By Wendy Murray
Yesterday, February 4, what would have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s 108 birthday. A Lutheran pastor and theologian, Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging, age 39, in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. He and small-but-fierce contingent of devoted Protestants actively resisted the Nazi encroachment in both church and state. They founded the Confessing Church movement to mount active resistance to government-sponsored efforts to nazify German Protestantism. His writings have influenced subsequent generations who struggle with the role of Christian devotion in a hostile culture. The Cost of Discipleship, a modern classic, is widely known for Bonhoeffer’s haunting statement: “When Christ calls a man he bids him to come and die.”
He was engaged in January 1943, at age 36, to Maria von Wedemeyer only to be arrested by the Gestapo three months later in consequence of his involvement in plans to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was executed (April 1945) while imprisoned at Flossenbürg concentration camp only weeks before Hitler killed himself and the German surrender.
During the two short of years of his engagement to von Wedemeyer (and what ended up to be the last two years of his life, 1943 – 1945), the two exchanged letters that were amorous and wrenching. Published for the first time in 1995 as Love Letters From Cell 92, edited by Ruth-Alice von Bismarck and Ulrich Kabitz (Abingdon), this intimate correspondence reveals a side of Bonhoeffer that is generally not known. I reviewed the book for Christianity Today magazine when it was released. I include a portion below :
“Wait with me, I beg you! Let me embrace you long and tenderly, let me kiss you and love you and stroke the sorrow from your brow.” This is not an excerpt from a Harlequin romance but the impassioned longings of the champion of radical discipleship.
These sentiments—and more like them—present a new aspect of Bonhoeffer, showing him to be surprisingly amorous, but in a way altogether consistent with his theology of costly grace. His love for Maria was “costly” because Bonhoeffer was forced to relinquish it; it was “grace,” because after 37 years of heady bachelorhood, he tasted of the wellspring of romantic possibility.
Maria von Wedemeyer has been duly acknowledged as the true love of the gifted German theologian. But before the publication of this volume, Bonhoeffer’s devotees had not been given such a glimpse of the force of this relationship and the passion this man felt, and then sublimated during his hard years in prison.
He loved her, longed for her, and she for him. The tenderness and optimism behind this collection of letters causes the reader to languish with them as week after week, into months, into years, the couple anticipates the time when they will sit together on the couch at Patzig (Maria’s family estate) and hold hands. The reader also knows the tragic ending to this tale, while the writers themselves do not. A constant theme echoes throughout: “Don’t get tired and depressed, my dearest Dietrich, it won’t be much longer now.”
Maria entrusted this collection of letters to her sister, Ruth-Alice von Bismarck, just prior to her death in 1977. For years before that, Maria would not allow the letters to be published. Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s close friend and biographer, writes in the postscript: “I had resigned myself to never seeing this correspondence.”
It took the subsequent 15 years for von Bismarck to complete the task of sequentially collating the correspondence with the aid of Ulrich Kabitz, who added the necessary footnotes and historical data. Consolidating such fragmented, at times incomplete, material into a coherent narrative was no simple task. But, overall, it works: the reader is pulled into the drama and tedium that these two lovers experienced during their years of waiting and hoping.
A most refreshing aspects of the book is the marvelous picture it paints of Maria, a personality distinct and in many ways contradictory to Bonhoeffer’s. She took great interest in the minutiae of bourgeois trivialities—”I hate sideboards, and really decent cupboards are quite unobtainable”—while church missionary meetings bored her to tears. For that matter, she had little patience for theology: “Theology strikes me as an incomprehensible discipline. . . . I always get the feeling that it’s seeking an intellectual explanation for what is quite simply a question of faith.” (She adds at the end of that letter: “you mustn’t think I disapprove of your work.”) One is tempted to wonder how the champion of single-minded obedience could have fallen for a woman whose priorities seem so obtuse.
But the reader is stopped short. Woven into the narrative are glimpses of Maria that betray an extraordinary resolve, discipline, and effervescence. Within the course of only a few months in 1942, Maria lost both her father and her brother in the war. Still, she kept her spirits up for Bonhoeffer’s sake. For his first Christmas in prison, she brought a sizable Christmas tree for his cell, creating “great hilarity with the guards and Dietrich.” She tirelessly addressed Bonhoeffcr’s every conceivable want or need: “In front of me, lit by your candles,” he wrote to her, “stands the little Madonna you gave me. . . . Behind it arc the open texts with the praying hands’ [you gave me] . . . on their right, your photos lying open in the case you made for me. Just above them hangs your Advent wreath, and behind me on the edge of the bed I’ve laid out the gloves you made for me, the books you chose for me. . . . On my wrist is the watch [your] Father was wearing when he died, which you gave me, brought me, and strapped on my wrist yourself. You’re all around me, Maria.”
Over time, their correspondence became tortured. Hope faded. But a fellow prisoner recalled that Bonhoeffer “never tired of repeating that ‘no battle is lost until it has been given up for lost’.”
This book is about a love that was never to be fulfilled. Maria’s hand in marriage, like everything else in Bonhoeffer’s short life, remained just beyond his reach. Even so, he wrote to her: “Above all let us be careful not to feel sorry for ourselves; to do so would truly be a blasphemy on God, who means us well. For all our difficulties, let us say with Isaiah: ‘Do not destroy it, for there is blessing in it.’ “