Renate Bethge

The following reflection was composed by Renate Bethge with the help of her daughter in advance of the Bonhoeffer Society’s gathering in San Antonio, TX (2004) at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Renate’s daughter also contributed the photo of her mother as young woman .

I am aware of the fact that many of you are already familiar with the important facts related to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I would like to share with you some of the rather less important facts of Bonhoeffer’s life.

In recent years, especially since the new Bonhoeffer film was released, there has been increased interest in the story of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Maria von Wedemeyer’s family and their subsequent engagement, but minimal interest about my husband, Eberhard. But I realize that a love story is much more attractive than a story of two close friends. But I must share with you that I feel that the Maria, as portrayed in the film, bears little resemblance with the real Maria, as some of you may have already come to see. For example, the real Maria, even at her young age at the time, was much more of a mature person than the film depicts.

Maria and Dietrich

I would like to share with you an interesting story about Maria’s engagement with Bonhoeffer, at least how our family viewed it.

When I first saw Maria, in October 1942, I was not aware of her relationship to Dietrich. At that time, her grandmother was in a hospital in Berlin and Maria went there to look after her. My brother somehow knew her and had exchanged letters with her. Since she was in the same city as my brother, we invited her to come to a farewell party for him prior to him being drafted into the German army. Maria and my brother were of the same age. I did not notice her very much during the party, because there were so many people there and also because I had my eyes on Eberhard and I was occupied with my final school exam.

Weeks, or perhaps months, later, Eberhard informed me of Dietrich’s kind of engagement to Maria, but that Maria’s mother did not want the two of them to meet again for a year. After speaking with Mrs. Von Wedemeyer, Dietrich wrote to Eberhard near the end of November that year: “I don’t know yet what I am going to do…I think that I could have my way with her, if I wanted, I can argue better than her and probably could persuade her, but that seems bad to me and like an exploitation of the weakness of the other, Mrs. Von Wedemeyer that is, because of the loss of her husband. Just be her weakness, stronger than if I would had had to argue with him. I must not give her now the feeling of defenselessness. That would be mean, but it renders my situation more difficult.” (B 16,370). In the same letter, he wrote, that my parents had talked with his parents, my grandparents, about similar plans for us – that Eberhard and I should not meet for some time. To this he writes: “Everywhere the same old fashioned ideas from past times.”

We were happy about Dietrich’s (engagement) plans with Maria, especially because we thought otherwise he should miss Eberhard too much once Eberhard and were married. We had the feeling that it looked as if Dietrich had copied Eberhard, approaching a girl, nearly as young as I was. (She was one and a half years older than I was, but Dietrich was three and a half years older than Eberhard. Dietrich was 18 years older than Maria, while Eberhard was only 16 years my senior. Dietrich actually lived near Maria when she was only 12 at a time when he was preparing her brother and cousins for their confirmation. Later on Bonhoeffer had very little contact with her, although he did spend time with her grandmother at Klein-Krossin (Kiekow) and because Maria was spending time with her grandmother during her illness in Berlin.

I never saw Dietrich and Maria together. I saw her consciously as Dietrich’s future wife only when he was already in prison. It was very broadminded of Maria’s mother that when Dietrich was sent to prison she immediately gave up her ban on making public the engagement. Thus Maria could visit him in prison. Only parents and wives (or fiancés) were allowed to visit the men in prison, and then occasionally a brother or sister, but never a nephew or niece. No one was allowed to visit Dietrich before the end of June, which was three months after he was brought to prison.

We very much liked Maria. She always seemed happy and was lively and energetic. She had the appearance of others in our family – medium sized and not too slender – which would not be highly esteemed in our family anyway – and of course she did not wear makeup. My grandparents liked Maria very much and they welcomed the thought of Dietrich and Maria being married. Yet they were very anxious about Dietrich’s fate, as well as that of their son-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi as well as his wife and daughter who were both imprisoned. Since Maria was in the same age group of their grandchildren, she sometimes had the feeling that Dietrich’s parents viewed her as one of their grandchildren. Furthermore, since she was not as familiar with the conditions in Berlin, she may not have been informed about Dietrich’s affairs as much as she may have wished.

After some time there was a possibility that Maria could stay with my grandparents as every young woman during the war was required to do some important service when they were out of school. Because my grandfather sometimes still had patients and was considered as important, my grandparents were entitled to secondary help. Moreover, one of the persons they did have wanted to leave Berlin. Her leaving allowed Maria to substitute. But that meant also that my grandparents expected Maria would feel responsible for some of the work of that help and do it, something that apparently Maria did not quite realize. For example, she was expected to dust my grandfather’s desk. But, as my sister just informed me, our grandfather once remarked when she passed him sitting at his desk, that his desk was just as dusty after she dusted as it was before.

