Photography by D. Plasman

Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer justified? Was this German pastor, the author of The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics, justified in being a participant in the plot to kill Adolph Hitler?

Bonhoeffer, a minister and theologian in the German Confessing Church, was arrested and ultimately hanged in June of 1945 for his association with Abwehr, a resistance movement that was the breeding ground for numerous failed attempts to kill the German Führer.

Was Bonhoeffer justified? I pose this question in light of Jesus’ words: “Love your enemies” and St. Paul’s exhortation in Romans 13: “Everyone must submit to governing authorities.”

Was Bonhoeffer’s cause righteous? Moral? Godly?

Church historians and Bonhoeffer biographers do not agree regarding his specific role in the plot to kill Hitler. Some maintain he was merely aware of those within the secret intelligence organization who were devising plans to kill the Nazi leader. Others suggest that Bonhoeffer played a more active role. Even if his participation leaned toward the latter, I find myself in agreement with his decision to eliminate a demonic leader who caused the death of six million Jews and the destruction of millions more. At the end of the day, I’m not a reliable pacifist.

I wonder, however, about other scenarios and the resulting influences they would have had on the devoutly religious Bonhoeffer. What if Hitler’s horror had been something less substantial than the killing of six million Jews? Had he gassed, cremated and shot 6,000 or 600 or only 60, or killed a dozen in order to intimidate the rest, would Bonhoeffer and his fellow co-conspirators have been justified in seeking to eliminate this world leader?

Suppose Bonhoeffer and anti-Nazi activists had stumbled upon Hitler’s extermination plan months or a year before a single life had been wiped out. Or imagine a history in which Hitler had gotten his hands on nuclear weapons and announced the date he would issue the command to drop several on innocent populations? Had either of these outcomes unfolded, would it have been justifiable to eliminate with deadly force the German leader?

The past (real or reconstructed) and Romans 13 (read and re-read) prompt me to wonder: When dangerous world leaders, wielding vast power, threaten to commit or actually carry out crimes against humanity, is it justifiable for the Bonhoeffers of the world to seek to slay them?

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