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Reference | Posted: November 14, 2010

Religion: German Martyrs

TIME, December 23, 1940


Not you, Herr Hitler, but God is my Führer. These defiant words of Pastor Martin Niemoller were echoed by millions of Germans. And Hitler raged: "It is Niemoller or I."

So this second Christmas of Hitler's war finds Niemoller and upwards of 200,000 other Christians (some estimates run as high as 800,000) behind the barbed wire of the frozen Nazi concentration camps. Here men bear mute witness that the Christ--whose birth the outside world celebrates unthinkingly at Christmas--can still inspire a living faith for which men and women even now endure im prisonment, torture and death as bravely as in centuries past.

More than 80% of the prisoners in the concentration camps are not Jews but Christians, and the best tribute to the spirit of Germany's Christians comes from a Jew and agnostic (TIME, Sept. 23) -- the world's most famous scientist, Albert Einstein. Says he:

"Being a lover of freedom, when the revolution came in Germany, I looked to the universities to defend it, knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the cause of truth; but, no, the universities immediately were silenced. Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom; but they, like the universities, were silenced in a few short weeks. . . .

"Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler's campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly."

The Failures of Force. Of the fate of German Christians Dr. Henry Smith Leiper, secretary of the World Council of Churches, says, "This is one of the most subtle and terrible persecutions in all history." But the blood of martyrs is the seed of faith. Though the Nazis have jailed over 10,000 pastors, priests and monks for long or short periods, an unknown number have been beaten to death, the churches stand far higher in German esteem today than they did in the easygoing '20s. Church congregations have grown remarkably. Sales of the Bible have shot up from 830,000 copies in 1933 to 1,225,000 in 1939, topping Mein Kampf by about 200,000.

From Hitler's viewpoint the most dangerous aspect of Christian resistance is the refusal of thousands of churches, both Protestant and Catholic, to pray for a Nazi victory. The Gestapo can silence all open attacks from the pulpit, can imprison all outspoken pastors and forbid bishops to write pastoral letters, but it cannot make them pray for Nazi success. That situation is unparalleled in a nation at war. Even the Schwarze Korps, organ of the Elite Guard, admits it: "The spiritual gentlemen . . . write as though they want to make our soldiers dislike the war. They do not find a single word to say about the purpose of the war. They do not pray for victory."

Pastors Schutte and Kramm of Aplerbeck are quoted as saying that "there are sufficient enemies all around us," and that "maybe the English and French are not the worst."

In Cologne the Nazis were able to get Catholic churches to pray not for victory but "for our soldiers." The prayer also included a pointed reference to Saint Conrad of Parzham, a Bavarian monk whom Pope Pius XI canonized in 1934 as an example of deep humility as opposed to Naziism's "racial pride which is neither Christian nor human." In Munster, the massive, adroit bishop, Count Clemens August von Galen, instead of telling his diocese to pray for victory, ordered daily recitation of the prayer: "Lord, grant us peace! Queen of Heaven, pray for us!"

Prayers & Persecutions. Actually, many a churchman inside Germany prays privately for a Nazi defeat or at least a check to Hitler's power. Said a Catholic news dispatch from Geneva last month: "It is generally anticipated that in the case of a victorious war the Nazi regime would no longer hesitate to wipe out all vestiges of Christianity in Germany and try to establish a 'national church' under Nazi supervision which would be entirely based on the pagan conceptions of 'blood and soil.' "

Taking a leaf from the Nazi-verboten Old Testament, where King David got rid of Bathsheba's husband by having him set "in the forefront of the hottest battle . . . that he may be smitten and die." the Nazis mobilized over 55% of Germany's Protestant pastors for Army service, most of them as privates. They singled out Confessional pastors especially. In some districts 75% of the recalcitrant Confessional pastors were drafted for front-line service.

Another favorite Nazi device is confiscating the salary of pastors and priests whom they suspect of opposing them. Practically all the 5,000 Confessional pastors have suffered from this. At one church in Prussia a Confessional pastor read an official announcement that the collection would be taken by the Government. He added, "If you can give with your conscience, do so." Then he announced the sale of pamphlets nominally priced 2 ¢ each. "You have read them already," he said, "but you can give them to your friends." The regular collection, sacked by the Nazis, netted less than $2. The sale of 20 2¢ pamphlets netted $20.

