Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Gallery of Family, Friends, & Co-Conspirators
Karl & Paula Bonhoeffer
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.
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.
Martin Niemöller had been a World War I hero as a naval lieutenant and submarine commander. Ordained in 1924, he came later to the prestigious pulpit of the Berlin-Dahlem parish.
One of the earliest Protestant critics of National Socialism, he was a founder of the Pastors’ Emergency League in 1933. The letter of call to join the league, sent to pastors all over Germany, was signed by both Niemöller and Bonhoeffer. It summoned pastors to a strong allegiance to the Scriptures and a rejection of the Aryan Clause. By the end of 1933, six thousand pastors had joined the Emergency League. The following year, this group became the nucleus of the Confessing Church.
Niemöller remained a key figure in the Confessing Church until his arrest and imprisonment. Bonhoeffer and Bethge were present in the Niemöller residence the day the Gestapo came for the esteemed pastor. Under orders from Hitler, he was imprisoned in the Moabit prison, then placed in solitary confinement at Sachsenhausen, and finally, transferred to Dachau until the end of the war in 1945.
Franklin H. Littell has captured Niemöller’s significance succinctly: “If Karl Barth was the most important theologian of the church resistance to Nazism, Martin Niemöller was until his imprisonment its primary strategist. ”
Niemöller emerged from his years of detention as a towering symbol of the church struggle. He eventually became one of the presidents of the newly organized World Council of Churches. In travels to America, he addressed over two hundred audiences, sometimes concluding with words that have become famous:
“First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Niemöller did, however, speak out, as did his friend, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As a consequence, Bonhoeffer lost his life and Niemöller lost eight years of his freedom.
Maria von Wedemeyer-Weller
Brave young fiancée
Dietrich Bonhoeffer first met Maria von Wedemeyer when she was still a girl. Her grandmother, Ruth von Kleist-Retzow, brought Maria on a visit to Finkenwalde, the Confessing Church’s preachers’ seminary.
The grandmother, born the Countess of Zedlitz and Trutzschler, belonged to the landed gentry of Prussia, but she was strongly anti-Nazi and sympathetic to the views of Bonhoeffer. She persuaded him to teach confirmation lessons to young Maria, her brother, Max, and several other children.
Bonhoeffer visited in the von Kleist home many times, especially on holidays during the 1930s. He eventually completed The Cost of Discipleship there in the spring of 1937. In that year Maria was only 13 and Dietrich was 31, but by 1942, she had turned 18. Despite their great difference in age, they fell deeply in love.
Their engagement was bonded early in 1943 (in spite of Maria’s mother’s request that they stay apart for one year). Just three months later, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned. He had agreed with Maria’s mother and her guardian that the engagement would not be made public for some time. But upon his arrest, in a show of support, they publicly announced it.
Maria was permitted to visit Dietrich a number of times while he was at Tegel Military Prison in Berlin. Between visits, letters were exchanged, sometimes smuggled in or out. (The collection of Dietrich’s thirty-eight letters to his young fiancee is housed at Harvard, and at her request they will not be opened to the public until the year 2002.)
In October 1944 Bonhoeffer was moved to the Gestapo prison at Prinz Albrecht Strasse in Berlin. Despite Maria’s frequent attempts, the two never saw each other again.
Following the war, Maria married twice, mothered two sons, and lived out the balance of her years in the United States. A mathematician, she held a position of high rank in her field of engineering at Honeywell.
George K.A. Bell
English bishop George Bell was a respected figure in the early ecumenical movement. In 1932 he became president of the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work. Bonhoeffer met him that year in Geneva, and during Bonhoeffer’s pastorate in London (1933–35), they became good friends. More than anyone else, Bonhoeffer conveyed to Bell the character of the Nazi takeover.
The bishop wrote a now-famous Ascensiontide letter in May 1934 to ecumenical leaders in a dozen Western nations. The letter, which was profoundly influenced by Bonhoeffer, stressed that questions about the freedom of the German church affected all Christian churches, not simply those in lands domimated by the swastika.
The two friends had a historic meeting in May 1942 at Sigtuna, Sweden, during the dark days of World War II. Representing one segment of the resistance movement, Bonhoeffer gave Bell the names of Germans who were at the center of the conspiracy against Hitler. Bell transmitted this information to Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary.
Just before his execution, Bonhoeffer requested that a message be communicated to Bishop Bell: “Tell him that this is the end—for me, the beginning of life.”
In the foreword to an early edition of The Cost of Discipleship, Bishop Bell wrote of Bonhoeffer: “He was one of the first, as well as one of the bravest, witnesses against idolatry. He understood what he chose, when he chose resistance.… He was crystal clear in his convictions; and young as he was, he saw the truth and spoke it with a complete absence of fear.”
Brother-in-law and fellow conspirator
Though Dietrich Bonhoeffer is celebrated for his sacrifices and martyrdom, the entire Bonhoeffer family was involved in the German resistance. Several family members were executed by the Nazis:
—Hans von Dohnanyi, his brother-in-law
—Klaus Bonhoeffer, his older brother, who was condemned by a “people’s court” and shot by the Gestapo on April 23, 1945
—Rüdiger Schleicher, his brother-in-law, who was executed with Klaus.
After being wounded as a soldier in World War I, Rudiger Schleicher studied law, entered civil service in Württemberg, and in 1922 arrived in Berlin to be an assessor in the Reich Ministry of Transportation. The following year he married Ursula Bonhoeffer, Dietrich’s older sister. Schleicher then became director of the legal department of the Reich Aviation Ministry, and in 1939 associate professor and director of the Institute for the Law of the Air at Berlin University.
The Schleicher family lived next door to the Bonhoeffers. During the early years of the Hitler era, the family held far-into-the-night discussions on the growing Nazi menace.
Rüdiger Schleicher was arrested at his office on October 4, 1944, and incessantly interrogated for weeks. Although the prosecutor could not prove his involvement in the July 20, 1944, plot against Hitler, the fact that he knew of plans for an overthrow, and that he opposed the government, sufficed for a death sentence. He was shot through the head on April 23, 1945, by the Gestapo.
W.A. Visser’t Hooft
Visser’t Hooft, a Dutch ecumenical leader, had been impressed by Bonhoeffer’s 1935 article, “The Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement.” But he first met Bonhoeffer at the Paddington train stop in London in 1939.
Visser’t Hooft remembered: “He spoke in a way that was remarkably free from illusions, and sometimes almost clairvoyant, about the coming war, which would start soon, probably in the summer, and which would cause the Confessing Church to be forced into even greater distress.… ”
During the war Bonhoeffer consulted with Visser’t Hooft and others in Geneva, conveying precise information about the church struggle. After the war, Visser’t Hooft served as first general secretary of the World Council of Churches (1948–66).
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).
Copyright © 1991 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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