Christianity and killing

On the 100th anniversary of his birth the BBC profiles the German Protestant minister, Dietirch Bonhoeffer, hung for plotting to kill Hitler and helping Jews escape Germany.

The man who wrestled with his Christian conscience in the drafts for his book Ethics in which he reached the conclusion that when assaulted by evil it is God’s will to take responsible action including killing.

  • Rubicon

    Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer the man responsible for a quote I wish I could remember – it was to do with watching the attrocities as they took groups away, doing nothing, pretending it wasn’t happening – until they came to take you.

    Wish my memory was better!

  • Jacko

    The one that goes something like:

    When they came for the Jews, I said nothing.
    When they came for the Catholics, I said nothing.
    When they came for the gypsies, I said nothing.
    When they came for me, there was no-one there to say anything.

    I don’t think it was this guy, but another Lutheran Pastor whose name escapes me.


    First they came for the Jews
    and I did not speak out
    because I was not a Jew.
    Then they came for the Communists
    and I did not speak out
    because I was not a Communist.
    Then they came for the trade unionists
    and I did not speak out
    because I was not a trade unionist.
    Then they came for me
    and there was no one left
    to speak out for me.

    Pastor Martin Niemöller

  • Rubicon

    Thanks TAFKABO! That was going to bother me all day!

    It’s humbling to think of the great danger these people put themselves in, the free and indepedent thought they stuck with – when all around had secumbed.

    I’m glad you could find the quote – not a bad message to reflect on over Easter.

  • fair_deal

    The usual order is communists, social democrats, trade unionists and jews. In the 1920’s Niemoller was actually sympathetic to Hitler.

    Both were leading members of the same anti-nazi Protestant church, the Confessing Church.

  • ingram

    Without doubt a chapter in history that we should all learn from. Very dangerous people.



    To be honest, I’m a little tired of hearing that we should all learn from the Holocaust.
    Srebrenica, Rwanda and Darfur are but three examples that we have learned nothing, and are not likely to learn anything.

    Wouldn’t it be more honest of us to admit that the likes of Bonhoeffer are few and far between, rather than wallowing in some smug delusion about how we would all have acted in a similar fashion?
    We’ve all had plenty of opportunities to emulate his actions, and we have failed.

  • mickhall


    I disagree when you write “Wouldn’t it be more honest of us to admit that the likes of Bonhoeffer are few and far between.” The whole point about the Bonhoeffers and Niemöller’s is that they were ordinary men who made the same mistakes many Germans did and in the case of Bonhoeffer even supported the rise of Hitler. But they overcame their mistakes and did the decent thing. Ordinary men who came good are surly worth setting up as examples for all?

    It is not easy for us human’s to stand against the tide, we are all aware of this when comparatively small things occur, say someone tells a racist joke in our presence which causes laughter and instead of saying hold on this wrong we say now’t.

    As to the example of those who stood out in the Holocaust, it is doubly important that we as a society recognize them and many people did so if only in small ways, for example throwing an apple of a piece of bread to prisoners in transit or saying a kind word.
    Others risked all by giving shelter to Jews, which surly is an example worthy of emulation. One thing all these acts tell us is the State is not always right, nor should it be blindly obeyed.

    People who stand out against the tide, imo are to be admired even if we may not agree with their motives. Take the example of the young flight leftenant in the RAF who refused to serve in Iraq and is now in prison for his ‘sins. It seem for British servicemen and women if they refuse to obey what they consider unlawful orders, only jail awaits them. Very sad indeed and hardly a good example to Britains young service personel.

    It seems our governments have forgotten the lessons of the Nuremberg trials, so perhaps we should not be to surprised when dreadful events like Srebrenica, Rwanda and Darfur occur. The very least we can do when we fail to stop such acts occuring is admit they happened and demand of our politicians they learn the lessons. if they refuse then we have a responsibility never to vote for them again.

    best regards.

  • The Devil

    Martin Ingram said.

    “Without doubt a chapter in history that we should all learn from. Very dangerous people.


