Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Going to the Source of the Myth

& Bonhoeffer.

Questioning Eberhard Bethge on Bonhoeffer & the Conspiracy

“I do not know of any reputable scholar or reader of Bonhoeffer who believes that he personally was involved in the attempts on Hitler’s life.” This is a statement I received by e-mail within the last year from a quite respected senior Bonhoeffer scholar. If he is right, I thought, then why do very many theologians, Scripture scholars and ethicists that I know think otherwise? (This would have included John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas and my doctoral supervisor, James Wm. McClendon, Jr.)

I believe there are two central reasons. First, very many (mostly academic) books and essays on Bonhoeffer vaguely allude to Bonhoeffer’s “involvement” or “participation” in attempts on Hitler’s life, without specifying what this vague reference means. Second, and more significantly, I’ve come to believe that Eberhard Bethge is at the root of the myth that Bonhoeffer was both personally involved and changed his theological ethic from what was named in Discipleship, if not to justify his “involvement” at least to make it intelligible.

I am aware as I write this that it probably seems arrogant for me to question Eberhard Bethge’s interpretation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his relationship to the conspiracy. For Bethge is the authority on Bonhoeffer. After all, during Bonhoeffer’s short life Bethge was one of Bonhoeffer’s two best friends. He knew him; he was often with him; Bonhoeffer confided in him. Additionally, Bethge devoted much of his life to keeping alive the legacy of his good friend. All of us who study Bonhoeffer owe Bethge a huge debt. There is no question about that. However, having affirmed that he is clearly an irreplaceable authority on Bonhoeffer does not mean that Bethge’s interpretations of him are beyond critical examination. In fact, I imagine that critiques of Bethge’s reading of Bonhoeffer will multiply now that many more scholars have access to sixteen volumes of Bonhoeffer’s published and unpublished writings.

I first read Bethge’s massive biography of Bonhoeffer in 1980, outlining the whole book to use it in my Master’s thesis on Christians in Nazi Germany. Between then and now, I have taken two courses on Bonhoeffer. In essays published in 1991 and 1999, I explored Bonhoeffer’s pacifism. However, it was only much more recently, after doing substantial research on the attempts on Hitler’s life as they relate to Bonhoeffer’s biography, reading Sabine Dramm’s book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Resistance, and carefully reading through most of the volumes of the collected works that I have had a greater sense of clarity both regarding the consistency of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethic and his life reflecting these commitments.

As I have become clearer I have also grown in my sense that Bethge is likely the reason why so many believe that Bonhoeffer was personally involved in efforts to kill Hitler (and that his moral theology shifted accordingly). How is that the case?


Let me name the contours of Bethge’s narration of Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the conspiracy. It is part three of the biography in which Bethge deals directly with Bonhoeffer’s role in the conspiracy. (681-797 in the revised 2000 edition of the biography) Like all biographers, Bethge provides a framework for following Bonhoeffer’s story. However, he not only wants the readers to have guidance for reading this portion of the book.  He wants to make sure they see certain things.

Thus at the end of part two, there is a short section, “Christian and Man for His Times,” which provides the reader with a template for reading part three. (676-8) Bonhoeffer enters a new stage of his existence as he returns from New York City in the summer of 1939, Bethge informs the reader. “In 1939 the theologian and Christian became a man for his times.” (677) With this phrase, “became a man for his times,” Bethge apparently wants the reader to notice either that Bonhoeffer was less “a man for his times” previously or that the new world he entered when he returned to Germany called for a significantly different approach to theological ethics (aligned then with a different life). For, as Bethge puts it, “in 1939 he entered the difficult world of assessing what was expedient—of success and failure, tactics and camouflage.” (678) Thus, Bethge helps us to see that, after returning to Germany, Bonhoeffer leaves behind (some of) the theological commitments he named so powerfully in Discipleship and Life Together. His new stage of existence, which will soon connect him with the conspiracy—a world of “tactics and camouflage”—is an exciting one, a world of intrigue. This part of his life also has its books, Bethge informs us, albeit unfinished ones—Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison. As these later writings help us to see, the time to imagine being “only a Christian, a timeless disciple” was past for Bonhoeffer. That now was a “costly privilege” he could not afford. (678) Concerns about expediency and tactics would now be defining.

