Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Response to Roger Olson’s Critical Review

& Bonhoeffer.

I knew when I began writing Bonhoeffer the Assassin? that there would be many who would not want to accept our argument. Well, the first negative review has arrived; it’s by Roger Olson. Below is my response to his review, also placed on his blog.

Let me offer a response to Roger Olson. I will begin with a quote, a quote that seems to represent the heart of his critical reflections. “If we are to agree with Nation, Siegrist, and Umbel, that Bonhoeffer never advocated, condoned or participated in an actual plot to kill Hitler (or anyone else), we have to question Bethge’s testimony which is clear. And the authors do question it. They suggest his memory of Bonhoeffer’s own sayings to him and to others was faulty.”

Olson’s critique depends mostly on his response to our critique of what is remembered from  informal, oral conversations (“Bonhoeffer’s own sayings to him and to others”). I will comment on this later. But first let me name what Olson has basically ignored.

We have argued that Bonhoeffer underwent a theological and spiritual transformation between 1929 and 1932 that changed his approach to Christian ethics. In February of 1929 we see Bonhoeffer saying in a lecture that love of his own people will sanctify war, will sanctify murder. He also says in this lecture that the Sermon on the Mount is not to instruct us in how to live in the present. By 1932 he is saying the opposite in lectures he presents. He is telling Christians they should live by the Sermon on the Mount and that this includes not killing in war. What happened in between?  In 1930 he finished his habilitation thesis, Act and Being in which he argues for the centrality of Jesus Christ in understanding Christian ethics. In 1930-31 he studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. While there he was deeply influenced by Jean Lasserre, a French Reformed pastor and pacifist, to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount and to embrace pacifism. Bonhoeffer was also deeply formed by his months of serious participation in the life of the African American congregation, Abyssinian Baptist Church. In a letter to his friend, Elizabeth Zinn, in January 1936, he says that sometime before 1933 he came to see “pacifism as self-evident,” which he had previously argued against passionately. (This sentence is left out from this quote, pp. 123-4, in the 2010 biography by Eric Metaxis of Bonhoeffer—indicating the lengths some will go to to establish that Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist.) The views that he here referred to as pacifism are expressed in numerous passionate lectures and given careful articulation in his 1937 book, Discipleship, based on lectures he taught to his students at the Finkenwalde seminary. Questions that beg to be asked are: did Bonhoeffer return to the convictions he held in 1929?  Did he reverse his understanding of the centrality of Jesus for understanding ethics? Or somehow re-formulate this centrality so that it caused him to abandon his views on peace? The textual evidence suggests he did not. We have provided an argument in two chapters in the book (and I in a separate essay published this past summer in Perpectives in Religious Studies) that the most careful reading of Ethics sees it as consistent with what he had believed since 1932. Moreover, he specifically affirms the book, Discipleship, in prison in the summer of 1944.

And what do we see in Bonhoeffer’s life that is consistent with this affirmation of what he on occasion referred to as pacifism? Beginning in 1932 often in ecumenical speeches he called on Christians not to kill in war and to consider conscientious objection. When military conscription was re-introduced into Germany in 1935, he commended conscientious objection to his seminary students. In 1939 Bonhoeffer said one of his key reasons for returning to the U.S. was to avoid military service (i.e. killing on the front lines in the German army). He leaves the U.S. within only a few weeks after arriving. He apparently left because he continued to believe that, as he had said in lectures, “peace is not the way of safety.” Being in the U.S. was the easy, the safe way out; he rather needed to be willing to suffer with his fellow Christians in Germany. It is sometimes implied that he came back to Germany specifically to be involved in efforts to kill Hitler. If that’s true then why did he first try to become a chaplain in the military? Once his application to be a chaplain was denied then and only then did he join the Abwehr, the military intelligence organization. And as Sabine Dramm’s book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Resistance makes clear, the central reason he joined the Abwehr was to acquire a “UK” status, a status that granted him immunity from serving on the front lines, killing as a soldier, because his work was essential to the welfare of Germany. What becomes clear when we read transcripts from his trial is that the judge realized his “essential” work for the Abwehr was a fiction created to grant him what was effectively a role as a conscientious objector, but without it leading to his execution (as a straightforward claim to be a c.o. would have done). The judge was furious both that he committed this capital crime and tried to help other pastors to have a similar status.

