Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity in Its Christological Context: An Interview with Peter Hooton

by TBC Staff
Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity in Its Christological Context: An Interview with Peter Hooton Q: We’re excited to talk with you about your new book which explores Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of religionless Christianity. What initially drew you to Bonhoeffer as a topic for research, specifically his incipient thoughts on religionless Christianity? PH: I enjoy his company. His writing is always fresh for me and I love his imagery. This, from Ethics, for example: “There is no part of the world, no matter how lost, no matter how godless, that has not been accepted by God in Jesus… Full Article

Jutta Koslowski (ed.) Foreword by Andreas Dreß, Aus dem Leben der Familie Bonhoeffer: Die Aufzeichnungen von Dietrich Bonhoeffers jüngster Schwester Susanne Dreß.Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2018. ISBN: 978-3-579-07152-7


Q: We’re excited to talk with you about your new book which contains the memoirs of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s youngest sister Susanne! What initially drew you to Susanne and the Bonhoeffer family as a topic for research, and why has their story remained significant to you over the years?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the most widely acknowledged theologians of the 20th century. He is one of the rare personalities who attracts audiences from both academia and the general public, and his publicity is still growing. For many people, he is something like a modern saint or an example which inspires one’s personal journey of faith. This is also true for me. I read his books Life Together and Discipleship at the early age of fourteen; these copies have a special place in my bookshelf until this present day. In these two texts, almost every word is underlined, while the margins are filled with expression marks, question marks and personal comments. I am fascinated by Bonhoeffer’s non-conformism and by his courage – and of course by the fact that he confirmed his convictions with his own life. Today, I am working as an academic theologian specializing in ecumenism and Christian-Jewish dialogue; in both of these areas of research, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an important reference for me, since he has been a forerunner, expressing visionary ideas which have been widely accepted only much later after his death. So, one could somehow understand him as a modern type of prophet. However, I would like to express that I do not want to idealize him. For example, some aspects of his theology (namely his focus on Christology) are too traditional and conservative for me. Like many others, it is mainly the Bonhoeffer of Letters and Papers from Prison whom I find most stimulating. I am even more interested in his biography than in his theology – and this is what fascinates me about the memoirs of his youngest sister Susanne. Susanne’s account is not a hagiography but a true biography, and here, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (together with his whole family) comes alive.

Q: We are quickly approaching 75 years since that fateful spring of 1945. It may be somewhat surprising for our readers to discover that new material on the Bonhoeffer family is just now being released. Can you tell us about the publishing process and your work with Susanne’s family to finally bring her memoirs to the wider public?

