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In the Face of Barbarism: Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Culture, Humanity and the Importance of Ordinary Life

On February 13-14, 2020, Perkins School of Theology will be sponsoring a short conference, ‘In the Face of Barbarism:’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Culture, Humanity and the Importance of Ordinary Life.

Most scholarly and popular portrayals of Bonhoeffer focus on the exceptional circumstances in which he found himself. The conference, by contrast, is focused on the importance of everyday life in Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics. Lecturers Victoria Barnett, Michael DeJonge, and Natalie Carnes will help us to position the intersection of art and theology as related to everyday life. The conference will conclude with a one-person play on the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as adapted and performed by Al Staggs.

This conference is generously supported by the Robinson Fund at Perkins, which encourages work at the intersection of theology and the arts. This is appropriate given Bonhoeffer’s interest in music especially and in the way in which the arts were woven into the everyday life of the Bonhoeffer family and the student community at Finkenwalde.

To learn more about the themes of this conference please read a recent op-ed by one of the organizers here: https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2020/02/09/by-making-so-much-of-politics-christians-are-at-risk-of-shifting-their-focus-away-from-god/


You can register at the following link: https://www.smu.edu/Perkins/News/Bonhoeffer

Registration for the full conference is $10 for students and $25 for the general public. Pricing includes lunch on Friday. Please note that both the keynote lecture on Thursday evening and the one-person play on Friday evening are free events open to the public.


January 15, 2020

The Board of Directors of the International Bonhoeffer Society – English Language Section, Issues Statement of Concern

The International Bonhoeffer Society – English Language Section (IBS-ELS) is dedicated to advancing the theology and legacy of German pastor-theologian and Nazi resistor Dietrich Bonhoeffer through critical scholarship, engaged pedagogy, and constructive readings of Bonhoeffer’s collected writings. While initiated in the United States, this statement expresses the concern, input, and support of members of the Board from English-speaking countries around the world, including South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. We speak noting that Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught the profound relatedness of all human persons and, indeed, of peoples and nations. We therefore feel called to raise our voices in support of justice and peace, and in resistance to every form of unjust discrimination and aggressive nationalism.

As grateful recipients, and now custodians, of the theological, ethical, and political legacy of the German pastor-theologian and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we believe all persons of faith and conscience should prayerfully consider whether our democracy can endure a second term under the presidency of Donald Trump. We believe it cannot. In 2017, we issued a statement expressing our grave concerns about the rise in hateful rhetoric and violence, the rise in deep divisions and distrust in our country, and the weakening of respectful public discourse ushered in by the election of Donald Trump. We articulated the need for Christians to engage in honest and courageous theological reflection in the face of the threat posed by his leadership. Over the last three years, the need for such discernment has grown more urgent.

A hallmark of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s legacy is his insistence that we see the great events of world history from “the view from below” (1942). That is, he urges us to see from the perspective of those who suffer. The policies of the Trump administration both threaten and disempower the most vulnerable members of our society, including people of color, members of the LGBTQ communities, Muslims and other religious minorities, immigrants, refugees, the poor, the marginally employed, and the unemployed. Moreover, Donald Trump has now taken ill-advised military action that raises the specter of war. One of the greatest lessons learned from the history of the Christian churches during Germany’s Third Reich is that it is crucial to respond to threats to human life, integrity, and community when they first appear, and to continue to challenge them.

As Bonhoeffer scholars, religious leaders, and confessing Christians, we have a special responsibility to name crises and discern responsible actions of resistance and healing. We confess our own complicity in the social order that has produced Donald Trump’s presidency, for many of the social and economic injustices we confront predate it. As we take responsibility for these injustices, we resist the policy goals of this administration that have contributed to ever- deepening divisions and growing vulnerability among the marginalized sectors of our population, including the dehumanizing treatment of migrants, systematic attempts to strip rights from LGBTQ persons, the increased rapacious destruction of the environment, the marginalization and assault on communities of color especially through voter suppression, and the economic policies that have contributed to the largest disparity of wealth in the nation’s history. We believe that an honest reckoning with these realities must lead to dismantling the dehumanizing ideologies and systemic inequities in which they are rooted.

We believe that one crucial step in this reckoning is ending Donald Trump’s presidency. We do not make this statement lightly. Bonhoeffer’s writings have been influential for Christians from a wide range of churches and political views, but we feel called to address the grave moral concerns we have outlined here that call every one of us to account. During this new year, debates and discussion will continue to be held concerning the best way for America to move forward. We believe that the United States has the human resources to provide capable and willing leaders, and that together a more just and respectful future can be forged. Acknowledging that all human community and leadership is a mixture of blessing and brokenness, health and dysfunction, we stand with all those who believe this country deserves and needs a constitutional and peaceful change in leadership. And we commit ourselves to listen to the call and obey the commands of Jesus as we enter the year 2020.

We make this statement, in part, because we know that Dietrich Bonhoeffer - a theologian and martyr - is often cited in times of political contention. We offer the following theological lessons from Bonhoeffer’s work as a glimpse into the ways he understood his faith and his responsibilities as a citizen in his own times, and to encourage discernment about how these words might resonate for us today:

o He spoke of God’s freedom and human freedom as “freedom for others” not “freedom from others.” (1932)

o He preached that the gospel is “the good news of the dawning of the new world, the new order ... God’s order,” and therefore it is good news for the poor. (1932)

o He warned that leaders become “misleaders” when they are interested only in their own power and neglect their responsibilities to serve those whom they govern. (1933)

o He warned that when a government persecutes its minorities, it has ceased to govern legitimately. (1933)

o He reminded Christians that the church has an “unconditional obligation toward the victims of any societal order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” (1933)

o He wrote, “For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. ... The hour is late. The world is choking with weapons. ... The trumpets of war may blow tomorrow. For what are we waiting?” (1934)

o He believed that Jesus’s commands in the Gospels - like love your neighbor as you love yourself, welcome the stranger, and love your enemies - are to be obeyed in the social and political realm. He wrote: “From the human point of view there are countless possibilities of understanding and interpreting the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus knows only one possibility: simply go and obey.” (1936)

o He wrote, “Behold God become human ... God loves human beings. ...Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are. ... What we find repulsive ... namely, real human beings ... this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.” (1941)

o He wrote from prison, “... one only learns to have faith by living in the full this- worldliness of life. ...then one takes seriously no longer one’s own sufferings but rather the suffering of God in the world. Then one stays awake with Christ in Gethsemane. And I think this is faith; this is [metanoia/repentance]. And this is how one becomes a human being, a Christian. ... How should one become arrogant over successes or shaken by one’s failures when one shares in God’s suffering in the life of this world?” (1944)

o He wrote from prison, “How do we go about being ‘religionless-worldly’ Christians, how can we be [ecclesia/church], those who are called out, without understanding ourselves religiously as privileged, but instead seeing ourselves as belonging wholly to the world?” (1944)

Signed by the Board of Directors, International Bonhoeffer Society – English Language Section,

  • Jennifer M. McBride, President
  • Lori Brandt Hale, Vice President
  • John Matthews, Secretary
  • H. Gaylon Barker, Treasurer
  • Christian Collins Winn
  • Stephen Haynes
  • Matthew Jones 
  • David Krause
  • Michael Mawson 
  • Dianne Rayson
  • Robert Vosloo 
  • Reggie Williams
  • Philip Ziegler 
  • Keith Clements, Emeritus
  • Clifford J Green, Emeritus
  • John W de Gruchy, Emeritus
  • Barry Harvey, Emeritus
  • J. Patrick Kelley, Emeritus
  • Michael Lukens, Emeritus

About the International Bonhoeffer Society – English Language Section

Since its founding in 1972, the Society has pioneered research and scholarship on the life, historical context, and writings of Bonhoeffer. Working in close collaboration with Bonhoeffer’s best friend, theologian and pastor Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s niece Renate Bethge, and scholars in Germany, the Society laid the foundation for the historical and textual study of Bonhoeffer’s life and work in the English-speaking world, culminating in the recently completed sixteen-volume translation of the German critical edition, the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English Edition, published by Fortress Press. The Society is now developing a centralized, public, virtual community, as a more accessible resource for undergraduate students, scholars, pastors, activists, and communities of faith to engage Bonhoeffer’s legacy in concrete ways: www.thebonhoeffercenter.org For more information, please contact the president of IBS-ELS, Dr. Jennifer M. McBride, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Click to download a PDF of this statement.


The Bonhoeffer Theology and Social Analysis Unit will host three sessions at AAR this year; one is a joint session with the Schleiermacher Unit. Information about those sessions is listed below. We hope to see you there and look forward to your participation in the Q&A portions of each session. Please note the Business Meeting at the end of the first session on Saturday. We welcome your ideas for next year's call for papers!


Theme: Bonhoeffer, Public Discourse, and Resistance Ethics: Lessons from Bonhoeffer on the Climate Crisis, Planetary Care, and the Confederate Monument Debate

Saturday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM

Convention Center-15B (Mezzanine Level)


This session underscores the idea that Bonhoeffer’s work makes a contribution to public theological discourse and Christian responsibility in the world. These papers engage Bonhoeffer’s work constructively and use Bonhoeffer’s thought to encourage Christian action in light of racism and the climate crisis.

