Magazine article The Christian Century

Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking

Magazine article The Christian Century

Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking

Article excerpt

Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking

By Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist and Daniel P. Umbel

Baker Academic, 272 pp., $29.99 paperback

All Bonhoeffer scholarship recognizes the importance of Bonhoeffer's commitment to peace as well as his advocacy for nonviolence. Some scholarship goes further, arguing that nonviolence was an enduring and overriding commitment for Bonhoeffer that trumped all other commitments through the end of his life. This strand of Bonhoeffer interpretation tends to come from those sympathetic to the Anabaptist and Mennonite traditions, which judge nonviolence and pacifism as central to the faith. This book by Mark Thiessen Nation of Eastern Mennonite Seminary and two of his former students belongs in this tradition of Bonhoeffer interpretation. Its best-known advocate, Stanley Hauerwas, contributes a foreword.

Nonviolent Bonhoeffer interpretation faces two challenges. The first is to answer the question of Bonhoeffer's participation in the early 1940s in a resistance movement that included some who conspired to kill Hitler and overthrow the Third Reich. The second is crafting an account of Bonhoeffer's thinking as a whole that reconciles his clear articulations of nonviolence in the 1930s with earlier and later writings that are not as clear on nonviolence and can even be interpreted as condoning violence in certain very restricted cases.

Hauerwas's work on Bonhoeffer has addressed only the second of these challenges at any length. Nation and his coauthors take both of them head on, devoting a part of the book to each, but I will focus on the first one. The authors make the novel argument that "there is no evidence" that Bonhoeffer was involved in plots to kill Hitler and that "there is no real evidence" that he affirmed the killing of Hitler. This argument, which boils down to a handful of argumentative moves in the third chapter of the book, is unpersuasive.

My first task, though, is to set aside the provocative (some would say misleading) use of the word assassin. In Bonhoeffer and resistance scholarship, a myth of Bonhoeffer the assassin does not exist. Despite the authors' erroneous attribution of such a myth to Larry Rasmussen in his Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance, no scholars claim that Bonhoeffer was an assassin or seriously considered becoming one.

What scholars have argued is that the resistance movement in which Bonhoeffer participated planned for the killing of Hitler, and did so with Bonhoeffer's approval. Nation and his coauthors argue against this position by relying on some of Sabine Dramm's conclusions in Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Resistance (2005) while rejecting others. Dramm contends that Bonhoeffer's part in "conspiratorial resistance activities" was slight, "a modest balance sheet of operational steps, specific missions, and factual results." The authors use this circumspect conclusion to argue against scholars who have assigned to Bonhoeffer a more central role in the resistance conspiracy. This move is not as revolutionary as the authors make it out to be, however. Dramm's book is a synopsis that presents the scholarly consensus on Bonhoeffer and the resistance. Nation and his coauthors simply use Dramm's recent scholarship to correct and update older scholarship, such as Eberhard Bethge's biography of Bonhoeffer, originally published in 1967, and Larry Rasmussen's previously mentioned book, published in 1972. …

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