Are you ever tempted to read the Author’s Notes at the end of the book before you’re done with the novel? Particularly with historical fiction. I certainly am. I want to separate fact from fiction.
I really had to resist the urge while reading Amanda Barratt’s My Dearest Dietrich, based on the life of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer during World War II. But I held my curiosity at bay until novel’s end.
A proponent of ecumenism, Bonhoeffer (Feb 4, 1906 – April 9, 1945) is particularly known for his his book The Cost of Discipleship and his protests against the Nazis, from 1933 to his death. His involvement in plots to overthrow Hitler led to Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment and execution.
Skilled in piano, young Dietrich’s calling to be a minister and theologian came at age 14, not pleasing to his aristocratic family. After graduating from the University of Berlin (1927) at age 21, he became an assistant pastor to a German congregation in Barcelona (1928-29), then spent a year in New York City at Union Theological Seminary. Upon his return to Germany (1931), he became a lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Berlin and served as a pastor to two small German congregations in London (1933-35).
Meanwhile, Adolph Hitler was rising to power as chancellor of Germany (January 1933), then president (1934).
Most Germans were enthralled by Hitler as an answer to the economic depression after their defeat in World War I. But not Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer, along with Karl Barth and Pastor Martin Niemoller, organized the Confessing Church, based on resisting Hitler’s manipulation of German Protestant churches that promoted his Nazi propaganda.
Bonhoeffer headed the Confessing Church’s new seminary in Finkenwalde, Pomerania (1935-40). He went underground after the government banned him from teaching openly. The seminary closed upon its discovery.
At some point, he briefly went to the United States for refuge as a guest lecturer, then returned to Germany. He claimed,
“I made a mistake in coming to America.
I must live through this difficult period in our national history
with the Christian people of Germany.
I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany
after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”
Emerging from pacifism and his hope that moral persuasion could positively affect the culture, Bonhoeffer signed up with German secret service to serve as a double agent. As he traveled to church conferences around Europe, collecting information for Germany, he helped Jews escape the Nazis.
His book, The Cost of Discipleship (1937), embraced radical obedience to Christ while rebuking comfortable Christianity, which he termed “cheap grace”:
“Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance,
baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. . . .
Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross,
grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Bonhoeffer grieved his country’s lack of resistance against Hitler. He said,
“The Church was silent when it should have cried out
because the blood of the innocent was crying aloud to heaven.
She is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ.”
Through his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, Bonhoeffer became part of the plot to assassinate Hitler. He worked for the Resistance while undercover for the Military Intelligence Department. While German Protestant churches did nothing to oppose Hitler, Bonhoeffer and von Dohnanyi helped Jews move to Switzerland. They also traveled to Sweden to deliver conspiracy news to the British government.
“The time is fulfilled for the German people of Hitler.
It is because of Hitler that Christ, God the helper and redeemer,
has become effective among us. . . .
Hitler is the way of the Spirit and the will of God for the German people
to enter the Church of Christ.”
During this time, Bonhoeffer met young Maria von Wedemeyer and later got engaged. But their relationship was thwarted.
After failed attempts on Hitler’s life, documents tying Bonhoeffer to the conspiracy were discovered. Bonhoeffer was arrested on April, 1943. He spent two years in prison corresponding and ministering to fellow prisoners—with seventeen visits from Maria.
Tragically, on April 9, 1945, only one month before Germany surrendered, he was hung with other resisters. Years later, a witness to Bonhoeffer’s death said, “In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
“To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way,
to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint)
on the basis of some method or other,
but to be a man—not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us.
It is not the religious act that makes the Christian,
but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.”
- Letters and Papers from Prison (1951)—Bonhoeffer’s prison correspondence
- Life Together (1939)— written about Christian community, based on his time at the underground seminary.
- The Cost of Discipleship (1937)
- Love Letters from Cell 92: The Correspondence between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer, 1943–45
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography — Eberhard Bethge (Writing compiled by Dietrich’s close friend; original definitive biography is over 1000 pages)
- Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2011) — Eric Metaxas
Learn more here:
Back Cover Blurb
A staggering love illuminating the dark corners of a Nazi prison
Renowned German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is famous for his resistance to the Nazi regime and for his allegiance to God over government. But what few realize is that the last years of his life also held a love story that rivals any romance novel.
Maria von Wedemeyer knows the realities of war. Her beloved father and brother have both been killed on the battlefield. The last thing this spirited young woman needs is to fall for a man under constant surveillance by the Gestapo. How can she give another piece of her heart to a man so likely to share the same final fate? Yet when Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an old family friend, comes to comfort the von Wedemeyers after their losses, she discovers that love isn’t always logical.
Dietrich himself has determined to keep his distance from romantic attachments. There is too much work to be done for God, and his involvement in the conspiracy is far too important. But when he encounters a woman whose intelligence and conviction match his own, he’s unprepared for how easy it is to give away his heart.
With their deep love comes risk—and neither Dietrich nor Maria is prepared for just how great that risk soon becomes.
