Friday, July 1, 2011

Bonhoeffer Part 3: The Second Myth

I'm continuing with my discussion about how Eric Metaxas' book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy upended some of my views about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In this blog, I assert that there is a second Bonhoeffer myth in many religious circles, namely that Dietrich Bonheoffer was a committed pacifist, who underwent some kind of wrenching spiritual reorientation to join in the plots against Adolf Hitler.

To argue that this is a myth, please note carefully my modifier "committed" on the noun "pacifist." It is clear in Metaxas as in every other Bonhoeffer biography I have ever read that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not a militarist nor a scholastic "just war" advocate. He passionately believed in the Sermon on the Mount and its directions of peacemaking. He fervently hoped that Europe would not enter into another World War and correctly saw that it could only lurch the continent from disaster to disaster. But that doesn't make him what I would call a committed pacifist. This is my own personal, subjective judgment: I am convinced that, even early in his career, if Dietrich Bonhoeffer were standing on the street and saw SS thugs kicking Jewish prisoners to death, and that if he had an ax or a baseball bat in his hand, he would resort to violence against the storm troopers to attempt to save the lives of the prisoners. In this regard, I have come to believe, from the documents in Metaxas' book, that Bonhoeffer's transition into the anti-Hitler conspiracy was not a wrenching reorientaion, but a painful natural progression that Bonhoeffer saw far in advance.

There are, in Bonhoeffer:P,M,P,S three key pieces of documentation for me.

First, there is a letter to Anglican Bishop George Bell, a close confidant,upon the news that Bonhoeffer's birth year was likely to be called up for military service (p. 322-323 in Metaxas).

Bonhoeffer states clearly it would be "conscientiously impossible to join a war under the current circumstances." (Emphasis mine.) A full-blown pacifist would never add the qualifier "under the current circumstances." Then he says that "Perhaps the worst thing of all is the military oath which I should have to swear." Again, to a committed pacifist the worst thing about being in military service would not be the swearing-in oath, it would be the violence expected of a soldier. Bonhoeffer continues: "So I am rather puzzled on this situation, and perhaps even more because I feel it is really only on Christian grounds that I find it difficult to do military service under the present conditions, and yet there are only a few friends who would approve of my attitude. In spite of much reading and thinking concerning this matter, I have not yet made up my mind what I would do under different circumstances. But actually, as things are I should have to do violence to my Christian convictions, if I would take up arms 'here and now'". (Again, emphasis added by me). Metaxas also provides ample documentation that Bonhoeffer did not pressure his students to refuse to serve in the armed forces.

Secondly, there is the testimony of Eberhard Bethge. Bonhoeffer was Bethge's mentor, and Bethge was very likely Bonhoeffer's best friend through most of his adult life. Bethge reports (Metaxas pp 360-361) that Bonhoeffer, as early as 1935, was leading his students to understand that "Mere confession, no matter how courageous, inescapably meant complicity with the murderers....Thus we were approaching the borderline between confession and resistance; and if we did not cross this border, our confession was going to be no better than cooperation with the criminals."

Finally, one problem for all of Bonhoeffer's biographers is that there is no single letter or diary entry at which point Bonhoeffer wrote, "Today I decided to help kill Adolf Hitler." If you believe in the "gut-wrenching reorientation" model, then what we are looking for is a missing piece of the puzzle. But, if instead, you believe that Bonhoeffer's joining the Abwehr conspiracies was instead the naturall progression of a man who believed that we must obey God in everything, and who also saw, long before so many of his fellow Germans, the horrific evil of the Nazi regime, then doesn't the absence of such a "Road to Damascus" letter make perfect sense?

What we do know is that the Bonhoeffer family and circle were collecting evidence of Nazi atrocities and run-ups to the final solution perhaps as early as the invasion of Poland. Bonhoeffer would have most certainly been aware of this information. Metaxas provides, to me for the first time, a startling point at which we can be sure that Bonhoeffer had crossed into active participation in the conspiracies (pp. 361-362). In early 1940, Bonhoeffer and Bethge are visiting a small German village pub when news comes over the radio that France had surrendered to Germany. There was, apparently much cheering, and singing, and giving the Nazi salute:

"Bethge was flabbergasted: along with everyone else, his friend [Bonhoeffer] stood up and threw out his arm in the 'Heil, Hitler' salute. As Bethge stood there gawking, Bonhoeffer whispered to him: 'Are you crazy? Raise your arm! We'll have to run risks for many different things, but this silly salute is not one of them.' ... It was then, Bethge realized, that Bonhoeffer crossed a line. He was behaving conspiratorially."

As Metaxas documents on page 369, in July 1940, Dietrich Bonhoeffer went to work for the Abwehr, the German military intelligence. He became a spy, and joined the conspiracy to topple, and most likely to kill, Adolf Hitler.

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