Saturday, September 14, 2019

Rethinking Bonfoeffer

I don't want to attract sudden attention as anti-Bonhoeffer.  When we first visited our current church in 1986, one of the things that impressed us was that there was a cartoon Sunday School lesson about Bonhoeffer sent home with my second-grade son.  I have gotten a great deal out of The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. I have been consistently pro-Dietrich.

Yet it occurred to me today that I have accepted the morality of the plot to kill Hitler too automatically.  We approve because it was brave, and because well, it's Hitler. Bonhoeffer and his co-conspirators hesitated long, because their morality was strongly suffused with a German sense of order and respect for authority, but they eventually decided the thing simply had to happen.  Adolf Hitler was leading Germany to an immoral path of destruction, and had to be stopped.

In different circumstances we might not have been so certain. Not all Germans would have applauded.  How would we have regarded similar attempts against Stalin or Mao?  Had Bonhoeffer been some random pastor who took it into his head to blow up the Fuhrer and failed, we might not have remembered him quite so purposefully. We might remember him as something of a crank, albeit one who had intuited the situation correctly.  But Dietrich had been a member of the Confessing Church and its underground seminary, putting himself at risk for less-political, more clearly Christian cause.  He had traveled to America and become interested in Civil Rights and "theology from below," seeing things from the vantage point of the oppressed. After his arrest and imprisonment he took on a pastoral role to both guards and prisoners, and one of Hitler's last acts as his Reich was collapsing was to make sure this particular pastor got executed. Bonhoeffer also wrote a great deal, and thoughtfully, putting him in the category of that sort of pastor. It is an impressive assemblage of credibility, so we take his decision to resort to violence seriously.

Yet what if it had worked, and two years later, other Nazis were still in charge, only comparatively less bad than Hitler? Does he assassinate someone else? The jarring thought highlighted my realisation that the act of assassination reveals a strong belief that the target is some aberration. It is a declaration that it is not really the German people, their culture, their decisions that are at fault. If only we could get rid of this one guy. But that is seldom true, if ever. Assassination sets in motion a wildly unpredictable set of possibilities.

There is also the matter of treating courage as a virtue.  We consider it so when it is shown in support of our causes, but rate it less highly when displayed in our enemies. Courage is not so much a virtue in itself, but the measuring stick which reveals how much we really do care about the other virtues.


james said...

Even if it were true that Hitler were a complete aberration, the damage was done already, and the momentum of the new German culture could only be stopped from outside. OK, maybe in a few generations they would have returned to sanity, but with Nazis in control of every lever of power, just losing Hitler would not have been enough of a change.

On the other hand, remember Loren Eisley's "The Star Thrower"
'But your attempts are useless, child! Every time you save one, another one returns, often the same one! You can't save them all, so why bother trying? Why does it matter, anyway?' called the old man. "The boy thought about this for a while, a starfish in his hand; he answered, "Well, it matters to this one."

If enough people said "This one matters" ...

Unknown said...

Perhaps I need to read a biography of Bonhoeffer that goes deeper than the intro and dustjacket of my old edition of "Life Together". My understanding of his involvement with any attempt to kill Hitler is that he only knew of some attempts and took no overt efforts to stop them.

While he was arrested at the same time as relations and associates who were active in such plots, and executed together with some of the assassination plotters, Bonhoeffer's arrest was most directly because of The charges against him were for the misuse of Abwehr funds in the efforts to resettle escaped Jews, and for misuse of his Abwehr position and travel for his church work.

If we're to be critical of Bonhoeffer for accepting the morality of killing Hitler, I think as a starting place we should at least be sure that he did accept the morality of killing Hitler. The only place I've seen that is in fictionalized dramatizations.

Texan99 said...

One reason the Nazi catastrophe has absorbed me my whole life is the central mystery of how such a man commands the obedience and even loyalty of enough people to control a county. No amount of personal charisma can really enchant millions of individuals. A whole culture has to be making a fundamental mistake, both about the appalling ideology and about what the uninfected members of the culture can and should do to combat it.

Which is not to say that I'm convinced it would have been a bad thing for someone at some point to have said, "I won't tolerate your doing this, even if I have to shoot you to stop you." It seems to me a whole lot more people in Germany should have been shooting back. It shouldn't have taken an invasion, but I'm glad the invasion happened, just as I'm glad the French Resistance happened.

David Foster said...

We can't see the future; all we can do is the best with what we know. Killing Hitler *might* have led to a situation in which Nazis were still in charge, with some uneasy 'peace' with the Allies...or it might have led to such demoralization that Germany's military collapse would have been accelerated.

David Foster said...

One of the earliest and most effective of the anti-Hitler military resistants was Colonel (later General) Hans Oster. Prior to the German invasion of France, Belgium, and Holland, he passed detailed military information about the plans to his friend Bert Sas, who was the Dutch military attache. Sas assured him that this information would be passed to his Belgian opposite number, and Oster surely expected that the information would also reach the French and the British.

The decision to pass detailed military information to an enemy state was extremely painful to Oster, despite his loathing of Naziism–he knew that if the Allies acted effectively on the information he was giving them, it would likely mean the deaths of tens of thousands of German soldiers, among them many of his friends. Nevertheless, he did it. (The information was ignored.) After one session with Sas, Oster unburdened himself to a friend:

"It’s much easier to take a pistol and shoot someone down, it’s much easier to storm a machine-gun emplacement, than to do what I have decided to do. And if I should die, I beg you to remain my friend after my death–a friend who knew the circumstances under which I took this decision, and what drove me to do things which perhaps others will never understand, or at least would never have done themselves."

I think it speaks well for Oster both that he did what he did, *and* that he found it difficult.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Unknown - thank you very much. I may have bought a false story.