Tag Archives: Nazism

In the face of oppression

“You shall not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is at stake.
Leviticus 19: 16

Martin Niemöller once wrote:

“If we had recognized that in the communists who were thrown into concentration camps, the Lord Jesus Christ himself lay imprisoned and looked for our love and help, if we had seen that at the beginning of the persecution of the Jews it was the Lord Jesus Christ in the person of the least of our human brethren who was being persecuted, and beaten and killed, if we had stood by him and identified ourselves with him, I do not know whether God would not then have stood by us and whether the whole thing would not then have had to take a different course.”

He was a decorated U-boat commander in the First World War. After the war he became a Lutheran pastor and later a pacifist, speaking out forcefully against war and especially the proliferation of nuclear weapons until his death on March 6, 1984.

Imprisoned by Hitler he did not stand idly by when his neighbor’s life was at stake. He recognized the call of God to respond to the forces of evil and protect the innocent.

I have since my high school days been plagued by the seeming indifference of many, including religious leaders, to the violence and racism of Hitler and Nazism. The witness of people like Martin Niemöller, the members of the White Rose, and the Austrian peasant Franz Jägerstätter who risked their lives in opposition to evil.

Will I continue to try to do this? Will I see the challenge that we followers of Christ face when we see the hungry, the refugee, the defenseless, the imprisoned? Will I, as todays Gospel notes, be among the sheep who respond to those in need or among the goats? (Matthew 25:31-46)

Choosing life amid the Nazis

Choose life, that you and your children may live.
Deuteronomy 30: 19
Take up the cross and follow me.
Luke 9: 23

On March 2, 1945, a day after his thirty-fourth birthday, Father Engelmar Unzeitig died in Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp just outside Munich.

Blessed Engelmar wanted to be a foreign missionary. But his forceful sermons defending the Jews landed him in Dachau in 1941, after only two years as a parish priest in Austria.

Together with thousands of other Catholic priests and Protestant clergy, he spent four years there. He learned Russian so that he could give pastoral care for prisoners form eastern Europe, even dialoguing with Marxists.

In 1945 he and nineteen other priests volunteered to serve in a barracks for those who were dying of typhoid. He contracted the disease and died there.

For him choosing life meant taking up the cross, speaking the truth to the powers that be, defending those who were being persecuted. It also meant attending the dying.

Responding to God for Blessed Engelmar meant being truthful, forthright, and compassionate. He was an angel of mercy.

As he wrote to his sister from Dachau, he did this from his deep faith in a God of love and grace:

Whatever we do, whatever we want, is surely simply the grace that carries us and guides us. God’s almighty grace helps us overcome obstacles.

Love doubles our strength, makes us inventive, makes us feel content and inwardly free. If people would only realize what God has in store for those who love him!

Even behind the hardest sacrifices and worst suffering stands God with his Fatherly love, who is satisfied with the good will of his children and gives them and others happiness.

He is a martyr, a witness, a sign for our times.

Will we speak up against persecution of Jews and Muslims?

Will we attend those who suffer from disease and poverty?

Will we, as Bishop Robert McElroy said so pointedly, be disrupters and rebuilders?

Blessed Engelmar was a disrupter, almost without wanting to be one, as he critiqued the Nazi regime and spoke up for the Jews. But he was also, I believe, a rebuilder as he attended the needs of other prisoners, dialoguing even with non-believers, serving even in the hideous barracks of the victims of typhoid.

May we be angels of mercy, messengers of truth, disrupters of all that is unholy, rebuilders with our sights on the Kingdom of God – a Reign of “justice, peace, and joy in the Spirit.” (Romans 14:7)

Martyred for greeting the outcast

“Outside, the Temple is burning, and this too is a house of God. . . .
The Jews are my brothers and sisters,
also created with an immortal soul by God!”
Father Bernhard Lichtenberg

On November 5, 1943, Father Lichtenberg died while being transported to the Dachau concentration camp.

As provost of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin, he had been outspoken against the Nazi’s campaign for euthanasia, writing the chief physician of the Reich:

“As a human being, a Christian, a priest, and a German, I demand of you that you answer for the crimes that have been perpetrated at your bidding, and with your consent, and which will call forth the vengeance of the Lord on the heads of the German people.”

He also spoke out clearly in defense of the Jews after 1938 Kristallnacht, when the Nazis attacked Jewish businesses and homes and gave clear signs of what they planned.

He was finally arrested in 1941 after his home was searched and notes were found for a sermon denouncing a statement of a Nazi official that greeting a Jew on the street was an act of treason. He was going to respond to this with the biblical admonition, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In one sense, Father Lichtenberg was martyred for being willing to greet Jews on the streets of Berlin.

