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September 28th, 2003 by isaac · 8 Comments

In April 1945 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at the hands of the Nazis for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler. How is it that this German pastor and theologian who a decade earlier called for the faithful German church to practice non-violence in response to the Nazi regime found himself in a covert plan to kill a man? In Bonhoeffer do we see a brilliant Christian mind leave behind the na�vet� of pacifism when confronted with the harsh realities of political realism that call for just warriors? A close reading of Bonhoeffer’s experience of Christian community will give us a window into this complex Christian (saint?).

A conversation with a friend started me thinking about Bonhoeffer’s resistance during World War II in Nazi Germany and what our North American church can learn from him as our country continues to fight in Iraq. This was his question:

Do I remember correctly: didn’t Bonhoeffer try to assassinate Hitler and almost succeed? He was executed as a martyr for this and probably other actions. Do you think it is ever justified as a Christian to take this type of action?

What a great question. I especially appreciate the appeal to biography, to the concrete life of someone we look to as a faithful follower of Christ. But in appealing to Bonhoeffer’s biography we will learn a great deal if we start ten years earlier at Finkenwalde, the illegal secret seminary of the German Confessing Church. This was the beginning of his subversive activities.

In 1935 Bonhoeffer found himself serving as the professor, president, chaplain, and business manager of Finkenwalde. At this covert seminary in present day Poland the young Bonhoeffer (not even thirty years old) sought to build a community that would sustain a faithful Christian church while the traditional German Protestant one had been seduced by Nazi nationalism. Bonhoeffer sought to create a community that would fight the power of Hitler’s violence with the power of non-violence revealed in Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer’s choice of following the non-violence of the cross can be seen in his 1937 work, The Cost of Discipleship. Notice that he believes non-violence works because Jesus, who knows the “reality and power of evil” better than anyone else, tells us that it is the way we deal with violence:

Jesus, however, tells us that it is just because we live in the world, and just because the world is evil, that the precept of non-resistance must be put into practice. Surely we do not wish to accuse Jesus of ignoring the reality and power of evil! (p.144)
The only way to overcome evil is to let it run itself to a standstill because it does not find the resistance it is looking for. Resistance merely creates further evil and adds fuel to the flames. But when evil meets no oppression and encounters no obstacle but only patient endurance, its sting is drawn, and at last it meets an opponent which is more than its match. (p.142)

For Bonhoeffer, peace is the only way a disciple of Christ can respond to violence in light of Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). Not only is it a question of obedience for Bonhoeffer, but he believes non-resistance works. Contrary to the Christian political realists at the time, Bonhoeffer indicates that the only way to conquer Hitler was through patient non-violence. The type of non-resistance that Christ demonstrated on the cross, where he absorbed all violence into his flesh, is “an opponent which is more than [evil’s] match.”

But history tells us a different story. Bonhoeffer did not persevere in his convictions. Finkenwalde failed. The Confessing Church failed. The communities that Bonhoeffer poured his life into could not endure in the way of Christ’s cross against the Nazis. The members of Finkenwalde compromised under the pressure of the draft. The Gestapo shut down the secret seminary in 1940. There was no more community to cultivate non-violence and Bonhoeffer could not stand-alone. With his Christian community destroyed, Bonhoeffer returned to the only community he had, his irreligious, pro-German, anti-Hitler family in Berlin.

Upon arriving at his parents’ house Bonhoeffer was surrounded by secret plots to seize political power from Hitler and institute a conservative government through violent means. Bonhoeffer had no faithful Christian community in which to locate himself. His geographical context was quite different. His house was the meeting place for violent political action. The desires and practices of a community, whether Finkenwalde or the Bonhoeffer residence, shape its members whether they like it or not. It was only a matter of time before Bonhoeffer submitted to the goals of his new community. He was arrested and executed as an assassin.

The life of Bonhoeffer reveals more about the failure of the Christian community than the failure of one man.

To go back to the question my friend asked, I think James McClendon offers the best response. At the close of his chapter on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, McClendon wrote the following:

So the correct Bonhoeffer question to put to one who believes as I do that violence is not an option for the disciples of Jesus Christ is not the often-heard “Then what would you do about Hitler?” Quite possibly there was nothing that Dietrich Bonhoeffer alone could have done about Hitler, except possibly to help a few Jews escape…The correct—because realistic and responsible—question has been better put by Mark Thiessen Nation: “What would you do with a church which chooses to go along with a government that systematically eliminates Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals, and mounts a war that would lead to the deaths of more than thirty-five million people” (Nation, 1999). That question makes it clear that (from the standpoint of Christian solidarity) it was not Brother Dietrich but we who failed. (Ethics, p.212)

When considering Bonhoeffer we should turn to ourselves and wonder if the church in North America is forming communities that would be able to support Bonhoeffer. Would we fail Bonhoeffer just as Finkenwalde did? Although I agree with McClendon and Nation in putting the community of believers on the stand instead of one man, I want to be careful to not turn Bonhoeffer into a victim of circumstance. Just because Bonhoeffer was deserted doesn’t mean that he could not have stood alone and made a difference. McClendon is wrong to say, “Quite possibly there was nothing that Dietrich Bonhoeffer alone could have done about Hitler.” We must not forget that against all odds Jesus Christ, one man, succeeded in establishing a new political order, God’s Kingdom, against all odds. He stood up in the face of Roman oppression and created a people who pledged allegiance to a different Lord. This is the Man who marked the path for all disciples. This is the Man who called us to take up our cross like he did. This is the Man who describes his followers as tiny mustard seeds who transform the whole garden (Matt. 13:31-32).

