Bonhoeffer, Part 3: Assassination or Inaction?

written by Dr. Joe Thomas

If one happened to have crossed Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s path in 1935, it would not have been inconceivable to picture him someday as a German Gandhi.  Bonhoeffer was young, brilliant, filled with boundless energy, a pacifist, committed to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, dedicated to the marginalized everywhere, and diametrically opposed to Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime.  Hence, the utter dismay one experiences when it is discovered that Bonhoeffer ended his short, but quite accomplished, life at the end of a rope as part of a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

First Response

The theological foundation for Bonhoeffer’s stance of nonviolent resistance was based on Matthew 5.  Bonhoeffer was deep in study and writing on the Sermon on the Mount during his years overseeing the underground Finkenwalde Seminary.  He later published this work as The Cost of Discipleship (1937).

“By refusing to pay back the enemy in his own coin, and by preferring to suffer without resistance, the Christian exhibits the sinfulness of contumely and insult.” (Cost, 158)

Nevertheless, “the shameful assault, the deed of violence and the act of exploitation are still evil.  The disciple must realize this, and bear witness to it as Jesus did, just because this is the only way evil can be met and overcome.” (Cost, 158-59)

Back in 1935 Bonhoeffer had written a letter to his brother Karl-Friedrich saying, “that inwardly I shall be really clear and honest with myself only when I have begun to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount.  That is the only source of power capable of blowing up the whole Phantasmagoria [Hitler and his rule] once and for all….”

Bonhoeffer would call his fellow pastors to bear witness to the abuse of Nazi power through their privileged position to speak directly to the people and by refusing to obey the Nazis in such a concrete way that the people could not fail to recognize the gross injustices being done.  As always he led the way.  He publicly protested through “election flyers…, verbal and written communiqués protesting euthanasia and persecution of the Jews, memoranda to convince high-placed officials, even Hitler, to alter course.” (Rasmussen, D. Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance, 129-130).  And he tried to organize pastors to read resolutions from the pulpit, refuse to baptize, wed and marry, and as one, unified pastoral group publicly leave meetings in protest. This might entail physical abuse or even death for the pastors; Bonhoeffer recognized this possibility at the outset of his book when he stated plainly, “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (Cost, 7)

Unfortunately, this was too much for German pastors.  The leading theologian Karl Barth urged restraint when it came to responding to the “Aryan Clause.”  Barth urged Bonhoeffer to wait for “a still more central point” on which to base Christian opposition to the Reich.

Bonhoeffer responded to the lack of action among German clergy at a conference in Denmark by saying, “Must we be put to shame by non-Christian people in the East?” a direct reference to Gandhi and the Indian response to the British.

The turning point for Bonhoeffer came on Nov. 9, 1938.  The Nazis dubbed this “Crystal Night” as they terrorized the Jews, smashing their shops, burning their synagogues, and beating them as police officers idly sat by watching.  The Confessing Church remained silent the next day and the days that followed “Crystal Night.”

Bonhoeffer underlined two verses from Psalm 74: “They are burning all the houses of God in the land,” and “No prophet speaks any longer.”  He put the date of “Crystal Night” beside the two verses.

He subsequently left the Confessing Church.

Second Response

In 1939, Bonhoeffer effectively rejoined his family and became part of a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  Through family connections he joined the Abwehr, a sort of Military Police – which was full of people who opposed Hitler.  This gave him the official cover he needed for his new activities.  His new activities now included becoming part of an assassination plot against Hitler, but also helping Jews escape out of Germany, and continuing to use his contacts in England to persuade Churchill to recognize the leaders of a Coup if it took place in Germany.

As always, Bonhoeffer attempted intellectually to work through his actions and look for theological footing.  The difficulty of the moment for Bonhoeffer was captured in his essay After Ten Years: “one may ask whether there have ever before in human history been people with so little ground under their feet—people to whom every available alternative seemed equally intolerable, repugnant, and futile….”

He worked out his dramatic turn from the passive resistance approach to joining an assassination plot in his book Ethics.  He argued that in extraordinary circumstances the responsible Christian may sometimes have to take guilt upon his hands if he is to love his neighbor.

“When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, and no responsible man can avoid this, he imputes this guilt to himself and to no one else; he answers for it; he accepts responsibility for it.  He does not do this in the insolent presumptuousness of his own power, but he does it in the knowledge that this liberty is forced upon him and that in this liberty he is dependent on grace.  Before other men the man of free responsibility is justified by necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience; but before God he hopes only for mercy.”


Unfortunately, the several attempts made on Hitler’s life were unsuccessful, including the two attempts by Bonhoeffer’s group of conspirators.  Bonhoeffer was eventually arrested, imprisoned and had his life put to an end a few short weeks before the allies liberated his prison camp.

To those who criticize Bonhoeffer on this point, his good friend Eberhard Bethge responds,”…how could confessing purists theologically justify your inaction and non-resistance, when you have already become accomplices of criminals.” (Bethge, Bonhoeffer 9).

Two responses, the same outcome!  It is difficult to know which response was the Christian one.