- Written by Barbara Green
Few things annoyed Renate Bethge more than when a scholar visiting in her home, often a star-struck American, would turn in her presence to her husband and ask him about details of events and discussions in the life of her family of origin, including events that happened long before he had joined the family and events where she had personally been present. Granted, her husband was the renowned scholar Eberhard Bethge, whose friendship and correspondence with Dietrich Bonhoeffer became the basis and impetus for Bonhoeffer’s impact on the post-war world. But Renate was the eye witness, the one who saw Dietrich Bonhoeffer coming and going in and out of her parents’ house while she was growing up, even as she was in and out of her Bonhoeffer grandparents’ house next door, where Dietrich kept a room. It took a long time for all those men scholars to learn to value her perspective and her voice. That hurt.
Renate was the eldest daughter of Bonhoeffer’s older sister Ursula and her husband Rüdiger Schleicher. She shared with her Uncle Dietrich the piercing blue of her eyes and her remarkable musical gifts. Both of them had considered becoming professional pianists; after Dietrich’s imprisonment and death, she became the family accompanist for celebrations and special occasions. She oversaw her children’s musical education so well that two of them became professional musicians. In retirement she played the piano with friends who formed a string quartet. She loved Schubert’s challenging Trout Quintet, a favorite of the fivesome.
Right out of high school, she was married in 1943 at age 17 – nearly unthinkable now, even to herself. She said her parents gave their permission to protect her from the obligatory civilian labor corps required of all unmarried young women during the war. She was eighteen when her first child, Dietrich Bethge, was born. After the failed effort to topple the Nazi regime on July 20, 1944, her father Rüdiger Schleicher was among the men of the Bonhoeffer family who was imprisoned. In October 1944 Eberhard was arrested on the Italian front and brought back to prison in Berlin. Renate was among the young women in the family who were urgently pressed into service, making daily arduous trips on the city trains through heavily bombed Berlin, bringing food, laundry, medicine and books to the various prisons where their relatives were incarcerated, and equally arduous trips to bureaucratic offices to apply for visitation permits. When they finally got home, they were put to work transcribing the secret messages smuggled out in the books the prisoners returned. As Soviet soldiers went house to house occupying Berlin at the end of the war, her aunt Christine von Dohnanyi protected her and her cousin Barbara from rape, hiding them in her house while she held baby Dietrich and claimed that he was her own baby. Her father was allowed his violin in his prison cell, and his playing echoed through the corridors for other prisoners to hear. He was among those murdered in those last days by Nazi guards for his participation in the conspiracy. Every year for decades afterward she and Eberhard attended commemorations for the murdered resisters held on July 20 in Berlin, where they had honored places among the surviving families.
As the cottage industry of Bonhoeffer scholarship grew, she gradually found her own voice. Renate had always read and edited Eberhard’s voluminous writing on Bonhoeffer; now she began to write and speak as herself. She said she read Bonhoeffer’s prison letters only when she had to in preparing presentations. The memories they stirred up of that terrible time were too painful to read them for pleasure. She said she regretted not writing to him in prison more often herself, knowing how hungry he was for letters. But relatives advised her not to write more often, so as to not call the Gestapo’s attention to Eberhard’s role in the conspiracy.
The fragments collected as Bonhoeffer’s Ethics are mostly written in an abstract, opaque style. It was too dangerous to write more directly. But Renate could make them come to life, as she described the family circumstances and discussions which formed the background of his abstract conclusions. She said that many perspectives which the world has attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer were actually convictions shared across the family.
Renate reflected at length on the roles and situation of women in her extended family, how they had shaped Bonhoeffer’s evolving perception of gender roles, as well as her own upbringing. She observed that the difficult war years with their men in prison changed the women in her family: the women had to become the decision-makers, advocate for their men, and dissemble to Nazi authorities with believable naiveté. She welcomed the women’s movement in later decades and found it strengthened her own sense of herself.
She gave personal gifts freely. “Shopping, always shopping,” Eberhard said, shaking his head, as she ducked into gift shops or airport duty-free shops. But there were so many people she wanted to remember with a little something. When the car pulled away at the end of visits to her American relatives, she would throw twenty-dollar bills out the car window at them, because then they couldn’t argue about accepting them.
I first met Bethges in 1977, when I was working in Berlin. They came to speak at the Evangelical Academy in East Berlin and I was their chauffeuse. I saw them just about every year until after Eberhard’s death and Renate moved away from Bonn, at events on both continents, at German DBW editorial board meetings, at Ghost Ranch seminars in New Mexico and at visits in their home and mine. Renate simply expected that I bring my flute whenever I came to visit, and we spent evenings playing Bach and Handel sonatas we both loved. Knowing these two great-hearted people as the individuals they were was such a gift in my life.
I remember Renate’s ready laughter, how she came alive at the piano, how her hands were roughened by decades of kitchen work, her enthusiasm for long hikes and the mountains of northern Italy, where they vacationed annually, her faithfulness in keeping up with her enormous global correspondence, her tireless advocacy for the wellbeing of her growing family, her evolving truce with the English language, her kindness in wanting to build relationships with her friends’ children, her boundless welcome to the many visitors who came to her door. She was energetic, complicated, musical, loving, opinionated, hospitable, adventurous, practical, generous, and so much else. I miss her.
July 18, 2019, the day of her funeral service in Bremen
Barbara Green has been an IBS member since the 1980s. From 1977 through 1981 she represented the National Council of Churches in Berlin, where she got to know most of Bonhoeffer's surviving students. She was briefly on the DBWE editorial board and is a translator of the DBWE edition of Discipleship.She is a retired Presbyterian pastor living in Bethesda, MD.
To hear Renate Bethge in her own words please visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Mueum's oral history archives and watch her interview with Dr. James P. Kelly here: