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Nonviolence in World War Two


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.






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- the christians
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