“In the spring of 1940 [only months before he joins Abwehr, the military intelligence agency],” says Bethge, “little could be observed about Bonhoeffer that distinguished him from other uncompromising Confessing pastors.” (676) However, all of this would change when he joined the Abwehr in October 1940. We are told that “the Military Intelligence was not staffed solely by resistance people.” (725) However, it was a “nest of resistance.” Thus it should not surprise us that the reason Bonhoeffer went to work for the Abwehr was for the purposes of joining the resistance movement.  For we are informed that what was “most important” about his working for the Abwehr is that “it freed Bonhoeffer for the work of the conspiracy in Oster’s and Dohnanyi’s circle,” a circle clearly connected to attempts on Hitler’s life. (698) In fact, we had been informed earlier in the chapter that Bonhoeffer was sent to prison because of being “a member of Military Intelligence.” (685) Early on in his account, Bethge informs us that “for a long time [Bonhoeffer] merely knew and approved of what was going on [in terms of plans for a coup], until his knowledge and approval led to cooperation.” (621)

Then as Bethge discusses Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the conspiracy he peppers his account with many signals of Bonhoeffer’s specific involvement. We had read earlier that Bonhoeffer ripped out pages from his diaries in 1938/9 because they would be incriminating (without really knowing what this is to imply about Bonhoeffer, only that this ushers us into the world of intrigue of which Bonhoeffer was very much a part). (626) The reader is told that Bonhoeffer was involved but had “only a small role” in planning coups in 1939/40. (671) However, within the next three years Bonhoeffer’s role in the conspiracy has expanded. “This brings us to the third stage of the German resistance movement, that is, the period between the western offensive in 1940, and the attempted assassination by Schlabrendorff in March 1943 and Bonhoeffer’s arrest on 5 April 1943. It includes Bonhoeffer’s actual complicity in the plot against Hitler.” (723) Though giving no details as to what this involved, Bethge’s claim here is consistent with what he implies in an interview clip in the documentary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Memories and Perspectives, namely that Bonhoeffer was directly involved in one or both of the two efforts to kill Hitler in March 1943 and was arrested because of this involvement. To confirm this claim about such involvement, Bethge also reports various occasions on which Bonhoeffer supposedly affirmed the killing of Hitler. One such report is drawn from a conversation in the home of Hans von Donhanyi, where Bonhoeffer allegedly said “that if it fell to him to carry out the deed, he was prepared to do so, but that he must first resign, formally and officially from his church. The church could not shield him, and he had no wish to claim its protection. It was a theoretical statement, of course, since Bonhoeffer knew nothing about guns or explosives.” (751-2)

As a way to underscore all of this in terms of Bonhoeffer’s theology, Bethge in the contexts of discussing Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the conspiracy mostly draws contrasts between Discipleship and Ethics. (see esp. 715-22) He does this partly to make sure that we can imagine that the one who in 1937—the year he finished Discipleship—was calling on followers of Jesus to love their enemies can later—when he starts writing Ethics in 1940—affirm killing. But he had prepared us for this earlier in his biography by informing us that Bonhoeffer never became a convinced pacifist. (153; cf. 127, 254, 388)

What is our alternative account to Bethge? (Needless to say, I cannot lay out the details as they appear in our book. Read it if you want a fuller argument.)


