She was a quiet, unassuming woman, apparently the perfect „Hausfrau“ – housewife – to a famous man. Her husband Eberhard Bethge was famous because he had been Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, his confidant and his disciple. Eberhard Bethge had willingly and passionately taken up the burden of publishing Bonhoeffer’s papers, of explaining and interpreting his theological legacy, and of keeping the memory of a great Christian alive in a modern world that was often hostile to faith and religion. But Renate Bethge was herself a woman of great courage and intelligence, and she provided me with some of the most significant insights into what life in Nazi Germany was really like.
Renate was the daughter of Rüdiger Schleicher and Ursula Bonhoeffer, one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sisters. In the aftermath of the unsuccessful coup attempt against the Hitler on July 20, 1944, her father and three of her uncles were executed for treason by the Nazi regime. Her father and her Uncle Klaus were known to have been tortured by the Gestapo before their death. This alone is an indication of how staunchly anti-Nazi Renate’s upbringing was. It was a family that opposed Hitler before he came to power, and recognized the full extent of his immorality. It was a family that was actively involved in trying to put an end to the dictatorship.
Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that, on the day when “Heil Hitler!” was introduced as the compulsory greeting in school, Renate rebelled. Outraged that she was supposed to greet her teachers every morning with “Heil Hitler,” she stormed home and announced to her parents that she “absolutely refused” to say “Heil Hitler!” Only God, she told her profoundly devout parents, should be adulated in such a manner. (It was customary in much of Germany to say “God’s Greetings” rather than “Good Morning” of “Good Day.”)
Renate’s father was at this time a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Aviation and Head of the Institute for Aviation Law at the University of Berlin. He knew that Renate at this stage in her life wanted to study medicine like his own brother. When his young daughter furiously declared her determination not to “insult God” by saying “Heil Hitler!” he nodded and told her that she was “old enough to make her own decisions.” But he then went on to warn her: “However, you must be prepared to live with the consequences of your decision. If you refuse to say ‘Heil Hitler’ then you may be sent home from school. You will certainly not be allowed to go to high school, and that means you will not be able to go to university to study medicine. The decision you make today will affect your whole future, so make it wisely.” Renate went to school the next day and said “Heil Hitler” just like all the other pupils.
The significance of this story cannot be over-emphasized. It is too simple for anyone who has not lived under a totalitarian regime to think that it is easy to resist and protest. We forget that even small acts of defiance could have large consequences. A child’s stubbornness might not lead inevitably to a concentration camp, but cutting off all avenues to higher education for a bright young person is a powerful disincentive to dissent!
Time and again in my interviews, I was confronted with stories in which compromise was mixed with opposition because even the most courageous and dedicated of opponents had to earn a living. A woman whose closest friends were Jews took a job as translator with the Propaganda Ministry because it was “safer in the lion’s den;” because of where she worked, she was less subject to suspicion and she continued to visit her friends and take them forbidden gifts until they were deported. People joined various secondary organizations, the Frauenschaft, the Deutsche Beamten Bund and the like, to avoid becoming full members of the Nazi Party. It was dangerous to refuse to participate in a comprehensively organized society. It was very dangerous to be seen to reject the spirit of the times.
On the other side of the coin, it is important to remember that not everyone who was a supporter of the Nazi regime was a fanatic or an evil person. Secret opinion polls taken among official members of the Nazi Party in the late 1930s show that a majority of Nazis opposed the Nazi Party policies against the Jews! Most people in Germany supported the Nazis for a variety of complex reasons – because they had provided full employment, because they abrogated the hated Treaty of Versailles, because they had restored national sovereignty to the Rhineland etc. That does not mean that most people supported everything the Nazis did – and certainly not everything that all the increasingly corrupt officials of the regime did.
Ultimately, no matter how much a man or woman hated Hitler, he or she also had loved ones, whom he or she wished to protect from harm. And sometimes love leads us in strange directions. In a tiny, studio apartment in Munich I met the widow of Field Marshal Alfred Jodl. Jodl ended his career as Chief of the Joint Operations Staff (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) – and on the gallows. He was one of the men condemned at the first trial of major Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg. But his second wife was Luise von Benda, a close friend and associate of two of the most important leaders of the German military resistance to Hitler, Generaloberst Beck and General Henning von Tresckow.
Luise von Benda had been Beck’s secretary during the period when Beck challenged his fellow generals to join him in a collective protest against Hitler’s planned invasion of the Sudetenland in what was then Czechoslovakia. Beck urged his fellow generals to refuse to obey Hitler’s orders and advocated confrontation with Hitler that would – he hoped – end in the restoration of “the rule of law.” His secretary worked long and hard with him during this period in his futile efforts to win the support of his fellow generals. She shared Beck’s views on the illegality and disastrous consequences of Hitler’s foreign policy.
Luisa von Benda was furthermore the personal and family friend of Henning von Tresckow. Tresckow was the mind behind two of the most promising assassination attempts against Hitler and a tireless anti-Nazi conspirator. Tresckow did not confide to Luisa what he was planning, but he did keep his opinion of Hitler secret. As another family friend of Luisa von Benda, told me, Luisa shared Tresckow’s opinion of Hitler fully. It was this friend, Ludwig Baron von Hammerstein, who sent me to visit her. “You need to meet her,” he told me smiling, his eyes bright with mischief.
Luisa Jodl was a delicate, fragile woman in her eighties when she received me in Munich. She was anxious to be a gracious hostess, as was fitting for a woman born into the gentry, but she was embarrassed by what she could offer; all her china was chipped, and some of it glued back together again. As the widow of a “major Nazi war criminal,” she had not had an easy life in post-war Germany.
She was nervous too. Of course she had agreed to see me because Ludwig had provided the introduction, and Ludwig Hammerstein was an old friend, dating back to the days when his father had been Chief-of-Staff of the German Army and Luisa had been a secretary at Army Headquarters. But she still feared an American would judge her – and her husband – harshly.
“You have to understand,” she begged me, “my husband was a product of his upbringing.” Her husband, she explained (and most historians agree), was never a Nazi, never a believer in Hitler’s ideology or even in his genius – he was simply a man who could not find the moral courage to disobey. “At the age of seven,” she told me, “he as sent to a cadet school by his father. On the first day, the boys were lined up and told: ‘Gentlemen, you are here to learn how to die well.’” That was it. From that point forward, he had followed the rigid code of self-sacrifice, duty and blind obedience. Trapped by his own sense of duty into serving a man he inwardly detested, Jodl was a man in more desperate need of comfort and affection than many others. And so, although Luise knew that Hitler was leading Germany to both moral and physical destruction, she could not deny her love to the man she knew to be inwardly suffering and in need of what comfort she could offer as a wife.
Luise’s choice, no less than Renate’s, was the very human decision in favor of life and hope for a better future. No one, who has not been in their shoes, has the right to condemn them for it.