This is not a political or religious blog. But, this couple stood for TRUTH. Today, I will break my rule slightly and post this story of love in times of grave danger.
During the Nazi years, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was internationally known theologian. He was of an aristocratic background, extremely well educated, well traveled and very well informed on world events.
As the Nazi’s took hold of all aspects of German life, Dietrich saw the maniacal hatred of Hitler and his followers and knew it was incompatible with Christian belief and Christian life. He became a founder and activist in what was called the Confessing Church–a subversive, but true and faithful church that rejected Nazi control. He also taught in its underground seminary.
In June 1942, Bonhoeffer visited an old friend who innocently introduced him to her granddaughter, Maria. For Dietrich, while “love” at first sight would be an exaggeration, he had after all known her as a confirmation student. But it was the first time he’d been shaken out of his academic and theological mind enough to see a beautiful, intelligent young woman he could come to love.
Sadly, the course of this possible new love was a harbinger of what was to come. The same Granny blabbed her suspicion of Dietrich being in love with Maria to the family. This, predictably, caused unease. For one thing, he was twice her age. For another, they didn’t even know each other in any meaningful, mature way. Before they could change this, Maria’s Grandmother exposed this secret. Bonhoeffer was angry that his mere suspicions that he could fall in love with Maria had been so clearly read by the Grandmother. For her part, Maria, still thought of him only as a family friend and dutiful pastor. But, over the course of sorting out the emotional mess of made by her Grandmother, Maria decided she certainly could–and did, love Dietrich and very soon they were engaged.
The things that undoubtedly helped this engagement were the facts that Dietrich was a friend of the family, that they knew his character was beyond reproach and that Maria’s father and brother had just died. Now, before you wonder, Dietrich stayed completely away from Maria and wrote to her only very pastoral letters in the immediate aftermath of each death. He did not take advantage of her grief in an untoward way. But as the couple expressed more of their thoughts to each other, his suspicions were confirmed and he knew he was truly in love with her. Then suddenly they were engaged. Just like that. It was a different time and different society than ours today. Such a relationship must lead to marriage.
Their engagement was agreed to and plans moved forward for their wedding and future home together. But, as Bonhoeffer’s biographer would write “It was an engagement like few in the world” (Metaxis, p. 421).
At about the same time, Bonhoeffer’s niece, Renate, was to become engaged to his best friend, Eberhard Bethge. Two cross-generational romances in one family. A newer biography of Bonhoeffer has suggested that the two men were more than mere friends. Did they have feelings for each other beyond simple friendship and professional association? Who knows. That’s the truthful answer.
We can read into their letters anything we like, but I do not subscribe to the school of thought today that says everyone who is close, even affectionate, to a same-sex friend must be sexually attracted to them or romantically in love with them. These men knew each other in a time and place in which men associated with men and associated with women only in mixed company. Best friends were always the same sex. I am content with that until someone dredges up something that proves another type relationship existed.
Three months later Bonhoeffer was in prison.
You see, in addition to being a theologian Dietrich also worked as a double-agent in the Nazi bureaucracy. He knew the participants of the Valkyrie plot well. Maria’s family knew this, too.
I’ve sat in prison and correctional institution visiting rooms in this country and I can tell you, keeping a relationship going on any level–even just acquaintances–is difficult. Enduring it with a loved one is painful beyond belief. That a couple so newly engaged and knowing each other so little could keep the flame burning for each other is a testament to both love and faith. They both realized there was more to this than physical love. That is one of the ways that Maria astonishes me. Yes, she was fluttering around like any happy bride-to-be getting her trousseau together, planning a first home, getting to know her fiance’s preferences, even his mundane daily likes and dislikes, but she also managed to find a depth of maturity and faith that few women Bonhoeffer’s own age could have found.
“If I talk too much about myself you must realize that you are always included in me….”
Dietrich to Maria July 30, 1943
Those words, written in utter sincerity, make my knees weak. That any could dismiss this as anything but true love need only go back to that one letter and to that one line.
“Perhaps it’s a good thing that my happiness at having you becomes perceptible only by degrees, otherwise I couldn’t endure it.”
Maria to Dietrich October 12, 1943
Yet, remember, the woman who wrote that last line was only 19 years old. Her faith, both in God, and in her fiance helped her struggle Dietrich’s imprisonment. While they were able to communicate with regularity and to see each other some this communication and contact always involved a censor or a guard nearby. The delays and lack of privacy in communication, the lack of private, physical contact–of just being in the same room together–did from time-to-time take its toll on the couple. Dietrich, older and with more maturity and more mature faith, struggled to keep their eyes on what God had in mind for them:
“For both of us, I believe, happiness lies elsewhere, in a more remote place that not only passes many people’s understanding but will continue to do so. At bottom, we both seek tasks to perform. Each of us has hitherto sought them separately, but from now on they’ll be common tasks in which we shall fully grow together—if God grants us the requisite time.”
(p. 86, Dietrich to Maria 9/20/43)
Maria was comforted by these words and others from her fiance, but her youth shines beautifully thru in this line–a line that also shows her incredible maturity for her age:
“…when you kissed me, I knew I’d found you again—found you more completely than I’d ever possessed you before.”
(p. 55, 7/30/43 M to D).
When I read that last quote, so exquisite in its imagery, I find it hard to do the math and come up with 19–with a vapid, texting 19 of today at least. But Maria was made of sterner stuff, was well-educated and had been brought up to be a proper wife–not a giggling girlfriend.
In my lifetime there are two groups who could be compared to this couple: POW/MIA spouses and the Iran Hostages and their spouses. Yet those aren’t quite right–for Bonhoeffer and his Maria WERE occasionally allowed to see each other, even to touch and share a kiss. Though their letters were read and sometimes held up in the mail, they communicated with enough regularity to allow their relationship to grow and deepen. Perhaps soldiers in Vietnam might be a better comparison–they sometimes received R & R in locations where wives were welcome. Regardless of the appropriate comparison, their situation was not normal.
Even at 19, Maria was able to understand that depression and despair could easily overtake Dietrich. She knew this was a vital and cerebral man and that prison would likely foster only the worst feelings. She was courageous in the face of this–even making a point of telling him not to let it take hold. That’s very bold to me. She takes time to comfort him as well, both with words of tender love and with descriptions of a beautiful Spring day or of meetings with family–all of which served to sustain him.
If ever there was a man who deserved the love of a good and steadfast woman–a true “helpmeet”–to my mind that man was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. During the Third Reich the Church was forced (or, sadly, jumped at the chance) to do the bidding of the Nazis. The shame of this still taints the Church, much as the Ku Klux Klan still taints the protestant church in much of the American Midwest and South still today. Most protestants today know that Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer took believers underground and kept the true church alive during the Nazi regime. But few know that when he died in prison he was lovingly engaged to a woman named Maria Von Wedemeyer, early 18 years his junior, or that her loved and encouragement helped to sustain him.
I believe anyone who claims to be a Christian today should read Eric Metaxas superb biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Or, if that book is simply too daunting (and it should not be–it is incredibly readable) then read the chapter on Bonhoeffer in Metaxas’ more general, multiple biography, Seven Men.
Here is another take on their relationship from the respected journal Christianity Today.
Though out-of-print and expensive to purchase second hand, the book Love Letters from Cell 92 contains all the existing letters of Dietrich and Maria. I sincerely hope this book will achieve re-publication. It is too important a record of triumph over adversity and of the testament of love and fidelity to be lost.