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Franz Jagerstatter
executed 9 August 1943

If I must write this with my hands in chains, that’s better than having my will in chains.’


The Christians

Munich was ‘the birthplace of the Nazi Party’: it wasn’t surprising that Judge Freisler was specially sent for, or that the Scholls were executed on the same day as their trial. Freisler also presided over the trial of Count Helmuth von Moltke, who did dare to say what he thought.

Moltke was born in Prussia on his family’s estate at Kreisau, which was to give its name to a resistance movement: the Kreisau Circle, including representatives, distinguished in both status and intellect, of all aspects of the German resistance, who did not necessarily agree about how to resist. Moltke refused to associate himself with any plan to use violence. Trained as a lawyer, from 1933 he used his legal knowledge to help Jewish emigrants and Scandinavian refugees. He was arrested as an anti-Nazi in January 1944, and executed on January 23, 1945, aged 37. In his farewell letter to his two young sons, he wrote: ‘For my whole life, from school-days onwards, I have been struggling against the spirit of narrowness, violence, arrogance, and intolerance that has found expression in the National Socialist state.’

Moltke was a Christian, and it was for this that Freisler regarded him as an enemy. ‘In one of his tirades Freisler said to me, “We and Christianity resemble each other in only one respect: we claim the whole man”.’ Hitler had remarked: ‘One is either a German or a Christian. One cannot be both.’ Josef Goebbels had said fiercely, ‘Christianity and Nationalist Socialism are incompatible’. There were many clergy and church people, of all denominations, who agreed. To be a Christian meant resisting Nazism, from its demand for ‘proof of Aryan birth’ to its wholesale slaughter and prosecution of unjust war. More than 12,000 priests, pastors and parish workers were victims of persecution and abuse because of their open resistance.

Among them was Franz Jäggerstätter, an isolated Austrian farmer and sacristan of his local Catholic church. After Austria was incorporated in the Third Reich and Franz was called up, he refused to fight on grounds of religious conscience. Only when he was in prison did he discover that there were other objectors like him; he was hugely encouraged. He knew (he wrote) that he wouldn’t change world affairs, but was ‘glad to be another sign that not everyone let themselves be carried with the tide... And if I must write this with my hands in chains, that’s better than having my will in chains.’ He was sentenced to death by a military court for refusing ‘to fulfil his patriotic duty in Germany’s hard struggle for survival’, and executed on August 9, 1943, aged 36.

Paul Schneider, an evangelical Protestant minister, drew Nazi hostility from 1933, when he began speaking out against the ‘lying machinations’ of the new regime and the neo-paganism it attempted to impose. Banned from his own pulpit and parish, he still continued to preach there. He was repeatedly arrested, and was finally put in solitary confinement in Buchenwald concentration camp. Whenever the chance arose, and despite weakness from torture, Paul Schneider’s voice could be heard ringing out across the camp, denouncing Nazism and giving comfort to fellow prisoners. Many said that he saved them from despair. ‘In both word and deed he protested against injustice’. He died after a lethal injection on July 18, 1939, aged 41: the first churchman to perish in a Nazi concentration camp.

It was against the cruelties of the concentration camps that Carthusian monk Bernhard Lichtenberg protested personally to Hermann Goering in 1935. Lichtenberg was one of the clergy of St Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin, the Nazi capital. He held a Mass for the Jews after the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938. He issued a statement to be read aloud in churches throughout the diocese, deploring Nazi propaganda against Jews and asking every Christian to ‘love your neighbour’. In 1941 he announced, in one of many sermons criticising the regime, that public prayers for Jews and concentration camp prisoners would be said at every evening service. He was imprisoned shortly afterwards for ‘endangering the public peace from the pulpit’ and died two years later, on November 5, 1943, on the way to Dachau. He was 67.

Clemens von Galen, Bishop of Münster, was among those who publicly objected in 1936 when a Nazi regional leader ordered the removal of crucifixes, or pictures of Luther, from schools in his district. There was an immediate mass demonstration. Church bells were rung, a nine-day service was held, children wore crucifixes to school, and well-organised protest groups sprang up. Even Nazis were drawn in: some members of Hitler Youth and the Nazi Women’s League did not co-operate with the decree. It was withdrawn.

