2. Bonhoeffer claimed that he had become a Christian pacifist. He believed it was “self-evident” in light of the Sermon of the Mount. There is no evidence to suggest that he recanted that statement.

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