Dietrich Bonhoeffer was many things — poet, scholar, teacher, spy and more.
The German Lutheran pastor was hanged at Sachsenhausen concentration camp April 9, 1945. At just 39, he had published a considerable and diverse body of work.
Many have learned Bonhoeffer was a conspirator who plotted to kill Adolph Hitler in July 1944.
That’s untrue, according to “Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking,” by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist and Daniel P. Umbel.
“There is not a shred of evidence that Bonhoeffer was linked in any way to … attempts on Hitler’s life,” they write.
It’s a persistent fiction nonetheless.
Bonhoeffer could have been fodder for Nazi propaganda: He was attractive, smart, hardworking, personable and came from an influential, well-known family. Instead, he believed the Aryan nationalism that swept through post World War I Germany was offensive.
In 1930, he went to New York for post-doctoral studies. According to the International Bonhoeffer Society, he developed key social connections and traveled to Mexico and Cuba. He also spent significant time in Harlem’s historically black churches. Bonhoeffer, 25, returned home in 1931.
By January 1933, Hitler was elected German chancellor. Almost immediately, he declared himself dictator, began arresting and executing former allies and ramped up mistreatment of Jews.
Bonhoeffer published “The Church and the Jewish Question” in April of that year. It was a rarity in Germany because it publicly supported Jews: “The fact, unique in history, that the Jew is subjected to special laws by the state, solely on the basis of his race and regardless of the religion to which he adheres, presents theologians with two new problems, which must be dealt with separately. How does the church judge this action by the state and what is the church called on to do about it?”
Bonhoeffer’s international ties and ecumenical relationships and beliefs were not appreciated or encouraged in Berlin. According to “Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany” by Christopher Probst, Protestant “Deutsche Christen” (German Christians) supported Nazism. By September 1933, they forced an “Aryan paragraph” into church doctrine barring “non-Aryans” from church leadership and membership.
In opposition, Bonhoeffer founded the “Confessing Church” and an underground seminary.
By early 1938, political leaders covertly working in the anti-Nazi resistance reached out to Bonhoeffer. They helped him avoid conscription.
These connections included leaders of Abwehr, the Nazi clandestine organization. Helmed by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the group actually subverted Nazi interests, according to “Hitler: A Biography.”
Canaris’ second in command, Hans Oster, recruited Bonhoeffer into Abwehr, if not the assassination plot. Canaris did actively plot against Hitler, according “Canaris” by Heinz Hohne. The “Canaris resistance” was one of five assassination plots Bonhoeffer knew of; historians document a total of 42.
Canaris and co-conspirators, including Bonhoeffer’s brother Klaus, were executed April 9, 1945, too. This association and several assumptions led to Bonhoeffer being listed among the conspirators, “Assassin” notes. For example, Abwehr was raided after Canaris’ plot failed. Bonhoeffer was arrested soon afterward.
However, Bonhoeffer’s arrest documents say he was arrested for planning “Operation 7,” a nonviolent scheme to help a group of Jews flee Germany. He was later indicted for using his Abwehr position to evade conscription and help others do the same.
Some fear the “assassin” label will forever plague Bonhoeffer. Untangling truth from fiction is difficult. It can be tough to figure out who Bonhoeffer was and zero in on what he truly believed.
Perhaps “The Cost of Discipleship” best summarizes Bonhoeffer’s life: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”