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Christian History Home > 1991 > Issue 32 > Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Gallery of Family, Friends, & Co-Conspirators


Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Gallery of Family, Friends, & Co-Conspirators
Significant people in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life
Dr. F. Burton Nelson is professor of theology and ethics at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois, and co-author of A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (HarperCollins, 1990). | posted 10/01/1991 12:00AM

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Karl & Paula Bonhoeffer
(1868–1948) (1874–1951)

Distinguished parents


Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer was a prominent neurologist and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Berlin. In addition, he served as director of the psychiatric and neurological clinic at the Charite Hospital Complex in Berlin. Trained in the disciplines of science, he encouraged in his children self-reliance, control, independence, and objectivity. He was not at all enthused when Dietrich decided as a boy to become a minister and theologian.
Paula Bonhoeffer was daughter of Karl-Alfred von Hase, a chaplain in the court of Kaiser William II. Her grandfather was renowned church historian Karl-August von Hase. Paula exercised profound influence on all her children. She was concerned that they develop familiarity with the Bible, hymns, and traditions of the Christian faith.
The Bonhoeffers had eight children: Walter, Karl-Friedrich, Klaus, Ursula, Christine, Sabine, Dietrich, and Susanne.
The Bonhoeffer home nourished a climate of anti-Nazism from the 1920s. Karl wrote in his memoirs: “From the outset we considered the victory of National Socialism in the year 1933 and Hitler’s being named Reich Chancellor as a misfortune.”
In addition, the parents fought anti-Semitism from the beginning of their family life. In a recent interview Eberhard Bethge stated with potency: “I am absolutely convinced that for Dietrich Bonhoeffer as for his family, the Jews were the main reason for sharing in the conspiracy.” It was little wonder that the Bonhoeffers’ home became a meeting place for resisters to the Nazis.

Eberhard & Renate Bethge
(1909– ) (1925– )

Best friend and niece


Were it not for Eberhard and Renate Bethge, it is unlikely this issue of Christian History could have appeared. More than any other persons, living or dead, they have been responsible for transmitting Bonhoeffer’s written legacy.
Eberhard met Dietrich in 1935 when he studied at the Finkenwalde Seminary that Bonhoeffer directed. Eberhard was the son of a Lutheran pastor from the province of Saxony; even today he refers to himself as a country boy.
In time he became Dietrich’s closest friend and confidant. A participant in the resistance, Eberhard was drafted to serve in the German army. He was imprisoned for the final months of the war in Berlin’s Moabit prison.
Eberhard served pastorates after the war and spent several years at the same London congregation that Bonhoeffer shepherded in 1933–35.
Eberhard edited the significant Letters and Papers from Prison; most of its letters were addressed to him. He also wrote the massive biography Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision, Man of Courage (Harper & Row, 1970).
Renate Bethge is the niece of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of four children of Ursula (Bonhoeffer’s older sister) and Rudiger Schleicher. She spent her childhood in a home next to the Bonhoeffer family home in Berlin.
“I was 7 when Hitler came to power,” she remembers, “and we knew from the beginning that the Nazis were very dangerous, and that we were not supposed to talk to others about things which were talked about in the family.” The family “told us what Hitler was doing, above all, the trouble with the Jews, that it was terrible how they maltreated Jews, that already Jews were being put into concentration camps and beaten up. So this was in the family from the beginning, and I as a child really thought all the time they were planning something to get rid of Hitler from the government or to kill him.”
Renate helped preserve Bonhoeffer’s letters to her husband and others. Many of the letters were buried for safekeeping in the backyard of the Bonhoeffer home, awaiting the end of the Nazi regime when they could be brought to light.
Since the war, Renate has been a partner with her husband in writing and speaking. The Bethges, parents of three grown children, live in the town of Villiprott, near Bonn, Germany.




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