Reggie Williams, McCormick Theological Seminary, Presiding

Ulrik Nissen, Aarhus University, Denmark

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Polyphony of Life as a Contribution to Public Discourse


Karen V. Guth, College of the Holy Cross

"Heritage Not Hate" or "Heritage and Decay"? Lessons for White Christians from Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Confederate Monument Debate


Adam Vander Tuig, Union Theological Seminary

Are We Still of Any Use? Bonhoeffer, Resistance, and Planetary Palliative Care


Business Meeting:

Lori Brandt Hale, Augsburg University

Stephen R. Haynes, Rhodes College



Theme: Church as Political Institution: Schleiermacher, Bonhoeffer, and Arendt on Public Faith and Political Action

Sunday - 3:30 PM-5:00 PM

Convention Center-24B (Upper Level East)


The aim of this session is to spur innovative conversations about the public life of Christian churches and communities. The session’s papers explore how these communities understand and undertake their work as political agents. Drawing selectively and critically from the work of Schleiermacher, Bonhoeffer, and Arendt, our presenters argue their own claims about love and forgiveness, shame and guilt, or reconciliation, in contemporary ecclesial and political contexts.


Shelli Poe, Millsaps College, Presiding

Lori Brandt Hale, Augsburg University, Presiding


David Robinson, Regent College

Against a Docetic Ecclesiology: Schleiermacher and Bonhoeffer on Christ’s Body Politic


Shinkyu Lee, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

Profiles of Religion in Forgiveness: Arendt and Bonhoeffer on Christian Forgiveness



Theme: Eighty Years Hence: Bonhoeffer in 1939

Monday - 1:00 PM-3:00 PM

Convention Center-24C (Upper Level East)


The papers in this session invite reflection on Bonhoeffer’s pivotal decisions in 1939 (returning to New York briefly, leaving America for Germany, joining the Resistance) as well as his critiques of American denominationalism and pragmatism. The presenters will draw out the implications of these decisions and critiques for Bonhoeffer in his context and point to their current relevance.


Michael DeJonge, University of South Florida, Presiding


Joshua Mauldin, Center of Theological Inquiry

Bonhoeffer on Protestantism without Reformation and Political Resistance


Joel Looper, University of Aberdeen

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Encounter with American Pragmatism: A Juxtaposition of Two Types of Public Theological Discourse



Review of Michael P. DeJonge, Bonhoeffer on Resistance: The Word Against the Wheel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. $25.00. 192 pp.


While the temptation to hagiography has long been acknowledged in Bonhoeffer scholarship, the concomitant problem of historicism has been given less attention. The moving story of Bonhoeffer’s life leads interpreters to focus on the social and biographical context of his work. While that is something to be celebrated, at times it has meant that the content of Bonhoeffer’s writings is overshadowed by the moral power of his life.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of political resistance. We continue to return to him for guidance because we recognize that he not only thought about political resistance but actually engaged in it. As Karl Barth wrote of Bonhoeffer in 1952, “Why should one not allow oneself to be addressed like this by a man of whom it was asked and to whom it was also given that he not only thought it and said it, but also lived it?”[1] Bonhoeffer is a moral exemplar, someone whose life suggests he possesses moral authority. What he says carries the weight of his sacrifice.

Still, Bonhoeffer’s conception of political resistance should not be reduced to a narrative of his life, to recounting the various forms of his own resistance. Without losing sight of biography, Michael DeJonge has helpfully refocused our attention on Bonhoeffer’s conceptual framework of political resistance, while showing how Bonhoeffer’s ideas were not merely epiphenomenal to his actions. In his recent book, Bonhoeffer on Resistance: The Word and the Wheel, DeJonge argues that much of Bonhoeffer’s highly complex and nuanced account of resistance was in place early in his career. Changing circumstances in Germany throughout the 1930s and 1940s led Bonhoeffer to engage various aspects of this multiform account. Rather than abandoning various forms of resistance on the road to his involvement in a conspiracy against Hitler, we find that Bonhoeffer maintained a pluriform understanding of resistance applicable to various political situations.