    Posted by ingram on Apr 14, 2006 @ 02:17 PM”

    So there you have it folks…. Protestants are very dangerous people…

    At least that’s what I took out of it.. hmmm I think anyway

  • Billy Pilgrim

    Martin Ingram

    “Without doubt a chapter in history that we should all learn from. Very dangerous people.

    Forgive me if I’m misjudging you, but this post seems to me to be exactly the kind of non-learning that one often sees in relation to the Holocaust. The people of Germany were not divinely pre-ordained to sussumb to Nazism, or to carry out the crimes that their state carried out in the 1933-45 period. One must remember that as the 20th century began, Germany could boast probably the most advanced and sophisticated society on the planet.

    The actions of Nazi Germany were many things – insane, evil, barbourous, genocidal, the nadir of human existence – but they were not inexplicable. They were not other-worldly. They were not (in the correct sense of the word, rather the anodyne sense it’s usually used) inhuman. If the Nazi crimes were unique in scale (at least since the days of Genghis Khan) they were not necessarily unique in theme.

    So what is the lesson to be learned from this darkest of periods? Right-wing warmongers learn only the folly of appeasement. We see that argument trotted out every time the government of the day wants to bomb someone. Expect to see it again soon over Iran.

    Forgive me if I’m mistaken Marty, but I suspect that you’re in that camp – that the lesson you have learned from the Nazis is that one should be eternally vigilant and on the lookout for the Nazis of the future.

    I think that’s a dishonest and innately violent lesson to draw. The lesson I have learned is this: if the nation of Guttenberg, Goethe, Marx, Beethoven, Nietzsche, Murnau and Lang can become the nation of Auschwitz and the Final Solution, then the place one must look for Nazism in the future is not over the hedge, but in the mirror.

    The Devil

    Not sure where you’re getting that interpretation of Marty’s post from?

  • Jacko

    “Wouldn’t it be more honest of us to admit that the likes of Bonhoeffer are few and far between, rather than wallowing in some smug delusion about how we would all have acted in a similar fashion?”

    Spot on.

    How many of us have stood up to the sectarian butchers in our own midst who would have been Hitler emulators given half a chance?
    Instead we each castigate the other sides Hitlers while virtually ignoring or making half-baked excuses for our own.

    We even do it every day on Slugger, where we can hide behind anonymity.
    Fat chance any of us standing up to the hate spreaders in our “own” camp in a liberal demcoracy never mind in the sort of regime the Nazis set up.

  • Jacko

    Billy Pilgrim
    Also spot on.
    The battle against totalitarianism of any stripe begins within ourselves and is a battle than should be perpetual. The Germans were all TOO human, that is what we should never lose sight of. They succumbed, in the circumstances they found themselves in, to the most basic of human emotions and urges. Intellect lost out to emotion.
    We have seen the same sorts of things, writ small, here many, many times.

  • heck

    “hung for plotting to kill hitler”. Does’nt that mean he was a terrorist? If I follow the argument used a lot on this site- here was a democratically elected right wing leader of a western european country-albeit without a majority of the vote–he launched illegal invasions of other countries–and people tried to murder him.

    Does’nt that fit definition of terrorism–violence , against a democracy , with the aim of achieving a political goal?


    By the way the above was semi tongue in cheek– This guy was a hero!

  • The Devil


    If semi is the best you can do have a word with circles he can get you help, he’s been trying to help me all day.

  • abucs

    The scary thing for me about the Holocaust was the all powerful control of the state.

    If the state goes bad, there is nowhere you can really turn to. Thankfully there has not been another case of this in Western European Democracies of the modern era.

    As far as Chritianity and killing goes it does raise an interesting question and paradox.

    I suppose you could argue that it was a lack of true Christianity that allowed this paradox to develop in the first place.

    Because states can do so much terrible things when they go wrong, i think a high degree of morality, and especially humility within government is an essential part.

    Unfortunately, that rules out a lot of us.

  • fair_deal


    In terms of your tongue-in-cheek.

    Hitler did win a democratic election but that mandate was never renewed (as it should have been) because he abolished democracy. So Hitler ceased to be a democratic leader.