The tragedy of Bonhoeffer is that he never knew the power and effectiveness of non-violence. He knew that non-violence was the true path of discipleship, but he simply could not imagine its practical possibilities. Thus, when his Christian community failed him, he abandoned non-violence and believed violence was the only possibility to save the world from Hitler.

But his story did not need to end this way. Bonhoeffer could have caught the vision of the efficacy of non-violence from a most unlikely place: India. Convinced of the Christian way of peace, Bonhoeffer made plans to learn from the master of non-violence, Gandhi. Here is an excerpt from a 1934 letter he wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr, professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York:

[N]ow the time has come when the Sermon on the Mount must be brought to mind again…Incidentally I plan to go to India very soon to see what Gandhi knows about these things and to see what is to be learned there.

But Bonhoeffer never made it to India. He never learned how Gandhi made non-violence work against the British Empire. His plans changed when he was offered the position at Finkenwalde. One can’t help but ask the “what if” question: What if Bonhoeffer was able to learn from the practical genius of Gandhi’s non-violence? If he had experienced the power of non-violence in India maybe he would have been faithful to the non-violence he preached till the end.

Tags: theology

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Did Dietrich Bonhoeffer Change from Pacifist to Conspirator? « bonhoefferblog // Mar 28, 2008 at 10:01 am

    [...] Click to read the rest of the post [...]

  • 2 Stephen // Mar 28, 2008 at 11:49 am

    Excellent, thoughtful post on one of my heroes. I’m in the middle of reading Letters and Papers from Prison and have been pondering these issues. I like your point that we shouldn’t judge Bonhoeffer the individual apart from the community and institutions that so dismally failed all around him. Perhaps his life has more to say to us modern-day Christians than his writings.

  • 3 April // Apr 9, 2008 at 8:11 am

    You should say HOW EXACTLY he helped the Jews.

  • 4 April // Apr 9, 2008 at 8:12 am

    Like…did he give them food? Or what

  • 5 April // Apr 9, 2008 at 8:13 am

    Or did he just help them ‘Escape?’ So yeah, you have alot of more work to do. cause i am doing reasearch for school and this website doesnt have enough imfo.

  • 6 Simon Moyle Speaks « neo-baptist // Aug 30, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    [...] he did to participate in the plot to kill Hitler, I think this post says it better than I could:  But on top of that, I’d want to say that Bonhoeffer never renounced his pacifism, recognising [...]

  • 7 Mark // Jun 28, 2011 at 11:21 pm


    I’m not sure you’ll even see this, as these posts are already a few years old, but I have to comment nevertheless. I find it very ironic that you’re telling someone else ‘they have a lot more work to do’ because as you state this “website doesn’t have enough info” to use for your research assignment for school! Hopefully you read a few books, looked up newspaper articles, magazines, or even looked at many different websites & blogs to gather your information, because that’s what research is! You never go to only once source of information when doing research, or you run the risk of your research being biased, incomplete, or otherwise inaccurate.

    The best biography I have seen on Dietrich Bonhoeffer is by Eric Metaxes, & its title is: “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy”. I just finished it, & it was a great read. It was very well written, & was so interesting that I had a hard time putting it down, even many hours after it was time for bed, & I was tired! Metaxes compiled information about Bonhoeffer’s life from many different sources, including Bonhoeffer’s relatives & friends, Bonhoeffer’s own words from his various theological works & personal letters, & other biographies on Bonhoeffer. I just finished reading this book & I highly recommend it.

    There’s a lot of misinformation out there about who Bonhoeffer was, & what he believed from a theological standpoint. People have often used Bonhoeffer’s words to fulfill their own agenda, often times twisting his words to express ideas to form an extremely liberal theological point of view that starkly contrasts with what Bonhoeffer actually believed. This book attempts to set the record straight, as most of the information about Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas comes firsthand from Bonhoeffer’s best friend Eberhard Bethge, who was perhaps the man most familiar with Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on God, Religion, Christianity, & the Church. Bonhoeffer himself is quoted at length, often from letters he wrote to Bethge.

    Also, this book has more information on Bonhoeffer’s last two months alive than any other book that has been written previously, some of which is speculative, which in all fairness is admitted by the author, & much of the information in the last chapter is also based on a book written by Payne Best, an English prisoner who was with Bonhoeffer at Buchenwald Concentration Camp. This book is probably the closest anyone is going to get for a ‘one stop shop’ for info on Bonhoeffer, but I would recommend digging further. Happy reading!

  • 8 Mark // Jun 28, 2011 at 11:36 pm

    I hope my comments didn’t seem too harsh, as that’s not how I intended them to be. My post was written with the intent to be helpful to future readers who may be in a similar situation as April was a few years ago, rather than to harshly criticize someone for their lack of discipline a few years after the fact! In all fairness, when this article was originally written, the biography that I referenced in my previous post was not even written yet, so to obtain an accurate picture of Bonhoeffer’s life was not an easy task, as one had to read several books, including a few of Bonhoeffer’s own books on theology,which contains ideas & concepts that are not easy to grasp.