Catholic Martyrs of the Third Reich
Twelve years of Nazi rule produced many Catholic martyrs. GÜNTHER SIMMERMACHER looks at some of those who died for resisting the regime in Germany and Austria.
When Germany’s surrender on May 7, 1945 — 75 years ago this week — ended the Second World War in Europe, Catholics saw a nation and their Church shattered, physically and spiritually.
After 12 years and three months of Adolf Hitler’s destructive reign, almost all German cities had been destroyed, and a generation was lost to war.
The Catholic Church suffered tremendously, even if some of its members — and more than a few hierarchs — were complicit in the Nazi regime. Millions of Catholics died on the battlefield, on execution blocks, in concentration camps.
Catholic buildings were in ruins. Catholic communities were shattered. Of the 400 Catholic daily newspapers and journals, and more diocesan publications, none had survived (some were later revived).
The Nazi regime had targeted the Catholic Church early on. Initially, the Church won some victories, such as in its protection of Catholic schools. But bit by bit, the regime ground down the Church’s resistance, through violence, threats and expropriation of Church property.
What saved the outspoken bishops was a residue of Catholic loyalty. But Catholics who were not protected by the privilege of rank shed blood.
The first martyr was Erich Klausener, a 49-year-old career civil servant and leader of Catholic Action, who had acted several times against the Nazis in the years before they took power.
On June 24, 1934, he delivered a scathing anti-Nazi speech at a Catholic conference. Six days later he was shot dead in his office by SS agents in the course of the “Night of the Long Knives”.
The Nazis claimed that Klausener died by suicide. Nobody believed the lie. The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore even mocked it.
The archdiocese of Berlin was duly intimidated. Heroic witness was not for everybody.
Two other prominent Catholics were murdered a few days after Klausener. One was Adalbert Probst, the 33-year-old head of the Catholic Sports Association DJK. The other was Fritz Gerlich, the 51-year-old editor of the Catholic newspaper Der Gerade Weg, who was murdered in Dachau concentration camp, where he had been detained and brutally tortured since March 1933.
Priests were persecuted, too, though initially not subject to murder as easily as lay people. Instead the Nazis intimidated, harassed and blackmailed them, or set elaborate traps to silence them.
A method of the latter was to call a priest to perform the last rites in an apartment. When the priest arrived, a prostitute would throw herself at him while a Gestapo agent took “incriminating” photographs.
Fr Bernhard Lichtenberg of Berlin, a loud critic of the regime, was subjected to sustained harassment and mistreatment, including torture by the Gestapo.
He had been marked out for public attack by Joseph Goebbels as early as 1931, and the official harassment started in 1933. It got worse when in 1935 he lodged a complaint about the internment of prominent social-democratic politicians in concentration camps.
Fr Lichtenberg did not let the Nazis intimidate him. He was arrested in 1941, for having drafted a sermon in which he was going to tell the faithful to reject anti-Semitic propaganda. He was sentenced to two years in jail.
When Fr Lichtenberg was released, he was immediately detained and sent to Dachau. In transit to the camp, the weakened priest died at the age of 68 on November 5, 1943. He was beatified in 1996.
These murders and persecutions galvanised a few Church leaders, such as Bishop Clemens von Galen, to speak out more forthrightly against Nazi rule.
Bishop von Galen inspired resistance among many Catholics, including three priests in the mostly Lutheran northern city of Lübeck.
Parish priest Fr Johannes Prassek, and his two vicars, Frs Eduard Müller and Hermann Lange, were friends with the Lutheran pastor Rev Karl Friedrich Stellbrink, whom they gave copies of Bishop von Galen’s sermons.
All four were arrested between April and June 1942 and subjected to a show trial in a Nazi court which sentenced them to death.
The four were beheaded, one after the other, in a Hamburg jail on November 10, 1943. The Catholic priests were beatified in 2011.
Bishop von Galen’s sermons also helped to galvanise the White Rose resistance movement of students in Munich, led by the siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl and others. The Scholls and four others were executed in 1943 for producing and distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets.
Among the six was Willi Graf, a devout 25-year-old Catholic who in 1935 had refused to join the Hitler Youth, as was mandatory by then.
