Category Archives: Bonhoeffer and Women

Bonhoeffer, friendship and Novalis’s blue flower

cornflowers cluster

In his Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer famously refers to friendship as the cornflower blooming between the straight rows of the “fertile wheat” of the mandates, those human institutions of marriage, work, government and church that in Lutheran theology come down to humans from God. The gentle cornflower image, occurring to Bonhoeffer as he sat in a dank prison cell, no doubt harkens back to his youth, wandering the fields around Griefswald with newly-married Sabine or earlier still, gleaning wheat on his von Hase cousins’ and other nearby farms during the “hunger days” of World War I. More pointedly, it describes his adult friendship with Eberhard Bethge, a relationship that animated and brought great joy to the last decade of his life.

Anticipating release from prison and hence threatened with displacement by Bethge’s marriage (the marriage took place two weeks before Bonhoeffer’s arrest in a civil ceremony and six weeks after the arrest in a religious ceremony that to the family marked the real marriage), Bonhoeffer used the cornflower to insist on friendship’s importance: “Does one not leave the cornflower in place next to the fertile wheat? Does one pull it up because it is not necessary for life?” (DBWE 8)

wheat in field

Sadly, this very image speaks to anachronism, another time and place, for pesticides have largely eradicated the brilliant blue blooms that once blossomed in the fertile spaces between rows of grain, and in the United States, at least, we are not accustomed to see clusters of blue blooming between crops.

The cornflower has many symbolic resonances: it was a symbol of Germany, and the flower, also called bachelor’s button, symbolized contentment with unmarried life, according to Most interestingly, Bonhoeffer references Novalis, the German Romantic writer, on May 1, 1943, early in his prison stay. A blue flower, possibly a cornflower, is an image in Novalis’s  Heinrich von Ofterdingen, where Heinrich longs above all else to reach an unattainable blossom that he sees in a vision: “A tall, pale blue flower … stood beside the spring … He saw nothing but the blue flower.” (quoted from Jennifer Hoyer, The Space of Words.) We don’t know if Novalis’s image sprang to his mind during Bonhoeffer’s May 1 musings, but we know he deeply missed Bethge, and it’s not impossible he conflated his longing to see his friend with Novalis’s mystical blue flower.

cornflower single

In his poem “The Friend,” Bonhoeffer uses the cornflower as an extended metaphor to describe friendship’s beauty and strength. The poem, in which he reflects on his past after the failure of the July 20, 1944 assassination plot against Hilter, shows Bonhoeffer both appreciating what has gone before and reconciling himself to death. Entwined in it is a tribute to Sabine, his first friend and always dearly beloved twin: “Playmates at first /on the spirit’s long journeys/into wondrous,/far away realms…” (DBWE 8).  The emphasis of the poem, however, falls on Bethge.

Friendship remained supremely important to Bonhoeffer throughout his life and should perhaps be highlighted as a point of light and color against a grim period of church struggle, resistance, assassination attempts and death. To end even more firmly on friendship, I repeat a Joseph Addison quote noted by my own cyber-friend, Ellen Moody:

“But the mind never unbends itself so agreeably as in the conversation of a well-chosen friend. There is indeed no blessing of life that is any way comparable to the enjoyment of a discreet and virtuous friend. It eases and unloads the mind. clears and improves the understanding, engenders thoughts and knowledge, animates virtue and resolutions, soothes and allays the passions, and finds employment for most of the vacant hours of life.”

I am sure Bonhoeffer would agree. What are your thoughts on Bonhoeffer and friendship?

A response to Schlingensiepen on Metaxas and Marsh

Having just completed a book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and woman, I feel compelled to respond to Ferdinand Schlingensiepen’s review on this blog of Metaxas’s and Marsh’s biographies.

First, as Schlingensiepen must know–and his biography, witty and well-informed, is one of the best–writing a biography of Bonhoeffer must be one of life’s more daunting feats. I realized in writing my own the impossibility of cramming such an immensely full life in the  300-500-page format publishers expect. Even Bethge’s byzantine 1,000-page biography omits huge amounts of personal material, especially about the women in Bonhoeffer’s life, a piece of the puzzle integral for understanding a figure for whom the personal and the theological were so tightly intertwined.

After dealing with errors in every book about Bonhoeffer I read, including, I might say, Schlingensiepen’s and Bethge’s, I realized that the fault lies perhaps not entirely in the biographer’s stars but in a genre that insists on a single volume, standard size life. Condensing a life as complicated and multivalent as Bonhoeffer’s leads to distorting it–and this lends itself to omissions that can become blunders. Further, to condemn a writer for leaving out parts of Bonhoeffer’s life with fewer than 500 pages to work with is to condemn him or her for doing the inevitable: it is tantamount to condemning a person for not working four forty-hour a week jobs.

