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
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Hans von Dohnanyi
“Intellectual head” of the conspiracy against Hitler
The son of a Hungarian composer, Hans von Dohnanyi was a brilliant lawyer who married one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s older sisters, Christine, in 1925. He became a personal assistant to the Reich Minister of Justice in 1933.
Consequently, early in the Hitler regime von Dohnanyi became aware of the Nazis’ crimes on their way to absolute power in Germany. He began to compile a “Chronicle of Shame” documenting the heinous injustices—persecution of churches, torture and mistreatment of individuals in concentration camps, sterilization, violence against the Jews. The record was used as evidence in the post-war Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.
Hans von Dohnanyi continually channeled behind-the-scenes information to his pastor brother-in-law, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In 1939 von Dohnanyi joined the Abwehr, the secret intelligence agency under Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. He arranged for Bonhoeffer to become attached to the Munich office of the Abwehr, thereby keeping him from service in Hitler’s army. Von Dohnanyi arranged several trips (to Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway) for Bonhoeffer. Ostensibly, Bonhoeffer was to perform assignments for the Abwehr, but actually he represented the German resistance movement to key contacts in these countries.
Von Dohnanyi, a strategic figure in the resistance, was described by the Gestapo as “the intellectual head of the movement to overthrow the Fuhrer.” Arrested in 1943, he underwent severe tortures and illnesses until his execution (at Sachsenhausen) on April 9, 1945—the same day Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenbürg.
Sabine (Bonhoeffer) Leibholz
Of the eight children born to Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer, only Dietrich’s twin sister, Sabine, still survives. Soon 86 years old (on February 4, 1992), she lives in Göttingen, Germany, with her elder daughter, Marianne.
At 18, Sabine married Gerhard Leibholz, a brilliant lawyer who had earned his doctorate in philosophy at 19. Leibholz became judge of a district court and later, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Göttingen.
The twins, Dietrich and Sabine, enjoyed a unique chemistry in the large Bonhoeffer family. In 1938, the year after the Gestapo closed the Confessing Church’s seminary at Finkenwalde, Dietrich stayed in the Leibholz home and wrote his classic Life Together.
Gerhard Leibholz and his two brothers were baptized Christians, but because their father was Jewish in background, they were classified as Jews by Nazi interpretation. In the fall of 1938, as persecution of Jews increased, the Leibholz family—Gerhard, Sabine, and their two daughters—fled. They were driven to the Swiss border by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eberhard Bethge and crossed over late at night.
Throughout the war years, they lived in England. The profundity of Dietrich’s correspondence with his twin can be seen in an April 1942 letter:
“It is good to learn early enough that suffering and God are not a contradiction but rather a unity, for the idea that God himself is suffering is one that has always been one of the most convincing teachings of Christianity. I think God is nearer to suffering than to happiness, and to find God in this way gives peace and rest and a strong and courageous heart.”
It was in Sabine’s Oxford home that the shattering news arrived in 1945 that Dietrich and other family members had been murdered by the Nazis. With the collapse of the Hitler regime, the Leibholz family moved back to Gottingen to pick up the threads of their lives. Professor Leibholz taught political science until his retirement in the mid-1970s. He died in 1982.
Sabine has continued to provide insights into the Bonhoeffer family. Her book, The Bonhoeffers: Portrait of a Family (first published in English in 1971) will become available from Covenant Publications in 1992.
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