Our argument centrally revolves around the following claims. First, that Bonhoeffer shifted between 1929 and 1932 to a position on peace that he on at least two occasions referred to as pacifism (and used rhetoric and specific claims consistent with pacifism on numerous occasions). Second, there is no textual evidence that he ever abandoned this view (moreover there is textual evidence from 1940-44 that he confirmed it). Third, his life—so far as we can know—seemed to reflect a consistent commitment to peace—including specifically loving enemies. Fourth, related to the third claim, there is not only no evidence that Bonhoeffer was involved in attempts on Hitler’s life, in fact when one examines the details of the five most pertinent attempts it seems highly unlikely he had any involvement in any of them. Fifth, we have no clear evidence that Bonhoeffer affirmed attempts to kill Hitler. Memories of informal conversations present conflicting views. So, let me briefly name our argument and relate it to what Bethge says or implies. (Let me also say very clearly that much of what I say below can be found in the details of Bethge’s biography. However, one can miss it, partly because of the massive amount of detail and partly because of the interpretive framework Bethge provides.)

1. 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, The 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 in claiming 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.

Question: Why does Bethge say that Bonhoeffer never became a convinced pacifist when Bonhoeffer himself says he did? (I offer four pages of reflections on Bonhoeffer’s occasional self-designation as a pacifist in the book’s conclusion.)

2. We have provided an argument in two chapters in the book that the most careful reading of Ethics sees it as consistent with what he had believed since 1932. These chapters also show ways in which Bonhoeffer’s approach in Ethics differs somewhat from Discipleship. However, I think one would not get the impression from Bethge that there is tremendous continuity precisely in the way that led to Bonhoeffer’s transition from his position on war in 1929 to his position on peace in 1932.

Early this year I wrote an essay on the first four chapters of Ethics, published in Perspectives in Religious Studies, focusing mostly on the fourth chapter, the central chapter that is referred to as containing phrases that confirm the claim that Bonhoeffer offered justification for attempts to kill Hitler. As I re-read these chapters I was reminded of how the Christological re-framing of Bonhoeffer’s theological ethic that led him first to embrace what he on occasion referred to as pacifism is on full display in Ethics. More to the point some of the specifics that go along with that are present in Ethics as well. Toward the end of my essay I summarize the argument by saying:

“I want to end with a challenge. Show me one other author who offers an argument for the legitimation of certain acts of violence—or more specifically tyrannicide—who makes Jesus Christ central in the way Bonhoeffer does within this book.  And when I say “in the way Bonhoeffer does,” that includes lengthy defenses of the relevance of the Sermon on the Mount, along with specific references to love of enemies and renouncing violence as integral to our understanding Jesus Christ, “the lord and law of the real,” who “is the very embodiment of the person who lives responsibly.”  I don’t believe such an author exists. Neither do I believe Bonhoeffer is such an author.”

It is also the case that Bonhoeffer specifically affirms his book Discipleship in a letter from prison in the summer of 1944. Why would he do that if he had come to believe that it was fundamentally problematic? If he had by, say, 1942, abandoned the “pacifism” that he had earlier come to see as self-evident why did he not say so? Not only would he not have been faulted for saying that, it would have garnered respect for him to have distanced himself from his earlier “naiveté.”

Question: Is it not the case that Bethge overstates the differences between Discipleship and Ethics or Letters and Papers from Prison? Does he even mention Bonhoeffer’s strong emphasis on the ongoing relevance of the Sermon on the Mount, including specific references to love of enemies and renouncing violence in Ethics?

3. At the beginning of his framing section at the end of Part two Bethge says, “In the spring of 1940 little could be observed about Bonhoeffer that distinguished him from other uncompromising Confessing pastors.” Really? How many Confessing pastors opposed what was being done to the Jews (beginning as early as April 1933)? How many said that the Church was not truly the Church if it refused to accept baptized Jews and ordain them as pastors? How many Confessing pastors opposed the nationalism and militarism of Germany and encouraged Christians to be conscientious objectors? (Why does Bethge have this framing comment? What purpose does it serve?)

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 (which was unheard of in pastoral training). One of the key reasons Bonhoeffer gave for returning to the U.S. in 1939 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; it was not the Jesus way of “costly discipleship.” He rather needed to be willing to suffer with his fellow Christians in Germany. It is implied by Bethge 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. Having examined the evidence, Sabine Dramm, in her book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Resistance concludes that the central reason he joined the Abwehr was to acquire a “UK” status, a status that claimed his work was essential for the welfare of Germany, thus granting him immunity from serving on the front lines, killing as a soldier. 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 in 1939 or later). The judge was furious both that he committed this capital crime and tried to help pastors in the Confessing Church to commit the same crime.

Bethge gives the impression that most everyone in the Abwehr was involved in attempts to kill Hitler (when he says “the Military Intelligence was not staffed solely by resistance people.”). Almost the exact opposite was true. As Dramm has shown, only about 50 out of a work force of 13,000 employees (.4%) were involved in the resistance movement. It seems obvious that Bethge did not do much research on the Abwehr. Dramm has and is helpful. We draw from her account in our book.

One of the reasons I used the example of Helmuth von Moltke in the introduction was to demonstrate that someone could work for the Abwehr and be opposed to killing Hitler. Moltke, also an employee of Abwehr, stated in letters to his wife and children that he was opposed to killing Hitler.

Question: Why when he is making general statements does Bethge make Bonhoeffer’s “UK” status secondary as a reason why he joined the Abwehr. Both he and Sabina Dramm show that it is an ongoing issue for Bonhoeffer during the whole time he is in the Abwehr. Dramm names it as the number one issue for why he joined. As we come to realize Bonhoeffer’s consistent stand for conscientious objection, beginning in 1932, it seems quite likely that this is THE compelling reason why he joined. Then, once he is in this role he is not inactive, he acts in ways he sees consistent with his convictions as a Christian. Much of what he does is actually ongoing work for the Church.

4. Some have said in response to my argument that Bonhoeffer was not involved in efforts to kill Hitler that it is an argument from silence. It is odd that someone would say that about my account. For it is Bethge—who speaks of Bonhoeffer’s “actual complicity in the plot against Hitler”—who should have given details, who was compelled to tell us what such “actual complicity” entailed. And yet he is silent about any such details (because there are none to report). As indicated above, for instance, Bethge clearly implies that Bonhoeffer was rather directly involved in the two attempts in March 1943—leading to his arrest on April 5. And yet he tells us nothing of what his “actual “complicity” entailed. Before writing chapter three of our book I read or perused perhaps a dozen books on the attempts on Hitler’s life. I carefully examined the specific details of the five attempts that seem potentially most relevant to Bonhoeffer’s life. I looked at the characters involved, dates, linkage or not to Abwehr, etc. I won’t recount the details here that I offer in the book. But it becomes obvious when one examines the specifics that it was highly unlikely that Bonhoeffer had anything to do with any of them. Bonhoeffer, for instance, was not arrested on April 5, 1943 because of a connection to the two attempts in March. First, when someone looks at the details of the attempts it seems highly unlikely he had any involvement. But second, no one was arrested; they were not discovered by the authorities! He was arrested because of his connection to a successful effort to save the lives of fourteen Jews. He was imprisoned on charges of avoiding military service. And he was executed because he had been perceived since at least 1936 to be “an enemy of the state” and the Reich went on an irrational rampage of executing enemies of the state after the attempt on Hitler’s life in July 1944 (after Bonhoeffer had been in prison for more than a year). Bonhoeffer was one of thousands of prisoners who were executed—most of whom had nothing to do with attempting to kill Hitler.

5. 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 the critiques of Roger Olson and Michael DeJonge—memories from informal conversations. I do not think it is unfair to say that greater weight should be given to facts we know and written texts than to decades-old memories. Anyone who has ever interviewed people about memories of informal conversations knows the risks in terms of accuracy. The contexts for conversations, tones of voice, facial expressions—not to mention the biases of those who are recounting memories—are some components of what are necessary for truly understanding what was originally meant as reported by others from informal conversations. Besides, most of us are not as careful in informal conversations. Especially if we are among friends, we might honestly express emotions, overstate the case or use terms we would never use in more carefully prepared comments, for various reasons. In fact, in saying we should assign more weight to texts and established facts, I am taking cues from Bethge himself. Bethge challenges Bishop Bell’s memory that Bonhoeffer had referred to Hitler as the Anti-Christ, even though Bell is relying on a diary he kept. Bethge critically reflects on this supposed memory by saying that Bonhoeffer did not believe that Hitler was the Anti-Christ. And he says we can test this by examining texts written by Bonhoeffer. 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 informal 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 about specific decisions or how to see those decisions morally). And I could imagine him venting emotions and saying things carelessly in ways he never would have done when composing his views formally—knowing that others might later evaluate what he had said formally.

