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Preserving Oral Tradition and Honoring Renate Bethge:

Stories from First Generation Bonhoeffer Scholars

 

 

The International Bonhoeffer Society – English Language Section invites you to our annual Bonhoeffer Society Dinner, which is held conjointly with the American Academy of Religion conference. We are thrilled that this year’s dinner will honor a number of first generation Bonhoeffer scholar-teachers who have actively served the Society for decades, as well as honor the memory of Renate Bethge, in light of her recent passing. To that end, a panel of scholars – including Clifford Green, Keith Clements, Michael Lukens, Pat Kelley, and John Matthews – will share stories from their personal experience with the Bethges that gave them new knowledge or insight about Bonhoeffer’s life and work or that influenced their scholarship and teaching. Please join us for this special evening as we pass along and preserve these little known, personal and transformative stories.

When: Saturday, November 23, 2019

Time:5:30 pm Wine Reception and Book Display

(See recent publications about Bonhoeffer and/or by Bonhoeffer scholars and meet the authors. A limited number of copies will be available for purchase.)

6:15-8:15 pm Dinner and Program

Where: Living Water Church of the Nazarene 1550 Market St, San Diego, CA 92101

(A one-mile walk from the Convention Center through and past the Gaslamp Quarter. If you prefer not to walk, we recommend, a Taxi, Uber or Lyft).

RSVP: Space is limited. To reserve a spot, please use the secure PayPal buttons below to register and pay by November 15. The cost of the dinner is $40 per person. Upon payment you will receive an emial receipt from PayPal - this receipt is your confirmation for the dinner. For questions about the dinner please email Matthew Jones at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Limited student scholarships are available; if interested, please email Dr. Jenny McBride at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

In Memoriam

Renate Bethge

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.

Barbara Green

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:

https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn513453

 

Kathleen L. Housley, The Scientific World of Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer: The Entanglement of Science, Religion, and Politics in Nazi Germany. Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. ISBN 978-3-319-95800-2

 

Victoria J. Barnett, General Editor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English Edition, and Director of Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust, U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum[*]

 

This is a fascinating and important study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s older brother Karl-Friedrich, the circles of leading German scientists within which he moved, and the challenges that led to varying degrees of personal and scientific “entanglement” with the Nazi regime.  (In full disclosure: I provided an endorsement for this book and am credited in the acknowledgments).

Born in 1899, Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer was the oldest of the Bonhoeffer siblings. He was a brilliant chemical physicist who co-discovered (with Paul Harteck) that para-hydrogen could be converted to ortho-hydrogen, a discovery that led to ground-breaking research on the “heavy water” necessary for nuclear fission. Although he never received the honor, Bonhoeffer would be nominated five times for the Nobel Prize in Physics. By 1933 he had an international reputation; in 1934 Bonhoeffer became chair of physical chemistry at the University of Leipzig, joining Werner Heisenberg who held the chair of physics there.  

Karl-Friedrich and his colleagues had been trained to dedicate their careers to the vocation of “pure science”—the realm of objective research, experimentation and theory, which they believed could and should be pursued independently of the political and cultural events around them. As Housley observes in her introduction, after 1933 this left German scientists “dangerously vulnerable to manipulation” (5) and it put figures like Heisenberg and Bonhoeffer under growing pressure as the Nazi leadership began plans to build an atomic bomb.

Housley offers a haunting portrayal of how Germany’s elite scientists navigated these pressures and the ethical challenges they confronted under Nazism, as well as how they addressed their records after 1945. Sometimes those ethical challenges were deeply personal. One of the most wrenching (and revealing) accounts in this book is the story of Karl-Friedrich’s relationship to his mentor Fritz Haber, a 1918 Nobel Prize winner who was director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical and Electrochemistry. Haber was Jewish, as were almost forty percent of his staff. Under pressure he stepped down in April 1933 but post-dated his resignation by six months, hoping to buy time to help the other Jewish staff members find international positions. Haber also suggested that Karl-Friedrich be named co-director of the Institute but was overruled by the Nazi-appointed acting director Gerhart Jander.

In 1934 Haber died in exile. The following year Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer and Max Planck organized a memorial service for him in Berlin. In response Reich Minister for Science, Education and Culture Bernhard Rust prohibited civil servants from attending. Planck insisted on proceeding with the service but Bonhoeffer, agonizing about the possible repercussions for his career and his family, went but could not bring himself to enter the building. His prepared remarks were read inside by the German chemist Otto Hahn.

The use of “pure science” for Nazi political and military aims posed equally treacherous challenges. Karl-Friedrich was never part of the “Uranium Club,” the group of scientists who began to work on the Nazi nuclear project, but many of his peers, including Heisenberg and Harteck, were involved. As a result he was consulted several times during the war and certainly knew what was going on. At the same time, his brothers and brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi kept him abreast of resistance plans.

After 1945 Karl-Friedrich courageously tried to set the historical record about the German scientists straight. He also reached out to Jewish colleagues who had been forced into exile such as Michael Polanyi and Frances Simon, encouraging them to return to Germany. Simon’s initial response was: “In my opinion, the German scientists lost their honor in 1933 and have done nothing to regain it” (259) After much hesitation both men eventually returned to visit Karl-Friedrich, who had become director of the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry in Göttingen. Karl-Friedrich died of a heart attack in 1957, at the age of 58.

This is an honest book that portrays Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer in moments of compromise and courage. Without slipping into apologia, Housley offers a nuanced analysis of the complexities of that era and, just as importantly, gives us an unusual glimpse into the Bonhoeffer family. She also does a superb job of explaining the scientific significance of Bonhoeffer’s work in a readable and understandable way for non-scientists. The focus on Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer and his role in the family casts a different light on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and on the relationship between the two brothers—one of them an agnostic scientist, the other a theologian. Yet the two were close, particularly during Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment, and after reading Housley’s book I re-read the correspondence between them with deeper appreciation of the importance of this relationship for Dietrich, and new insights into the Bonhoeffer family and the circles in which they moved. This book ventures into very different territory than most literature on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but that is all the more reason why Bonhoeffer scholars should read it.