Working across the range of Bonhoeffer’s corpus, DeJonge highlights three phases in the development of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of resistance. During the first phase, Bonhoeffer emphasizes how the church resists through its proclamation of the Word. In the second phase, Bonhoeffer emphasizes how the church resists through its existence as community. This is the period of Finkenwalde, of Discipleship and Life Together. The third phase is marked by Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the conspiracy against Adolf Hitler. The three phases underline DeJonge’s careful attention to the agent of resistance in Bonhoeffer’s thought. In the first two phases, the agent of resistance is the church. In the third phase, the agent is the individual, rather than the church. DeJonge’s account pushes against readings of Bonhoeffer which elide this distinction, whether by attributing to non-ecclesial entities forms of resistance Bonhoeffer saw as distinctly ecclesial, or by attributing to the church forms of resistance Bonhoeffer saw as centering on the individual or on humanitarian organizations.

In addition to the three phases of Bonhoeffer’s resistance activity, DeJonge highlights six “types” of resistance in Bonhoeffer’s thought. Tacitly implied in Bonhoeffer’s 1933 essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” Type 1 involves the individual accusing the state of inhumanity, in cases where the state nevertheless continues to function as a legitimate state. The next three types (2-4) are discussed explicitly in the same essay. In Types 2-4, the agent of resistance is neither the individual nor a humanitarian organization but rather the church. Type 2 refers to the church’s diaconal work in serving the victims of state injustice. Type 3 is the church’s indirect political word, questioning whether the state’s actions are those of a legitimate state. Type 4 invokes the famous passage about “seizing the wheel” of the state, which has often been misconstrued as calling for physical resistance of some form. DeJonge argues on the contrary that for Bonhoeffer the church “seizes the wheel” by proclaiming a concrete commandment, under the auspices of an ecumenical council.

Arising during the second phase of Bonhoeffer’s thinking, in Type 5 the church resists not by intervening directly in the public sphere but rather by fostering an alternative community of discipleship. On this reading, Finkenwalde was no respite from political engagement, but was itself an important form of resistance, called for by the particular conditions of the time. Representing the third and final phase of Bonhoeffer’s resistance thinking, Type 6 refers to a “free responsible action” in which an individual does what is necessary to restore the forms of institutional life that make ethics possible, which Bonhoeffer’s describes as the divine mandates of church, state, family, and culture. This necessary action in a state of emergency might require extreme measures, such as the assassination attempt in which Bonhoeffer and his co-conspirators were embroiled. Bonhoeffer’s claim is not that under certain conditions the overthrow of a political leader is morally justified, but rather that such an act might become necessary and responsible while still entailing guilt.

A historian of ideas, DeJonge spotlights just how different Bonhoeffer’s way of thinking is from that of contemporary western democratic modes of thought, not least on the question of political resistance. If Stephen Haynes’s recent book The Battle for Bonhoeffer (Eerdmans 2018) shows how Bonhoeffer has been invoked in the United States on behalf of almost every political cause imaginable, DeJonge’s book brings into sharp relief just what it would mean to come to grips with Bonhoeffer’s conception of political resistance, and indeed of church and state more broadly. Here DeJonge builds on his previous work, in particular Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Luther (OUP 2016). A key takeaway from this new volume is that Bonhoeffer’s conception of resistance is inescapably Lutheran. DeJonge rejects the view that Bonhoeffer left behind his Lutheran assumptions on his way to political resistance. Bonhoeffer’s involvement in political resistance was, on the contrary, inextricable from his Lutheran political theology. DeJonge has made a significant contribution to Bonhoeffer scholarship in bringing this point to light, and in such a convincing and compelling way.


About the Reviewer(s): Joshua Mauldin is Associate Director of the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey. He holds a PhD in religious ethics from Southern Methodist University, and his research interests include the ethics of Barth and Bonhoeffer, law and religion, and Christianity in China. He can be reached by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and @joshuatmauldin on Twitter.

About the Author: Michael P. DeJonge is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida, where he teaches on the history of Christian theology and topics in modern religious thought. His previous publications include Bonhoeffer's Reception of Luther (2017), Bonhoeffer's Theological Formation (2012), and The Bonhoeffer Reader (co-edited with Clifford J. Green; 2014).

You can purchase Bonhoeffer on Resistance: The Word Against the Wheel at the following link: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/bonhoeffer-on-resistance-9780198824176?cc=us&lang=en&

[1] Karl Barth, “Letter to Landessuperintendent P.W. Herrenbrück, 21 December 1952,” in Ronald Gregor Smith, Editor, World Come of Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 91.

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: www.jutta-koslowski.de.

You can purchase Aus dem Leben der Familie Bonhoeffer at the following link:  https://www.amazon.com/Aus-dem-Leben-Familie-Bonhoeffer/dp/3579071521/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=us+dem+Leben+der+Familie+Bonhoeffer&qid=1572537486&sr=8-1


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)

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