Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer justified in joining the plot to kill Hitler?

Q. I just finished reading Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. It is an outstanding book about an inspiring Christian (with fascinating history to boot). The author describes—often in Bonhoeffer’s own words—how he came to believe that, as a Christian, it was his duty to do anything possible to stop Hitler, including killing him. It seems to me that this is a very slippery slope. Bonhoeffer, for instance, also thought that abortion was murder. I wonder, therefore, if he would have approved of killing abortion providers. What biblical basis is there for humans intentionally taking the life of another human (even capital punishment)?

I, too, have read this book by Metaxas, and like you I found it fascinating, informative, and challenging. I had my own questions and concerns about Bonhoeffer’s decision to join the plot to kill Hitler, even after listening to him make the case in his own words.

My first concern was just like yours—this is a very slippery slope. Even if we decide that somehow, under extreme and very extraordinary circumstances, Bonhoeffer was justified, this could open the door for others to conclude that they, too, might be justified in killing someone, in circumstances that are actually nowhere near to being as extraordinary as Bonhoeffer’s.

So it’s very important that we appreciate the context of his decision. The book does a superb job situating it in its historical context; let me try briefly here to review the biblical-theological context, as I understand it (not that this is absent from the book, either).

We need to recognize that Bonhoeffer’s deliberations came within the centuries-old tradition of reflection within Christianity about whether there can be such a thing as a “just war.” (The other longstanding and respected tradition in Christian theology is pacifism.) Among those who believe that there could be a just war, almost all agree that the war to defeat Hitler was one. It was a defensive war of self-protection against an unprovoked aggressor who had attacked peaceful countries and was oppressing their conquered populations, including systematically committing genocide against millions. So Bonhoeffer and his fellow plotters, many of whom were senior German military officers, saw themselves as joining the justified side in a just war.

Given this, the question then arose as to whether assassination was ever an appropriate tactic within a just war. It could be that in most cases of a just war (assuming there is such a thing), assassination would still not be valid. But in this case, Bonhoeffer concluded, it was a means proportionate to the desired end that would not have wider unacceptable consequences. (These are some of the tests that are applied to means within just war theory.) This was true even though the plotters recognized that some of Hitler’s senior staff might be killed along with him; the person who delivered the bomb in a briefcase was prepared to die himself in the process if necessary.

And this leads us into the second part of the biblical-theological context for the decision: Bonhoeffer’s own theory of ethics. Part of this theory held that if you could recognize, “Somebody ought to do such-and-such,” then you ought to do such-and-such, because we are answerable to God not just for our actions, but also for our inaction. This was because God, in Bonhoeffer’s understanding, accomplishes his purposes through the free acts of human moral agents.

He therefore took seriously what the book of James says: “Anyone who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.” He saw too many German Christians effectively giving Hitler a free hand by appeal to “obeying the law” or “submitting to authorities,” when they ought to have been resisting oppression and protecting the weak. According to Bonhoeffer’s ethics, it was better to act on your beliefs and convictions and be prepared to answer to God for your actions than it was not to act out of fear of doing something wrong. I believe this is one reason why he’s such a fascinating and inspiring character.

I think our takeaway needs to be, however, that anyone who’s prepared to act as boldly as he did should also be prepared to reflect as carefully as he did, in community, about ethical actions, both generally and specifically. This was not a simple matter of “I think God is telling me to kill Hitler.” It was a meticulously deliberated decision, made in the context of a close community of committed believers in his own day, in the larger context of Christian moral and ethical reflection over the centuries. The fact that the jury is still out on this decision shows how difficult and complicated it was, and therefore what moral courage it took for him to act upon it and be prepared to answer to God for his actions (not to mention answering to the verdict of history, which I guess we’re working on here).

Your ultimate question is too large for me to address in a single blog post: “What biblical basis is there for one human intentionally taking the life of another?” But I hope I’ve sketched out the beginnings of an approach to that question, at least.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister who served local churches as a pastor for nearly twenty years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

1 thought on “Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer justified in joining the plot to kill Hitler?”

  1. I think a believer is to oppose evil, first in themselves and then elsewhere. Since each of us is a product of our times, this can be more challenging that it first appears. I really respect Wilberforce in his opposition to slavery, he saw evil where others declined to look.

    Here is a story that I read about that puts things in stark contrast. A hunter is out hunting with his gun in the woods. While still in the woods where he cannot be seen, he approaches a police car behind a car. As he gets closer, he sees the policeman on the ground and a man standing with a gun pointing at the policeman. If the hunter does not act, it seems the policeman will be shot at point blank range. What does he do? In the actual case, he shot the man with the gun saving the life of the policeman and killing the man. The moral dilemma is what would you do in a similar situation?

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