There were some obvious similarities between the Wedemeyer-Kleist and Bonhoeffer families. Maria first observed a certain likeness when she wrote to Dietrich on January 28, 1944:

“I was immensely impressed, when I was at the Schleicher’s a year ago last October, to find that there could be another family as close-knit and harmonious as our own, even in the city.” (Love Letters from Cell 92, p. 173).

But, of course, there were differences. In his “Fiction from Prison” Dietrich started to reflect on the two families. But it became mostly memories and reflections on his personal life and that of his family. Maria didn’t recognize herself in the “Renate” of the fiction, nor would anybody else recognize her as this person. But the grandmother of the Brake family, which more or less stands for the Bonhoeffers, had traits closer to those of Maria’s grandmother than to Dietrich’s mother or grandmother, especially because of the latter’s interest in the church. This interest was not shared by Dietrich’s paternal grandmother. Dietrich’s mother, who was the daughter and granddaughter of well-known theologians, had more interest in church affairs, especially when the Confessing Church came into being. But the kind of thoughts presented by Bonhoeffer’s fictional grandmother, particularly in reference to the grandmother’s pastor and his ability to draw her grandchildren into the church would not have been hers.

Of course, the time when his own mother became a grandmother was different from the time that Dietrich nostalgically described here. The church was also seen as very important, and there was a lot of talk about the church, but always with respect to the politics of the Nazis and to the importance that the church could and should have at this time.  Sometimes, my grandmother also took us to Niemöller’s church, but I felt that this was mainly for political reasons, which were of course, the main topic during this time. However, the way in which the grandmother in Bonhoeffer’s fictional writing moved and spoke and her poise could also have been that of his own mother or grandmother.

The strong emphasis on the church itself and its main features – service and devotions – played a much larger role with the v. Kleist-Wedemeyers than with the Bonhoeffers. This was probably one of the reasons Dietrich felt drawn to this family. Yet there were certain limits to this attraction.

When Dietrich visited the Wedemeyer home for the first time in November 1942, he wrote to Eberhard Bethge that he had been “afraid” it might have too much of a clerical style (Bd. 16,370), but as he indicated to Eberhard, he did not find that impression there. And when he was imprisoned he felt awkward, when Maria’s mother and grandmother proposed that he should hold a prayer service with Maria. Furthermore, when she visited him, she should write down beforehand any problems and questions of a religious nature for his consideration [that would be satisfying to him]. But he was happy that Maria felt as he did {that they were both against this idea.] They both wanted to meet as naturally and freely as they could in this difficult situation. Up until this time, they had hardly much chance to speak with each and had a strong desire to do this (Bd 8, 375).  

For instance, what Dietrich may have liked is that Maria’s grandmother took her grandchildren to church. We heard from one of Maria’s cousins that the grandmother would ask them after the service what the minister had said during his sermon, so of course the children really would have had to listen.

When my sister [Christine] was once [visiting] in the home of Maria’s parents and all the older people were away, she was quite astonished that Maria’s 15-year old sister took over and offered the prayers for the entire household, which included kitchen and stable personnel. She even gave a little spontaneous sermon.

Thus even at a rather young age, these children had to feel responsible for ‘their people.’ They played a role as lords or ladies of the manor, which furthered their self-assurance. In our family, education to attain self-assurance was not an aim. On the contrary, our family valued modesty, restraint and reserve. Along this line, Dietrich wrote to Eberhard (August 14, 1944): ‘I have found it one of the most potent educative factors in our family that we had so many hindrances to overcome (i.e., related to relevance, clarity, naturalness, tact and simplicity) before we could express ourselves properly. It often takes a long time to clear such hurdles and one is apt to feel that one could have achieved success with greater ease and less cost if these obstacles could have been avoided.” (LPP, McMillan, pp/ 386/7). But it was thought it was necessary that young people learn self-criticism. This, of course, was necessary for academic work, while in Maria’s environment of landowners, where one had to lead people, self-assurance was necessary in the first place. This, of course, does not mean that in Maria’s family self-criticism was missing or that self-assurance was missing in Dietrich’s family, once one grew up.

Religious Life

Returning to the “religious: life in the two families, there were indeed religious practices in the Bonhoeffer family. There were always prayers before dinner (i.e., the midday meal) and in the evening before going to sleep. The evening prayer was followed by a hymn, which was chosen by one of the children. But the Bonhoeffers went to church only occasionally. My father [Rüdiger Schleicher], on the other hand, was used to going to church on Sundays. This he did now and then (more so later), but he often came back disappointed, as our pastor was a half-Nazi, and we had no automobile to travel to a distant church. However, during the time of our confirmation classes did we take the bus, which still took a very long time.