  • heck

    I was trying to provoke some discussion (outside the northern ireland context) about when it is valid to use violence against a state with a democratically elected government.

    There is an argument that only nation states have a right to use violence and that states should have a monopoly in the use of force. This is a political rather than moral arguement and I don’t think I agree with it.

    nazi germany is an extreme case where the government was so evil that all (well most!!)people would agree that terrorism was justified in attacking it. But where is the line?

    I just thought I would see where the argument went.

    Is this trolling?

  • Jacko

    Funny, something similar but kind of related struck me about this airforce guy who refused to serve in Iraq.
    At his court martial he was told that as a serving officer he couldn’t pick and choose between where he fought and didn’t, or something similar along those lines.
    But then, I thought, how does that square with the Nuremberg trials where it was made clear that, legally, “just following orders” could not be used as a defence.
    Is the real, unspoken, rule then, that you just follow orders and hope to hell that your country’s actions are not deemed illegal sometime in the future because you could be amongst the fall guys?

  • Jacko

    Thinking of your original point, in many ways it is the age old question.
    I suppose, for me, Tony Benn might have at least given a partial answer when he said that the stength of a democracy is not measured by the fact that you can vote people into office, but by being able to vote them out again. Brutal regimes never allow a free vote. So if you aren’t allowed to vote for their removal I suppose you could be justified in forcibly removing them.

    Must say, Benn wouldn’t usually be a source of inspiration to me. He is often too simplistic and very partial in his recounting of history. But he might have nailed it there.

  • ct

    Mickhall’s contribution is considered and thoughtful. We can rattle on in a “never again” mode in respect of the Holocaust for as long as we like. We all know that horrors such as the genocide in Rwanda are events of our own time. However, should we feel guilty about it in a personal sense? Mickhall points out that perhaps our “governments” have forgotten the lessons. This is the key point – the world ignored Rwanda because the governments, not individuals, chose to ignore it. How do we overcome that?



    My problem is that when you measure the strength of protests against the Iraq war with the lack of any public demonstration about what is happening in Darfur you can see that it is not just the governments who are at fault.

    I can understand someone who says that the situation in Iraq is bad, but Iraq is nothing in comparison to Rwanda or Darfur.

    Where are the protests?

  • heck


    I am of two minds about the RAF doctor. It is good to see someone with the moral courage to go to jail for what he or she thinks is right but he did volunteer to join the military and in doing that didn’t he give up his right to decide? If you are an RAF pilot you are flying over towns in Iraq dropping bombs on people without knowing the target-which was picked by some else. As a member of the military you have decided you will go and kill people, without question, at the request of your superiors for your pay check. (To refer back to a busty Brenda comment –that is the contract you make.) Should you hold these people individually responsible if civilians have been targeted? Can you have a military organization with individual responsibility? (I am not sure I know the answer myself.)

    This comes down to the whole concept of war crimes. At one stage there was talk of trying Sadam for his invasion of Iran. Would this have been a war crime and if so why isn’t honest Tony being tried for his invasion of Iraq? I think the US and Britain decided he could not be tried for this as the questions raised are to embarrassing, which shows the political nature of war crimes trials. They are nothing more that the victor punishing the vanquished.

    There are a lot of issues here and the moral contrasts of Nazi era help to highlight them.

  • Benn

    These things have to be addressed at different scales. I can protest the misdeeds of my country/government, but perhaps not change them (though I’m obligated to try). I have a choice, however, about my personal actions. Think back (before some of youse were born!) to Eli Geva, the tank battalion commander who walked off his post rather than attach Beirut back in 1982. If more Germans had made that choice, no Holocaust. I protest Iraq every week and Darfur every month or so, the results are underwhelming, but I still have to try. Meanwhile, I won’t worry so much about the Saddam’s and Bushes, I’ll just try to take care of morality close to home. By the way, I’m not Tony Benn, just for the record…

  • Jacko

    “I can protest the misdeeds of my country/government, but perhaps not change them (though I’m obligated to try).”

