Significant people in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life

Karl & Paula Bonhoeffer
(1868–1948) (1874–1951)
Distinguished parents

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
(1902–1945)

“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
(1906- ) His twin

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.

For the rest of the post…

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