I too have read the magisterial biography by Eberhard Bethge. In fact, I outlined the whole of the first edition of this book. And I have, with the revised 2000 edition, read the section dealing with Bonhoeffer’s role in the conspiracy multiple times and have carefully outlined that section. It took me years to be bold enough to challenge the authority of Bethge. But I’ve come to realize that though of course all of us who study Bonhoeffer owe an incredible debt to Bethge, that does not mean we cannot question some of his interpretations (especially now with the sixteen volumes of collected works available along with lots of secondary sources).

During my last sabbatical I especially read books on the attempts to kill Hitler, along with Sabine Dramm’s book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Conspiracy and volumes fifteen and sixteen of the collected works of Bonhoeffer (these latter two covering the years 1940-45, in addition to Letters and Papers and the letters to Maria). Dramm, a German theologian, is especially helpful in her discussion of the Abwehr, giving much more and careful detail than Bethge.

Having read these I realized that Bethge’s references to Bonhoeffer’s “involvement” in the conspiracy and especially specific plots to kill Hitler were all quite vague. And I discovered there was a reason for this. When one lines up the facts about specific efforts to kill Hitler alongside Bonhoeffer’s life, it becomes obvious that he had nothing to do with any of the details related to any of them. Through vague allusions to “involvement” Bethge gives a very different impression. Moreover, one gets the impression from Bethge that most of the employees for the Abwehr were involved in efforts to kill Hitler, and thus working for the Abwehr in itself was incriminating. I was stunned to discover that of the 13,000 employees only about 50 were involved in efforts to kill Hitler. And then only on certain occasions and in relation to certain attempts.  Some attempts were made by others in other military organizations. For instance, the two attempts to kill Hitler in March 1943 were planned by Colonel Henning von Tresckow, of the Army Group Center (not the Abwehr). Bethge implies in the 1983 documentary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Memories and Perspectives, that Bonhoeffer was arrested on April 5, 1943 because of his involvement in these attempts in March. But that is definitely not true. Not only is it the case that it is highly unlikely Bonhoeffer was involved in these two attempts, but no one was arrested because of these attempts on Hitler’s life. They were not discovered by the authorities. Bonhoeffer was arrested because of his involvement in an effort to save the lives of fourteen Jews. Authorities who were suspicious of the Abwehr had discovered financial irregularities related to this act. That’s why he was arrested. And, as stated above, he was imprisoned because the judge realized he had effectively been a conscientious objector as an agent with the Abwehr. He was later executed because after the attempt on Hitler’s life in July 1944 the Reich went on an irrational rampage of executions of any perceived to be “enemies of the state,” which Bonhoeffer had been accused of since at least as early as 1936.

I opened the book with a discussion of Helmuth von Moltke partly because he is a very interesting character and mostly unknown by U.S. American Christians. But also because he illustrates that one could be an agent of the Abwehr, doing basically what Bonhoeffer did and be opposed to killing Hitler (as Moltke said he was in letters to both his wife and children).

All of the above, of course, is given in more detail in our book. But in closing let me come back to the central focus of Dr. Olson’s critique—memories from informal, oral conversations. Yes, I do think it is relevant that Bethge challenges Bishop Bell’s memory that Bonhoeffer had referred to Hitler as the Anti-Christ. As I say in the book, we’ve done what Bethge implies should be done: give the greatest weight to texts and clear facts not memories of informal, oral conversations. The contexts for conversations, tones of voice, facial expressions—those are some components of what are necessary for truly understanding what is meant by whatever was said in oral conversations. Besides, most of us are not as careful in informal conversations. And in fact we might use terms we would never use in more carefully prepared comments, for various reasons. For instance, Bethge says that Bonhoeffer did not believe that Hitler was the Anti-Christ. However, he concedes, “if that rather crude theological expression could really have encouraged his friends, Bonhoeffer perhaps would have used it verbally.” So, likewise, in oral conversations with others who were also opposed to the extreme militarism, nationalism and abuses of the Hitler regime, I could imagine Bonhoeffer being relatively affirming of what they were doing (which did not mean he was necessarily on the same page with them morally in general). Only recently did I notice that Bethge says that Bonhoeffer “knew and approved” of the coup “for a long time” (since 1937, when he was clearly a pacifist?). Bonhoeffer’s sister-in-law, Emmi Bonhoeffer, says that “Though Dietrich was from the very beginning [1933?] convinced that Hitler has to be abolished, he felt that’s not his business as a theologian.” However, she also replays a conversation she had with Dietrich sometime after he had returned to Germany in 1939, clearly indicating that he had told her that Christians should not kill.  How do these two statements fit together? How does her earlier statement fit with his views in Discipleship, etc.? Again, Bethge is right: one should place the greatest weight on what we know from texts and the facts as best we know them, not memories of informal conversations.


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6 Responses to “Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Response to Roger Olson’s Critical Review”

  1. Lon Marshall

    Thank you Mark! I am enjoying your book. This response is very helpful.

  2. Scott Holland

    Congratulations on the publication of your Bonhoeffer book, Mark. My copy just arrived and I look forward to reading it. I’m teaching my Bonhoeffer seminar in this spring’s rotation of classes so we shall certainly engage your text.

    As you know, most of us who agree that Bonhoeffer moved to Christian pacifism under the influence of Jean Lasserre likewise point to how he contrasts his evolving position with Lasserre’s in that classic letter in which he concludes that his friend Jean hoped to become a saint of the church but he instead hopes to become a man in the world for the world.

    Dietrich’s Discipleship is indeed a book of churchly ethics but his Letters and Papers from Prison and uncompleted Ethics manuscript present, in my view, not a return to Lutheran just war, but instead a more poetic and pragmatic retreat from the purity of pacifism to a more nuanced expression of worldly holiness and human responsibility. I’ll be interested to see what you might do with these texts!

  3. Nathanael Snow

    Thanks for these notes. I am looking forward to reading the book.
    I understand that Bonhoeffer was involved with groups such as the Freiburger Kreis, groups gathered together to make plans for a shadow government that would be ready to move into place should the Nazi regime fall. Among others in this group was Walter Eucken, an eminent economist whose father was a Nobel laureate in literature, work that touched on Christianity and Hegelian philosophy and was very influential even in the states in the early 20th century. Involvement in such a shadow government seems to have been motivated by concerns regarding the Allies terms of absolute surrender, and what that could mean for the German citizens. From what I understand, this position of absolute surrender was among issues Bonhoeffer explicitly went to the UK to urge against.
    Involvement in a shadow government is not the same as assassination plotting. It is getting ready for the inevitable. Apart from the careful thought and planning of Eucken and others the German economy may never have recovered.
    Does your research touch on the Freiberg Circle at all?

  4. Chris


    As to Olson’s critique: I believe, he will, if pushed, admit 1) He does not know Bonhoeffer well, 2) He is a Niebuhrian. I don’t know that this makes him a good candidate for review as both direct him implicitly toward the majority position.

  5. nelson okanya

    I just got the book in I Cloud and I am really enjoying it. Stanley Hauerwas predicted that this book will stir controversy because the ‘obvious’ is never given up without struggle. I agree with him that but that you have done your homework and will be ready to hold your own ground in the coming debates. You have just done that in response to Roger Olsen above. Congratulations!

    Like Bonhoeffer I believe that the church today needs “a new kind of monasticism.”