So usually on Sundays we came together around our grand piano and sang hymns, which my father would accompany, harmonizing them freely and with joy. When Dietrich was next door, he also came and sometimes proposed new hymns, and even when asked by my father, gave a short sermon. Dietrich’s mother would also often come over, but not his father. But this [custom] was something which had not been done in Dietrich’s youth.

The hesitancy to hold devotions together had to do with another difference                                      with the v. Kleist-Wedemeyer family, namely a certain shyness to speak about one’s inner feelings. When Dietrich’s sister Christine v. Dohnanyi was in prison, she wrote to her children [Barbara and Klaus]: ‘We have, you know, never spoken much about religious things. Not everyone can speak about these things. But I want to say to you that I am so convinced that all things work together for good to those who love God – and our entire life has proved it again and again – that, in all the loneliness and worry about all of you, I was really never in despair for a moment…In my case, it is just that I must already be sitting in prison to be able to express something like this…’ (Last Letters of Resistance, p.56.)

Interpersonal Relationships

Also, in our family, one would not directly utter positive feelings towards another person. One would rather show them in being attentive and helpful. That was course expected anyway, but one could just do a little more to show one’s tender feelings. That was different in the Wedemeyer family. They uttered their feelings more openly; it could even seem they were exaggerating. But we were rather careful not to do this. Dietrich points to this in August 1944 (Love Letters from Cell 92, p. 222) when Maria is going to live with his parents:

‘You must now be trying to acclimatize yourself to everyday life with my parents. I don’t think you’ll find it too easy from many aspects. They’re both extremely fond of you, but it’s a fact that such things are hardly ever voiced in our family, whereas in yours they are. They are different people, and they behave as their inner selves dictate. But I can imagine that you’ll find it hard to accept, that we leave many things unspoken, especially in the religious domain. All the same, I should be very happy if you could manage to adapt yourself to my parents’ ways just as I have tried to adapt to your family’s, through the medium of your grandmother – something for which I’ve become ever more thankful.’ (Love Letters from Cell 92, p.262)

 As stated in the first edition of Fiction from Prison, my grandfather [Karl], Dietrich’s father, did not like any kind of overstating. He could bring one back to soberness by just asking: “What did you say?” That [question] prevented one from spontaneous utterances in his presence. It may be that he was more tolerant of his children that he was of his grandchildren.

Educational Differences

The education in both families was basically similar, that is, fundamentally Christian. In the Bonhoeffer family, the emphasis was placed on ‘Christian’ behavior: always have the other person in mind don’t take the best for yourself; help where it is needed, and so on. These applied initially for little things, but later for more important things, when the Nazis demanded a high price. In the Wedemeyer family, this would also apply but their emphasis was more directed to matters of faith and also the church.   

In both families, parents were respected, but apparently in different ways, as it became obvious in the correspondence between Maria and Dietrich. Maria pointed out that her father had been her best friend, while Dietrich insisted that the role of a father was different from that of a friend. This may come about due to different positions the two fathers had in life. Maria’s father could be seen when he was at work on his estate; he sometimes took his children along when he rode out to see how things stood and how his farm hands got on with their work.

Dietrich’s father was in the hospital and the university every morning and returned home punctually every day at 2 p.m. for lunch, when the entire family came together. The children were then meant to speak only if asked by the parents. After lunch there was a pause of one hour, when everybody had to be quiet. As Klaus, Dietrich’s older brother, wrote for fun [to celebrate] the mother’s birthday:

‘Night time is to be observed absolutely during the hours of 10 6:30 am…Noise, loud talking in the cloakroom and in the stairwells is especially to be avoided. This rule does not apply to the Owner (father) or the Sole Business Manager (mother). On the contrary, the latter has the right, at any hour, even during the night, to audibly reproach members with good and sufficient reason for breaking the house rules. The afternoon hour from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. shall also be considered night time for the purpose of this rule.’(Fiction from Prison, pp. 131-132).  

After tea, the father had patients at home, which again meant that the children had to be quiet in the hall, but the house was big, so that they could move and talk freely in their rooms and in the upper floors.      

Both fathers were much respected; Maria’s father in the world of his estate; Dietrich’s father in the world of the university and the hospital in Berlin, which radiated to everybody who approached him and whom he would approach. That helped also with Dietrich’s application, when he needed to appear before the examination board of the army when he wanted to go to the U.S. in the summer of 1939.

