Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Christian Martyr, Pacifist, Assassin?

“We must not be surprised if once again times return for our church when the blood of martyrs will be required. But even if we have the courage and faith to spill it this blood will not be as innocent or as clear as that of the first martyrs. Much of our own guilt will lie in our blood. The guilt of the useless servant who is thrown into the darkness.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer from a sermon in the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial church in Berlin on June 15, 1932.[1]

The question of whether Dietrich Bonhoeffer should be regarded as a martyr for Christ is not one simply of semantics but pertains to the very nature of Christian witness, to the specifics of his pacifism and the meaning of Christian faith. Though he is officially accorded the title at Westminster Abbey (his statue is among ten others designated as 20th century martyrs, including Martin Luther King Jr., which stand above the west entrance) he fails to make the Roman Catholic list and also misses the attribute in the “Lutheran Book of Worship” and “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” (he is called “teacher” and “theologian” respectively). As a Lutheran pastor explains, “A martyr is one who is killed for his faith but Bonhoeffer was killed for his participation in the plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler.” Instead of not killing, he is accused of attempting to kill. Is the popular attribution of martyr, given to him across ecumenical lines and by biographers such as Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, simply the product of sloppy thinking?

Bonhoeffer’s best friend, Eberhard Bethge, suggests that he is a martyr, but as Bonhoeffer indicates in the epigraph, the term takes on a different meaning in the modern context. Where the church and the world were at one time clear and opposed entities, this distinction has been made impossible in the Nazi (or perhaps just the modern) context. Bonhoeffer, had a premonition that the situation would call for the spilling of martyr’s blood, but he understood that the church and Christians were complicit in the evil which they faced. He had come to feel that he must take extreme measures. But the question is, how far would he be willing to go in this emergency situation?

There is almost no part of a possible answer to this question that is not under contention. Michael DeJong argues he was an orthodox Lutheran, and that Stanley Hauerwas (and friends) are guilty of reshaping him to look like an anabaptist on the order of John Howard Yoder. His understated denial that he is reducing him to a traditional Lutheran makes the point he denies: “I do not mean to suggest that seeing his peace statements in the Lutheran tradition tells us everything we need to know about Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on peace, violence and war.” This underwhelming statement stands against the fact, Bonhoeffer was clearly a pacifist. But what sort of pacifist was he?

Was he a pacifist, perhaps of a Lutheran type as opposed to an Anabaptist sort, who might feel justified in taking action where the normal functions of the two kingdoms had fallen apart? Or was he a once committed pacifist, who by the writing of Ethics, has changed his mind? Or is he a completely committed pacifist who goes against his own good conscience and theological understanding? Or is he, in fact, a pacifist who never abandoned his commitment to nonviolence and was never involved in the plot to kill Hitler? Each of these are proposed possibilities.

What seems beyond reasonable question, is his commitment to the ethic of peace as part of his understanding of following Christ (who is an ethic). His commitment to nonviolence, in this context, is clear in Cost of Discipleship:

Does [Jesus] refuse to face up to realities – or shall we say, to the sin of the world? . . . Jesus tells us that it is just because we live in the world, and just because the world is evil, that the precept of nonresistance must be put into practice. Surely we do not wish to accuse Jesus of ignoring the reality and power of evil! Why, the whole of his life was one long conflict with the devil. He calls evil evil, and that is the very reason why he speaks to his followers in this way.[2]

In the same book he writes,

That is why Christians cannot conform to the world, because their concern is the ‘perisson’. What does the ‘perisson’, the extraordinary, consist of? It is the existence of those blessed in the Beatitudes, the life of the disciples. It is the shining light, the city on the hill. It is the way of self-denial, perfect love, perfect purity, perfect truthfulness, perfect nonviolence. Here is undivided love for one’s enemies, loving those who love no one and whom no one loves … It is the love of Jesus Christ himself, who goes to the cross in suffering and obedience.

The Bonhoeffer of Ethics, it is argued, is more thoroughly Lutheran in his understanding of God’s two kingdoms, and so, in this latter book, his early call for simple obedience now takes into account a more complicated notion of the human predicament of guilt, “the duty to heed God’s creational ‘mandates’, and the distinction between ‘last things’ and ‘things before the last.’”[3] In this understanding, Bonhoeffer was never a pacifist (and certainly not an Anabaptist sort of pacifist) but was always true to his Lutheran understanding of the two kingdoms.