Given the complexity of Bonhoeffer’s life, we all need to read multiple biographies and primary sources to gain a multi-faceted understanding of Bonhoeffer. More to the point, the world of Bonhoeffer scholarship cries out for a day-by-day, blow-by-blow multi-volume Bonhoeffer biography similar to those we have for figures such as Henry James. I can’t even begin to discuss how much time I spent simply unraveling timelines–those in the Works are very helpful but incomplete– in order to figure out where major players in my book were when.

So first, it would be most helpful to have a multi-volume companion biography to the Works. This would allow writers to devote their energies to concentrating on discrete pieces of Bonhoeffer’s life.

All that being said, I agree that the Metaxas biography was largely a biographical fiction, though I would contend it largely repeats the “heroic narrative” that is standard Bonhoeffer fare: it is the book that people want to read, that mirrors back to them their own desire for a pillar saint. I find it difficult, however, to lump it with Marsh’s book: I dismissed Metaxas and would not use him as a source: Marsh is so much better I would hesitate to conflate him with Metaxas.

Marsh’s biography, though breathtakingly beautifully written, stymied me as I couldn’t track sources from it, and I decided to stop judging it for being what it is not: it is not a pedantically fact-based account of Bonhoeffer’s life. Instead, I found it a lyrical meditation on Bonhoeffer written by someone well steeped in primary sources. Yes, yes, the moment where Marsh insists that Ruth von Kleist-Retzow was dismayed at the engagement between Maria and Dietrich is a point where Marsh gets the story wrong–but Marsh is hardly alone in his misreading of the women in Bonhoeffer’s life. And I appreciated Marsh for having a point of view that dared to deviate from the party line.

As I blogged at my website, in a post entitled “On Biography” –(, Marsh’s Bonhoeffer is not my Bonhoeffer. Nor is anyone else’s Bonhoeffer my own. A biography inevitably becomes a merging of one person’s with another person’s consciousness, one person’s time with another person’s time, one person’s nationality with another’s. We inevitably will distort: we can’t not do so. The question  underlying biography–how can any of us have the hubris to purport to know another person’s life?–and of anachronism: how can a post-war person have an understanding of the lens through which a pre-World War II person saw?–haunted me as I wrote and haunts me still. We are conscious and we are blind. We make mistakes, and we soar with insights. Some of us do it better and with more accuracy: none of us is perfect.

Schlingensiepen cannot be suggesting that nobody who is not of the nationality of a subject is unqualified to write a biography of that person. That would be as absurd as to contend that we can add nothing to our understanding of person’s life if we come from a later time period. After all, we write biography as much to understand the present as the past, as much to understand our own society as another’s. Second, while I found little of interest in Metaxas, Marsh’s biography, which came out as my almost completed draft wended towards a publisher, became a sounding board, a conversation piece for me, a way for me to sharpen and refine, often albeit in contradiction, my own understanding of who Bonhoeffer was as I did a final edit on my book. And for that I am grateful. That, in the end, is what any single decent biography is–not the final word, but one person’s informed contribution to an ongoing conversation.

Bosanquet, Bonhoeffer and the problem of memory

In “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness in an Ambiguous World,” Robin W Lovin and Jonathan P. Gosser call understanding Bonhoeffer’s life “a necessary project.” They write, “it is only as the man emerges for us from his work [or, I would say, as that work emerges from the man] that we are restrained from appropriating his suggestive, enigmatic and fragmentary words and twisting them entirely to our own purposes.” (148)

But how do we unearth the reality of Dietrich Bonheffer, this man for whom the personal was always the theological and the theological always the personal?

Beyond his own writings, we look inevitably–necessarily– to the fragmented and elusive, often frustrating, memories of those who knew him.

Mary Bosanquet, Bonhoeffer’s first biographer, had access to an enviable array of memories: many of the people who knew Bonhoeffer still lived and thrived when she began her book in 1964, not 20 years after Bonhoeffer’s death. Yet Sabine initially met Bosanquet’s book project with dismay, writing “I could not quite suppress my alarm, and wrote to her frankly expressing my concern.” Coming from Sabine, notable for her tendency to understatement, the word “alarm” should stop us, and we might wonder how Bosanquat reassured her.

What Sabine worried about we can only surmise, but she most probably acted as a protective sister wanting to shield her favorite sibling.  All the same, her initial reaction was not open arms, even to a woman she knew and liked, a woman of her own age and class. For from the start, as we see, biography comes to us half-shrouded with an impulse towards privacy that competes with its desire to shine a light on and remember another.

Sabine and Eberhard eventually cooperated generously with Bosanquet’s project, and it is presumably through Sabine that we get such flesh and blood tidbits as a 1923 vision of the Bonhoeffer parents, Paula and Karl, “dressed as Wotan and Freya,” receiving guests in their Grunewald home during one of their famous costume parties. (46)

Yet as we know, such memories as these which populate biography in ways we would not want to forego, likewise remain problematic. Gregory Cowle, as just one example, recently wrote in The New York Times that memoirs, even

 “ by scrupulous writers making good-faith efforts to reconstruct their pasts, are by nature unreliable — as tenuous and conditional and riddled with honest error as memory itself.”

We need memoir to breathe life into facts and dates, to fill in details, to provide facts and color, to animate the dry bones of a life–and we need to handle it with care.

As noted in my last blog post, Bosanquet received letters from the Horns, Bonhoeffer’s governesses. While invaluable, the correspondence illustrates the problems with memory. Käthe Horn remembered that Dietrich could be “a thorough nuisance,” while Maria Horn, in contrast, recalled that the Bonhoeffer children were “never rude or ill-mannered.”


Maria Horn, a Bonhoeffer governess and, later, close family friend.

It’s hard to imagine that the young, exuberant Bonhoeffers, if they were actual human beings, were never rude or ill-mannered, but easy to imagine a faithful employee and friend protecting the family image even years after retirement. Maria Horn, like all of us, comes in with a predisposition. Thus, the more we can read of a person’s recollections, the clearer a picture will eventually emerge. The full text of the Horn sister letters might help us better to understand their emotional landscape or even the context of the questions asked. Perhaps Bonsanquet, with good instincts, drew out the best parts. We don’t know.

What of that initial letter Sabine sent to Bosanquet with her concerns? Such a document might be helpful in understanding the nature of her alarm.

In the end though, these ruminations are less important than the bigger question: How do we handle fragile, malleable memories with care? How do we determine what’s true?

The Mysterious Mary Bosanquet, Bonhoeffer’s first biographer

We know very little about Mary Bosanquet, who wrote the first Bonhoeffer biography. Her lively book, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, published in 1968, is filled, however, with a rich vein of primary source material.

     We do know that Bosanquet, writing in the mid-1960s, had earlier become friends with Sabine Leibholz, Bonhoeffer’s twin sister, and both Leibholz and Eberhard Bethge cooperated with the biographical project. Sabine spoke with Bosanquet for “many hours” and was impressed with her “exceptional sensitivity,” saying “she has recognized Dietrich for the man he was. … I can fully agree with her interpretation.”

The young Mary Bosanquet graced the frontispiece of her book Canada Ride.

The young Mary Bosanquet graced the frontispiece of her book Canada Ride.

While Sabine’s glowing endorsement of the book (which includes more than is quoted above) might lead one to suspect Bosanquet functioned as Leibholz’s and Bethge’s proxy, the book transcends mere transcription of those two’s thoughts. It includes, for example, remembrances from Bonhoeffer’s beloved governesses, Käthe and Maria Horn. Although in their 80s, the Horn sisters took the time to write Bosanquet letters about their young charge.

In the biography, Bosanquet quotes Käthe Horn’s letter at greater length than Maria’s.  Käthe remembers Sabine and Dietrich as “gifted and ready to learn,” as well as “jolly,” and notes the youngsters liked to surprise her with good deeds, such as setting the table for supper so she wouldn’t have do it. She also notes that the young Dietrich was “mischievious” and “up to various pranks.” Bethge’s portrayal of their mother, Paula, as emotional and a woman not to be crossed, gains credence from  Käthe’s recollection of a time Dietrich became “thorough nuisance.” Paula “descended upon him, boxed his ears left and right and was gone. Then the nonsense was over.” Maria Horn, however, noted that while the Bonhoeffer children were “high-spirited,” they “were never rude or ill-mannered.”

I was tantalized by these few breadcrumbs of recollection from Bonhoeffer’s governesses that made their way into the book. Surely their full letters must exist somewhere? I wondered, too, if Bosanquet could still be alive.

My Bosanquet sleuthing proved harder than I expected. The internet yielded no information –although I learned from bookseller sites that Bosanquet had published several other books, including Canada Ride, her account of riding across Canada on horseback in 1939 and Journey into A Picture, her story of being posted to Italy with the YMCA during World War II as the Nazis were being pushed out. I ordered the books, both out of print, from used booksellers.  Canada Ride, also published under the title Saddlebags for Satchels, duly arrived; Journey into A Picture never did.

