Book Review: Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking

I had the pleasure of reading Bonhoeffer The Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking, by Mark Nation, Anthony Siegrist, and Daniel Umbel. In this work, the authors have one primary and focused goal, that is to challenge the language used and assumptions held by many surrounding Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s legacy, specifically as it relates to his participation in the Abwehr and the resistance plots to kill Hitler. These assumptions we have about Bonhoeffer provide hermeneutical lenses through which we read his later work, particularly Ethics. This book does not argue that Bonhoeffer wasn’t in the Abwehr, nor does it suggest that he did not know about the assassination plots or was distant from those engaged in those realities and plots. However, while recognizing and affirming those historical facts, the authors challenge what this actually means in terms of the nature of Bonhoeffer’s actual involvement and his ongoing theological positions.

One of the strongest historical arguments that challenge our assumptions about Bonheoffer’s legacy in the book is how the book explores Helmuth James Count von Moltke’s own legacy and participation in the Abwehr, in his own words. Considering Moltke’s actual participation, and all that it involved has considerable import for expanding current imagination around role participation possibilities. On paper, “His job description said that he was to gather military intelligence for the Wehrmacht, the Armed Forces, using his expertise to assist Germany in its war efforts. This entailed reading reports regarding German military efforts as well as those of other nations; it also involved extensive travel.” (3) However, Moltke was involved in the resistance, and therefore that was only a cover. In reality, “Making allies where he could, he attempted to work against the escalation of the war as well as to mitigate atrocities masquerading as legitimate war tactics” and this “involved gathering specific data and communicating with relevant German officials, attempting to convince them of the need to obey international laws, sometimes utilizing arguments of self-interest—such as mutual, respectful treatment of political prisoners—in order to be convincing.” (3) Along with this, he “improved local conditions for people where he could through invoking legal principles. After he knew that Jews were being deported, he attempted to get them rerouted to countries that would be a safe haven for them. When possible, he personally helped Jews escape to safe territories.” (3) Finally, he also used connections in England to communicate that there were Germans that were opposed and actively resisting Hitler. (5) What becomes pretty clear, is that Moltke was an important figure in the resistance, had military background and expertise, saw his participation as a way to avoid conscription in the war, and sought to resist German through nonviolent means (and actually participated in the Kreisau Circle which mostly rejected violence as a viable option). The authors make a compelling case from here, to at least reconsider what Bonhoeffer’s actual activity and reasoning for joining the Abwehr might have been.

All of that is covered in the introduction, but the first three of the seven chapters is primarily a biography of Bonhoeffer’s life. These chapters, as expected, detail Bonhoeffer’s geographic movements, significant friendships, and theological shifts (like his “grand liberation” and “conversion” to the Sermon on the Mount). For the books argument, chapter three holds significant weight in its importance in setting out to accomplish its objective. This part of the book engages Sabine Dramm’s work that has already significantly challenged many assumptions made about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conspiracy activity, and more controversially it questions Eberhard’ Bethge’s accounting of events, upon which most of the vague but implicit assumptions about Bonhoeffer’s activity emerges. However, from both of their writings, the authors highlight the following point:

What is striking about both the accounts of Bethge and Dramm is that Bonhoeffer’s life as an agent of the Abwehr was truly a cover: a way to avoid military induction while continuing his theological reflection and ministry. Not only did he receive no income from his work for the military intelligence agency, but he continued as much as he was able in his work as a pastor and theologian. (76-77)

However, leaning especially on Dramm’s work, he clarifies Bonhoeffer’s activity as being more of a cover so that he could avoid conscription and uphold his convictions rather than because he desired to participate in assassinating Hitler. Similarly, his actual everyday responsibilities and actions had nothing to do with assassination plots. However, it is from Bethge’s important biography of his friend, which leads most to interpret his participation as implying more active involvement in assassination plots. So, the challenge turns towards challenging Bethge’s depiction of Bonhoeffer at that time. Readers will have to wrestle with these points being brought up for themselves, because they are both compelling and yet controversial in their questioning of Bethge.

The last few chapters engage Bonhoeffer’s theological work, exploring its continuity and discontinuity. It is less controversial, though no less important in its place in the book. The authors easily demonstrate the theological continuity of Discipleship with the positions being presented in Ethics as well as Bonhoeffer’s Prison Letters. Their careful theological work will either win over their reader, or at least will leave a reality that there is some tension between what Bonhoeffer wrote in his theological work and what he said informally to Bethge.

This book, despite some responses from the Old Guard of Bonhoeffer studies, is not reaching that far beyond what is already known in Bonhoeffer scholarship. In fact, it relies heavily on the work of others to make its point. However, it does question Bethge (in a manner that I found actually very respectful and transparent in relation to its challenge). This book at the least will make a great reading conversation partner with Schlingensiepen’s biography which is certainly following the lead of Bethge in this regard. I would expect that most, regardless of whether one agrees with the approach of questioning Bethge’s account or not, will be challenged in this book in a manner that will change the way they describe Bonhoeffer’s role in the Abwehr, and his overall reasoning for being there to begin with. Finally, the book will help draw out much more continuity in Bonhoeffer’s theological work from Discipleship to his death. I gladly recommend this book as a stimulus for further consideration to those who already have some familiarity with Bonhoeffer’s life and thought.

You can order the book here.

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13 comments

  1. Robert Martin · January 2, 2014

    Can I just say I’m extremely jealous? My in-laws looked to find that book for me for a Christmas gift and were unable to.

    Going to have to spend a bit of personal cash, I guess. 🙂

    • Drew Hart · January 2, 2014

      Its a good read. Lots of careful work went into it. You will enjoy it.

  2. Terry · January 2, 2014

    I second the jealous emotion; having just purchased (and begun to read and review) Robert W. Brimlow’s book “What About Hitler” with the subtitle, “Wrestling with Jesus’s Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World”, your review of this book puts it squarely at the top of my list of next reads. While Brimlow’s book doesn’t really focus on the “myth” of Bonhoeffer, as it were, it shatters a lot of others myths surrounding Hitler, and covers a lot of ground on Bonhoeffer, and Bethge’s mis-characterisation of him. http://terryneudorf.com/book-what-about-hitler-snippet-1/

    • Drew Hart · January 2, 2014

      Thanks for the suggestion, I will have to look into that!

  3. Lon Marshall · January 2, 2014

    Thanks Drew, great review. Nation does a lecture on Eastern Mennonite University’s website about the book before it was published. It’s really good. I downloaded the ebook and am making my way through it now. I’m on chapter 5. What strikes me is history’s jump to assume he was involved when he never states a change in his beliefs, cannot be placed at the scene of any of the attempts, and there is all the evidence he was part of the Abwer to avoid going to war. Why wouldn’t we assume he is “innocent” until proven “guilty.” I asked an attorney about the likeliness of proving he was involved. Highly unlikely. My thoughts about this is the “need” of many to have support for “the lesser of two evils” kind of theology and validation for using violence in some instances.

    • Drew Hart · January 2, 2014

      Thanks Lon,
      I really believe that people want Dietrich Bonhoeffer to be James Bond, and that desire for a hero who takes down the Third Reich has become a tradition. I do get why though, it is out of the guilt that many in the Church, shaped by their Christian traditions, were not capable of withstanding “synchronization” with Nazism (technical term). Bonhoeffer, in many people’s projections, is the vindication of their own traditions rather than a challenge to them (a better reading in my view). So, Bonhoeffer is trapped in the Bonhoeffer tradition, and thankfully, Mark Nation has begun to try to help lead the escape out. 🙂

      Secondly, and this is important to be fair to people’s concerns (on the scholarly end), is that Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer really is the foundation of everyone’s work. So he is not an insignificant source, but instead a vital one. Yet still, even Bethge on a variety of points, has been proven to have gotten some things wrong. He was a good and trusted friend, but also human. And as Nation explores, he has reason to want to posture Bonhoeffer as a “man of resistance” after World War II as well. It is complicated, but I think Nation treats these issues with care and respect. Thanks for commenting, I will have to check out the lecture on the EMU website. Peace.

  4. Lon Marshall · January 2, 2014

    I’ll look forward to reading more. I’m interested in Nation’s thoughts about Bethge’s motivations. He really has been very respectful in all of his dialogue about this book!

  5. Michael Snow · January 3, 2014

    Thanks for the careful review, hope to read this. My response to Bonhoeffer’s role, whatever it was, has been, “Did God bless the assassination plot? Was Bonhoeffer used of God in that or in prison?”
    Sorta off topic, if you are not familiar with Charles Spurgeon’s words on warfare and Christians, this may be of interest. (Most evangelicals seem to have no clue about Spurgeon’s faithfulness in this area.) http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

    • Drew Hart · January 3, 2014

      Hey Michael,
      You will definitely like the book. Would never had assumed that about Spurgeon. I’ll have to look into that some. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Pingback: Christians and military service - Page 5 - Christian Chat Rooms & Forums
  7. Michael Snow · January 4, 2014

    Reblogged this on Christian Pacifism.

  8. tgblankenship · April 9, 2014

    Fascinating. I’ve been desiring to read this book. I wrote my masters thesis on the contraction and deconstruction of Bonhoeffer’s nonviolent ethics by tracing his theological journey in connection to his major biographies. I argue that Bonhoeffer actually abandons his pacifism and doesn’t hold a consistent ethic or philosophical/theological foundation of ethics.

    • Drew Hart · April 9, 2014

      Thanks for the comments. I will be curious to know what you think after you read the book. Even before I read the book I slowly began to struggle with the inherited narrative because I saw Bonhoeffer continue to talk about the importance of the sermon on the mount even in his prison letters. I began to see more continuity the more I read. When I read this book it strengthen my questioning of the main biographies on Bonhoeffer. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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