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243 Keith Clements

Justice for Bishop George Bell?

It is to the great credit of the Church of England that it has decided to publish in full the review by Lord Carlile into its procedures dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse by the late Bishop George Bell. The Church cannot be accused of lack of…
817 TBC Staff

German Chancellor Angela Merkel Gives the Gift of Bonhoeffer!

Speaking at Wolfgang Schaeuble's 75th birthday celebration, Merkel paid tribute to his 45 years as a member of parliament. Merkel, dressed in the conservatives' black and the FDP's yellow, paid tribute to Schaeuble as a European, a fighter for German unity, a…
4740 Christiane Tietz

In Memory of Martin Hüneke, Longstanding Member of the German Board of the IBS

In Memory of Martin Hüneke, Longstanding Member of the German Board of the IBS On June 14, 2017, Martin Hüneke, a member of the board of the German section of the IBS for many years, died at the age of 87 in Hürth, close to Cologne. We mourn together with his…
1344 Michael Lukens

In Memoriam: Geffrey B. Kelly

In Memoriam: Geffrey B. Kelly The members and friends of the International Bonhoeffer Society/English Language Section mourn the death and celebrate the life of Geffrey B. Kelly (27 August 1932 – 30 May 2017). We stand together in honored memory of our…


Life Together Retreat, 29th September - 1st October 2017

Apr 19, 2017 News 665
Life Together: Reflection and renewal in the style of Bonhoeffer's Finkenwalde Seminary Part of the “Finkenwalde Experiment” at Freeborn Lutheran…

Bonhoeffer in China: An Interview with Yu Jie

Apr 07, 2017 News 1598
Thank you to the people at Plough Quarterly Magazine, who gave permission for us to reprint a portion of this article. Bonhoeffer in China Yu Jie: On…

Christoph Von Dohnanyi Warns of Political Intolerance in the U.S.

Feb 07, 2017 News 766
Christoph Von Dohnanyi, is director emeritus of the Cleveland Orchestra and son of Hans Von Dohnanyi, one of Bonhoeffer's fellow conspirators killed…

Statement by the Board of Directors of the International Bonhoeffer Society, English Language Section, 1…

Feb 03, 2017 News 113075
Statement Issued by the Board of Directors of the International Bonhoeffer Society – English Language Section, February 1, 2017 Comprising scholars…

Trey Palmisano, Bonhoeffer and the Breslau Effect: Influences and Upbringing

Jan 18, 2017 News 1140
Bonhoeffer and the Breslau Effect: Influences and Upbringing One impact a theologian or historian considers when writing biography are the early…

Society Elects New President

Jan 01, 2017 News 3866
CHICAGO – The International Bonhoeffer Society – English Language Section (IBS-ELS) is pleased to announce that Dr. Jennifer M. McBride, Associate…

Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call the Peacemaking, by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel. Foreword By Stanley Hauerwas. 

A Book Review

By Steve Hickey, University of Aberdeen

An intentionally controversial book, as the subtitle suggests, Bonhoeffer the Assassin? by Nation, Siegrist and Umbel is an attempt to challenge what the authors view as an unfortunate but pervasive myth; that by the end of his life Dietrich Bonhoeffer had retreated from his earlier held pacifist convictions in participating directly in plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler. As Bonhoeffer scholars from within the Mennonite tradition, and each deeply committed to pacifism, it could be assumed this book is another biased attempt by yet another group to hijack the Bonhoeffer legacy and turn him into an endorser of their own ideals. Though there is the uncomfortable suspicion of such a subjective vantage point, and some truth to it, the book does challenge long-assumed claims of a compromised Bonhoeffer with some measure of good reason and scholarship.

Siegrist and Umbel are former students of Mark Nation and have each contributed two chapters in the second half of the book devoted to development of Bonhoeffer’s ethic. Nation begins the book himself with three biographical chapters providing a general orientation to the movements, associations and involvements of Bonhoeffer in the Church Struggle. Even more importantly this biographical section provides a closer look at what we actually know and do not know about Bonhoeffer’s time working for the Abwehr, and his remote connections to any conspiracies to stop Hitler, or assassinate him.

The more ill-informed of Bonhoeffer fans today may think any and all working for the Abwehr were resisters however Nation documents that of the 13,000 who worked at the Abwehr, only fifty were known to be connected to the resistance, barely four percent (p. 74). And of the known forty-two separate plots to kill Hitler, only five could have had any possible connection to Bonhoeffer. In taking time to review those five, Nation documents that there were only two of which Bonhoeffer may have been even aware. Drawing from Dramm’s Bonhoeffer and the Resistance, anyone who includes Bonhoeffer in these efforts “greatly exaggerates Bonhoeffer’s role and importance in the resistance.” Nation says “I believe this is Dramm’s way of saying there is not a shred of evidence that Bonhoeffer was linked in any way to these attempts of Hitler’s life” (p. 86).

Bonhoeffer is presented as a chaplain of sorts to the resistance, a spiritual advisor and pastoral counselor providing mental support, not so much moral support or justification (p. 82). In other words, he was in no way an assassin or even an accomplice of one. We are reminded his arrest was because of the role he played in the rescue of fourteen Jews, not because of any connection to assassination attempts. Regardless of the position one takes on the bias of this book, it importantly underscores the point that we are not as sure as we thought we were how directly Bonhoeffer was involved.