However, in assigning greater weight to formal writings and established facts, we also have to wrestle with conflicting memories.

Only recently did I notice that Bethge says that Bonhoeffer “knew and approved” of the coup “for a long time” (since 1937 or before, when he was clearly a pacifist?). Bonhoeffer’s sister-in-law, Emmi Bonhoeffer, says: “Though Dietrich was from the very beginning [of the Hitler regime, 1933?] convinced that Hitler has to be abolished, he felt that’s not his business as a theologian.” She also recounts a conversation she had with Dietrich sometime after he had returned to Germany in 1939 (possibly as late as 1942): “How is that with you Christians?” she asks. “You will not kill but that another one does it, you agree and are glad about it. Why is that?” Dietrich responds: “One should not be glad. But I understand what you mean.” Paul Lehman recalls a conversation he had with Bonhoeffer just before he left the U.S. in 1939 to return to Germany. They had both recently read a book on the horrendous situation in Germany. Lehman tells Bonhoeffer that this book had caused him to abandon his pacifism, whereas Bonhoeffer said that it had only confirmed his commitment to pacifism. Barth, after having had long conversations with Bonhoeffer in 1941 and 1942, says in 1951 that “The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer belonged to these circles [of those willing to kill Hitler]. He was really a pacifist on the basis of his understanding of the Gospel.” (CD III/4, 449) Franz Hildebrandt, who Bethge referred to as Bonhoeffer’s “best and most like-minded friend,” after he was told in 1945 that Bonhoeffer was involved in efforts to kill Hitler, said that he was sure he was not involved.


 Michael DeJonge has claimed that “a myth of Bonhoeffer the assassin does not exist” and thus our title is misleading. Really? I have already shown, above, how Bethge has contributed to this myth. I could give many examples of academic articles that vaguely imply Bonhoeffer’s “actual complicity,” as Bethge puts it, or “involvement.” (Does the former not suggest the latter?) Typical is a comment from the preface of the new book, Letters to London, a book of previously unpublished letters written by Bonhoeffer between 1935-6. Even though it really has nothing to do with the book, Stephen Plant, the co-editor says: “The friendship they [Bonhoeffer and Ernst Cromwell] formed in mid 1930s was, therefore, very simply that of pastor and confirmand and was unaffected by the fame (and notoriety) that would attach later to Bonhoeffer as a participant in the treasonous assassination attempt on Hitler of July 1944. ” (p. ix, emphasis mine) But additionally, Larry Rasmussen, in his 1972 book (reissued in 2005), Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance, says “all the twisting possible cannot make the author of The Cost of Discipleship a volunteer for assassinating Adolf Hitler.” This quote simply summarizes what the book is about, which is Bonhoeffer’s substantial shifts in theological ethic which coincided with his substantial involvement in efforts to kill Hitler. Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, a son of a Confessing Church pastor, in his 2010 biography of Bonhoeffer, says that by the beginning of the 1940s Bonhoeffer returned to the ethic he had articulated in 1929, namely that God would sanctify murder. In fact, says Schlingensiepen, getting involved in efforts to kill Hitler was “the central decision of his life, to which everything else had been leading.” And once he had made this momentous decision, “every other consideration had to be subjected to the plans for the assassination.” What does that sound like? And this is not to mention what is implied by the NY Times bestselling biography by Eric Metaxis.

I would agree that the vague allusions to involvement or participation or actual complicity are suggestive rather than specific. Which of course is the point. Our provocative title and subtitle are an invitation to greater specificity, which I think our book has provided.



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