Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking.
Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel.
Paperback: Baker Academic, 2013.
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Reviewed by Shaun C. Brown
“Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45), a pastor and theologian, is perhaps best known today for his involvement in the conspiracy to topple the Hitler government, which included his involvement to kill Hitler, leading to Bonhoeffer’s subsequent execution at the hands of the Third Reich” (1). Since Eric Metaxas’s biography introduced Bonhoeffer to a wider audience, this opening statement carries even more weight. This plot usually says that through his theological study, Bonhoeffer came to hold some form of pacifist position, but when faced with the cold reality of Nazi Germany, he abandoned his pacifism, embraced a Reinhold Niebuhr-like realism perspective, and joined the plot to kill Hitler.
Mark Thiessen Nation, along with two of his former students, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel challenge this understanding of Bonhoeffer’s life and work. In particular, “[W]e will argue that it is highly unlikely Bonhoeffer was involved in any assassination attempts. And since he was not involved in such attempts, there is no textual evidence that he attempted to justify such attempts” (13). Part 1 consists of a sketch of Bonhoeffer’s biography, while part 2 analyzes his writings.
Born as the sixth of eight children to a patriotic but not militaristic German family, Bonhoeffer decided to become a pastor and theologian. After studying in Germany, he spent a year at Union Theological Seminary in New York. While Bonhoeffer critical of aspects of the liberal theology taught at Union, he developed a greater appreciation of the social aspects of the gospel. Through his friendship with French Reformed pastor Jean Lasserre, Bonhoeffer came to embrace a sort of pacifist position centered on Christ’s teaching about peace and love of enemies. As Hitler and the Nazis came to power, Bonhoeffer opposed the discriminatory policies toward Jews and called Christians to oppose these policies through his writing, preaching, teaching at the University of Berlin and the Finkenwalde seminary, and ecumenical involvement.
Bonhoeffer also came to serve in Abwehr (a German military intelligence organization). A very small minority of Abwehr workers (Sabine Dramm estimates 0.4 percent) were involved in the resistance movement. Some of these resisters planned to overthrow the government and/or assassinate Hitler. “On paper, the job of someone like Bonhoeffer was to gather military intelligence to assist Germany in its military victory” (74). Instead, Bonhoeffer utilized his ecumenical contacts throughout Europe to connect the resistance movements in Germany to people in other European nations and collected information on atrocities committed by the Third Reich. He also on occasion helped Jews escape from Germany. Bonhoeffer’s participation in Abwehr allowed him to avoid conscription into military service and to continue his pastoral and theological work. He thus resisted the Third Reich in nonviolent ways. “Extraordinarily for a man his age in Germany, he managed quite deliberately to avoid taking up arms” (81).
Of the forty-two attempts to kill Hitler, only five have any “perceived connections” to Bonhoeffer (82). The authors, however, demonstrate that Bonhoeffer did not participate in any of the five assassination attempts. While some in Abwehr, like Dohnanyi and Oster, were involved in carrying explosives for these attempts, the authors cite Dramm, who says that anyone who believes Bonhoeffer was involved in these attempts “greatly exaggerates Bonhoeffer’s role and importance in the resistance” (86).