Bonhoeffer: Not a Would-Be Assassin

dietrich-bonhoeffer3I recently came across an article in which Dr. Joseph McGarry was interviewed by Benjamin Corey, a missiologist.

Who is Dr. McGarry? He is a Bonhoeffer scholar who, not long ago, had his doctoral thesis accepted for publication by Fortress Press under the title, Christ Among a Band of People: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Formation in Christ.

I was quite interested in the interview with McGarry, particularly as he shares how many have overplayed the card that claims Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a would-be assassin of Adolf Hitler during World War II. Here are some comments of McGarry during the interview:

Yeah, there’s a somewhat prevalent misnomer, and I’d imagine the myth stems from a series of logical deductions and some assumptions along the way. When people think about Bonhoeffer’s life and involvement in the resistence, the flow of logic goes something like this:

a) Dietrich Bonhoeffer worked for the Abwehr, and was recruited there by his brother in law, Hans von Dohnányi. b) Members of the Abwehr’s leadership (specifically Hans Oster, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and Dohnányi) actively planned attempts on Hitler’s life. c) When the “Zossen files” were discovered in September 1944 (after the failure of the 20 July plot) von Dohnányi was clearly implicated in assassination planning, and the rest of the Abwehr by extension. Therefore, everyone associated with these files was executed for treason against the Reich. Generally, it is then assumed that— because Bonhoeffer was executed with these other people who actively planned Hitler’s assassination—Bonhoeffer himself was actively involved as well.

Unfortunately, it is this assumption that scholars have again and again called an overstatement of the evidence. Something closer to reality is that Bonhoeffer was (at least) one level removed from the active planning. He was part of the organization but not part of the core. He was surely knowledgeable that *something* was being planned, but he was not part of the inner circle and it is likely he didn’t know what that *something* was.

Rather, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a courier, passing messages—particularly to England through his friend Bishop George Bell—and trying to get assurances from the Allied forces that they would stop bombing Germany when Hitler’s regime was overthrown. Bonhoeffer’s job was to try to find a way to convince England to stop destroying Germany. He was a messenger, not an assassination planner. He likely provided a measure of theological justification for what others were doing (as can be seen in his Christmas 1942 letter “After 10 Years”), but he himself was—at best—a bit player in the overall scheme of things. When we think of Bonhoeffer and Hitler’s assassination, it’s probably better to think of his role as “message boy” and not “core leader”.

Now, there is a current stream of interpretation that says that Bonhoeffer had actually no knowledge whatsoever that the Abwehr leadership was planning an assassination, but this seems to me to be a bit of an overstatement from the other side.

Either way, the general consensus of scholarship is that Bonhoeffer himself was neither a core member of the resistance, nor was he central to any of the planning that the Abwer did.

You can read more of the interview here.

For me, this seems to be a well-balanced, middle-of-the-road approach, noting that Bonhoeffer a) knew something was being planned but b) did not particularly organize anything, though rejecting the notion that c) he was absolutely oblivious to anything.

I bring this up because, when many Christians discuss violence (and war is violent) as a means to accomplish God’s good purposes in our world today, one card they might pull out of their pocket is what I call the “Bonhoeffer card”. It could be argued: Bonhoeffer is a beloved, evangelical theologian of the 20th century, he knew he and his team needed to assassinate Adolf Hitler as leader of the most unjust Nazi regime, thus, at times, we can and must consider such similar approaches when addressing injustice in our own world.

However, it’s a faulty argument, at least trying to associate Bonhoeffer with the dubious act of assassination.

Now, I am aware of how pacifism gets cornered, to make it sound like such an odd approach. Something like this is posed: What are you suggesting? People simply roll over in the midst of injustice, especially considering such heinous and atrocious crimes as that of the Nazi regime and concentration camps?

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? And overstating the case is an easy tactic of debate. I find myself enlisting this approach at times, and it’s unhealthy.

But let’s consider something else. I will always argue that there is a way to approach things from a protective measure (what’s the best way to liberate the oppressed people through protection) rather than a vindictive or retributive measure (how can we “get back at” the oppressor, especially through the vehicle of violent means). The former approach sounds much more healthy, and I suppose I’d argue it sounds much more Christlike.

However, overall, I am convinced that Christ does not empower the body of Christ to take up the sword (or gun) to vanquish the unjust. That’s not our mission and he has not entrusted us with such a distorted mission. If anything, we can remember the example of Christ, that he himself took upon the retribution of humanity as we “violently sinned our sins into Jesus” (quoting Brian Zahnd).

I will also confess I don’t have all the answers of how to practically outwork a protective measure of justice, mainly because each situation calls for its own wisdom, rather than a blanket, 7-point list to follow. But, from a practical, as well as spiritual sense, I am convinced that violence breeds violence.

For more interest on the topic of Bonhoeffer and especially that he was not a would-be assassin, you might be interested in this book: Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking.

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