March 24, 2014

The Lübeck Martyrs

Three Roman Catholic martyrs executed under the Nazi regime – Fr. Hermann Lange, Fr. Eduard Müller and Fr. Johannes Prassek – were beatified in Germany on Saturday, and a Lutheran minister honoured.  These men were killed because of the hatred of Christian resistance to the diabolical aims of National Socialism.

Three Catholic martyrs executed under the Nazi regime were beatified in Germany today, June 25.  The event was also noteworthy for its rememberance of their Lutheran companion.

Fathers Hermann Lange, Eduard Müller and Johannes Prassek, along with Lutheran pastor Karl Friedrich Stellbrink, were guillotined in a Hamburg prison in November 1943.  The Nazi regime found them guilty of “defeatism, malice, favouring the enemy and listening to enemy broadcasts.”

At a ceremony in the northern German city of Lubeck, Cardinal Angelo Amato, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, declared the trio of Catholic clergy to be ‘blessed.’  He also expressed an ‘honorable remembrance’ for the priests’ fellow Christian martyr, Pastor Stellbrink.

“What distinguishes these four also is the fact that in the face of National-Socialist despotism they overcame the divide between the two faiths to find a common path to fight and act together,” says the official history which accompanied the ceremony.

It’s estimated that over 9,000 pilgrims – both Catholic and Protestant – attended today’s ceremony.  Twenty Catholic and four Protestant bishops planned to attend.

On June 24 Lutheran Vespers were prayed for the martyrs at Lubeck’s Memorial Church.  Former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper, spoke at the ceremony.

The official history recounts that the men would copy and distribute the anti-Nazi sermons of Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen of the Catholic Diocese of Munster.

“They felt, like many others, the liberating tone of these sermons, which broke the silence and proclaimed aloud the thoughts many had in their hearts, when the Nazi action for the ‘destruction of unworthy lives’ began, the euthanasia of innocent mentally retarded persons,” the history says.

The men’s last letters, written just hours before their deaths, have been preserved and were put on display this weekend.  Father Johannes Prassek wrote to his family: “I am so happy, I can hardly explain how happy.  God is so good to have given me several beautiful years in which to be his priest.

“Do not be sad!  What is waiting for me is joy and good fortune, with which all the happiness and good fortune here on earth cannot compare.”

Father Eduard Muller wrote to his bishop: “It gives me great pleasure to be able to write a few lines to you in this, my last hour.  Whole-heartedly, I thank you first of all for the greatest gift which you gave me as a successor of the apostles, when you placed you hands on me and ordained me as God’s priest.

“But now we must embark upon this – in human terms difficult- final walk, which is to lead us to Him, whom we served as priests.”

Johannes Prassek

Chaplain in the Catholic parish of Lübeck

Prassek was „First Chaplain” at the Catholic Herz-Jesu Parish in Lübeck – the highest ranking among the three young clerics. Born 1911 in Hamburg-Barmbek, Prassek already proved to have a mind of his own during his education at the Jesuit-run high-school St. Georgen at Frankfurt on Main as well as at the seminary at Osnabrück, which expressed itself in deep devotion and love for the Church. His ordination in 1937 made him, in his own words, the „happiest man in the world“. He would, however, in his estimation, be called upon to make many sacrifices.

 Via Wittenburg in Mecklenburg province he came to the Herz Jesu Parish in Lübeck in 1939. Here, this priest, in whose nature religious sobriety, human candour, joie-de-vivre, a desire to help and humour were all bound together, quickly won many hearts. He would address topical events without fear. During religious instruction classes or discussion groups he would quite clearly take a stand against the state-organised murder of the physically or mentally handicapped or inhuman treatment of civilians in the then occupied territories. In his sermons he would critically dissect the Nazi world-view.

Well-meaning parishioners often warned him after mass not to be quite so outspoken. “But someone has to tell the truth”, would be his reply. He also, like other seminarians, learned Polish, in order to be able to minister to Polish catholics in the diocese in their own language. Later he used this knowledge to minister, secretly, to Polish forced labourers, which was strictly forbidden. Young Polish men and women, who had met in Germany and had fallen in love were encouraged by him to declare themselves before God as man and wife, and to live as such, – although without a ceremony, because that he could not perform. Shortly after the war had ended there were many wedding ceremonies of Polish couples performed in the Herz Jesu Church. In the memories of the Herz Jesu parishioners Prassek will remain a priest with a strong aura.

Hermann Lange
Vicar in the Catholic parish of Lübeck

While Johannes Prassek was an offhand preacher, not bound by any manuscript, Hermann Lange, on the other hand, became known among catholics for his methodical, literally well prepared sermons. His listeners soon recognised in them his passion for pedagogy.

For Lange, born in 1912 in Leer, East Friesland, his uncle Hermann Lange, cathedral dean in Osnabrück, was an impressive model, also in respect of choice of profession. Early on he joined the „Bund Neudeutschland“ (ND) (New-German League). The ND was a catholic youth organisation for high-school and university students, who saw themselves as a bridge between Church and intellectuals. They strove for a renewal of Germany in the Christian spirit. Lange became leader of the Leer group already while in high-school. As a final year high-school and then as university student he became enthused by the religious philosopher Romano Guardini and the liturgical renewal movement he inspired, a movement which anticipated some reforms of the Second Vatican Council already in the 20s.