In 1939 the Nazis closed over 700 German monasteries and convents. Last month they expelled 60 Catholic priests from their parishes. The work of scores of other priests and pastors has been halted by confining them to their homes or forbidding them to preach.

Of the 1,000 young Protestant seminarians in 1939, only 100 were permitted ordination after their views had been examined by State officials. The other 900 refused to Nazify their faith, went into training in underground Confessional seminaries for certificates which Confessional congregations will accept in lieu of ordination. Cut off from any possibility of salaries from Nazi-levied church taxes, they must live on the scant $45 a month which the Confessional Synod can allow them.

Nazis v. Nazarenes. As exiled Nobel Prizeman Thomas Mann said last week: "There can be no real peace between the cross and the swastika. National socialism is essentially unchristian and antichristian. . . ." Though the conflict between Christianity and Naziism seems inevitable now, it did not seem so when Hitler came into power. Catholics and Protestants alike helped his coup d'état. Martin Niemoller himself supported him. And one of Hitler's first acts as Chancellor was to declare: "In the two Christian creeds lie the most important factors for the preservation of the German people." Only in secret did he tell his confidant Hermann Rauschning: "The parsons will be made to dig their own graves. They will betray their God to us. They will betray anything for the sake of their miserable little jobs and incomes. ... I can guarantee that they will replace the cross with our swastika."

Hitler won his religious Munichs over Germany's 21,000,000 Catholics and 40,000,000 Protestants in the first six months of his power. The Vatican signed a Concordat (negotiated by Pope Pius XII, who was then Cardinal Pacelli, Papal Secretary of State) with him on July 20, 1933. By it Germany guaranteed the Church full freedom in its faith, property and organizations, in return for the Vatican's pledge that each bishop would "promise to honor the constitutional government and to cause the clergy of my diocese to honor it." With that escape clause, the Nazis have since torn all 33 articles of the Concordat into shreds, yelling "It's constitutional!" every time the Church objected.

Shortly after he got his Concordat, Hitler got the Protestant Reichsbishop he wanted. In the spring of 1933 Germany's Protestants (Lutheran. Reformed) voluntarily merged into the German Evangelical Church. To head it, the Nazis nominated Army Chaplain Ludwig Müller. a friend of Hitler and leader of the Nazified Deutsche Christen (the "German Christians").

By November, the Evangelicals realized that Hitler's hand-picked candidate was out to Nazify their church, crucify Christian doctrine, apply the "Führer Principle" to church government and the "Aryan paragraph" to church personnel. Resistance flared up all over the Reich, and the newly united church split sharply into three groups:

1) The Deutsche Christen, who like Reichsbishop Muller wanted to make the Church the obedient instrument of the State, and who have never numbered more than 3,000 pastors.

2) The Lutheran Council, some 9,000 moderates led by Dr. August Marahrens, Bishop of Hanover, who did not want to be dominated by the State (i.e., the Nazis) but wanted some connection maintained between Church and State.

3) The Confessional Synod, whose 5,000 pastors were militantly opposed to Nazi domination, fought it by every means in their power.

A month later Catholicism also began to strike back, led by rawboned, outspoken Michael, Cardinal von Faulhaber, Archbishop of Munich. In a series of Advent sermons that packed St. Michael's Church he condemned the false choice that the Nazis had tried to place before Catholics--the choice between "Germanism" and disloyalty. His Eminence thundered: "Let us not forget that we were saved not by German blood but by the blood of Christ!'' Cardinal von Faulhaber narrowly missed a Nazi bullet in 1934. In 1938 a Nazi mob smashed the windows of his palace. Now 71, he is in ill health, but he still leads Germany's Catholics in their resistance to Hitler.

So vigorous was Confessional and Lutheran Council opposition to Reichsbishop Muller that Hitler soon shelved him, presently gave his powers to Minister of Church Affairs Hanns Kerrl. Minister Kerrl's creed: "The primacy of the State over the Church must be recognized. . . . The question of the divinity of Christ is ridiculous and unessential. A new authority, Adolf Hitler, has arisen as to what Christ and Christianity really are." To Minister Kerrl, Adolf Hitler is "the Jesus Christ as well as the Holy Ghost of the Fatherland."

The Deutsche Christen element among Protestants, though in numerical minority, has flourished temporally with Nazi backing. But its churches are three-fourths empty. Typical Deutsche Christen bishop is Dr. Martin Sasse of Thuringia, who declares: "We would still go on with the Führer even if he closed the church doors before us. In Germany, there is no life except with the Führer. . . . The present-day task of theological science is to provide a religious foundation for the new State ethics."