As a young student he was jailed for a few weeks for political activity. It did not deter him. Having seen awful things in the war, he decided to become more active when he was permitted to study in Munich — where he joined the White Rose.
He was beheaded, with two of his comrades, on October 12, 1943.
Death in Dachau
Fr Richard Henkes, a Pallottine priest, was a most relentless critic of the Nazis, in ways which made even his order nervous, lest it turn the regime’s attention on his confreres.
Fr Henkes’ dream had been to be a missionary in Cameroon. This is why he joined the Pallottine seminary at Vallendar, where one of his spiritual directors was future Schoenstatt founder Fr Joseph Kentenich.
Fr Henkes, a teacher, was moved from one place to the next. At all of these, he attracted the attention of the Gestapo for declaring the incompatibility between Christianity and Nazism.
When Fr Henkes was sent to occupied Czechoslovakia, a sermon which condemned the German army’s treatment of the locals got him transported to Dachau, where his old formator Fr Kentenich was interred at the same time.
Fr Henkes, then 44, became well-known in the camp for his selfless acts of mercy, especially in caring for the victims of typhoid fever. In the end, typhoid killed him before the Nazis could, on February 22, 1945. He was beatified in 2019.
Another “Angel of Dachau” was Mariannhill Missionaries Father Engelmar Unzeitig, who died at 34 only a week and a day after Fr Henkes, also of typhoid. Like him, Fr Unzeitig cared tenderly for the typhoid-stricken.
Fr Unzeitig had been interred in Dachau without trial, or even a charge, for almost four years. It was enough that he had preached in defence of the persecuted Jews. He was beatified in 2016.
With its founder interred there, Dachau had a Schoenstatt “wing”. Among the priests who found themselves there was Fr Gerhard Hirschfelder, who joined the Schoenstatt Movement in the camp.
He had long spoken out against the Nazis, but what got him to Dachau was his objection to the destruction of Christian images.
He died of starvation and pneumonia on August 1, 1942. Fr Hirschfelder was beatified in 2010.
Hail God, not Hitler
At least two priests were sent to Dachau and died there because they advocated on behalf of Polish forced labourers. Fr Josef Lenzel of Breslau (then German; now Wroclaw in Poland) died at 52 on July 3, 1942 from ill-treatment and exhaustion.
Shortly before that, on June 22, 1943, his fellow Breslau priest Fr August Froehlich died there at 61. The priest had encouraged others to desist from using the Nazi greeting, “Heil Hitler”, and instead use the traditional Christian greeting, “Grüss Gott” (“Praise God”).
He survived Buchenwald and Ravensbrück concentration camps but died from the bad conditions at Dachau.
Fr Alojs Andritzki, 27, came to Dachau for the crime of having presented a Christmas play in Dresden in 1940. At Christmas 1942 he fell ill with typhoid and was moved to the infirmary.
When he asked to receive Communion, the guards mocked: “He wants Christ. We’ll give him an injection instead.” They then killed Fr Andritzki by legal injection on February 3, 1943. He was beatified in 2011.
More than a thousand priests from different countries died at Dachau, from disease or exhaustion or murder.
Hung upside down
The first priest to die in a concentration camp was Fr Otto Neururer, an Austrian whose crime was to counsel a young parishioner not to marry a man of dubious morals. It turned out that the man was a friend of the local Nazi chief, and the priest was transported to Dachau and then to Buchenwald.
There he was frequently tortured. Fr Neururer sealed his fate when he illicitly baptised a fellow inmate. The sadistic camp commander hanged him upside down and naked. Fr Neururer died after 34 hours of agony on May 30, 1940. He was 58. The priest was beatified in 1996.
Another Austrian, Franciscan Sister Maria Restituta Kafka, was the only woman religious to receive a death sentence.
A formidable nurse in Vienna, she defied the Nazis by refusing to remove the crucifixes from hospital rooms. On Ash Wednesday 1942, Sr Maria Restituta came out of the operating theatre when she was arrested by the Gestapo. Accused of not removing the crucifixes and allegedly having dictated a poem mocking Hitler, the 48-year-old nun was sentenced to death.
Sr Maria Restituta was beheaded on March 30, 1943. She was beatified in 1998.
