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Virginia Woolf and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 It's not often we think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Virginia Woolf in tandem, but the two share common ground. Both hail from the educated upper-middle class elite of the pre-World War II era. Both came from large families. Both had ambiguous sexualities. Both were writers. Both were pacifists. Both were fascinated with their families of origin and sought insights through writing about them. Both were close to Quakers without becoming Quakers themselves. Both abhorred Hitler and both fought fascism, not simply in its political manifestation, but attacked it at its deeper roots of ethical sensibility. Both suffered from depression. Both died during World War II: Woolf through suicide, Bonhoeffer executed at a concentration camp for opposing Hitler's regime: for both, the war was arguably the blow that did them in. And to understand either of them, we need to put on the lenses of another time.


Both Woolf and Bonhoeffer were born into well-heeled, educated, academic families, and both were well aware of their privilege. Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen, was the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, while Bonhoeffer's father was head of psychiatry at Berlin University. Both Woolf and Bonhoeffer grew up in capital cities: London and Berlin, in spacious homes staffed by servants. For both, their cities became a part of who they were. Both, however, found their happiest memories in annual family holidays to their family's summer home, Woolf's by the ocean in Cornwall at the very tip of Britain, Bonhoeffer's the Harz Mountains, the highest elevation in Germany. Both developed a love of nature during these holidays.


Woolf was the seventh child in a blended family of eight. Both her parents were widowed. Her father came to the marriage with one child; her mother, Julia Duckworth, with three. Together, Leslie and Julia had four more children. Bonhoeffer was sixth of eight, or, more accurately "sixth-seventh" of eight, as he was one of a pair of twins. He would develop a lifelong close relationship with his twin sister, Sabine, just as Woolf would with her older sister, Cassandra. All in all, the siblings in both families would remain close, and both Woolf and Bonhoeffer would sometimes feel distant from their parents, lost in a large household. Both Woolf and Bonhoeffer developed a fear of ridicule in their families of origin.

Both figures had complicated sexualities. Although married, and finding much support from her husband, Leonard, Virginia probably did not have sexual relations with him. Virginia was strongly attracted to women. Bonhoeffer never married, and though he was engaged late in life, the relationship with his fiancee was fraught. The love of his life, whether bromance or romance, was with his male friend, Eberhard Bethge.

Both figures became famous as writers. Both were committed to pacifism in countries in which this stand was considered radical and bizarre. Bonhoeffer did get involved in the 1944 plot to kill Hitler, but did not believe it was a noble act. In his Ethics, he discusses the tyrannicide in the context of the need sometimes to dirty the purity of one's conscience and even perhaps jeopardize one's afterlife for a greater good. Woolf found war deeply abhorrent at a visceral level.

Given their pacifism, it's not surprising that Quakers played a role in both lives. Bonhoeffer was friends with Quaker Herbert Jehle, who helped Bonhoeffer's fiancee, Maria von Wedemeyer, emigrate to the U.S. after the war. Bonhoeffer visited the Quaker Woodbrooke retreat center in Birmingham during his time in England. Woolf's aunt, Caroline Stephen, was a prominent Quaker who left Woolf money that helped her establish independence. Woolf was also very close with Quaker-raised Roger Fry and Quaker Violet Dickinson.

Several sharp contrasts, however, exist between the two: Bonhoeffer had no sense of woman's rights, a cause that animated Woolf in a core way. Further, Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and committed Christian, while Woolf identified as an atheist. However, Bonhoeffer was a sharp critic of the Church, believing a total reform would have to occur following World War II. His idea of "religionless Christianity" became popular in liberal circles in the 1960s. Woolf's prose, such as in To The Lighthouse, is often luminous with a sense of the numinous and the miraculous.


For next time: Bonhoeffer and Woolf's lives overlapped between 1906, when he was born, and her death in 1941. During the period, Bonhoeffer had two extended stays in London. The first was as pastor to two German churches in London from late 1933 to early 1935, and the second was a six-week period in spring, 1939, he spent with Sabine, who was in exile in England with her Jewish husband. Could they met? It seems unlikely that Woolf would have much to do with a younger German clergyman, but their upperclass world was small.

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Saturday, 25 May 2019

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