Love is?

Love Letters from Cell 92 is a short collection of letters between the Christian pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi activist, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his fiancee, Maria von Wedemeyer. Most of the letters (and indeed most of their engagement) was conducted while he was imprisoned by the Nazis; I was drawn to read it because I'm interested in Bonhoeffer's theology, especially his influence on liberation theology, and wanted to know a bit more about Bonhoeffer, the man. And, yes, at the end of the book, I felt that I did know more, albeit having known very little before.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
 However the book itself did leave a lot to be desired. There were copious, and very useful, notes at the back of the volume on the von Wedemeyer family, locations mentioned in the book, and some background history. There were also helpful family trees, but there was very little on Bonhoeffer himself - the assumption being that you would already know a lot having decided to pick up this book. Many of the letters had footnotes referencing letters in other books, very rarely did any of these footnotes contain quotes from the relevant letters, so not much use unless you already had the other Bonhoeffer correspondence volumes with you. What most irritated me was the editing of the letters - many letters were printed along with a footnote indicating that the letter was "lost" - so where did the quoted letter come from? Some kind of copy? Copied by whom and why? Or perhaps it was from Maria von Wedemeyer, or one of the editors' memories?? How accurate is it? It was also unclear whether what I was looking at was a selection taken from the extant letters, or included all that survived. It's just very messily done.

And it's such a shame as it would have been so interesting to see how the relationship had developed, and, perhaps, inevitably, declined in the run-up to Bonhoeffer's execution. The relationship itself is an odd one, and sometimes, certainly to my modern mind, made rather uncomfortable reading. Bonhoeffer became engaged to Maria, who was nearly 20 years younger than him in January 1943. They had only met a few times, and Maria's mother (probably at least partly because of her knowledge of Bonhoeffer's anti-Nazi activities) was reluctant for the two to become engaged. She asked them to spend a year apart with no communication and if they still wished to proceed with the relationship after that time, she would give them her blessing. Both Bonhoeffer and Maria agreed to this, but circumstances changed when Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned in April 1943. Their relationship from then on was conducted by infrequent correspondence and the odd prison visit - Maria never spent any time alone with her fiance. As Bonhoeffer's imprisonment lengthened and it became more likely that he would never be released (he was executed at Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945, having been on the outer ring of one of the plots to kill Hitler), Maria's committment to the relationship becomes more tenuous, although she is desperate not to hurt either Bonhoeffer or his family. This may be an unfair view of the relationship, but this is the situation that is suggested by the way in which the letters are presented.

Maria von Wedemeyer
It's an oddly uncomfortable read and highlights more than anything I've ever read before how ordinary Germans managed to go about daily life while in the shadow of Nazism. Some things, I guess, I will never understand, Maria's father and brother both died in the German Army while serving on the Eastern Front. Other relatives joined up, while some including Bonhoeffer, his brother, and various in-laws would be executed for their resistance to the regime. Maria seems to be able to differentiate between serving one's country, and serving one's country by bolstering a corrupt regime. And that I'm afraid I just can't begin to understand, certainly not in the circumstances surrounding Nazism. This is a powerful, and occasionally inspiring book, which promotes as many questions as it answers.


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