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by Wendy Murray | 14 Feb 2017 

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.”

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February 5, 2014 By 

Maria von Wedemeyer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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. Bonhoeffer's Love Letters

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.

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