Bonhoeffer the Assassin?

Bonhoeffer the Assassin? by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony Siegrist, and Daniel Umbel
(Baker Academic, 2014)

Reviewed by Bryan Stafford

The overarching narrative on the theological life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has remained essentially the same since the day he was martyred: He started his adult life as a nationalist Christian from a proud German family, became an antinationalist Christian pacifist, and ended his life as an antinationalist Christian realist who was involved in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler. Calling into doubt the last of these assumptions is the goal of the authors of Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking.bonh

The question mark in the title is well chosen, since the whole book interrogates the broadly held belief that Bonhoeffer was involved in certain attempts on Hitler's life and therefore had reneged on the pacifist views expressed so clearly in his book The Cost of Discipleship. The authors do this through a multipronged approach that utilizes their comprehensive knowledge of the theologian's life and works.

Two ideas are central to the authors' approach. One is that they challenge several common historical misconceptions regarding Bonhoeffer, writing, for example, that he was neither arrested nor executed for involvement in a failed attempt on Hitler's life, as is commonly thought. The other is their belief that Bonhoeffer's pacifist theology was so well established and essential to his being that he was incapable of being involved in any assassination attempts, even if the target was Hitler.

It is hard to imagine any Christian pacifist not wanting Nation, Siegrist, and Umbel to succeed in their quest to reclaim Bonhoeffer's pacifist identity. After all, as Stanley Hauerwas says in the book's forward, Bonhoeffer has long served as the case in point to the idea that pacifism is not a viable option in the face of extraordinary evils. But do the authors prove that Bonhoeffer died a pacifist?

Not quite. The authors do manage to create reasonable doubt around the previous model, which stated that Bonhoeffer was no longer a pacifist during the final years of his life. However, they do this mostly through circumstantial evidence. Unfortunately, the book suffers from a dearth of direct evidence and deals unconvincingly with several of the major arguments that have traditionally pointed to Bonhoeffer's eventual acceptance of violence.

Bonhoeffer the Assassin? is a well-researched and well-written book that never quite fulfills its promise of reclaiming Bonhoeffer's "call to peacemaking." Hopefully, it will serve as a springboard for further scholarship into Bonhoeffer's life as a pacifist. If nothing else, it should garner quite a response from several of the more traditional Bonhoeffer scholars.

Bryan Stafford is working toward his Master of Divinity from Palmer Theological Seminary.


bonhStrange Glory (Knopf, 2014) is a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh. Though much has been written about Bonhoeffer previously, Marsh's book brings light to previously unknown quirks and idiosyncrasies that shaped the faith of this well-known theologian and anti-Nazi activist, a man still revered by millions of Christians today.

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1 Response

  1. Mark Thiessen Nation says:

    Bryan, thank you for your review of our book. I appreciate much about it. But then I was taken aback. "Circumstantial evidence?" "Dearth of direct evidence?" Sometimes I think I simply don't write well enough. At other more confident or skeptical times, I simply think the biases are too strong for readers to see the evidence I present. I have read lots of literature on the attempts on Hitler's life. I have carefully read Bethge's biography (along with perhaps five other biographies of Bonhoeffer). I/we have dealt head on with the most concrete evidence–both in terms of his writings and his life. I have, since the book was published, written my own essay on chapter four of Ethics, simply expanding on the argument of Anthony's two chapters in our book, seeking to make it even clearer how DB continued as late as 1942 to affirm that making Jesus central to our lives includes loving our enemies and renouncing violence. (This essay is published in the Summer 2013 issue of Perspectives in Religious Studies.) I have also posted an essay on my blog, Anabaptist Nation, which responds to the critiques of our book (really my portion of it) that revolve around Bethge's interpretations of Bonhoeffer. (This will be expanded into a full lecture to be presented at a session on Bonhoeffer at the American Academy of Religion meeting in November.) It is this latter piece that probably responds to some of your dismissive comments.

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