I first came across the manuscript of Susanne while studying the excellent Bonhoeffer biography of Ferdinand Schlingensiepen. Though I was somewhat familiar with much in this book, at some points I thought “This is really interesting – where does it come from?” When checking the footnotes, I realized that in most cases it came from the memoirs of Susanne Dreß. In the acknowledgements of Schlingensiepen’s book, he mentions Andreas Dreß, the son of Susanne, in the first place, for he had generously left his mother’s manuscript with him. Schlingensiepen adds that this material definitely deserves to be published. After having read this, I contacted Schlingensiepen (whom I had met shortly before at a consultation of the Bonhoeffer Society) and asked him whether I might take a look at this material. On the same evening, I received an email-response from him which was instrumental for the further process. He put me in touch with professor Günter Ebbrecht, who was most helpful during the course of the next years and selflessly helped me to assemble the manuscript (which had been scattered and almost lost during the past decades). Some parts were found in the attic of the former family resort of the Bonhoeffers’ in Friedrichsbrunn, other parts in the archives of the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin and the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand or in the study of Günter Ebbrecht – and finally in the drawers of Ferdinand Schlingensiepen himself. During the course of one year, we managed to reconstruct the 800 pages of the typescript (with only one sheet remaining lost). The next task was to get in touch with Andreas Dreß, the only remaining son of Susanne and owner of the legal rights for the text. At first, he was reluctant to respond, since his mother’s experiences with book publishers had been rather negative. In the eighties, after the manuscript had been completed, the publication of this material was prepared by Christian Gremmels in co-operation with Ulrich Kabitz from Christian-Kaiser-Verlag (who had published Dietrich Bonhoeffers’ works during his lifetime). However, this project failed – mainly because Susanne makes some cynical remarks about well-known figures like Martin Niemöller and others. The publishers found these passages objectionable and wanted them to be removed. Yet Susanne refused. Having been unbending during the Third Reich, she would not consent to what she considered to be a form of censorship. For this reason, the plan was abandoned. However, when I finally managed to get in touch with Andreas Dreß, we immediately found out that we were perfectly on terms considering the bequest of his mother, and he entrusted the project to me. So, I committed the manuscript to a professional writing bureau and Karin Schmid meticulously typed the whole text into the computer to convert it into a digital version. This was the prerequisite for the German book publisher to consider the project. We had tried to find sponsors for this project, but nobody responded – so, I covered these costs privately, hoping that the manuscript would be published in the end. With the digital version, I approached Gütersloher Verlagshaus, the number one for publications about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany (they have edited Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works). This was a real success. When I made my first phone call to the publisher, I asked for the director, Ralf Markmeier, but was told that he is busy. However, they forwarded me to Diedrich Steen; who is an expert in Bonhoeffer studies. Mr. Steen was immediately interested in the manuscript and became my editor. Thus, a very happy relationship with Gütersloher Verlagshaus began. Indeed, he told me during our first conversation on the phone that he had just the evening before talked with a friend about the memoirs of Susanne, stating they should be published at last. After obtaining a contract from Andreas Dreß as well as from Diedrich Steen, I began working on the manuscript. Susanne has an excellent style of writing – vibrant, witty, apt – but she was what would be called nowadays dyslectic. As such, her text needed to be thoroughly revised. Hardly any sentence could be published without correction. The text needed to be adopted to the standard of neue deutsche Rechtschreibung and the punctuation had to be completely reworked. All names of places and persons had to be verified, since they were spelled inconsistently. Finally, annotations were added to explain at certain points what she is talking about (i.e. the authors of book she mentions or further details to historical events). We also added historical photographs to the book so that the reader would get an idea of how things looked like in former times.

Q: While I am aware that many of our readers will be interested in what Susanne has to say about her older brother, I don’t want to pretend your book is only about Dietrich. To that end, what do we learn about Susanne from her memoirs?

Susanne was a very energetic person. She was religiously inclined, so she was very close to Dietrich and shared his passion for the Christian faith (which was rather untypical for the Bonhoeffer family: The mother, Paula Bonhoeffer, came from a parsonage, but their piety was liberal, and the scientific approach of the father Karl Bonhoeffer was formative). Susanne always wanted to become an author (and I am delighted that with the publication of her memoirs this dream in some ways is posthumously fulfilled). However, like her sisters (who were equally gifted as their famous brothers) she did not take up vocational training. Instead, she became engaged with Walter Dreß (a college friend from Dietrich) one day after her eighteenth birthday. This engagement took place in secret – because another theologian in the family was not quite what the parents had hoped for. Her married life seems to have been rather unhappy. She hardly talks about her husband, but this silence is eloquent. The more active she became, the more he fades away – until the point when Susanne voluntarily takes over almost his complete parish work, while he is reading bundles of newspapers and cares for his amphibians. Susanne and Walter had two sons (Michael, who became a pianist and died in London at an early age, and Andreas, later a professor of mathematics). During the time of the Nazi regime, Susanne was actively supporting the Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church) and opposed Hitler, like the whole Bonhoeffer family. Her husband Walter Dreß replaced the famous pastor Martin Niemöller at the time when he was arrested and taken to a Nazi concentration camp. Susanne and Walter did pastoral work in the parish of Berlin-Dahlem, one of the focal points of opposition against Hitler, and it is most interesting to read what she relates about this crucial time.

Q: Many scholars have commented on the impossibility of attempting to separate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s biography and theology. In fact, scholarship frequently affirms the interconnectedness of the two. As such, are there theological insights either about Dietrich or the wider Bonhoeffer family present within Susanne’s more biographic memoirs? If so, how can we responsibly interpret them?

Susanne relays this wonderful (dare I suggest comical) story about her and Dietrich’s experience in confirmation class with a certain Grunewald pastor who seemed more concerned with his own profile picture than catechesis. Susanne recalls that even at a young age, Dietrich was shocked at the lack of theological depth displayed by this pastor. This brief vignette from their local parish reminds us of Dietrich’s now famous quip to his family that he would reform the church. Susanne’s recollections of these early church experiences may be interpreted as initial glimpses at Bonhoeffer’s life-long suspicion of religion. Susanne’s memoirs provide some captivating biographic vignettes of Dietrich. For example, how Dietrich successfully argued as a young student of theology against the against foi gras that was customarily prepared by his mother for Christmas, because he conceived stuffing geese as being immoral. This scene (and others like it) display the ways Bonhoeffer concretely lived out his theology and ethics. Another example: In recent years, much has been made about Dietrich’s sexuality – so it is instructive to read Susanne describe Dietrich’s response to her own unhappy romantic relationship with Grete von Dohnanyi as well as her later sexual fantasies and depression.

Q: Susanne provides some fascinating historical details about the Bonhoeffer family. For example, how her father would pop open a bottle of champagne every time a family member lost their right to teach. Some of these details even contradict assumptions based up on previous research (such as the true effectiveness of the typhoid bacteria on those in the family who were in prison). What are some other details that surprised you as you worked with the manuscript for the first time?

Indeed, these memoirs reveal some new aspects of the Bonhoeffer family. Though, as a whole, they do not show a 'different' Bonhoeffer – they rather deepen our understanding; they replace the 'black-and white-image' of Dietrich with a 'color photograph' or even a film (as one feels like sitting at the dining table of the Bonhoeffers’ in their luxurious villa while delving in these vivid records). However, the most stunning details about the Bonhoeffer family are contained in those parts of the manuscript which were taken out by Susanne herself, because they were too controversial. Here, we learn, for example, how Susanne unexpectedly fell pregnant shortly after the Russian occupation of Berlin and that her father ­– a widely renowned physician – somehow forced her to an abortion (as a result of which she almost died and had to fight for her life during months to come). Another surprising episode is that her husband Walter Dreß had to undergo an Entnazifizierungsverfahren – apparently initiated by Martin Niemöller respectively his followers, since the parish of Dahlem was deeply split, despite of its leading role in the Confessing Church. Respecting the intention of the author, we have left out these passages and published the memoirs of Susanne Dreß in an unabbreviated version on the basis of her last hand manuscript. And there is enough rewarding material to be found there, indeed! For example, there is a poignant passage in the book where Susanne vividly describes her brother Klaus’ reaction to the outcome of the 20th of July 1944. She mentions that this was the first time in her life when she saw her brother crying. Passages like this help provide a clearer picture of the experiences of those intimately involved in the plot to overthrow Hitler.

Q: Far too often the study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Bonhoeffer family ends in 1945. We rarely read about the theological and ethical life that was no doubt carried on in the Bonhoeffer family after WWII. What was Susanne’s life like after the war? Further, how do Susanne’s memoirs aid in our understanding of what Dietrich may have been up to had he survived long enough to participate in the reconstruction of Germany after the war?

It is one of the special qualities of this book that it relates how life in the Bonhoeffer family went on after the end of WWII and in face of the loss of four sons and sons in law. Susanne relates that she (as well as other family members) refrained from bitterness. And she understands this as a "a kind of tribute to Dietrich", as she writes. Immediately after the capitulation, as early as May 1945, she initiated the Dahlemer Hilfswerk, a social welfare project for ex-soldiers returning home and those who were expelled by the Red Army into the Western Zones. She welcomed former Nazi women to participate in this voluntary work and rejects accusations against this. She declared that it was a practical act of repentance for these women, and she considered former Nazis as the pastoral challenge of her time. She avoided to take part in what she called 'arrogance' of those in the Confessing Church who took pride in having been on 'the good side'. On the other hand, from now on she conceived herself as "sister of Dietrich Bonhoeffer" and took advantage from this when she needed to open doors. After her husband retired from pastoral work, she devoted her time to write the memoirs of the Bonhoeffer family, and she gave lectures about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the resistance against the Nazi regime.

