Book Reviews, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Book Review: “Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call for Peacemaking” by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel

It’s easy for ideas to become facts in the general populace. Common knowledge, inherited opinions, and “everybody knows it” type mentalities dominate. We just can’t research every claim ever made, so when presented with a claim that seems reasonable, people tend to accept it. One historical claim that has become common knowledge is the notion that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, in some rather intimate way, involved in a plot (or maybe even more than one) to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The authors of Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking dispute this “common knowledge” about Bonhoeffer.

The book warrants careful reading, as the authors challenge what is a generally accepted claim about Bonhoeffer, so it requires digging deeply into his life and work in order to challenge that narrative. Early on, the authors note the many ways Bonhoeffer has been summoned to defend violence: defending the war on terror, killing abortion doctors, and many other violent acts are seen as justified by Bonhoeffer and his acts (12-13). The thinking seems to be that Bonhoeffer wanted peace, but circumstance forced him towards violence, and we need to be sensible enough to realize that can be a requirement as well. It is interesting that early on in the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer was already labeled as an “enemy of the state and pacifist”–an intriguing and counter-intuitive combination. If one is a pacifist, how can they truly be threatening to the powers that be? The answer seems to be that his ethical stance itself was a threat to the Nazi mentality of destruction and murder.

The authors acknowledge that Bonhoeffer began early on with an acceptance of militarism but they note, as did Eberhard Bethge, his close friend and biographer, that he never turned to such thinking again (19-20). Placing Bonhoeffer in his context, we find that he was even more radical than we may think. Hitler clearly tried to set himself up as an ally and friend of the Christian church, and despite his despicable actions, many, indeed most German Christians ended up following Hitler to atrocities. Due to Hitler’s attempts to sway the church, many Christians moved for syncretism of church and state. Bonhoeffer, though, stood against these movements and instead argued the church alone–the confessional, Christian church–was the only way for salvation.

The authors challenge another biographer, Schlingensiepen, whose excellent biography I’ve read before, on his claim that Bonhoeffer specifically returns to seeing certain acts as “sanctifying killing” (69ff). In contrast, they argue that Bonhoeffer instead had a kind of situational ethic that moved away from objectivism as others held and towards subjectivism (105-110). However, this subjectivism really became a kind of objectivism as Bonhoeffer saw Christian ethics as beyond the black and white of “good and evil” and instead grounding ethics radically in God as ultimate subject upon whom all subjectivism in ethics rests (110). This, on an even more ultimate level, means humans are not the final subjects in ethics but rather God is in Christ.

One area of disagreement I had with the authors is the notion that Bonhoeffer rejected the Lutheran view of the Two Kingdoms in favor of some other ethic (174-180). This itself has become something of a myth attached to Bonhoeffer’s legacy, but others like Michael P. DeJonge have ably shown that Bonhoeffer instead consistently affirmed a Lutheran view of the Two Kingdoms throughout his life. Indeed, at some points the authors fail to take seriously Bonhoeffer’s Lutheranism and how that would impact not just his pacifism but also his Christology, which they rightly note is at the center of his ethic. Another area they seem to forget Bonhoeffer’s Lutheranism is in the apparent importation of non-Lutheran soteriology into Bonhoeffer’s brief mention of “becoming a Christian” in the United States. The authors seem to make this a conversion experience in the “tell your story” type of way common in American Evangelicalism, but this type of notion–needing to pinpoint some point of conversion in one’s life–is entirely foreign to a Lutheran understanding of salvation. It’s a minor point in the book, but worth mentioning.

The authors’ conclude that we do Bonhoeffer a disservice by using him to underwrite our wars, but it seems to me they didn’t fully demonstrate their conclusion that he was a pacifist. Indeed, most of the case for this is found in the silence in between writings. Was Bonhoeffer actively involved in plotting to kill Hitler? It’s hard to tell from documentary evidence, but this is hardly surprising as we would expect them not to be recording every detail of their plots. But having early biographers, including those who knew him, seem to suggest exactly this–that he was involved or at least would have supported it–ought to serve as some weight of evidence. Yes, Bonhoeffer made clear statements at points that would lead us to think him a pacifist, but at others he is less clear, and, again, we cannot dismiss the testimony of those who knew him. Nevertheless, the authors challenge this notion of Bonhoeffer as being involved in a plot for tyrannicide, and they certainly do us a service in pointing out that Bonhoeffer would almost certainly not condone many, many modern wars, nor our proclivity to kill each other.

Bonhoeffer the Assassin? is a book that challenged my perspectives about Bonhoeffer and forced me to dig more deeply into some aspects of his life. Though I don’t agree with all of the authors’ conclusions, they made compelling cases for many parts of his legacy. I’m sure this work will continue to be cited and interacted with by any writing on Bonhoeffer’s view of peace and war. Recommended.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


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