    But that is the point. Within a liberal democracy, periodic free and fair elections allow citizens to change the decision makers. If the elections results in the same people being returned to power, then there can be no moral or legal recourse to violence by sections of the citizenry. For, in that instance, what they are doing is trying to overthrow the legally constituted representatives of the majority of their fellow citizens. That way is anarchy.
    Between and during elections, people are free to protest actions of the government etc. and try to convince others of the efficacy of their case.

  • Richard Dowling

    Bonhoeffer’s ethical analysis alone would almost certainly have influenced Catholic theologians at the Second Vatican Council (early sixties).

    But another Tubingen great, Hans Kung, points out that violence “sooner or later produces counterviolence ….. (and) anyone who takes to violence .. cannot appeal to the example of Jesus Christ”.

    That said, he sees Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a terrific example who rightly understood Jesus as a basic model who invites unique discipleship.
    And Bonhoeffer was certainly that — a unique disciple and a unique human being.

  • Benn

    Jacko you seem to have democracy on a higher pedestal than I do. Democracy in theory and democracy in practice can be worlds apart. For all kinds of reasons (capitalism being a prime one) power isn’t distributed equally, not even among those who want it. Democracy can play with a stacked deck… Bush in Florida in 2000 is a fine example. When democracy yields an immoral result, even if it didn’t PRODUCE that result, the outcome has to be challenged. If democracy perpetuates evil, then it can be challenged by a variety of unusual measures. Was it immoral to try to asassinate Hitler? Of course not. Was it democratic? No. If we are bound to abide by the system in all circumstances, change may come too late. Perhaps victims and the powerless get to play by a different set of rules sometimes, just like the rich and powerful do whenever they feel like it.

  • Jacko

    I fully realise the shortcomings of democracy but it is, in my view, always the least worst option.
    It is worth remembering that I was careful to talk of a liberal demcoracy in my opening gambits.
    When can you legitimately resort to violent means is the original question raised by someone on this thread. In the Hitler case, he was elected democratically but didn’t allow for his removal by the same means, hence my allusion to Tony Benn’s line earlier on.
    Who decides that the ballot box has delivered “evil”? How large has the minority to be to give it legitimacy to overthrow the people elected by a majority of fellow citizens? What sort of society is created if the first option open by any malcontent is violence?
    The differentiation has to be made in our discussion between peaceful protest and the resorting to violence. And, as well, liberal democracies where you can remove incumbents and resort to law and peaceful protest; and dictatorships where there is repression and these means aren’t available. In the latter case, I believe violent means is justifiable. Possibly even obligatory.

  • Jacko

    Forgive the typos. Good discussion as well.

  • Benn

    Very good response Jacko, you’re right to point out that there’s democracy and there’s democracy. One interesting thing going on right now in the US is the emergence of an environmental movement from the Christian hard right. Some of those who take radical (illegal) positions on abortion, and others who don’t, are beginning to say that we must act to save God’s planet in the face of collective (US leading of course) destruction. What do you do when the fuse is lit Jacko, or about to be lit, wait around to see if an election will change things, or take out the bombers?

  • Jacko

    I distrust deeply anyone primarily motivated by religion, of whatever kind.
    In the case of the USA, a liberal democracy, it must always be change via. the ballot box, argument, peaceful protest etc. Worth saying as well, that change of President is pre-determined already in that Bush is in his final term. Change of foreign policy, I believe, will come with that even if the Democrats don’t get the White House.
    In a liberal democracy, the maintainence of law and order, internal and external security etc. must always be left to those charged by the elected representatives to do that. Checks and balances and means of complaint are all built into the system.

  • Barry

    Apart from the threats/benefits/challenges of biotechnicalresearch/cloning (eugenics?) to humanity generally, how would an imaginary Protestant/Catholic partnership in the Ireland of the future deal with the legal/medical issues as they affect hospitals, say? This issue arose recently in relation to one hospital in Dublin. These are among the major moral issues of the future. The Catholic church is against interference with embryos. Aren’t these more productive issues to be discussing than the never-ending politics?