Greeting and acknowledging the marginalized, the persecuted, is a revolutionary act, an act rooted in the revolution of love that Jesus calls for among his followers.

What would happen – or, rather, what does happen – when one greets the refugee, the immigrant, the drug addict, the gang member on the street with love?

In some cases, people are mocked for their willingness to love. In other cases, they might even be locked up.

Have we come so far from Nazi Germany? Have we followers of Christ given up the call to welcome the stranger, to protect the persecuted, to put ourselves at the side of the poor?

May Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg inspire us to stand with all those who suffer.


This post was inspired by Robert Ellsberg’s “Blessed among Us” entry in November 2015’s Give Us This Day. Subscription information available here.

There is still time

There is still time:
come back to me with all your heart.
Joel 2:12
(from the Latin America lectionary)

 The English lectionary begins today’s first reading differently:

Even now, says the Lord,
return to me with your whole heart…

There is still time.

Conversion can happen at any moment in our lives. In fact, the life of faith is one of constant conversion, continuing opening ourselves to God’s call to be one with God, to be reconciled with God and with others.

Today Thursday March 6 is the fortieth anniversary of the death of the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, who is most known for this quote:

When the Nazis came to get the Communists, I was silent. When they came to get the Socialists, I was silent. When they came to get the Catholics, I was silent. When they came to get the Jews, I was silent. And when they came to get me, there was no one left to speak.

Reading about him this morning in Robert Ellserg’s All Saints and in Jim Wallis and Joyce Hollyday’s Cloud of Witnesses, I realized that here was a man who went through a whole series of conversions.

He was a German U-boat commander in World War I. He was disillusioned by the treaty of Versailles and was found Hitler’s critique appealing. Even though he became a Lutheran pastor, following his father’s example, he was still an ardent German nationalist.

But Hitler’s taking over the German Lutheran Church and the banning of Lutheran pastors of Jewish ancestry, moved him to untie with other pastors in a protest, that developed into the Confessing Church.

Niemöller was arrested in 1937 and spent almost eight years in German concentration camps – as Hitler’s personal prisoner!

But after the war, he recognized the real evil that was Hitler and Nazism and helped formulate a Declaration of Guilt. The evil was more than Hitler’s takeover of the church. As Niemöller said, “The issue was whether one saw Jesus as the highest authority, or Hitler.”

But, as the Cold War heated up, Niemöller had a further conversion – against nuclear weapons and against all war. He became a prominent pacifist leader in Germany and throughout the world.

Not one conversions but many.

Yet, in an interview two years before his death, he shared the root of his life of conversions.

I was a schoolboy of eight when my father often took me along in the afternoons when he went around to visit the sick. One day we went to see a weaver who was dying of tuberculosis. Downstairs was his loo, and my father parked me there while he went upstairs to the sick man’s bedroom. I took in the bare room with nothing but the loom and whitewashed walls.
In one corner I noticed something framed and under glass which was embroidered in pearls – nothing but the question, “What would Jesus say?” I’ve never forgotten it – never. And that’s the sum of Christian ethics.

Robert Ellberg gives March 5 as the date for Niemoeller’s death, while almost all other sources say March 6.

Young heroes of the White Rose

For decades I have been collecting quotations that touch me. Since high school I have been fascinated by people who stand up for justice, identify with the poor, and work for peace. About twenty years ago I began to put together a calendar of these heroes and quotes from them.

Each morning I check the calendar and I am often moved by remembering the many women and men who are witnesses to love, very often based in a deep faith in Christ.

Every once in a while I am reminded of some persons who have touched me in a steep way by their witness.

Today is the anniversary of the execution of three members of the White Rose, a group mostly of young students – Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox – who made a courageous witness against Nazism. On February 22, 1943, Sophie and Hans Scholl (sister and brother) and Christoph Probst were executed in Munich. Others were later apprehended and executed.

They didn’t start a revolutionary movement. Their major weapon was an illegal duplicating machine which they used to print thousands of leaflets that they distributed in defiance of Hitler.

“We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.”

I am touched that these young people had more courage than many religious leaders in Germany and elsewhere to denounce – in clear words – the evil that Nazism was.

They challenge me to speak boldly, yet peacefully and lovingly, in the face of the evils around us.

And, as far as I can discern, they did this because of a deep faith in God.

That gave them a great courage that moved them to rouse themselves from a survival ethic. As Sophie Scholl wrote:

The real damage is done by those millions who want to “survive.” The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.

How will we burn with the love of God and others in our hearts?



Waiting for a Miracle

Today we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple.

Simeon001Simeon was awaiting the liberation of Israel. When the poor couple from Nazareth arrived with their first born son, Jesus, he recognized the child as “a light of revelation for the Gentiles and the Glory of God’s people.”

Do we recognize the coming of the Light? Do we see the miracles around us?