When reports of the Nazi euthanasia programme began to leak out, Bishop Galen was again a leader of the opposition; people now understood that the buses full of mentally and physically disabled children and adults were taking them off not for treatment but for ‘elimination’. Local authorities were ordered to take ‘the severest measures’ against anyone spreading ‘rumours of a character detrimental and hateful to the state’. In 1941 Bishop Galen preached three sermons warning against the Gestapo and its uncontrolled power and brutality. Thousands of copies were printed and circulated. Hitler’s chief aides called for Galen’s execution, but he was too widely respected for them to risk the disaffection his death would cause. The euthanasia programme was reduced, reprehensibly confined in its last months to victims who had no-one to speak for them. The Bishop’s sermons, meanwhile, continued to be read, inspiring other people – such as the White Rose – in their own protests.






Rosenstrasse community centre in Berlin



The women

In 1941, another anti-church decree was introduced, this time by the Bavarian minister of education: crucifixes were to go, and prayers were to be dropped in favour of Nazi slogans and songs. Women were at the forefront of protest. Again there was mass disobedience, and a number of schools went on strike. The decree was stopped.

In February 1943, less than a week after the execution of Hans and Sophie Scholl, women were again at the heart of a demonstration, one that has only recently been recognised for its achievement. They succeeded in preventing the deportation and subsequent death of over 1,700 Jewish men.

Intermarriage of non-Jews with Jews was, of course, frowned on by the Nazis. Many planned weddings had been quickly brought forward in 1933, before they could be banned. Intermarriages up to this date were grudgingly accepted by the regime: Jewish spouses were designated ‘privileged’ and exempt from deportation. Early in 1943, however, a ‘final round-up’ was decreed, from which no Jew was meant to escape. This was the time of the defeat at Stalingrad, and of Goebbels’ call for ‘total war’.

In Berlin SS men, Gestapo and street police began seizing the city’s remaining Jews from workplaces and homes and transporting them to ‘collection centres’. Intermarried Jews were taken to the 4-storey Jewish Community centre in Rosenstrasse. The reason for singling them out was to give the impression that they were destined merely for labour camps: no need for alarm. In fact, they were all meant for Auschwitz.

Most of the Jews packed into the Rosenstrasse centre were men, husbands of non-Jewish women, and it was these women who rapidly began to pack the street outside: 600 on the first day, and as many as 6,000 over the following week. Night and day, in shifts, disappearing when threatened with gunfire, reappearing soon after, they maintained their strong and noisy presence, calling reassurances to their men and keeping up a chant of ‘We want our husbands back’. For the first time these women, who had endured a decade of harassment, hardship and abuse because they’d married Jews, were able to acknowledge their status openly, shoulder to shoulder. In a few days they were joined by others who had no imprisoned relatives, but were there simply to support them. On March 6, the men were released. Even the 30 or so who had already reached Auschwitz were sent home (after debriefing to ensure that they took back good reports of it).

This was the only mass protest against the deportation of Jews, and it was successful. The question arises: could a more organised, more substantial nonviolent resistance have saved many more lives? It’s a question hard to address, and especially hard in Germany.

It would be constructive, when remembering the historic courage of men and women in the midst of Nazi Germany, to find ways of keeping that question open in Europe today. Not to tug at old wounds, but to prevent new ones.

In 1987, some surviving White Rose members established the White Rose Foundation in Munich. In July 2001 it launched a campaign for ‘tolerance and human rights’ particularly in Germany’s eastern cities where foreigners have been attacked in recent years.

In 1997, the Catholic Church in France apologised for its 1930s failure to act as a whole to ‘block the irreparable’ and condemn anti-Jewish laws. That single individuals had condemned them was not, they admitted, enough.

In 2000, attacks on Jewish synagogues and memorials caused the leader of Germany’s central Council of Jews to wonder ‘if it was right to build up the Jewish community in Germany again’. The end of the century saw crowds once more filling Berlin’s streets in anti-Nazi protest: neo-Nazis in Germany have claimed over 100 victims since 1990, and racism is again – still – a problem and a threat. Resistance, to be successful, must spring where the roots of war and violence are, giving them no chance to grow or spread. At home, in Germany, anywhere, it’s the free person’s duty to recognise those roots, and resist them. Nonviolently, and now.




 Fri, May 10, 2002


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