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The Rest of the Story: Bonhoeffer and Women

Diane Reynolds discusses her new book,The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Eugene, OR.: Wipf and Stock, 2016).

Q. What is this book about?

It’s a biography that focuses on the women in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Q. Why did you write it?

I went to find a book on women in Bonhoeffer’s life and there were none. So I wrote the book I wanted to read.

Q. That was it?

As I started researching, the stories about the women told in standard narratives didn’t add up.  They started to become more and more of mystery. What was really going on?  Who were these women, really?

Q. How did you get interested in Bonhoeffer?

I was assigned to read Letters and Papers in Prison in college and fell in love with that book. Later, I became interested in him as Christian struggling to live his faith in the real world: he is a compelling figure and a role model.

Q. So what became your purpose in writing this?

I developed two purposes. First, I wanted to establish an accurate baseline story of the women closest to Bonhoeffer. Second, I also wanted to write a readable piece of narrative non-fiction that gave some of the surround of what life was like in Nazi Germany, especially during the war. I hoped to flesh out these women, especially Ruth and Maria, who are sometimes depicted as one-dimensional cutouts. (Ferdinand Schlingensiepen does acknowledge the complexity of Maria.) I also supply more information on Zinn, purported by some to be Bonhoeffer’s first fiancée—and have published the first picture of her. In a sense, I had to balance a need to tell a full and accurate story and the desire to tell a dramatic story.

Q. Why should we care about the women? Aren’t they an arcane sideline?

On the most basic level, it’s always nice to have an accurate story. But beyond that, as I found in my research, women comprised most of Bonhoeffer’s innermost circle. They informed his theology and helped determine his actions against the Nazis. For Bonhoeffer, far more than most people, the personal was the theological and the theological the personal. Women were central to his life and thought.

Q. Which women was he closest to?

He was very close to his twin sister Sabine, who was his first theological conversation partner. She married a Jew and worries about her and her family laid heavily on Bonhoeffer. He also was very close with his grandmother, who helped form his social conscience, as well as Ruth von Kleist-Retzow. And Maria von Wedemeyer.

Q. How did you get information about the women?

Sabine left a memoir, Ruth left a memoir and the women left letters. People close to Maria, Bonhoeffer’s fiancée, left remembrances. I found a remarkable four-minute interview with Maria in a documentary on Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer and others refer to the women in letters.

Q. If all these sources are out there, why write a book?

The information from these sources has never been pulled together in one place or correlated with the rest of Bonhoeffer’s life.  Standard biographies, because they don’t focus on the women (it’s impossible to fully fit Bonhoeffer’s life in a standard length bio), have gaps. Some information about the women is buried in footnotes or lines in letters. It was a fascinating project but time consuming. Just putting together timelines could take hours.

Q. What were some of the challenges you faced in research?

Memoirs are not necessarily accurate. Sabine, especially, could be frustratingly vague about dates. As for letters, this was Nazi Germany and people naturally couldn’t be as open and frank as they would have liked. Often they wrote in code. They talked on the phone frequently too and so what we have is only the tip of the iceberg.

Q. Why not call it Bonhoeffer and Women?

Originally it was Bonhoeffer and Women, but Bethge, with whom Bonhoeffer had an extraordinarily close relationship, complicated the story of the women. It was impossible to understand Bonhoeffer’s relationships with women without understanding the Bethge relationship, so he became part of the narrative. This means there are points here and there where the women “drop out”, so it seemed confusing to call the book Bonheoffer and Women.

Q. How is the story of a German theologian not boring?

Say “German theologian” and most people glaze over. It’s a challenge for people who have never heard of Bonhoeffer. But start talking about how he resisted the Nazis and the challenges he faced and it gets more interesting. Why did he keep coming back to Nazi Germany of all places? He could have gone to Gandhi’s India Ashram in 1935. In 1939, he was safe in America. He sailed back to Germany right before the war started. Why? How did he make the decision to get involved in a plot to kill Hitler when he was a pacifist? How do any of us make moral and ethical decisions in real time when we don’t know how the story will end? How do we live decently? Bonheoffer grappled with all this. Plus, Nazi Germany was simply an interesting place: we don’t get too many real world experiments in living in such a bizarre, dystopic culture and one rife with so many contradictions.

Q. Is Bonhoeffer relevant today or simply a dull artifact of a dead period?

His relevance is startling and it is too bad that so few young people have heard of him. The problems he faced: an increasingly marginalized church, people privileging rationalism over faith, and the worship of technology, the problems of racism, sexism, scapegoating, and terror are all still here. We’re faced with demagoguery and nationalism on the rise today. Will our experiment in U.S. democracy go the way of the Weimar Republic? Will the EU survive any more than the League of Nations did?

Q. Why call it The Doubled Life?

After the National Socialists took over, Bonhoeffer was increasingly forced to live a double life, to pretend to be what he was not. Further, the story of his relationship with these women, because it hasn’t been fully told, also seemed to me to comprise a double life, a submerged story.

Q. Other challenges?

His relationships with women in the Confessing Church movement couldn’t be a focus. I would have liked to do more with that and also, as person trained in literature, to do more with close readings of his prison texts, but there simply wasn’t space. Another challenge was recognizing that some of the players are still alive, and wanting to be sensitive to that. I hope I do emphasize, for example, that Bethge dearly loved Renate.

Q. Is it hard writing about another time and culture?

I continue to be haunted by the question of hubris: how can we purport to understand the life of another person? I am fascinated the issue of anachronism: how can we understand a person from another time from our post-1945 mindset? How do I put on his lenses rather than impose my own? How does a post-war American understand Nazi Germany?

Q. Were there specific challenges in writing about the women?

Yes. It can be easy to fall into depicting women through the lens of stereotypes, and I worked hard not to do that. These lives had many contradictions. They were complex.  

Q. How do feel about Bonhoeffer after writing a book about him?

I am surprised at how greatly I still admire him, now more so than ever for having gotten to know him better. He was a remarkable person. So were the women around him.

As for ordering information, Wipf & Stock is running a 40% off special with the use of the discount codeDOUBLEB at www.wipfandstock.com. A kindle edition of this book can be found at http://www.amazon.com/Doubled-Life-Dietrich-Bonhoeffer-Sexuality/dp/1498206565/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1460760035&sr=8-1&keywords=the+doubled+life+of+dietrich+bonhoeffer

Comments   

0 #2 Diane Reynolds 2016-09-05 16:37
Thanks Michael. I just saw this. Victoria Barnett does discuss the role of the women in the Confessing Church in her book, The Soul of the People. Good to get a comment!
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+3 #1 Michael hayes 2016-04-27 09:21
One of the great challenges for the Confessing Church was that the Nazis did an effective job of hindering the work of the pastors, often in the later years simply by recruiting them into the army. it has always seemed to me that had the church leaned more heavily on women leaders, the Nazis would hardly have noticed. I guess that was just too radical for that time and place.
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