This neo-paganism the Confessionals have fought fervently, the Lutheran Council less uncompromisingly. A reef-dodging diplomat, Bishop Marahrens is one of the three pre-Hitler Protestant bishops who has held on to his post, typifies an attitude of something-less-than-martyrdom. Under him, middle-of-the-road Protestantism's steady declaration has been: "Our bishop and council remain the legal authority of our church. . . . The Lord of the Christian Church is Christ, not Hitler."

One Man of Courage. Living martyr and symbol of Christian resistance in Germany both to Germans and the whole world is Pastor Niemoller. A gaunt, blunt, unbending hero of World War I, who won the Iron Cross for his exploits as a submarine commander (he sank 55,000 tons of Allied shipping), he was pastor of the swank Jesus Christus Kirche in Berlin's socialite suburb Dahlem and led the Confessional Synod's attack on Naziism until clapped into jail in July 1937 for "misuse of the pulpit." The court freed him when he came to trial in February 1938, but the Gestapo promptly hustled him off to concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. There he remains, all rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, having refused release offered to him on condition that he promise to cease preaching.

Halted last fortnight in Mexico City after Germans threatened to bomb the theatre was the showing of the anti-Nazi film Pastor Hall (TIME, Aug. 12). It freely parallels Pastor Niemoller's career in op position, shows a small town Lutheran parson learning what the new Nazi gospel means, suffering in a concentration camp, escaping for a final sermon to his flock before being shot. Pastor Hall, says Dr. Leiper, "understates, not overstates" the terror.

At Sachsenhausen Pastor Niemoller has been placed on a regime of half rations, double heavy labor, solitary confinement. Rock-breaking, roadbuilding, ditch-digging, harsh treatment are fast wearing him out. He has not been beaten, but has told his wife on the rare visits she is permitted that he has seen others beaten unconscious. "When I write the address, 'Concentration Camp, Sachsenhausen,' " said one daughter, "then I am always very proud."

Priest & Pastor. The next-door cell to Niemoller's is occupied by Jesuit Rupert Mayer. Like Pastor Niemoller, Priest Mayer was a World War I hero, supported the Nazis in their early days, opposed them violently when they showed their anti-Christian colors.

Said Jesuit Mayer in 1937: "It is better for a priest to be shot down in Spain than to see his faith being dragged into the dirt in Germany." The Gestapo promptly arrested him. He was given a suspended sentence by the court, rearrested by the Gestapo. Like Niemoller he has refused release offered him on condition that he refrain from preaching.

Priest Mayer and Pastor Niemoller see each other occasionally in the courtyard, have become good friends. Their friendship is symbolic of a new bond which is growing between Protestants and Catholics throughout the Reich, where heretofore the two creeds have been divided as in few other lands by bloody memories of the Thirty Years' War. When 30 Confessional pastors were arrested in Prussia, slender, steel-nerved, aristocratic Count Konrad von Preysing, Roman Catholic Bishop of Berlin, directed that prayers for their safety be offered in every church of his diocese.

Flat as a pfennig has fallen the neo-pagan celebration of the Nordic Yule at the winter solstice, sponsored by Dr. Alfred Rosenberg and other extremist Nazis as a substitute for Christmas. Not since the Reformation has Christian feeling in the Reich been more intense. This Christmastide will see millions of Germans quietly celebrating a Christian Christmas. Protestants and Catholics alike will sing that best-beloved of all carols, Silent Night, in the fervent hope that the silent night will be followed by the dawn.

A Message from Prison. It was in his fortress prison after his comic-opera Beer Hall Putsch misfired in 1923 that Adolf Hitler wrote Mein Kampf and planned the Nazi revolution. If Hitler falls after World War II his successor may even now be among the thousands who are passing this Christmas with Niemoller and Mayer in the concentration camps. And from his prison cell the Advent message that Martin Niemoller smuggled out last December reached the U. S. in time for another Christmas:

"There is one thing I want to ask of you all; that we give no place to weariness, to capitulation! There are those who would persuade us that the suffering of our Church is a sign that it follows a perverted way. To that we reply confidently that the Apostles have borne witness to the contrary. ... In their strength let us go forward on the way--in His footsteps--unconcerned with the censure of men, but with the peace of Christ in our hearts and with praise of God on our lips. So help us God!"