Reviewed by Chase Roden.
Given the opportunity, would you have assassinated Adolf Hitler? Every pacifist alive since World War II has probably been asked some form of this question at least once. Although any answer we might give would be speculative, ethical extremes can help clarify our thinking — and Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man for whom the hypotheticals of Christian nonviolence were real-life decisions. Bonhoeffer’s fatal choice to participate in a plot to kill Hitler is, to say the least, troubling for many Christian pacifists. Despite his principled objection to violence, Bonhoeffer came to the conclusion that murder was the appropriate course of action in his circumstance. Or did he?
Sabine Dramm’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Resistance goes into great detail to answer the questions surrounding the pastor Bonhoeffer’s involvement with the German resistance to Hitler and Nazism, and in doing so reveals a portrait too complex to be summed up by a single decision. Some of the details of Bonhoeffer’s life run contrary to what modern Christians may assume about him; although his opposition to Hitler was based on his Christian convictions, Bonhoeffer’s active resistance work was largely carried out without the support or knowledge of his denomination or other German churches. He worked primarily through ecumenical contacts in the World Council of Churches and through his family. It was a family connection — brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi — who secured Bonhoeffer a position in Military Intelligence, allowing him not only to avoid conscription, but also to travel relatively freely in order to work with foreign church leaders to discuss the severity of the situation in Germany and the possibilities for restructuring the country and the church after the end of the war.
Dramm interacts significantly with Eberhard Bethge’s definitive 1967 biography of Bonhoeffer, offering her own research from new evidence and historical speculation about events and motives that were, by necessity, shrouded in mystery. Dramm aims to avoid idealizing Bonhoeffer — she believes that the tendency to do so is “dishonest and pointless, and … can only lead to absurd dis(illusion).” Dramm points out the fractured nature of the resistance — people working together shared so little information that they often didn’t know what their own colleagues were working on — and the seemingly unstoppable power of the Nazi state; in light of these facts, what Bonhoeffer was able to accomplish is impressive enough on its own to need no exaggeration. Nazi surveillance was so pervasive that resistance efforts had to resort to subtle means of opposition; at one point, Bonhoeffer and Dutch theologian Visser’t Hooft coauthored a theology book and mailed it to American publishers as a failed attempt to send an SOS to Allied nations. It is easy in hindsight to forget that it was an act of faith for Bonhoeffer to even make plans for life after the end of Third Reich, but the level of historical detail that Dramm provides makes it possible to appreciate his dire circumstances.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Resistance is, ultimately, a specialized history book looking primarily at one aspect of one man’s life (although it doesn’t spare details regarding Bonhoeffer’s co-resistors). As such, the detail can be a bit overwhelming, but any Christian pacifist who is tired of answering hypothetical questions about WWII may want to check it out.