The argument of Stanley Hauerwas and Mark Thiessen Nation is that his pacifism was evident and unadulterated by his Lutheran frame of reference.[4] They point out that in a letter to his friend Elizabeth Zinn on 27 January 1936, he says that “Christian pacifism” is “self-evident.” As they argue, “from the beginning he did not think “pacifism” was a position one assumed that required further theological justification.” Just the opposite, he was a pacifist because of Jesus: “his pacifism and his Christological convictions were inseparable.” They argue, contrary to DeJonge, that he was indeed a pacifist on the order of John Howard Yoder, especially when one considers that Bonhoeffer and Barth shape Yoder’s pacifism. Yoder’s Politics of Jesus, they argue,  “is as far as we know, more like Discipleship than any other book written between 1937 and 1972 (not least because of Yoder’s own deep appreciation of Bonhoeffer’s book).”  

Though DeJonge and others have attempted to locate Bonhoeffer in a Lutheran context which would override his commitment to nonviolence, it is precisely in that context that he spells out his pacifism. In his lecture at the ecumenical Youth Peace Conference in Czechoslovakia on 26 July 1932, “On the Theological Foundation of the Work of the World Alliance” he says:

Because there is no way for us to understand war as God’s order of preservation and therefore as God’s commandment, and because war needs to be idealized and idolatrized in order to live, today’s war, the next war, must be condemned by the church … We must face the next war with all the power of resistance, rejection, condemnation … We should not balk here at using the word ‘pacifism’. Just as certainly we submit the ultimate ‘pacem facere’ to God, we too must ‘pacem facere’ to overcome war.

Hauerwas and Nation offer details of a long and seemingly irrefutable documentation of Bonhoeffer’s pacifism. They point (a few of their many examples must suffice) to a sermon on 2 Corinthians in which Bonhoeffer makes the extraordinary claim that, “Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence.” They reference Lawrence Whitburn, one of his congregants in London, who said that Bonhoeffer’s opinion in favor of pacifism “was so marked and clear in his mind” that their discussion of the subject “soon developed into an argument.” From among his inner circle of students at the Finkenwalde seminary, Joachim Kanitz, comments that “it became clear to us on the basis of this Bible study [an exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount, given by Bonhoeffer] that it is not possible for Christians to justify killing or to justify war.”

In a counter to this understanding, it is argued that the dire situation he faces during the writing of Ethics causes a break, in which he would consider employing violent means in this situation of church failure. Hauerwas and Nation counter this with documentation from the writing of Ethics and after. For example, from Ethics:

The Sermon on the Mount as the proclamation of the incarnate love of God calls people to love one another, and thus to reject everything that hinders fulfilling this task – in short, it calls them to self-denial. In renouncing one’s own happiness, one’s own rights, one’s own righteousness, one’s own dignity, in renouncing violence and success, in renouncing one’s own life, a person is prepared to love the neighbour.

Hauerwas and Nation argue in their book, Bonhoeffer the Assasin? that he remained true to his pacifism and was never directly involved in violence or the enactment of violence. They assemble an impressive array of arguments which offer a counter weight to any simplistic or one-sided argument as to Bonhoeffer’s participation in the plot to kill Hitler.

The argument that he did not, in fact, ever abandon his pacifism and did not take part in the plot to kill Hitler seems to be directly contradicted by Bethge, who indicates that he told him he would kill Hitler, given the opportunity. On the other hand, Bethge indicates he knew he was not involved in these plots. As late as 1942 he also tells Bethge he stands behind what he wrote Cost of Discipleship, where he had espoused pacifism. Hauerwas and Nation reference Peter Hoffman, an expert on the conspiracies against Hitler, who describes Bonhoeffer’s role as limited to putting out peace feelers: Bonhoeffer “urged his friends … to use their influence to ensure that the Allies would call a halt to military operations during the anticipated coup in Germany.”

Interestingly Hauerwas and Nation sight the authority of Karl Barth, whom Bethge indicates, knew everything of Bonhoeffer. But his testimony is a mixed bag. Barth had no question, “He was really a pacifist on the basis of his understanding of the Gospel.” On the other hand, Bonhoeffer “belonged to these circles of those willing to kill Hitler.”

From Bonhoeffer’s own description we understand that there is a tension in his thought. The pure martyrs of the first century and beyond, who gave up their lives in a clear witness to the gospel and against the state and the emperor (who claimed to be a god) were not to be found in a Germany and in a German church where Hitler had been embraced as God’s own messenger, on the order of Christ himself. The distinction between church and world had come undone. Humanity itself is threatened and the church, in Bonhoeffer’s conception, has always been for the salvation of the world, but now there is no true church in Germany.

As he indicates in his essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” there are three modes of action that one might take as a part of the church in regard to the state:

first (as we have said), questioning the state as to the legitimate state character of its actions, that is, making the state responsible for what it does. Second is service to the victims of the state’s actions. The church has an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any societal order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. “Let us work for the good of all.” These are both ways in which the church, in its freedom, conducts itself in the interest of a free state. In times when the laws are changing, the church may under no circumstances neglect either of these duties. The third possibility is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself.

In this third category he potentially allows for the sort of action he might have been involved in against Hitler as part of a legitimate Christian response to a government that has overstepped its responsibilities. He expands upon the point, by indicating that with the rise of the Führer we no longer have to do with a political but a religious figure:  

This Führer, arising from the collective power of the people, now appears in the light as the one awaited by the people, the longed-for fulfilment of the meaning and power of the life of the Volk. Thus the originally prosaic idea of political authority is transformed into the political-messianic idea of Führer that we see today. All the religious thinking of its supporters flows into it as well.

The Christian/religious thought of the German people is so misdirected by the role of the Führer, that other modes of resistance (DeJonge finds six modes of resistance in Bonhoeffer)[5] would seem to no longer be effective. As Bonhoeffer puts it in Cost of Discipleship: “It is not only my task to look after the victims of madmen who drive a motorcar in a crowded street, but to do all in my power to stop their driving at all.”

DeJonge, Hauerwas, and Nation, make their argument on the basis that Bonhoeffer was self-consistent. If this is true, I think Nation and Hauerwas make the stronger case that what he was consistent with his focus on the person of Christ in his ethics of nonviolence. But even here there is a tension, as in Bonhoeffer’s conception, “Jesus Christ came to initiate us not into a new religion but into life” and to be engaged in life. As a result, he has a profound concern for the world, for the suffering (Jews, in this case) and by extension for politics. It is not inconceivable that he went against his own conscience and beliefs, willing to give up his own soul (as he indicates in an early sermon, comparing himself to Paul, in his willingness to be counted anathema) so that he might take part in an act to kill the one he is purported to have referred to as the Anti-Christ.

On the other hand, what is clear and irrefutable are the books and written word he has left us, pointing to the need for sole trust in the ethics of Christ. In recognizing him as a martyr, as I think we should, the term will now have to account for “the world come of age” and the possibility of a failed church and the need for a singular trust in the conquering power of the Lamb that was slain.


[1]Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer: Exile and Martyr, (London: Collins St. James Place, 1975) 155.

[2]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (Touchstone, 1995), 143–144.

[3] Charles Moore, “Was Bonhoeffer Willing to Kill?” in Plough Quarterly Magazine, September 10, 2014. https://www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/nonviolence/was-bonhoeffer-willing-to-kill

[4] The following is from their article, “’A pacifist and enemy of the state’”: Bonhoeffer’s journey to nonviolence” in ABC Religion and Ethics, Thursday 19 April 2018, https://www.abc.net.au/religion/a-pacifist-and-enemy-of-the-state-bonhoeffers-journey-to-nonviol/10094798

[5] 1. Individual and humanitarian resistance to state injustice, 2. The church’s diaconal service to victims of state injustice 3. The church’s indirectly political word to the state 4. The church’s directly political word against an unjust state 5. Resistance through discipleship 6. Resistance through the responsible action of the individual. See his article, “How does the church resist an unjust state? Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology of resistance” https://www.abc.net.au/religion/dietrich-bonhoeffers-theology-of-resistance/10766546

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.