Bonhoeffer, Emmi (1905–1991)

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Bonhoeffer, Emmi (1905–1991)

German anti-Nazi and wife of Klaus Bonhoeffer, member of the anti-Nazi resistance. Born Emmi Delbrück in Berlin, Germany, in 1905; died in Düsseldorf on March 12, 1991; one of six children of Hans Delbrück (a historian and political publicist) and Lina (Thiersch) Delbrück; married Klaus Bonhoeffer (chief counsel of the German Lufthansa Airline Company and leading civilian member of the military resistance to the Hitler regime), in 1930 (murdered, April 23, 1945); children: three.

Though occupied raising their children, strongly supported her husband's decision to oppose Nazism, assisting him on countless occasions both morally and practically; husband arrested (October 1944), sentenced to death (February 1945), murdered by the SS (April 23, 1945); barely escaped being killed when her house was destroyed in the last days of the war; moved with her children to Schleswig-Holstein to re-build their lives (June 1945); was active in activities aiding war refugees, as well as anti-Nazi educational work and various humanitarian efforts.

Born in Berlin in 1905, Emmi Delbrück grew up in the exclusive suburb of Grunewald in an environment of intellectual brilliance and personal tolerance. Her father, the historian and political publicist Hans Delbrück, had cosmopolitan, liberal attitudes that were critical of much of the narrowly militaristic spirit of Kaiser Wilhelm II's Germany. During World War I, Hans Delbrück strongly criticized Pan-German extremists who aimed for a total German victory, arguing that their attitudes would lead the Reich to a terrible catastrophe. Emmi flourished in a family circle that included leading writers and intellectuals. The neighborhood, too, fostered liberality of thought and action. One neighbor was Emmi's uncle, Adolf von Harnack, world-famous as a theologian and the founder of modern critical Biblical exegesis. Unlike some German elite families, the Delbrücks were not anti-Semitic. Among Emmi's closest friends were two Jewish girls, Brigitte (Tutti) Fischer and Suse Lissauer , who would manage to emigrate from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. When she was a young girl, Emmi's best friends were the four Bonhoeffer children—Christel , Klaus, and twins Dietrich and Sabine —who were also neighbors. The rich, lifelong relationship between Emmi and the Bonhoeffers was destined to be violently severed because of the tragic nature of modern German history.

In 1930, Emmi married Klaus Bonhoeffer, who had become a lawyer for the German Lufthansa airline. As the family grew and his career prospered, Germany descended into the darkness of the brutal Nazi dictatorship. Both Emmi and Klaus were deeply opposed to the flouting of humanitarian traditions and basic human rights by the Hitler dictatorship, but at first there was little they could do to resist the regime. Emmi, who never saw Adolf Hitler in person, recalled that his voice, which she often heard on the radio, was that of "a man who always screamed." The humanistic family tradition of both the Bonhoeffer and Delbrück families had inoculated them against Nazi racism and intolerance. Defying the anti-Jewish Nazi boycott of April 1, 1933, Klaus' paternal grandmother poked one of the storm troopers in front of a Jewish-owned grocery shop on his shiny boots, insisting, "I'll buy my butter where I have always bought my butter." The Nazi toughs let her through unmolested.

Promoted to corporate counsel for Lufthansa in 1936, Klaus enjoyed significant opportunities to establish contacts both in Germany and abroad with anti-Nazi individuals and groups. Through his brother Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brilliant young Protestant theologian, Klaus kept abreast of developments within Christian anti-Nazi circles. With the coming of war in 1939, the plans of the anti-Nazi resistance groups within the regime concentrated on an assassination of Hitler and a military coup that would seize the government and end the war. Klaus established contact with the military plotters through his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi and developed links with the Social Democratic opposition groups through Emmi's cousin, Ernst von Harnack.

Fully sharing her husband's detestation of the Nazi regime, Emmi Bonhoeffer was more than aware of the risks of involvement in resistance to Hitler's tyranny. While raising her three children, she supported Klaus in every possible fashion, passing on coded messages as well as funds to finance special activities of the resistance groups. But the strain of the war and the anger induced by the knowledge she shared with her husband and his fellow-conspirators sometimes led to potentially dangerous incidents. On one occasion, while shopping for vegetables in the summer of 1942, Emmi remarked to a neighbor: "Now they are beginning to gas and burn up the Jews in the concentration camps." Her indiscreet comment was overheard by a saleswoman who warned, "Frau Bonhoeffer, if you don't stop spreading such atrocity stories you too will wind up in a concentration camp. All of us heard what you said, and nobody will be able to help you."

On another occasion, some months earlier, she was on a Berlin streetcar when an old Jewish woman, wearing the Star of David, boarded. A worker offered her a seat; whereupon the conductor warned him that offering a seat to a Jew was forbidden by law. To this, the worker replied with an obscenity and got off. At this point, Emmi Bonhoeffer whispered into the ear of the frightened Jewish woman, "Please feel free to sit down," and demonstratively stood next to her until the old woman reached her stop. Fortunately, there were no Gestapo agents on the streetcar. While it was apparent from their attitudes that the passengers sympathized with the elderly Jewish woman rather than the conductor, none dared to speak out. Years of Nazi terror and propaganda had taught them the dangers of helping another human being who was defined by Nazism as "sub-human."

After the failure of the attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944, Klaus Bonhoeffer was arrested in October 1944. Although he was sentenced to death by the Nazi People's Court on February 2, 1945, a friend of Emmi's in the Ministry of Justice intercepted his file. This left both Klaus and Emmi optimistic that his sentence would never be carried out. They were mistaken. On April 23, 1945, he was executed by SS guards with a shot in the back of his neck.

The same day her husband was murdered, Emmi was nearly killed when a direct hit by an Allied bomb destroyed her house. By the time the war ended two weeks later, Emmi Bonhoeffer had lost her husband Klaus, her brother-in-law Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and her relatives Hans von Dohnanyi, Rüdiger Schleicher, and Ernst von Harnack. She lost as well her brother Justus Delbrück who was arrested by Soviet authorities in May 1945, ostensibly because he had information on the plot against Hitler. Emmi never saw her brother again; he died of illness in a Soviet prison camp in October 1945.

After the war, Emmi Bonhoeffer moved with her children to Schleswig-Holstein to attempt to rebuild her shattered life. She took strength from a letter her husband had written shortly before his death, containing instructions for the moral education of their children. Turning her attention to helping others, she sent food parcels to the Soviet Occupation Zone. In the early 1960s, she became involved in assisting the hundreds of witnesses who came to Germany for the famous Auschwitz trial that convicted a number of war criminals. Determined that the younger generation of Germans be aware of the horrors that had taken place under German rule, she often antagonized those of her generation who wanted to forget, or sweep under the carpet, the crimes of Nazism. In her final years, Emmi Bonhoeffer globalized her concerns for justice by working for Amnesty International.


Bethge, Eberhard, and Renate Bethge, eds. Last Letters of Resistance: Farewells from the Bonhoeffer Family. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1986.

Bucholz, Arden. Hans Delbrück and the German Military Establishment: War Images in Conflict. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1985.

John, Otto. Twice Through the Lines: The Autobiography of Otto John. NY: Harper & Row, 1972.

Meding, Dorothee von. Mit dem Mut des Herzens: Die Frauen des 20. Juli. 2nd ed. Berlin: Wolf Jobst Siedler Verlag, 1992.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia