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Fall 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 2 · pp. 232–235 

Book Review

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

Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 250 pages.

Reviewed by Peter Frick

As the title and subtitle of this book suggest, the authors have set themselves a formidable task. Their thesis is that since there was a fundamental continuity in Bonhoeffer’s theology from 1932 until his death in 1945 “it is highly unlikely that Bonhoeffer was involved in any assassination attempts. And since he was not involved in such attempts, there is no textual evidence that he attempted ethically to justify such attempts” (13). The argument to debunk the Bonhoeffer-the-conspirator myth is presented in two parts: “Bonhoeffer’s Biography Reconsidered” (17–97), written by Nation, and “The Development of Bonhoeffer’s Theological Ethics” (99–220), written by Umbel and Siegrist, each contributing two chapters.

When a book makes radical new claims, the reader is entrenched in analyzing the progressive development of thought, the validity of argument, the use of evidence and sources, and the articulation of hermeneutical presuppositions. Therefore, I read the book with the relevant volumes of the Bonhoeffer Works (DBWE) and other secondary literature right beside me in order to check the authors’ interpretation against the texts themselves. This experience was tremendously positive.

The two pillars of the interpretive framework of this book are biography and ethics, which is both an excellent starting point and a weak one. That is, a review of Bonhoeffer’s biographical development is followed by a review of theological ethics, along the lines of the Barcelona lecture on ethics, Sanctorum Communio, Act and Being, Discipleship, {233} and finally Ethics.

Nation’s reviews of the milestones of Bonhoeffer’s biography are accurate and touch on exactly those aspects that show his theological development, especially vis-à-vis his adoption of nonviolence and pacifism. Nation is also correct when he cautions that “we do not really know what Bonhoeffer said” in his associations with “people involved in seditious activities” (89). While this is true, it does not logically follow that therefore we can minimize, or discard altogether, Bonhoeffer’s involvement (direct or indirect) in tyrannicide. Bonhoeffer tried to avoid military conscription at all costs (79–80), but he also wanted to eliminate Hitler’s misanthropic dictatorship. Nation cites Sabine Dramm’s suggestion that Bonhoeffer’s role in conspiratorial efforts is usually greatly exaggerated (86) and interprets it to say that “not a shred of evidence [exists] that Bonhoeffer was linked in any way to these attempts on Hitler’s life” (86). However, this is not an entirely fair reading of Dramm, who in the same context recounts the story (omitted by Nation) of how during Karl Bonhoeffer’s seventy-fifth birthday celebration the Bonhoeffer sisters waited for news of the detonation of a bomb on Hitler’s plane, part of the conspiracy organized by Tresckow. The fact that the Bonhoeffer family knew about and approved of that attempt is significant. The key people involved were Hans von Dohnanyi and his wife Christine. Bonhoeffer had a “close relationship” (36) with Hans, a lawyer in the ministry of justice who not only informed the Bonhoeffers of Nazi atrocities but even more importantly was the mastermind behind conspiratorial networking efforts and brought Dietrich Bonhoeffer into those circles. That we have no written records of these conversations or possible plans of action must go without saying—any such thing would have been a death sentence if discovered by the Nazis. Based on Nation’s argument from biography, I am still not convinced that Bonhoeffer should be distanced from conspiratorial activity. However, our typical acceptance of this view needs to become more attuned along the lines suggested by Nation even though “the factual evidence” (73) will always remain fragmentary.

Regarding the development of theological ethics, on the whole I found the reading and interpretation of the theological development in Bonhoeffer quite stimulating and refreshing. Its weakness, however, lies in the way the development of ethics (nonviolence, pacifism) is made to cohere with Bonhoeffer’s theological development. The programmatic statement that Bonhoeffer’s “ethics for resistance” (95) must be seen within the development of his “theological ethics” (96) and spans the writings from Sanctorum Communio, the Barcelona lecture on ethics, Act and Being, lectures on Christology and creation and fall, {234} Discipleship, Life Together (cf. 95–96) and eventually Ethics is true on one level but false on another. In principle the linking of theology and ethics seems promising, but I have some serious questions as to how the theme of ethics is situated within the theological development, primarily relating to the manner in which the authors employ the sources.

For example, early in the book, Nation claims that in Act and Being Bonhoeffer “wrestled, albeit indirectly, with the connection between theology and ethics” (23). While this position serves the purposes of the authors, it is arguably not Bonhoeffer’s own understanding. For him, the purpose of Act and Being is “the relationship between ‘the being of God’ and the mental act which grasps that being” (DBWE 2, 27, cf. 32), in other words, the relation between ontology and epistemology. Indeed, the term “ethics” does not occur in Act and Being, except for a cursory mention (DBWE 2, 64–65). Similarly, to read Discipleship as if ethics or peace or “ethical transition” (129) is a primary focus is simply false. Neither is Bonhoeffer “focusing on the Jesus narrative for ethics” in that work (139; the terms “ethics” and “pacifism” do not occur at all, and “peace” occurs four times serendipitously). To claim that it does is to bend it to a purpose that is not explicit in Bonhoeffer himself. His focus is on obedience to Jesus’s call (as noted on 171 and 228–229), a call that may have ethical implications, but it may not. At any rate, ethics is not the focus; it is derivative of the obedient response to the call of Christ. One could of course argue that these themes of ethics, peace, and others are conceptually implied in Discipleship and other writings, but this just begs the question precisely because Bonhoeffer did use these terms in earlier lectures and later in Ethics.

As I was making my way through the book, I was struck with two recurrent intuitions. I could not really shake the impression that, for these authors, Bonhoeffer was all about an ethic of peace and nonviolence, while his theology simply served as the framework for such a view. At times I wondered if the authors were trying to construct, even if inadvertently, “the Mennonite Bonhoeffer,” a fear relieved in the latter portion of the book. Nonetheless, in spite of my critical comments, this book has rendered a tremendously important service to Bonhoeffer scholarship. In nuce, it is the reminder that as scholars we must constantly be self-conscious of hermeneutical presuppositions and prejudices and that we cannot take for granted even the most accepted views without periodic re-examination.

Am I now convinced that “it is highly unlikely that Bonhoeffer was involved in any assassination attempts”? I am more convinced after reading this work that he was not directly involved. But it does not seem to me to follow that “since he was not involved in such attempts, there is {235} no textual evidence that he attempted ethically to justify such attempts” (13). I still read Bonhoeffer as if his theological and ethical positions would, in theory and practice, allow for participation in tyrannicide without, however, giving up on his convictions on peace, ethics, and pacifism. His view of the Grenzsituation (boundary situation) allows for the tension of this seeming paradox.

Peter Frick
Academic Dean & Professor
St. Paul’s University College, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario

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