Q: What are you working on now that Aus dem Leben der Familie Bonhoeffer has been published?

At present, I am trying to promote the knowledge of the memoirs of Susanne Dreß for an English-speaking audience. Next year (in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII and the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer) articles related to this subject will appear in Theology Today and The Bonhoeffer Legacy, in the Proceedings of the Societas Oecumenica and also in the circular of the German section of the International Bonhoeffer Society. A monograph with the title Erinnerungen an Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Entdeckungen in den Aufzeichnungen seiner Schwester Susanne will be published next spring, as well. This book contains quotations of the most relevant passages of the memoirs of Susanne Dreß in full length, together with reflections of what insights they offer. I hope an English edition of an abbreviated version of Susanne’s memoirs will be realized, and that sponsors for the cost of translation can be found. In the future, I want to write a book about the biography of Klaus Bonhoeffer, who for far too long has been overshadowed by his famous brother Dietrich and deserves to be more closely perceived, as well.


Dr. Jutta Koslowski (born 1968) has studied Protestant as well as Catholic and Orthodox theology and is ordained pastor in the Protestant Church in Germany. Her fields of research are  ecumenism and interreligious dialogue and she has published a substantial number of books and articles in renowned scientific periodicals. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Munich which she earned with her work on The Unity of the Church in the Ecumenical Discussion – Concrete Visions in the Catholic-Protestant Dialogue (2007). Currently, she is working at the university of Mainz, finishing her post-doc research on the subject Church and Israel – Attempts in Defining their Relationship after the Shoah. She is a member of the International Bonhoeffer Society and has edited the volume Aus dem Leben der Familie Bonhoeffer. Die Aufzeichnungen von Dietrich Bonhoeffers jüngster Schwester Susanne Dreß (Gütersloher Verlagshaus 2018). Together with her husband and their four children, she is living at the monastery of Gnadenthal. For more information see:

You can purchase Aus dem Leben der Familie Bonhoeffer at the following link:


Also available from Dr. Jutta Koslowski:

Book: Koslowski, Jutta (ed.): Das Bonhoeffer Weihnachtsbuch, Gütersloh (Gütersloher Verlagshaus) 2019

Book: Koslowski, Jutta: Erinnerungen an Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Entdeckungen in den Aufzeichnungen seiner Schwester Susanne, Asslar (Adeo Verlag) 2020 (to be published)

Article: Koslowski, Jutta: The Bonhoeffer Family – Insights from the Autobiographic Records of Dietrich Bonhoeffers Youngest Sister Suanne. In: Creemers, Jelle/Link-Wieczorek, Ulrike (Hg.): On Nations and Churches: Ecumenical Responses to Nationalism and Migration. Proceedings of the 20th Academic Consultation of the Societas Oecumenica (Beihefte zur Ökumenischen Rundschau), Leipzig (Evangelische Verlagsanstalt) 2020 (to be published)

Article: Koslowski, Jutta: Aus dem Leben Dietrich Bonhoeffers – Neue Einblicke in den Aufzeichnungen seiner Schwester Susanne. In: Rundbrief der Internationalen Bonhoeffer-Gesellschaft, 2020 (to be published)

Article: Koslowski, Jutta: Details from The Life of the Bonhoeffer Family – New Insights about the Biography and Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Memoirs of his Youngest Sister Susanne. In: Theology Today, 2020 (to be published)

Article: Koslowski, Jutta: Dietrich Bonhoeffer – New Insights in the Memoirs of his Sister Susanne. In: The Bonhoeffer Legacy, 2020 (to be published)