 

Kathleen L. Housley is the author of ten books. Her poems and essays on science and religion have appeared in many national publications including Image, Terra Nova (MIT Press),The Christian Century, Biologos (online),andMetanexus (online). Holding degrees in English and interdisciplinary studies, she teaches courses in science and the humanities at the Academy of Lifelong Learning, Trinity College, Hartford, CT. Her website is www.kathleenlhousley.com. Her email address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

You can purcahse The Scientific World of Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer at the following link: 

www.palgrave.com/us/book/9783319958002

 

 

 

 


[*]The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

20th Bonhoeffer Lectures in Public Ethics

Advocacy and Resistance in a Divided Time

May 31-June 1, 2019

McCormick Theological Seminary

5460 S. University Ave. Chicago, IL 60615

You are invited to the 20th Bonhoeffer Lectures in Public Ethics, featuring keynote speakers the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber and Rev. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Drawing on their extensive experience building movements for social change, these speakers will address the pressing issues of our diverse communities, calling us to the work of advocacy and resistance.

In order to address these concerns locally, this conference uniquely places Chicago organizations working for justice alongside leading scholars making constructive use of the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Scholars will give presentations that introduce Bonhoeffer as a resource for thinking in new ways about a select number of issues, including racism, mass incarceration, gender justice and environmental justice. Representatives from local organizations will then lead workshops, providing training in practices relevant to the issues and opportunities for engagement in their on-going work.

This conference aims to serve laypersons, religious leaders, students and scholars from diverse faith communities in and beyond the Chicagoland area.

Plenary speakers include: J Kameron Carter, Lisa Dahill, Michael DeJonge, Thomas Fabisiak, Jennifer McBride, Jeffrey Pugh, Stephen Ray, Di Rayson, Reggie Williams, and special guest Father Michael Pfleger.

With workshops by: Faith in Place, Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, Restoring Rights and Opportunities Coalition of Illinois, Live Oak Chicago.

You can register for the conference at this link:https://www.eventbrite.com/e/20th-bonhoeffer-lectures-in-public-ethics-tickets-61692276259

Your registration includes Friday evening keynote address, Saturday plenary presentations and workshops, and food including Friday cocktail reception and coffee and snacks on Saturday. This event is free for students but they must register online. General Admission ticket scholarships are available. For more information on scholarships please contact Matthew Jones at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

*Paper and workshop titles to be posted in March, with abstracts distributed at the conference.

 

Schedule

Friday May 31, 5:30-9:30pm 

5:30-6:00 Registration

6:00-6:10 Welcome and Introduction 

6:10-6:45 Opening Bonhoeffer Lecture – Dr. Reggie Williams 

6:40-6:45 Introduction of Keynote Speakers 

6:45-7:25 Keynote Lecture – Rev. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove 

7:25-8:30 Keynote Lecture – Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II

8:30-9:30 Cocktail Reception

 

Saturday June 1, 8:00-6:00pm. 

8:00-8:30 Registration

8:30-10:15 PlenarySession I: Whiteness, Racial Justice, and Mass Incarceration 

8:30-8:35 Speaker Introduction

8:35-9:10 Paper 1 – Dr. Stephen Ray 

9:10-9:45 Bonhoeffer’s Critique of Morality: A Theological Resource for Dismantling Mass Incarceration Dr. Jennifer McBride and Dr. Thomas Fabisiak

9:45-10:20 Bonhoeffer in Charlottesville Dr. Jeff Pugh

10:20-10:30 Coffee Break

10:30-12:00 Workshops

Workshop Option 1: Restoring Rights and Opportunities Coalition of Illinois

Workshop Option 2: Institute for NonviolenceChicago

 

12:00-1:30 Lunch Break

 

1:30-4:30 Plenary Session II: Gender, Trauma, and the Environment 

1:30-1:35 Speaker Introduction

1:35-2:05 Reading from the Underside: Bonhoeffer, Social Location, and Embodiment – Dr. Lisa Dahill 

2:05-2:35 Bonhoeffer's Theology in a Warming World: Lessons for the Anthropocene – Dr. Di Rayson

2:35-2:45 Response/Dialogue

2:45-3:00 Coffee Break

3:00-4:30 Workshops

Workshop Option 1: Live Oak Chicago

Workshop Option 2: Faith and Place Chicago

4:30-4:45 Coffee Break

 

4:45-6:30 Plenary Session III: Bonhoeffer, The Post-Racial, and the Western World

4:45-4:50 Speaker Introduction

4:50-5:25 Closing Bonhoeffer Lecture – Dr. J. Kameron Carter 

5:25-5:50 Response to Carter – Dr. Michael DeJonge

5:50-6:00 Dialogue between Carter and DeJonge

6:00-6:05 Speaker Introduction

6:05-6:30 Closing Challenge – Father Michael Pfleger

 

Lodging Options

 

Mention the “Bonhoeffer Conference” room block in order to get these discounted rates. Book by April 30, 2019 to reserve your room. If you are unable to find a room at these locations, please contact Courtney Jacobson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for further options.

 

La Quinta Inn & Suites

4900A S. Lake Shore Drive

Chicago, IL 60615

Phone: +1 (773) 324 3000

http://www.laquintachicagolakeshore.com/

$189/night

Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) Housing

5434-5438 S. University Ave.

Chicago, IL 60615

Please contact Patti DeBias at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to book rooms at LSTC