Bonhoeffer the Assassin?

Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking

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Most of us think we know the moving story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life--a pacifist pastor turns anti-Hitler conspirator due to horrors encountered during World War II--but does the evidence really support this prevailing view? This pioneering work carefully examines the biographical and textual evidence and finds no support for the theory that Bonhoeffer abandoned his ethic of discipleship and was involved in plots to assassinate Hitler. In fact, Bonhoeffer consistently affirmed a strong stance of peacemaking from 1932 to the end of his life, and his commitment to peace was integrated with his theology as a whole. The book includes a foreword by Stanley Hauerwas.

Contents

Foreword by Stanley Hauerwas
Introduction
Part 1: Bonhoeffer's Biography Reconsidered
1. "Pacifist and Enemy of the State"
2. Seeking a "Legitimate Christian Means" of Fighting Hitler
3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Assassin?
Part 2: The Development of Bonhoeffer's Theological Ethics
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Amoral Ethics: "An Extremely Awkward Undertaking" Never Again Attempted
5. Obedience to Jesus Christ: Narrating God's Command in Bonhoeffer's Discipleship
6. The Penultimate and the Ultimate: Negotiating the Discipleship Tradition in Ethics
7. "Everyone Who Acts Responsibly Becomes Guilty": Contested Themes in Ethics
Conclusion
Index


Endorsements

"An enormously important book. It is exactly right on the core of Bonhoeffer's Christian ethics and incisively helpful on the ethics of peace and war. The point is not principlism but God in Jesus entering incarnationally with compassion into the midst of our defenses and alienation, bringing healing and our participation in Jesus's nonviolent way."

Glen Stassen, author of A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age

"Nation, Siegrist, and Umbel challenge the widely-held assumption that after the beginning of World War II Bonhoeffer not only participated in the anti-Nazi conspiracy but set aside his earlier pacifism and adopted a more 'rational' and 'realistic' stance, which included participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler. The close readings of Bonhoeffer's biography set in the larger story of the conspiracy and of the Ethics manuscript, in which the more realistic account is supposedly found, are of particular value. Regardless of whether you are persuaded by the authors concerning Bonhoeffer's level of involvement in the attempt to kill Hitler, this volume will decisively reframe the way we read the thought and life of this most remarkable Christian."

Barry Harvey, professor of theology, Honors College and the Graduate Faculty in Religion, Baylor University

"This book offers a well-researched, well-thought-through argument that demands attention from anyone interested in the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a new look at his life and work that offers a critical lens on traditional interpretations of his devotion to the Sermon on the Mount in the face of real life crisis. These authors are to be applauded for this significant contribution."

Reggie L. Williams, assistant professor of Christian ethics, McCormick Theological Seminary

"If you mention Bonhoeffer, just about everyone thinks of his involvement in a conspiracy to kill Hitler. This becomes a major key--sometimes the key--to interpreting his writings. This fascinating book not only questions this assumption but also shows what happens when you read him without it. A thoroughly engaging book."

Arne Rasmusson, professor in systematic theology, University of Gothenburg; resident research fellow, Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, New Jersey

"This extensively researched and passionately argued book will invariably provoke discussion in Bonhoeffer studies as it challenges misconceptions of his role as assassin and patriot. It persuasively reconciles Bonhoeffer's pacifist writings with his political activities in the Abwehr, as well as themes of pacifist obedience with political responsibility often separated by Niebuhrian 'political realist' readings. This is an invaluable study of Bonhoeffer's theological ethics that must be taken seriously."

David Haddorff, associate professor of theology and ethics, St. John's University

"Those of us who have been uneasy with the too-glib assumption that Bonhoeffer gave up his commitment to pacifism to join a conspiracy against Hitler can now rejoice. This book's careful scholarship thoroughly proves that the major change in Bonhoeffer's theology happened much earlier and that he remained steadfast thereafter as a pacifist until his death at Nazi hands. This clarifying volume must be read by everyone."

Marva J. Dawn, theologian, lecturer, and author of The Sense of the Call, Unfettered Hope, and Being Well When We're Ill

"This book's provocative title is designed to challenge the received view of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's role in the German Resistance's plans to overthrow the Nazi regime by murdering Hitler. The authors seek to show that he had no sympathy with such political violence. Instead he remained true to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, especially to Jesus's teachings about the ethics of peace, which he had outlined so forcefully in his book Discipleship. Their careful analysis of Bonhoeffer's writings finds no evidence that he endorsed tyrannicide. They make a strong case for a re-evaluation of his legacy."

John S. Conway, emeritus professor of history, University of British Columbia


The Authors

  1. Mark Thiessen Nation

    Mark Thiessen Nation

    Mark Thiessen Nation (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is professor of theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and has authored several books, including John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic...

    Continue reading about Mark Thiessen Nation

  2. Anthony G. Siegrist

    Anthony G. Siegrist

    Anthony G. Siegrist (ThD, Wycliffe College, University of Toronto) is associate professor of theology at Prairie Bible College in Three Hills, Alberta.

    Continue reading about Anthony G. Siegrist

  3. Daniel P. Umbel

    Daniel P. Umbel

    Daniel P. Umbel (MDiv, Eastern Mennonite Seminary) is a pastor, formerly of Mt. Olivet Church in Dyke, Virginia, and lives in Grafton, West Virginia.

    Continue reading about Daniel P. Umbel

Reviews

"The traditional understanding of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer . . . is that he was not only involved in the resistance against Nazi Germany but participated in efforts to assassinate Hitler. [The authors] challenge this idea, arguing that there is no documentary evidence that Bonhoeffer was involved in plots on Hitler's life and asserting that he remained a pacifist throughout the war years. . . . By arguing as they do, the authors upend commonly held assumptions about the theologian's activities and underlying credo during World War II. . . . This book, with its bold assertions and careful argumentation, is excellent for stimulating new thought. Bonhoeffer scholars and lay readers with an interest in him will find it beneficial."

John Jaeger,

Library Journal

"Nation et al are arguing their case on a profoundly informed basis: they have mapped carefully the development of Bonhoeffer's theological ethics from his early period (Barcelona in the late 1920s), the most influential Discipleship book in the late 30s when he was leading the underground seminary, and then in the later Ethics where we encounter his 'worldliness.' What this book does in the middle chapters . . . is to demonstrate that there is a decisive break between Barcelona and Discipleship, one in which Bonhoeffer shifts from anti-pacifism to pacifism on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus' teachings. What the book also demonstrates is that there is no such break or significant shift between Discipleship and Ethics. . . . To argue that Bonhoeffer changed his mind requires that he significantly changed his mind and abandoned his Discipleship themes. Bonhoeffer himself denies this and affirms that he stands by his Discipleship. Without that evidence of shift between Discipleship and Ethics, the argument about Bonhoeffer shifting just doesn't gain traction. . . . I consider this book a successful challenge to the ruling paradigm that sees a major shift in Bonhoeffer from his idealism of Discipleship to a realist posture in Ethics. . . . I no longer think Bonhoeffer made a tragic mistake in entering into the conspiracy and so shifted from his pacifism because I'm not convinced he entered into the conspiracy. Bonhoeffer may well have sustained his pacifism."

Scot McKnight,

Jesus Creed blog

"A book that will surely create conversations for a decade about whether or not Bonhoeffer was involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler."

Scot McKnight,

Jesus Creed blog

"To dislodge a narrative so deeply entrenched in popular perception is a herculean task. Nation, Siegrist, and Umbel go about it thoughtfully, meticulously, and artfully, taking pains to demonstrate how Bonhoeffer was an altogether different kind of martyr than what most people believe. . . . Nation, Siegrist, and Umbel marshal an impressive case based on Bonhoeffer's life and thought. . . . The authors will not convince everyone, but they do shift the burden of proof. No longer is it possible to uncritically assume that Bonhoeffer discarded his pacifism in order to help plot the Führer's assassination. . . . For anyone who has ever doubted that this apostle of obedient discipleship would really violate a teaching of Jesus that he himself understood to be central, this book explains why such doubts may be justified. [It is] well-crafted, judicious, and happily short on polemics. . . . It recovers the Bonhoeffer who radically and consistently gave witness to the cross, a man to whom Jesus was all in all."

Charles E. Moore,

Plough Quarterly

"Of the forty-two attempts to kill Hitler, only five have any 'perceived connections' to Bonhoeffer. The authors, however, demonstrate that Bonhoeffer did not participate in any of the five assassination attempts. . . . While Bonhoeffer the Assassin will definitely not convince everyone, it represents a novel and valuable contribution to Bonhoeffer scholarship. The book demonstrates Bonhoeffer's commitment to peace and opposing injustice, and will likely lead to further reexaminations of Bonhoeffer's life and work."

Shaun C. Brown,

Englewood Review of Books

"A well-researched and well-written book. . . . Hopefully, it will serve as a springboard for further scholarship into Bonhoeffer's life as a pacifist."

Bryan Stafford,

Prism

"At the very least, [this] work shows that the popular narrative is very open to question and that it requires further consideration. Having read and heard so much about Bonhoeffer in recent years, readers are now more equipped to critically penetrate an important question about Bonhoeffer that inevitably plays a major role in how we think about and interpret him. If you have come to appreciate the complexity, depth, and significance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life and work as I have, Bonhoeffer the Assassin? offers you a chance to reexamine this controversial aspect of the great German theologian's life and legacy."

Matthew Miller,

Christianbook.com's Academic Blog

"This engaging page-turner is highly recommended."

Dan Decker,

Bible Review Journal

"[This book] challenges the widely-held belief that the Lutheran pastor and celebrated theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, took part in . . . a conspiracy [to kill Hitler] in 1944. . . . Nation explores the evidence in some detail. . . . [This book has] much more to offer than a revised, more accurate understanding of Bonhoeffer's life. . . . There are demanding chapters . . . but also much for us to take to heart."

Neil Richardson,

Methodist Recorder


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