Family Festivities

In both families, festivities played a big role. Both families were quite big and in both families there were enough helpers (i.e., maids and servants) to make such feasts possible at home. I was too young to take part in the big parties, since they took place in my grandparent’s big house in the Wangenheimstrasse.   But I heard from my uncles, aunts and especially from old friends of the family how very special these parties must have been. Among them was a former assistant to my grandfather, then living as a refugee in Boston whom we saw several times during our year at Harvard. Yet later I enjoyed the big family parties at Christmas and at the birthdays of my grandparents when many relatives and friends came together. On special birthdays there were two sacks with presents for the grandchildren, one for the boys and one for the girls; every one of the grandchildren could take a present.

For such birthdays, Dietrich’s generation would compose little poems related to the life of the parents. These would be recited or sung by the rest of us. For instance, on my grandmother’s birthday when every grandchild had to represent an episode of her life, I remember that two of us, dressed as storks, said: ‘wir kommen aus Breslau, klip-klap, du hieltest uns tüchtig im Trab, Achte in so kurzer Zeit, das war wirklich, auch zu zweit, durchaus keine Kleinigkeit.’ Translation: We came from Breslau, clip clop, you kept us at a brisk trot, eight (kids) in such a short time, that really was, even for two, no small feat.   And for the 90th birthdays of our great-grandmother they composed a verse, which was sung by Christoph v. Dohnanyi (but every one of us had to sing a verse) “Als Du noch warst so klein wie ich, da reiste man wit Rossen, bin ich einmal so alt wie Du, wird man zum Mond geschossen. Translation: When you were as young as I am, one traveled on horses, when I get to be as old as you, one will be shot to the moon.

In addition, at one time the eight oldest of us had to learn to dance the Quadrille, and once we were made to perform Haydn’s Toy Symphony. For this piece the younger ones only had to learn  when to come in with our toy instruments, but this was hard work [for us] as well as for the adults who had to teach us.  

The Wedemeyers also had happy big festivities with their family and friends. But they also had a kind of celebration, which we didn’t have. That was on the occasion of hunting. Hunting had quite an importance for them. Maria had a necklace with stag teeth, which was dear to her and which she wore quite often. One of my aunts said that she wondered how Dietrich would be able to live in a family where hunting played such an important role.     

For Maria it was quite natural to go hunting. So she wrote to Dietrich on October 26, 1943:

‘On the 31st I’m going hunting. I’m looking forward to it a lot because Klaus has lent me a specially nice horse.’ (Love Letters from Cell 92, p. 110)

And on November 12:

‘Hans-Werner [Maria’s brother] and I are planning a little shooting party [untranslatable play on words omitted] at Pätzig. Only three or four of us, perhaps, but it’ll be great fun. Have you ever done any shooting? I’ve seen a photo of Walter [Bonhoeffer] in hunting gear. Would you like to learn? It’s easier than riding and far more useful. Medinge’s husband shot his first deer at the age of forty. It would be lovely if you could join in our Pätzig shooting parties!’(Love Letters from Cell 92, p. 115)

On November 21, Dietrich answered:

‘I think it’s very nice, your going hunting again with Hans-Werner, just as I take pleasure in any pleasure you allow yourself. All that would distress me is whatever distresses you – in addition to all your existing burdens. No, believe it or not, I’ve never been shooting in my life. I much enjoy sitting is a hide or on the edge of the forest at dusk, waiting with a pounding heart , for the animals to emerge, but I’ve never felt the least inclination to shoot them. Why should I, when it’s not necessary? So I’m afraid your deer won’t have anything to fear from me in the future. Riding is quite another matter, though, and I long to ride with you across the fields and countryside! Did you know, by the way, that Friedrich Wilhelm I – he was an ardent hunter – asked every clergyman he met whether hunting was s sin? I think they were all, including A.H. Franke [sic], wise enough to pronounce it no sin. However, like so many things, it isn’t to everyone’s taste. Walter, whose photo you saw, used regularly to g out with the gamekeeper and would have like to be one himself, but I seem to remember that it made a deep impression on him when he shot his first deer at the age of fifteen or sixteen..’  (Love Letters from Cell 92, p. 119)                                                                                                                                             

When I was sixteen I once was invited to visit the Wedemeyers on their Pätzig estate. It was just before Christmas and I was quite impressed by the Christmas play they did with the families of their farm hands. It was very special, and apparently they did it every year. When I was there as a guest, they had many more guests, people from town who wanted to escape the bombing; they did as much as possible for these people.

In both families games were liked and played often. In addition, they both liked to read together f.j (???) don’t know what this stands for – Sabine. plays in parts. In both families music was liked. Eberhard told me that Dietrich was sometimes asked to play something on the piano when he was with Maria’s grandmother. Then they went over to her son who had a grand piano and Dietrich played there. This son had inherited the estate when he had married and Mrs. Ruth von Kleist had moved to another much simpler and smaller house on another part of the estate.

Most of the Kleists were not active amateur musicians as many in our family were. Music was a big part of our lives, more and more so during the politically oppressive times. It was for us a refuge from all the terrible events, There were piano trios and quartets; we even played Schubert’s Trout Quintet and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. If Eberhard was there, which was very often the case, he taught the big family, consisting of the six of us Schleichers, the five Dohnanyis, and often with [my uncle] Klaus and his wife Emmi cantatas of the pre-Bach time, which only then began to become known and of which we became very fond.

Dietrich was then officially forbidden to be in Berlin. But his father had managed to arrange with the authorities that he could stay with his parents (next door to us), which he often did. Of course, even though the music was a refuge from the political calamities, these musical evenings, when the family came together, were also always used to discuss the newest political events; usually disturbing things had happened and were talked about.

That was probably not quite as much the way in the von Kleist-Wedemeyer family. Their way of talking all together was a bit different from the way in our family. We were more sober. They read different books (also perhaps fewer). What Maria read and liked were the books that were read in school in our time.   These were not considered bad, but they were not so much liked in our family, as Dietrich hinted to Maria in one of his letters:

And now to your [Rainer Maria]  Rilke! Thank you for sending it. I already knew those letters, but I’ve reread them with pleasure, thinking of you. But, as you already know, I’m somehow on a different wavelength and have always wondered while reading them how one should view such letters, which were (or so I assume and hope!) originally intended to be purely personal. I can’t simply accept them as applying to myself, and I believe it would be a mistake to be seduced into doing so by their beauty of thought and language, still less to arrange one’s life accordingly. Rilke would surely have written in a very different vein to me – and, I believe, to you (though I’m positive that in my case he wouldn’t have done so at all!). To employ a musical analogy, I always have to transpose Rilke from D flat major to C major for my benefit, and there are times when I wouldn’t observe his pianissimo – nor would you! Forgive me for saying all this, but I feel it somehow possesses more than mere literary relevance. We must discuss this further some time. Many, many thanks!’

Yet Maria didn’t let herself be rattled and she defended her good opinion about these books in an astonishingly positive way. She wrote something like: ‘If you don’t like these books, then you have not read them well enough. As a matter of fact, I didn’t understand either why these books were not quite accepted in our family. They were positive in outlook – nothing else would have been given to us anyway – and they had a good sense of morality. I remember once asking my mother about such a book by Ernst Wiechert Das einfache Leben (The Simple Life) why that was not good. My mother said: ‘This kind of life is a bit too simple. Wiechert had a tendency to transfigure reality into sentimentality.’

Of course neither family liked the Nazism but [this attitude arose] from different backgrounds. The Kleist-Wedemeyer family had national conservative roots; the Bonhoeffers had rather liberal ones. Maria’s father was a good friend of Franz von Papen. Papen had been a Prussian representative of Parliament, a conservative monarchist belonging to the right wing of the ‘Zentrum’ party. He was a godfather to Maria. He helped Hitler become chancellor. Later he dissociated himself to a certain degree from the Nazis as the Nazis did from him, and became ambassador to Turkey. His outlook was very different from ours and we didn’t like the Wedemeyer’s proximity to him.

Both families were socially minded. If on the Wedemeyer’s estate one of the farm hands became ill, Maria’s mother would look after him or her as a matter of course. In a similar way the Bonhoeffers felt responsible for their maids. If there was sickness in their families, my grandparents tried to help with suitable medicine and other useful things. When a former maid, who in the meantime had married and [had] five children, became ill, my mother, then only sixteen, was sent to her house to substitute for her, while she went away to recover. My mother had quite a hard time there, as the husband of the former maid drank a lot and was very difficult.

After the war it took a long time until Maria came over to see my grandparents. But it was very difficult to get to us in Berlin through the Russian occupying party. Her mother, though, impressed us. In a time when all the people from the East fled to the West, she quite alone went East, most parts on foot, to find her old mother. And she even recalled finding her, just days before her death.

But back to Maria: We soon learned about her student life in Göttingen. Also, much later, found out about it from a friend, when he worked in the German Embassy in London while we were there.

Topics: Biographies and Portraits
Renate Bethge




The English Language Section is dedicated to advancing the theology and legacy of German pastor-theologian and Nazi resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the academy, church, and world, and has been on the forefront of this work for the last fifty years.

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