Lange was a thoroughly analytical, and not just in theological matters, highly educated personality. Besides the Eucharist, the proclaiming of the Word of God was central to his understanding of the role as a priest; in that he was close to the concerns of the reformatory churches. He rejected the ideology of National Socialism outright. Because he saw war as a core element of that ideology, he did not shy away from telling young soldiers in discussions, that participation in a war was fundamentally unacceptable by the Christian faith, Thus, he went far beyond the official stance of the then Church. This rejection of war shows the firm, focussed conviction of his thinking.

Eduard Müller
Adjunct in the Catholic parish of Lübeck

During one interrogation by the Gestapo, he remarked that in reality he regarded himself as “actually nonpolitical”. But what means “nonpolitical” in a totalitarian regime? Similar to Prassek, he had the dark foreboding after his ordination in 1940 that he would surely get to know the inside of a KZ (Concentration Camp) one day.

Born in Neumünster in 1911 as the youngest of seven children, he had a meagre youth. The father had left the family and only paid alimony on rare occasions, his devout mother made a living by taking in laundry and working as a char woman. After finishing elementary school he completed an apprenticeship as a cabinet-maker. He already at that time felt the desire to become a priest. These talents had been recognised earlier by his one time school-mistress and his parish priest. They provided him with private tuition and organised financial sponsorships from Catholic patrons. He entered the Institute for Late Vocations “St. Clemens” near Driburg, where he attained his high-school-leaving certificate. While there, he always felt somewhat humiliated for being without means and dependent on others; but he persisted and went on. Having matriculated in 1935, he studied theology. A few weeks after his ordination as a priest, he took on his first posting in Lübeck.

While there he took care of the boys’ group, 10 years and up, as well as a group catering for unmarried young men. His activities with youths were so successful, that leaders of the Lübeck HJ (Hitler Youth) tried to engage him for their programs, however, they were not successful in recruiting him. Müller consciously structured his work as a counter to that of the HJ. His excursions into the Lübeck environs on Sunday mornings after mass were in direct opposition to HJ activities. His friendly and un-authoritarian manner was in contrast to that of the HJ leadership. Youths admired him. He was also held in high regard by tradesmen and labourers, as he would always lend a hand, when help was needed.

He took part in the copying and distribution of literature critical of the regime and allowed discussions, critical of the regime, during group meetings with young men. Müller never lost his gentleness, not even in the clutches of NS-Justice. Fellow prisoners and his cell-neighbour Stephan Pfürtner writes: “I think I shall never forget his calm gentle eyes: How they would wink me a ‘Good Morning’ in the early hours and in the evening a ‘Good Night’, I guess he was unable to even hurt a fly”. Eduard Müller’s short life as a priest was in itself decidedly contradictory to the prevailing ideology of cruelty, hatred and violence.

Karl Friedrich Stellbrink
Pastor of the Lutheran Luther Church in Lübeck

Pastor Karl Friedrich Stellbrink’s career is not without controversy. He, who was sentenced and executed as an opponent of the Nazi Regime, came to Lübeck as a supporter of that regime in 1934. Stellbrink supported the program of the NSDAP (National-Socialist German Labour Party) from a German-national point of view and had welcomed Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power with great hopes. Contributing to his expectations would have been the romanticised picture of Germany which Stellbrink would have carried with him during his time of service as pastor to German parishes in Brazil (1921 to 1929).

Pastor Stellbrink and familiyStellbrink, like many others, fell victim to the deceptions of Hitler, who pretended to be a Christian and liked to quote biblical texts. As time proceeded, Stellbrink’s idea of a fruitful symbiosis between Christendom and National-socialism proved to be nothing but an illusion. A crucifix covered up with a greatcoat at the chapel of the Vorwerk Cemetery during the funeral of a Lübeck Nazi personality was to him the beacon of Christ-hatred, a hatred which he openly denounced in his sermon on Palmarum (Palm Sunday) 1942, after the terrible bombing raid on Lübeck: “God has spoken in a loud voice and the people of Lübeck will once again learn to pray”. This sermon led to his arrest by the Secret State Police (Gestapo), which was followed by the arrest of the three catholic priests. Also arrested and charged were 17 members of the catholic community and an evangelical-Lutheran parishioner. They were tried and sentenced to various lengths of imprisonment, except for two cases, which were deemed to have served their time in remand.

Realising the true character of National-socialism was paralleled with Stellbrink’s growing friendship with the three catholic chaplains and the von de Berg family, who played a leading role in the catholic community in Lübeck. While Stellbrink’s initial anti-catholicism had been implanted during his education, it turned into acceptance. This friendship also led to the appreciation of the importance and implications of the sermons of the bishop of Münster, Graf von Galen, which revealed irrefutably the criminal and inhuman character of the Nazi regime. It resulted in their copying and duplicating these sermons together, which were distributed among the community. This was the true reason for their arrests, trials and executions.

Stellbrink stood, like many other evangelical theologians before 1933, for a tradition which had an anti-catholic, anti-jewish character. „Against Rome and Juda!“ became their motto, because both were deemed to be un-German and alien to the German psyche. As his anti-catholic stance withered so did his anti-jewish attitudes.

Pastor Karl Friedrich Stellbrink thus took a long route, which changed from a German-national and National-socialist conviction, his rejection of catholicism and judaism, to their acceptance and a furtherance in the latter phase of his life; yet it ultimately led to his conviction.

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