Perhaps it could be said that a person who only reads one book on a subject knows only a dangerous little about it. If this is the only book one reads on the matter of Bonhoeffer and pacifism, at least know that what is contained therein is contested strongly by Bonhoeffer scholars who are much closer to Bonhoeffer’s associations, students and his friends than the authors here. Particularly Clifford Green reviews this book expressing obvious agitation over what is conveniently left out of the book. But more so his angst is fuelled by how Nation builds his thesis by dismissing Bethge’s decades-later memories of informal conversations as unreliable, and even perhaps a deliberate attempt to give the world a Bonhoeffer different than the one he actually knew:

Perhaps Bethge desperately wanted his close friend to be perceived as a “Political” activist in the midst of the worst years of the Hitler regime. Bonhoeffer, so Bethge wants us to believe, was one of the Germans who directly tried to stop the massive slaughter that became the Holocaust of the Jews… (p.94)

For Nation, stunningly, Bethge is an unreliable source. Understandably, Green, who knew Bethge personally over several decades finds these insinuations outrageous. All that having been said, the first three chapters remain a generally informative and succinct, though a selective summary of the biographical unfolding of what transpired.

The second half of the book offers an helpful overview of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethic and development. The thesis of the book is that from 1932-1945, Bonhoeffer held a consistent pacifist ethic and did not (as others suggest) repudiate Discipleship by the time he wrote Ethics. There is really no debate that in his 1929 Barcelona lectures, Bonhoeffer was solidly an advocate of just war theory. And there is no debate that around 1932, through his friendship at Union Seminary with Jean Lassarre – a French Tolstoyian pacifist committed to the simple obedience of the Sermon on the Mount –  that Bonhoeffer’s thinking on the matter dramatically changed and was the catalyst behind the later writing ofDiscipleship. The claim of this book is that between Discipleship (1937) and Ethics(1943) there is no repudiation of a strong pacifist ethic for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

This rather than being a repudiation of Discipleship either in its parts or as a whole, Ethics is a confirmation, as it is its continuation, amendment, clarification and culmination (p. 158).

Using JW for just war, P for pacifist, and upper and lower case for a soft or strong ethic, the basic claims in this book can be depicted as following. The pervasive “myth” in the development of Bonhoeffer’s life and thought could be pictured as:

JW        –          p     –     jw
1929                1937      1943
 Barcelona       Ethics    Discipleship

Nation, Siegrist and Umbel challenge this and propose a more accurate reading would be:

JW    –    P     –   p
1929    1937     1943

The four chapters in the second section of the book hit the major themes we find in Discipleship and Ethics; cheap grace, simple and paradoxical obedience, the ultimate and penultimate, the this-worldliness of Christianity and, guilt and responsibility. The analysis of the writings of Bonhoeffer show “that Bonhoeffer in no way checked his rigorous ethics at the door of World War II or his involvement in the resistance. Bonhoeffer held to an ethic centered on Christ– uncompromised, though not unaffected, by his circumstances” (p. 209). Readers are encouraged to consider how, to date, Bonhoeffer’s development of thought has been viewed primarily through a Niebuhrian-tainted lens in that loving enemies is an impossibility– “unrealistic and, in a vicious world, is even harmful” (p. 218). The contention is this, in part, is what has been driving significant misreadings of Bonhoeffer’s later work.

Book titles are intended to be catchy and provocative enough to sell books and start conversations but one wonders how Bonhoeffer would react to the use of the term assassin here in the title?  Perhaps this important book might be better titledA Pacifist Rereading of Bonhoeffer or A Pacifists Guide to Bonhoeffer. In his conclusion Nation recites Larry Rasmussen’s standard work on the subject, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance, to bolster his own thesis: “All the twisting possible cannot make the author of The Cost of Discipleship a volunteer for even assassinating Adolf Hitler” (p. 222).



Christiana Tietz' "Theologian of Resistance: The…

Mar 27, 2017 763
Theologian of Resistance: The Life and Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Christiane…

Stephen Plant Reviews Barry Harvey's 'Taking Hold…

Feb 08, 2017 851
Barry Harvey, Taking Hold of the Real: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Profound Worldliness…

A Review of G. Clarke Chapman's 'Universal Health…

Jan 31, 2017 1270
Universal Health Care as a Human Right: The Argument of Dietrich Bonhoeffer G. Clarke…

Roger Revell, A Review of DBWE 15 - Theological…

Jan 01, 2017 1647
DBWE Vol. 15: Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940, Minneapolis: Fortress Press,…

'The Secular Church' - A Review Article by Vítor…

Jun 02, 2016 2847
Review of Paul O. Bischoff, The Secular Church, 2015; 120 pages The Secular Church is a study…

Taking Hold of the Real: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and…

Apr 03, 2016 2976
Taking Hold of the Real: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Profound Worldiness of Christianity…

A New Bonhoeffer Film

Filmed on location in Europe and the United States, Come Before Winter is a docudrama that lifts the curtain on cruel ironies of the final weeks of World War II in Europe and tracks two longtime foes of Adolf Hitler: iconic German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and virtuoso propagandist, Sefton Delmer. 

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