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Lübeck martyrs of the Nazis beatified on 25 June
Four men were sent to the guillotine on 10 November 1943, in Hamburg, Germany. They were citizens of the northern city of Lübeck (near the frontier with Denmark), Catholic priests Frs Johannes Prassek, Eduard Muller and Hermann Lange, and Lutheran Pastor, Karl Friedrich Stellbrink. Their blood flowed together, making a powerful symbol of ecumenism.
We have too easily forgotten that martyrs were made by the Nazi regime. But the Holy See has not forgotten them, so on 25 June the three priests were to be beatified. Nor has Hans Boeker of Gosford, NSW, forgotten, for he knew the priests as a 13-year-old boy.
Everyone knows that Pastor Stellbrink deserves to be beatified - the omission of his name from the list has caused annoyance in Germany - but the Catholic Church must leave to the Lutheran Church the right to honour one of its own.
Pope John Paul II expressed his recognition of the importance for ecumenism of the shared martyrdom of Catholics and a Lutheran when he said: "The valuable legacy that these courageous witnesses have passed on to us is a shared legacy of all churches and all religious communities. It is a legacy that speaks louder than the factors of separation. The ecumenism of the martyrs and the witnesses to the faith is the most convincing ecumenism."
There were more than 1,600 executions in 1943 for political crimes and Hitler and Josef Goebbels took a personal interest in ensuring the executions of the four took place. Goebbels wrote in his diary: "I urge that the death sentences will in fact be carried out."
Today we have difficulty in believing that men could be put to death for circulating copies of the sermons of the Bishop of Münster, Clemens August Graf von Galen, who was protesting against the systematic killing of mentally and physically handicapped people, and who queried the justification for Germany's engaging in war.
The four clergy also gave sermons expressing the view that the war was unjust and that Germans should not take part in it. The four said they could not see any good reason why millions of their countrymen, both soldiers and also civilians, should die, nor why non-Germans should be conquered. Thus they took a stand in loyalty to their Lord, Jesus, who taught that every effort must be made to promote peace.
And so they were sentenced to be executed on the charge of aiding Germany's enemies, a charge which Lübeckers were inclined to believe, seeing that the Allied airforce had mercilessly bombed the city earlier, on 28 March, in much the same way as Dresden was bombed in 1945.
When we are inclined to blame Pope Pius XII and the German bishops for not speaking out against Nazi atrocities, we might like to note what happened to anyone who even queried the justice of the regime. Not only the lives of those who spoke out were at stake but also the lives of their acquaintances and family members
The following are details about each of the four that underline their heroism and martyrdom (with acknowledgement to the Catholic News Service):
Fr Prassek, 32, regularly preached against Nazism and ministered illegally to forced labourers from Poland, even learning Polish for that purpose. Just before his arrest Fr Prassek was honoured for his courage in rescuing people during the carpet bomb attack on Lübeck - the first on any German city - on Palm Sunday 1942.
Like his companions, he expected to be executed after their arrest. On the day of the court's judgment, he wrote: "God be praised, today I was sentenced to death." Later, physically broken after more than a year of torture and hardship in jail, he looked forward to his execution.
"To be allowed to die fully conscious and quietly prepared is the most beautiful thing of all," he wrote.
Fr Muller, also 32, and a priest for just three years when he was executed, was a quiet man, popular among local youth. Though regarded as mostly apolitical - he never preached publicly against Nazism - he acknowledged Hitler's ideology as irreconcilable with Christianity and refused to collaborate with the Hitler Youth, which had courted him.
Fr Lange, 31, was parochial vicar at Sacred Heart Church and ministered to youth and men at the parish. A reform-minded Catholic, he was perhaps the most politically active of the four.
He distributed pamphlets and privately accused Germany of war crimes. He even told a soldier that a true Christian could not fight on the German side in the war. Father Lange's residence was raided by the Gestapo a year before his arrest.
Rev Stellbrink, who was 49 when he died, has been described as a prickly character who initially was an eager supporter of the Nazi party. The World War I veteran soon became disillusioned with Nazism, especially its anti-clericalism, and began to criticise it. He was expelled from the party in 1937 for refusing to renounce his friendship with Jews.
In 1941, he met Fr Prassek at a funeral and increasingly began speaking against the Nazis by building a friendship with the younger priest, who had resolutely opposed Hitler's regime.
Rev Stellbrink was the first Protestant cleric to be executed in Germany. Unlike his Catholic friends, he received no support from his Church, which rehabilitated him only 50 years later, noting its "pain and shame" at the disgraceful treatment of the heroic pastor.
May these holy martyrs pray for us.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 24 No 6 (July 2011), p. 13
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