Based on detailed historical research, this true love story is at once beautiful and heartrending. My Dearest Dietrich sheds new light on a world-famous theologian . . . and the woman who changed his life.
Many people already know much of the information about Dietrich Bonhoeffer mentioned above. What they might not know about is his engagement to Maria von Wedemeyer. My Dearest Dietrich relays the lesser known love story between Dietrich and Maria.
Readers of historical fiction are often concerned about staying true to the facts, particularly when it pertains to a well-known figure’s life. According to the Author’s Notes, almost every event in the novel happened, including those involving Maria. Though fictional, the dialogs ring true based on what is known about them.
Dietrich is almost twice Maria’s age; she’s eighteen when they meet. Yet her spirit and intelligence awaken his senses. He can’t get her out of his head. Or heart.
Amidst the horrors of the Nazi regime and World War II, love blooms. As Dietrich conducts his business as part of the underground resistance, he is drawn to a relationship that brings great risk, and the potential for heartbreak.
Those unfamiliar with Bonhoeffer will find a good introduction to the kind of man he was: single-minded, principled, one who practiced what he preached. One who was willing to enter the fire for the sake of doing right as a disciple of Christ. No compromise. No “cheap grace” here.
Dietrich isn’t the only one under fire. Maria risks much, too, standing by Dietrich no matter what, visiting him in prison numerous times.
I was pulled in from the first page. Though I knew the basics of Dietrich’s life and its tragic ending, the story compelled me with every chapter. Its setting was vividly and authentically portrayed with all its terrors, yet the endearing, three-dimensional characters kept me plowing forward.
I’ve always highly regarded Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s fervor, fortitude, and faith. After reading this novel, my admiration increased. Perhaps that’s the sign of well-written historical fiction.
For additional appreciation, be sure to read the Author’s Notes!
Questions regarding My Dearest Dietrich:
This book seems like a diversion from your earlier settings and romances. What drew you to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and inspired you to write about this true romance?
Amanda: Like many, I knew the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a German pastor and theologian who stood boldly against Hitler’s regime. Also, like many, I was unaware he’d been engaged to be married at the time of his arrest and imprisonment until I came across a quote—on Facebook, no less—from Love Letters from Cell 92, the book containing the correspondence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer. Instantly a question begged to be answered: Who was Maria von Wedemeyer?
I began researching her life, seeking to understand the person she had been, not just in regards to her relationship with Bonhoeffer. The more I delved into her story, the more I wondered why it had never been told in narrative form, why it had been so rarely told at all.
The first biography about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written by his friend Eberhard Bethge, is over a thousand pages long, but Maria is mentioned approximately four times. Though the reasons for this were complex, it points to the reality that all too often the women who stood alongside great men are relegated to only a few brief lines in the recounting of history. I knew Maria deserved more.
Where do your story ideas usually originate from—character, plot, setting, theme, or a combination?
Amanda: The ideas for my historical novels often grow out of research. I’ll be reading a book or article or listening to a documentary or interview and come across something—a facet of a historical experience that begs to be unearthed or explored from another angle.
With an era as extensively written about as the Second World War, it’s tempting to wonder if there are any stories yet untold, but the deeper you delve into history and into the lives of the individuals who experienced it as reality, the more you peel back the layers and stories emerge.
How did you research in preparation to write this story? What sources were most helpful?
Amanda: Researching the novel was an intense process that took over two years. Through it all, my goal was to discover who Dietrich and Maria were at their essence and then translate that to the page. I did this first and foremost by reading the letters they wrote to each other, then the letters Bonhoeffer wrote to family and friends, his books and sermons, excerpts from Maria’s diary, and other primary source materials.
Along with this, I delved into biographies of Bonhoeffer, as well as memoirs and historical nonfiction that explored life in Nazi Germany and the German resistance. One of the most moving experiences was the discovery of an interview Maria had given in 1974 for Malcolm Muggeridge’s documentary A Third Testament, just three years before her death from cancer at the age of fifty-three. Though Maria rarely spoke publicly about Dietrich in the years following his death, she agreed to this interview. A poised and restrained woman in front of the camera, it was what she left unsaid that spoke profoundly of the depth of what she and Dietrich had shared.
What are the key historical elements you needed to include? Which fictional characters or elements did you create to flesh the story out?
Amanda: I sought to remain as true as possible to the timeline of events as they historically unfolded. Because I had correspondence and diary entries from Maria and Dietrich, as well as biographies and memoirs, I was able to create a timeline and that became the skeleton for the novel. It’s obviously impossible to know the intimate details of their thoughts and conversations, so I had to fill in the lines with a novelist’s pen.
Because both of their lives during the war, particularly Bonhoeffer’s, played out against a backdrop of resistance, and the majority of letters they exchanged during Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment were censored by the prison authorities, there are limitations in what is known, which necessitated the fictionalization of certain scenes, but always, I sought authenticity both to the historical context and to Dietrich and Maria as individuals.
What are the challenges of writing a novel with real people that many readers are already familiar with?
