A hypothetical

How would the history of 20th-century theology be different if the plot Bonhoeffer was involved in to assassinate Hitler had succeeded and he had lived? Currently he’s the heroic martyr who faced down all manner of difficult questions while he was in prison — but what do you do with the theologian who had a hand in killing Hitler?

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14 Responses to “A hypothetical”

  1. Rev. Alex Klages Says:

    Precisely why I’ve always struggled with the title of ‘martyr’ applied commonly to him.

  2. Robert Saler Says:

    A number of theologians (in the 18th-20th centuries especially) served active duty tours in the military, and not always as chaplains. So I guess my first instinct would be to regard it as akin to military service; I certainly wouldn’t begrudge a soldier/theologian taking out Hitler as part of a military operation.

    It would, I suppose, render Bonhoeffer’s on-again, off-again relationship with pacifism more complex, but that would hardly be fatal to his legacy (and would likely burnish it in many quarters).

  3. Matt Frost Says:

    It certainly puts him on another side of the just-war-theory discussion. Opens a question as to hypocrisy; also as to what his response to the success would have been. But I say he still hangs with the Niebuhr brothers, and possibly follows Reinhold’s postwar trajectory.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    The day I remember moving away from pacifism was when I heard a theologian condemn Bonhoeffer’s attempt to assassinate Hitler because he had supposedly betrayed Jesus’ teachings. I’d like to think Bonhoeffer would have become the Niebuhr of Germany. I’d also assume that his theology would have become increasingly political, perhaps he would have anticipated some of the developments in liberation theology. I also think Barth’s influence would have significantly diminished if Bonhoeffer had succeeded because he was developing a compelling critique of Barth’s orthodoxy that would likely have been more attractive to theologians in the 60s than neo-orthodoxy, process theology or Tillich’s existential ontology. I also wonder how Bonhoeffer might have continued to interact with African American Christianity. We all know how he took to Abysinnian Baptist Church in the 1930s while at Union. Perhaps he would have been one of the theologians of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States? I assume he would’ve responded better to the movement than Niebuhr (quick note, anyone interested to read about Niebuhr’s relationship to the Civil Rights Movement should read Cone’s latest text which includes a critique of Niebuhr’s inaction).

  5. ben Says:

    he still hangs with the Niebuhr brothers

    Together, or separately?

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This hypothetical assumes that the death of Hitler (in 1943 in this case) would “break the spell” and lead to surrender — and hence to an early ending of the Holocaust (which became more severe as it went). It’s hard to predict the world-historical consequences of this. Would Germany have just withdrawn within its own borders and gotten a “normal” government? Would they have simply covered up the Nazi crimes, which weren’t widely known outside Germany? And there’s also the question of the fate of Eastern Europe, etc. Last night I was wondering if a premature end of the war would’ve meant nuclear weapons were never developed.

    Perhaps the counterfactuals of “what if Hitler had survived” would’ve been unknowable to a large extent. Still, the thought of a Christian theologian getting partial credit for ending the Holocaust seems like a perverse outcome — I wonder if the post-war soul-searching about anti-Semitism would’ve occurred, or would’ve gained the same hegemony in academic circles….

  7. Myles Says:

    Small problem: Bonhoeffer’s actual involvement is cloudy from the documents.

  8. Myles Says:

    Or rather: what exactly Bonhoeffer’s involvement was isn’t entirely clear.

  9. Tyler Says:

    Follow up on Myles: for what it’s worth Mark Nation (and a few others) are working on a revisionist account of Bonhoeffer that corrects the view that Bonhoeffer was killed for involvement in assasignation plot.

  10. Tyler Says:

    *assassination

  11. David U. B. Liu Says:

    Three simple conjectures for a nontrivial Gedankexperiment on the plot in which Bonhoeffer is said to have had a role:

    1. The American Evangelicals would not be reading him so willingly. Conversely, Death of God theology would have had more difficulty appropriating him to kill off the God of history.

    2. To place Bonhoeffer with the Just Warriors and/or the Liberal Theologians headed by R. Niebuhr is to underestimate the dialectical (read, paradoxical) nature of certain of his Lutheran impulses. He never JUSTIFIED deadly force, even against Hitler. For him killing Hitler would have been a mortal sin, but likewise participating in it (regardless of his actual contributions) was practically a historical duty for him as a confessing Christian by the early ’40s. So if a plot had succeeded to which he was party, he would have been unequivocally guilty of murder, but also a certain suppliant before (for him) abyssal divine grace. This is a crucial distinction between his position and the pragmatically inflected conversion of Reinhold Niebuhr to his just war views, though we should also note the difference between acquiescing to war and participation in an assassination (cf., with some contrast also, Obama’s inheriting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan vs. his unproblematized, Israelizing use of drone assassinations).

    3. Bonhoeffer was hanged for many and no reason(s), among which his “abuse” of the Abwehr position he had (as well as concomitant association with well documented plotters, the feud between the Gestapo and the Abwehr, etc.). This he used consistently to witness to church leaders on the outside on conditions in Germany and the effects of Hitler’s policies. As such he may very well be considered a martyr (witness) regardless of his specific role in the plots against Hitler.

    Finally, a quixotic musing: Bonhoeffer and Joan of Arc are difficult “saints” precisely because of their challenging (though also diverse) relations to violence as a means to arrest evil.

  12. David U. B. Liu Says:

    spelling correction: Gedankenexperiment.

  13. Adam Morton Says:

    So it’s evil if English or Burgundian nobles gain territory, good if French ones do? Glad that’s cleared up. Now all I need is someone to tell me whether God favored Lancaster or York.

  14. David U. B. Liu Says:

    Actually I share your (Adam Morton’s) healthy skepticism about Medieval turf wars. The reasons I didn’t place scare quotes around “evil” were a) my response was primarily on Bonhoeffer and b) therefore I didn’t want some over-scrupulous reader taking what Bonhoeffer was confronting with his words and deeds as merely some fictive evil in my view (last thing I need is someone throwing me into the same dastardly club as Ahmadinajad for being a Holocaust denier or worse). In the case of Joan, however, it may also be acknowledged that she had some reason to believe herself to be leading a righteous defensive war against English-Burgundian aggression (which included a five-month siege of Orléans). I was merely giving her a bit of the benefit of the doubt, since the Bishop of Beauvais, who condemned her, obviously did not bother to do so. In any case, here is perhaps one way I could reword my last phrase to satisfy your analytic rigor: “… violence as a means to arrest what each clearly perceived to be evil.”


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