The ecumenist Fr Max Josef Metzger became a peace activist after serving as a chaplain in World War I, a cause in which he was encouraged by Pope Benedict XV himself. Unsurprisingly, he was opposed to the Nazis and was arrested several times by the Gestapo.
His end came when his memorandum to a Swedish bishop outlining how a defeated Germany could become part of a peace plan was intercepted.
A showtrial, presided over by the frenzied hanging judge Roland Freisler, sentenced him to death. He was executed on April 17, 1944.
Trade unionist and journalist Nikolaus Gross was also a peace campaigner. When his Catholic workers’ newspaper was banned by the regime in 1938, he continued publishing it underground. As of 1940 he was frequently raided and interrogated by the Gestapo.
His end came when he was arrested as part of the large-scale round-up following the failed assassination attempt on Hitler in 1944, a pretext for the Nazis to purge their opponents.
Though innocent, Gross was badly tortured — journalists could expect to have their hands crushed, as had also happened to Fritz Gerlich. He was eventually sentenced to death by the notorious Freisler, and executed on January 23, 1945. Aged 46, he left seven children behind. Gross was beatified in 2001.
One man who was executed for actually being involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler, and leading that failed endeavour, was Claus von Stauffenberg, a young, aristocratic career officer in the Wehrmacht who earlier had been a keen Nazi.
But the evil of Nazism, including the persecution of Jews, offended Stauffenberg’s Catholic ethics, and he became a member of the well-connected clandestine resistance group the Kreisau Circle.
After the plot to kill Hitler failed, Stauffenberg was executed by firing squad on July 21, 1944.
The Kreisau Circle’s spiritual leader was Jesuit Father Alfred Delp, whose role was to explain Catholic Social Teaching to the group and establish contacts with Catholic leadership. He was a Catholic journalist, and as a parish priest in Munich he helped to smuggle Jews to Switzerland.
Fr Delp was falsely accused of being party to the plot to kill Hitler. In jail, the Gestapo offered him freedom if he left the Jesuits. He refused.
The priest was sentenced to death by Freisler, and executed in February 2, 1945. He was 36. The following day Freisler died in an air raid.
Refusing to fight
Some Catholics died because they refused to fight for an evil regime in an evil war.
When Austrian Schoenstatt Father Franz Reinisch was called up, he refused to join the Wehrmacht. Repeatedly he refused to take the oath of allegiance to Hitler. At his trial, Fr Reinisch said: “I am a Catholic priest with only the weapons of the Holy Spirit and the Faith; but I know what I am fighting for.” He was beheaded on August 21, 1942.
Another Austrian conscientious objector took inspiration from Fr Reinisch’s example. Franz Jägerstätter accepted death over fighting for a regime that violated his Catholic ethics. His offer to serve as a paramedic was rejected, and the 36-year-old father of three daughters was tried and executed on August 9, 1943. He was beatified in 2007.
Some people were executed for less. Fr Joseph Müller, a priest in northern Germany, died for making a joke comparing Hitler and Hermann Göring to the two thieves crucified with Christ. After a showtrial presided over by Freisler, Fr Müller was executed on September 11, 1944. As usual, Freisler sent his family a bill for the cost of the execution.
Some priests were regarded as so dangerous to the Nazis that they had to be neutralised.
Marianist Father Jakob Gapp fled the Nazis, whom he had roundly criticised in his native Austria, for Spain in 1939. But Gestapo agents tempted him out of exile by posing as two Jews who needed help to flee France. At the border he was abducted and taken to Germany.
In interrogations, Fr Gapp was so steadfast in his Catholic ethics that it was decided he was too dangerous to be sent to Dachau. Instead the 46-year-old was tried and sentenced to death. Fr Gapp was executed on August 13, 1943. Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1996.
Possibly the last Catholic priest to be executed was Fr Hans Maier, a charismatic Austrian patriot and underground resistance fighter who collected strategic information and passed these on to the Allies.
In the end, Fr Maier was caught and put in Mauthausen concentration camp where he was tortured — including a crucifixion! — and interrogated for months, before he was executed on March 22, 1945.
These are just some of the German and Austrian Catholic martyrs to Nazism. Many more such martyrs came from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy and other places.
Also see Jonathan Luxmoore’s article on Other Catholic martyrs to Nazism
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