Bonhoeffer’s Love Letters (from Time magazine on December 1, 1967)

The contemporary fame of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi German Protestant theologian who was executed in 1945 for taking part in the plots against Hitler, rests primarily on the Letters and Papers from Prison he wrote to friends and family. In these cryptic messages, most of them smuggled out of his cell in Berlin’s Tegel Prison, Bonhoeffer outlined a new kind of secular theology for a “world come of age” that has become the axiomatic premise for post-Christian thought. Last week a new cache of Bonhoeffer letters came to light—revealed by the woman to whom he was once engaged.

She is auburn-haired Maria von Wedemeyer-Weller, 43, who came to the U.S. in 1948 on a graduate fellowship in mathematics at Bryn Mawr, and now lives near Boston, where she works as a computer systems analyst. In all, she received more than 40 letters from Bonhoeffer while he was in prison; the 38 she was able to keep when she fled East Germany during the Russian invasion have been given to Harvard’s Houghton Library, with the stipulation that they not be published without her permission during her lifetime. In an article about Bonhoeffer in the current issue of the Union Theological Seminary quarterly review, she quotes at length from several of the letters. What they reveal is not more of Bonhoeffer the theologian but of Bonhoeffer the man—who was, Mrs. von Wedemeyer-Weller notes, “deeply in love during this important period” of his intellectual ferment.

Confirmation Flunked. There was an element of incongruity in their relationship. Bonhoeffer was a mature intellectual with a passionate commitment both to Christian theology and the anti-Nazi underground; Maria, half his age, had no zest for either theology or politics. The two first met in 1936; Bonhoeffer was 30, she was twelve. At the time, he was operating an underground seminary for anti-Nazi divinity students in Finkenwalde; Maria, member of an aristocratic, landed family, was living nearby with her grandmother, who asked Bonhoeffer to include the girl in a confirmation class for Maria’s older brother and two cousins. Bonhoeffer flunked her. “Whatever the reason,” Maria recalls, “I remember that it caused Dietrich considerable amusement and my grandmother none at all.” She also recalls one gathering when Bonhoeffer boasted that he had learned his first ten sermons by heart. Maria “quietly left the room for fear he might be tempted to prove his statement!”

The friendship of Maria and Bonhoeffer blossomed into romance in 1942, after her graduation from high school. “The rapport,” she remembers, “was immediate. He was able to transform the fumblings and erratic emotions of a young girl into the assured certainty that this was an addition and a source of strength to his own life.” Following their engagement, Bonhoeffer initially accepted the prospect of a lengthy betrothal out of respect to Maria’s family. “But soon,” she writes, “he objected clearly, decisively and repeatedly. When we succeeded in changing the dictum, it was too late; he had been imprisoned.”