On July 20, 1944 Claus Von Stauffenberg excused himself to go to the bathroom before going to a meeting with Hitler. He unwrapped and armed a bomb hidden inside his briefcase, putting on the shirt it had been wrapped in. Once inside the meeting Stauffenberg took his place beside Hitler while they and several others listened to a presentation from General Heusinger. He put his now deadly satchel under the table a few feet from Hitler, knowing it would detonate in 5 minutes. Unknown to Stauffenberg the massive oak desk was supported by two “socles”, thick wooden plinths. The socle near Hitler would redirect the force of the blast and save the life of the Dictator. As Eric Metaxas writes, “It is a fact and a mystery that the course of history hinged on a quirk of furniture design” (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, p.480-2). Several men in the room were killed by the blast, but not Hitler. As a result of Hitler’s survival, all of the members of the vast conspiracy behind the attack, including in some cases their wives, children and associates, would be hunted down and sent to concentration camps. Among them would be Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a highly gifted Lutheran pastor who had been working for years against Hitler and was among those plotting his murder.
Love Your Enemies
Most people, even if they know little about Jesus, grasp his most famous teaching: love your enemies. This love is not just a sentiment but is a program. It is the way the Kingdom he declared advances. We are to love both neighbour and enemy even to the extent of praying for our persecutors and refusing to kill our attackers. As Jesus died with words of forgiveness and prayer for his killers on his lips, so too are his followers to do. Christ-followers become black holes of reconciliation eating up the violence of the world. Hatred and violence are thrown into them and they return love, like trees eat carbon dioxide and give back oxygen. The cycle of violence which started with Cain and Abel thus comes to an end through refusing to participate in it.
Most people have a problem with such an ethics even if they admire it, and truth be told so do most who claim to follow Christ . Although early Christian teachers unanimously preached and lived it, ever since the marriage of Church and State under Constantine this message has been endangered among believers, despite the central place it had in the life and teachings of Jesus himself. Though the application of this teaching in the average person’s life is more along the lines of not becoming angry with those who offend or hurt you, or not seeking revenge upon them in word or gesture, people often leap to the most extreme examples: what about a murderer attacking your family? What about Hitler?
Bonhoeffer and Hitler
Bonhoeffer was reluctant to be involved in the plot to kill Hitler. He agonized over it and was not proud of it. In fact he considered it a sin but felt that in such radically horrific circumstances it was the “right” thing to do. Stauffenberg himself, a Catholic, stopped to pray on the way to the assassination attempt. Earlier he had asked a priest if there was any way to be absolved from the sin of murder.
When I first read of the “salvific socles” I was amazed. Where was God?! I wondered. How could the bomb not have worked? Did, horror of horrors, God spare Hitler? His survival seemed nothing short of miraculous. In fact this was the way that Hitler himself interpreted the incident: “It was providence that spared me. This proves that I am on the right track. I feel that this is the confirmation of all of my work.” (Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, p. 481).
Gradually though I went from seeing God’s absence in this story to seeing his presence. As perilous as it is to speculate about the ways of God, if one has any belief at all in God’s presence in history one has to wonder about this story. Imagine for a moment what success would have meant for God’s kingdom, what signal it would have sent. It would have become known that several Christians, including Bonhoeffer, had assassinated Hitler. They would have become heroes and examples to many others to emulate. A great Christian theologian would have become a hero for defeating evil with the very tool that Jesus refused to use: violence. Maybe God did spare Hitler, for the sake of His Kingdom.
The results of the plot are instructive and point out the problems with even the seemingly most justified of murders. What were the actual results? Hitler was strengthened in his confidence; many good more good people died than might have (including Bonhoeffer). Were the other people in the room who died deserving of it? Maybe (they were Nazis) but maybe not (so was Stauffenberg). Lastly, do we know that Hitler’s death would have stopped the Third Reich? What if other Nazi leaders, no doubt power hungry and vicious immoralists themselves, took over and did a better job of leading the Reich to survival than Hitler did?
I am not, of course, suggesting that nothing should have been done to stop Hitler. I am, however, arguing that the inherent dangers and ambiguities of using violence to further your aims mitigate against the wisdom of doing so when Jesus himself forbade it. Look at the maelstrom of violence and suffering unleashed by America’s destruction of the government of Saddam Hussein. History provides surprisingly few, if any, examples of the long term success of violence, and the greatest and most transformative movement in the history of religion and culture was started by a Rabbi who did not defend himself in the face of Pilate.