Father Alfred Delp, S.J., who was hanged by the Nazis on February 2, 1945, recognized the Light even in the darkness of prison. In a meditation on the shepherds who came to the crib, he wrote that the shepherds were men still “capable of registering wonder,” “still able to believe in miracles.”

But, in the darkness of prison he lamented:

 The world is full of miracles but no one perceives them; our eyes have lost the power to see.

Yet, in a final message to friends he wrote:

If through one person’s life there is a little more love and kindness, a little more light and truth in the world, then that person will not have lived in vain.

Alfred Delp, like Simeon and Anna, waited for the miracle – the Light that comes into the world to console and free us.

And that Light, Jesus, has come – as the Letter to the Hebrews says (2:15) to “free all those who, because they fear death, live as slaves.,” or as the lectionary puts it to “free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.”

Fear of death enslaves us, blinds us to the miracles around us. Perhaps time in prison or old age can open us to live as free people. As Alfred Delp wrote:

 I am not yet scared and not yet beaten. The hour of human weakness will no doubt come and sometimes I am depressed when I think of all the things I hoped to do. But I am now a an internally free and far more genuine that I was before.

He was waiting for a miracle as Simeon and Anna were waiting to see the Messiah.

They had eyes open to see miracles.

One of my favorite songs of Bruce Cockburn is “Waiting for a Miracle.” In the refrain he has several beautiful images

Your rub your palm on the grimy pane
in the hope that you can see…
like the ones who have cried,
like the ones who have died,
trying to set the angel in us free.
while they’re waiting for a miracle.

May we open our eyes and wait for miracles – like Alfred Delp, Simeon, Anna, and many others who have died, “trying to set the angel in us free.”

A peasant prophet

For what doth it profit a man,
if he gain the whole world,
and suffer the loss of his own soul?
Matthew 16: 26
(Douay-Rheims translation)

Seventy years ago today, August 9, 1943, a 36 year old Austrian peasant, husband and father of two girls, was beheaded in a Berlin prison.

Franz Jägerstätter

Portrait von Franz Jägerstätter- St. Radegund/ Schärding 2. Weltkrieg – 1939 – 1945 *** Local Caption *** St. Radegund

Franz Jägerstätter has refused to serve in Hitler’s army. Unlike many in Germany and Austria, he had realized the horror and the sinfulness of Nazis. Even though religious leaders told him to recall his duty to his family and to his “fatherland,” he insisted that he could not do something that endangered his immortal soul.

This man from the small village of Sant-Radegund, Austria, had an understanding of the horror and evil of Nazism that others lacked. In one of his writings from prison he described a 1938 dream in which he saw people eager to board a train. He heard a voice, “This train is bound for hell.” He identified the train as Nazism and considered it is duty to jump off.

He also had the courage to act. He was the only person in his village to vote against the German annexation of Austria. He also took the brave act of refusing induction into the German army in 1943.

He is a real example of someone who was willing to deny himself and take up the cross, as Jesus calls us to do in today’s Gospel (Matthew 16:24).

He did it even though he was virtually alone.

In an extraordinary letter from prison he wrote his wife about his solitary witness:

Today one can hear it said repeatedly that there is nothing any more that an individual can do. If someone were to speak out, it would mean only imprisonment and death. True, there is not much that can be done any more to change the course of world events. I believe that should have begun a hundred or even more years ago. But as long as we live in this world, I believe it is never too late to save ourselves and perhaps some other soul for Christ.

One really has no cause to be astonished that there are those who can no longer find their way in the great confusion of the day. People we think we can trust, who ought to be leading the way and setting a good example, are running with the crowd.

No one gives enlightenment, whether in word or in writing….

Do we no longer want to see Christians who are able to take a stand in the darkness around us in deliberate clarity, calmness, and confidence — who, in the midst of tension gloom, selfishness, and hate, stand fast in perfect peace and cheerfulness — who are not like the floating reed which is driven here and there by every breeze — who do not merely watch to see what their friends will  do but, instead, ask themselves, “What does our faith teach is about this,” or “can conscience bear this so easily that I will never have to repent?”

If road signs were ever stuck so loosely in the earth that every wind cold break them off or blow them about, would anyone who did not know the road be able to find his way? And how much worse is it if those to whom one turns for information refuse to give him an answer or, at most, give him the wrong direction just to be rid of him as quickly as possible!

Franz stood alone and is for us a signpost of God in the midst of violence, war, and injustice.

Would that we also be signposts of God’s will – even if it brings the cross.

The quotation from Jägerstätter’s prison letter is taken from Gordon Zahn’s In Solitary Witness. In 2009, Orbis Books published an anthology of his writings: Franz Jägertätter: Letters and Writings from Prison.