Canada Ride yielded interesting biographical information about Bosanquet. She grew up in Beechingstoke Manor farm in the tiny village of Beechingstoke, England. Her father was a diplomat in Frankfurt, and so she spent part of her childhood there, developing a fondness for the German people. When she rode across Canada, her way of distancing herself from the war she knew was coming (it broke out during her ride), she was 24, and had already had a Christian conversion experience. On March 31, 1939, when she boarded the Duchess of Bedford to sail to Canada, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was visiting Sabine in London during the “glorious” spring of 1939.

Dietrich visiting Sabine in London, 1939.

Dietrich visiting Sabine in London, 1939.

Canada Ride, translated into German, became a best seller there after the war, perhaps in part because Bosanquet spoke generously of the Germans in the book, stating when the war broke out that she could never hate them. In 1948, Bosanquet met and hit it off with Sabine. This isn’t surprising, given that the two women were from the same social class, elite but not aristocratic, close in age, had lived in the other’s home country,  were fluent in both German and English, and were intelligent, accomplished women.

All of this fascinated me. Since I dscovered Bosanquet was born in 1913, I now imagined she had passed away. (She may still be alive at 101–she was born in December, 1913.) Knowing her father was a diplomat helped me locate her particular family, but as for any direct descendants I was stymied. I contacted a British cyber friend and genealogist, Ron Dunning, who established that Bosanquat had married a Robert Sinkler Darby in Princeton, NJ in 1947. The intrepid Ron also discovered  that the couple had three children, moved back to England and that at least some of the now adult children (and/or their own children) live near Bath.

Since that time (last June), I have been too busy to pursue this line of sleuthing any further, but would be interested to know if any of Bosanquet’s Bonhoeffer papers are extant. To the extent she corresponded with Sabine, Eberhard, the Horn sisters and others, her materials would surely be of interest to Bonhoeffer scholars. I hope to share more information as I have time to continue these researches and would be glad of any input.

I find it fitting that Bonhoeffer’s first biographer was a woman, an accomplished author, and a friend of Sabine’s. After all, as I discovered, except for Eberhard, Bonhoeffer’s innermost circle consisted entirely of women, and except for Eberhard, Dietrich was closest to Sabine. I’m not surprised Sabine would strike up a friendship with Bosanquet–or that a woman would be the first to tell Sabine’s beloved brother’s story.




Maria von Wedemeyer: Hiding in Plain Sight

While researching Dietrich Bonhoeffer and women, I was tantalized by a line from Maria’s sister Ruth-Alice von Bismarck in Love Letters from Cell 92: The Correspondence between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer: 1943-45: “In 1974 … She [Maria] also gave an interview about her relationship with Bonhoeffer for a television documentary.” (354)

An interview? Why had I not heard of this? What could be more compelling than to see and hear a historical figure on whose letters I had spent so much time? I went searching for the interview, but came up empty-handed: 1974 and television were too vague as parameters. I even spoke on the phone to a kind person at Union Theological Seminary, who suggested I check with PBS.

I continued sleuthing and eventually discovered the interview in Malcolm Muggeridge’s series A Third Testament, which “explores the spiritual awakening of six renowned thinkers,” ending with Bonhoeffer. Suffice it to say that I immediately ordered the DVD.




What a find it was. The interview confirms reports of Maria as remarkably self-possessed, and at 50, still a beautiful woman, sporting a form fitting sweater dress. It was fascinating to see the woodsy contemporary home she bought in New England during her tenure as the highest ranking female manager at Honeywell. I wondered if the thick Oriental rug on the floor was the one from the Patzig estate used to cover the wagon in which she, some younger siblings and several old women escaped across the frozen Oder river as the Russians arrived.



The interview had its frustrations, however, as I watched the self-possessed Maria hesitate, pause and thoughtfully grope for the right word to describe her relationship with Dietrich, only to have Muggeridge, apparently unwilling to wait, supply a word for her. She acquiesces and repeats it—but what would she have said if left to speak her own thoughts? We’ll never know—and yet, the interview, short as it is, exists, and for that we can be grateful.

In an exchange of e-mails with me, Craig Slane said that mission of this Bonhoeffer site is “high quality resources for engagement with Bonhoeffer.” Because of that, I started thinking about quality resources hidden in plain sight, and the first that popped to mind was this interview. I include some analysis of it in my upcoming book, and I hope more of these “submerged” sources will rise to the surface in Bonhoeffer studies. For instance, while we know of only a few seconds of film of Bonhoeffer himself and have no recordings, I imagine the Gestapo must have taped telephone conversations of a man of such interest to them. Bonhoeffer did, after all, strongly suspect his phone was tapped. We know too that the regime played back recordings of Niemoller phone conversations with Confessing Church cohorts in order to embarrass him. If similar Bonhoeffer recordings were made and still exist, locked away in some archive, wouldn’t that be a find? But on we dream …

 Next time: Mary Bosanquat, Bonhoeffer’s first biographer.