Amanda: When a reader picks up a novel inspired by historical personages or events, each comes to the experience with a set of expectations based on what they’ve read or heard about that person or event up until that point. In writing the novel, I had to both consider those expectations and fight against the tendency to become overwhelmed by them, my goal first and foremost being to render the story as authentically as possible.
In researching someone as well-known as Bonhoeffer, one encounters scholars and biographers who project their own biases onto the canvas of their scholarship and often hold differing opinions. I gathered all of these views and theories and then had to decide which my story would reflect. I almost always returned to what had been written by Bonhoeffer or Maria above what had been written about them.
In the end, any work of fiction, however meticulously researched, will always be the author’s interpretation of events, rather than an exact rendering. It’s the task of the novelist to research as extensively as possible and then decide how to best serve the story.
Amanda: My third novel, The White Rose Resists, is inspired by the true story of Sophie Scholl and the student resistance in Munich during the Second World War and my future projects are also steeped in historical events. Though my upcoming novels include real individuals as secondary characters, fictional characters are the lens through which the reader experiences the story.
The main difference between My Dearest Dietrich and The White Rose Resists is that while My Dearest Dietrich is written in the voices of Dietrich and Maria, The White Rose Resists is told through the point of view of Sophie Scholl and two fictional characters who are composites of real individuals. Both are based in historical fact, but The White Rose Resists gave me more liberty to explore the personal stories of my fictional characters while still depicting the lives of the real individuals who participated in the resistance of the White Rose.
Questions about writing
What books have been most influential for you as a writer? Was there a book that sparked or confirmed your desire to be a novelist?
Amanda: Though I’ve been an avid reader as long as I can remember, I can’t point to one book that had a defining impact on my dream of becoming a writer. I remember discovering Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as a teenager and writing my first story shortly after, though it wasn’t until many years later that I began to pursue writing as a career. I think my journey as a novelist is a result of collective experiences, both those I’ve had in life and through narrative.
Are you an outliner or a pantser? Share a little about your novel writing process, and the length of time it takes to complete a book.
Amanda:With my biographical and historical novels, I always begin by studying the time period, setting, and historical events. Research is a deeply formative part of my writing process and when the structure of the story takes shape.
After I’ve done enough research to feel I can confidently outline the novel, I write a several page synopsis outlining the plot and characters. I explore who the characters are—their personality, background, desires, fears, etc. and their journey throughout the course of the novel, both their literal journey and inner one.
How detailed my outline is varies with each book, but once I start writing, the outline inevitably changes if something isn’t working, as I gain insight into a character, or discover a new detail during the research process. I’m always researching as I write, immersing myself as much as possible in the era and setting. The time it takes to complete a manuscript varies—anywhere between six months to a year or sometimes longer, depending on how much rewriting is necessary.
Is World War II an era you’ll be exploring for a while? Please share something about a current project or the direction you want to go.
Amanda: My next novel releases later this year and explores the true story of a group of pharmacists in Kraków, Poland during the Second World War who operated a pharmacy in the Kraków ghetto. It’s a story of ordinary individuals who refused to remain passive in the face of the unfolding genocide of Poland’s Jewish population, a story of the durability of female friendship, and a story that ultimately asks the question: what would I have done? I’ve spent over two years researching and writing the novel and can’t wait to share it with readers.
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
Amanda: Embrace your journey. Every writer’s path to finishing a manuscript and/or pursuing publication looks different. Some writers land a contract for the first novel they complete; for others, it takes many years and manuscripts.
I signed my first contract for a novella with Barbour Publishing five years after I began to pursue publication. In that time, I completed multiple manuscripts, none of which have since been published. God’s timing is perfect and He will bless the dreams of our hearts as we seek to honor Him. That doesn’t mean those dreams will always be fulfilled according to our plan, but that God will reveal His purposes as we seek Him.
I would also add that it’s vital to be continuing to grow as a writer, no matter what stage of the journey you’re on. Attend conferences, read blogs by professionals in the industry, and study books on the art of writing. Above all, read consistently and widely. Read in the genre you write and outside of it. Most of us instinctively know good writing when we read it, but take time to study what made it good, why those sentences evoked emotion, how the author used setting to convey theme and crafted a plot that kept the pages turning.
At the risk of sounding like a slogan on a library bulletin board, reading waters the soil of your mind. Your own work will be enriched because of it.
“Reading waters the soil of your mind.“
Back to Laura . . .
On an entirely different note, I’m currently gathering a launch team for my own historical fiction, Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. Set in Holland, Michigan, this split-time novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. It highlights The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author, L. Frank Baum. Read more and watch the book trailer here.
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Amanda Barratt Bio
Amanda Barratt is the ECPA bestselling and Christy Award winning author of fifteen historical novels and novellas including My Dearest Dietrich: A Novel of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Lost Love and The White Rose Resists: A Novel of the German Students Who Defied Hitler. Visit Amanda at her website and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Join me next time for more World War II fiction, with another visit with author Tracy Groot.
Meanwhile, have you read My Dearest Dietrich? Do you have any favorite WWII fiction? Answer in the comments below.