Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging, at age 39, in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. He and a small but fierce contingent of devoted Protestants actively resisted the Nazi encroachment on both church and state.
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.”
“When Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die.”
What is not as readily known is that he possessed an amorous side, loving a woman named Maria von Wedemeyer to whom he became engaged in January 1943, when Bonhoeffer was 36 years old (and von Wedemeyer 18). He would be arrested by the Gestapo three months later.
During the two short years of his engagement to von Wedemeyer, and what ended up being the last two years of his life (1943-1945), the two exchanged letters that were both amorous and wrenching. Published for the first time in 1995 as “Love Letters from Cell 92” and edited by Ruth-Alice von Bismarck and Ulrich Kabitz (Abingdon), this intimate correspondence revealed a side of Bonhoeffer that is generally not known:
“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.”
These sentiments — and more sentiments like them — highlight the little-known, amorous side of Bonhoeffer’s testimony. He loved this young woman and longed for her, and she for him. The tenderness and optimism behind this collection of letters causes the reader to languish with the pair as week after week, into months, into years, the couple anticipates the time when they will sit together on the couch at Patzig (her family’s estate) and hold hands.
The reader also knows the tragic ending to this tale, while the writers themselves do not. (Bonhoeffer would be executed in April 1945, only weeks before Hitler killed himself and the Germans surrendered.) A constant theme echoes throughout: “Don’t get tired and depressed, my dearest Dietrich, it won’t be much longer now.”
Maria von Wedemeyer entrusted this collection of letters to her sister, Ruth-Alice von Bismarck, just before her death in 1977. For years before that, von Wedemeyer would not allow the letters to be published. Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s close friend and biographer, wrote 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 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 worked: The reader is pulled into the drama and tedium that these two lovers experienced during their years of waiting and hoping.
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A most refreshing aspect of the book is the marvelous picture it paints of Maria von Wedemeyer, 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 singleminded obedience could have fallen for a woman whose priorities seemed so obtuse.
But the reader is stopped short. Woven into the narrative are glimpses of a woman that betray an extraordinary resolve, discipline, and effervescence. Within the course of a few months in 1942, she lost both her father and her brother in the war. Still, she kept her spirits up for Bonhoeffer’s sake.
“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.'”
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 Bonhoeffer’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.'”
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This book is about a love that was never to be fulfilled. Maria von Wedemeyer’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.'”
Wendy Murray served as regional correspondent for TIME magazine in Honduras in the early 1990s, and later as associate editor and senior writer at Christianity Today. She is the author of 10 nonfiction books and a novel.