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Contemporaries of the Martyrs

History evolves through people; it becomes palpable and more direct with the biographies of the participants. Some contemporaries of the Martyrs – friends, fellow-travellers, opponents and accusers – are presented here.

Walther Böttcher (1901–1983)

AsWalther Böttcher © Parish Archives Herz Jesu Lübeck graduate lawyer, he was assistant defence counsel during the court case. He tried in vain to exonerate the clergymen and declared never before having had to witness such shameful proceedings: “The entire process took place, even in its structural form, in such a demeaning manner and an atmosphere, which led us, the defence, to believe: What is there still to be debated? The death penalty has already been decided”. After the war Böttcher was Lord Mayor of Lübeck and President of the Landtag (State Parliament).

Stephan Pfürtner (1922–2012)

Stephan Pfürtner in the movie "Widerstehen im Geiste Christi"As a young soldier Pfürtner took part in discussion groups with Chaplain Prassek. He did not hide his antipathy for the National Socialists and was arrested. The next day after the clergymen’s sentencing, he was sentenced to six month imprisonment, deemed served by his time in remand. In 1944 he helped three Jewish women escape from a concentration camp; they all survived. After the war he entered the Dominican order and taught Moral-Theology in Switzerland. In 2006 he was awarded the title of  Righteous among the Nations because he helped those three Jewesses escape. Till death he lived with his family in Marburg.

Adolph Ehrtmann (1897–1979)

Adolf Ehrtmann © Family propertyThe Catholic Adolf Ehrtmann was a member of the Zentrumspartei (a Catholic Party) and General Manager of the Catholic Parish in Lübeck. He was in close contact with the chaplains. After his arrest in April of 1942 he is held in the penitentiaries Rendsburg and later Brandenburg. During his trial he is sentenced to five years imprisonment on the 24th of June, 1943. At the end of April 1945 he is liberated by Soviet soldiers. After the war Ehrtmann resumes his political activities and becomes a founding member of the Lübeck CDU (Christian Democratic Union). In 1946 he is appointed Senator for Building and takes charge of rebuilding the destroyed city. He promotes the refurbishment of the crypt of his parish church Herz Jesu into a memorial site. He constantly attached great value to the common honouring of Pastor Stellbrink and the Chaplains. While being comforted on his deathbed that he would soon be together with “his” clerics, he replied: “Never say three, always say four!”

Hildegard Stellbrink (1895–1970)

In 1921 Karl Friedrich Stellbrink married the love of his youth Hildegard Dieckmeyer in Detmold. Barely seven weeks later the ship which took them to Brazil, where Stellbrink took the position of Auslandspastor (Overseas Pastor), left Hamburg. His wife gave birth to four girls, and after eight years abroad, the family returned to Germany. The Stellbrinks „adopted“ two nephews and after several years in Thuringia arrived finally in Lübeck. After her husband’s sentencing Hildegard Stellbrink sent a petition for mercy to Hitler and tried, in desperation, to save her husband as a faithful German family man. She received no answer, but after her husband’s execution an account from the Attorney General for 1,550.70 Reichsmark, being court costs, imprisonment and execution costs.

Bernhard Behnen (1880–1956)

Bernhard Behnen © Family propertyThis Catholic priest was prison-chaplain of the remand centre Hamburg-City on Holstenglacis since 1928. He visited the prisoners and administered the sacraments. Before their execution he prayed a last prayer with the chaplains, then he went the way to the guillotine. He was prevented from accompanying them on their final walk officially since 1942.

Wilhelm Berning (1877–1955)

Bishop Wilhelm BerningBerning was Bishop of Osnabrück since 1914, and was made Prussian State Counsel by Hermann Göring in 1933. Berning based his hope to be able to thus preserve the freedom of the Church in a positive way. While he increasingly declared an opposition to NS dominion in his sermons and addresses, he nonetheless continued to negotiate in matters of law with the Reichsregierung (Government of the Reich), in order to avert injustices. He visited the chaplains in prison and submitted a plea for mercy, which was rejected. The diocese of Osnabrück accepted all costs of the proceedings on his advice, including those of the lay people.

Clemens August Graf von Galen (1878–1946)

Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen © Diocesan Archives Münster, Gustav AlbersElected Bishop of Münster in 1933, he rose to fame through his actions and sermons against the Neo-Paganism of the Nazis, the racial ideologies and killing of the disabled and those afflicted by hereditary diseases. „Nec laudibus, nec timore – Not praise of man, nor fear of man“ was his motto. The people of the Münster region stood with him and called him the „Lion of Münster“. His sermons became known throughout Germany through copies and pamphlets and reached the Lübeck Martyrs as well. A death sentence was contemplated by the NSDAP (Nazi Party), but postponed by Goebbels until a time after the "Endsieg" (Final Victory), because one feared an uprising in the Catholic M&¨nster region. Von Galen knew about the arrests, how he was informed of the deaths of the Lübeck Martyrs and if he commented is still to be established.

Erwin Balzer (1901–1975)

Bischof Erwin Balzer © Hans Kripgans/Lübecker NachrichtenThe Lutheran Pastor joined the NSDAP (Nazi Party) in 1931 and became Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Lübeck state (Lübeck at that time was a „Free City“) in 1934 at the age of 33. His wish was to call clergy sympathetic to the national-socialist ideology to Lübeck and succeeded to do so within a relatively short time. He found himself unable to make a plea for mercy on behalf of Pastor Stellbrink. He was dismissed after the war, regained his pension-entitlements in 1955 and died in 1975 in Hamburg.

Albert Bültel (1889–1954)

Dean Albert BültelDean in Lübeck and parish priest of the Priory Parish Herz Jesu, he was the superior of the three chaplains. While he had a good relationship with them, he probably only realised the significance of their actions later. He had no knowledge of many of the events and was utterly devastated when the clergymen were arrested and tried. The Dean continually exchanged information with Bishop Berning. He never fully recovered spiritually from the events.

Pope Pius XII (1876–1958)

Pope Pius XIIThe Berlin Bishop Count von Preysing came to know through secret contacts in the Reichsjustizministerium (Reich Ministry of Justice), that the pleas for mercy by Bishop Berning had been rejected. He informed Pope Pius XII on the 3rd of November, 1943, who in turn acted immediately. A telegram from the Cardinal State Secretary of Rome was sent to the Papal Nuntius in Berlin with instructions to plead for the suspension of the death penalty. By the time the Nuntius arrived at the Foreign Office, however, the sentences had already been carried out.

Hans Lüers (1909–1992)

This young soldier also took part in discussion groups in the Catholic presbytery and pretended to be interested in converting to the Catholic faith. In reality he had been engaged by the Gestapo to act as a mole. He noted down many of the conversations, his papers found their way into court records. After the war Lüers emigrated to England. He dies in 1992, and his family learned about his past not till enquiries started in the context of the beatification, which means twenty years after his death.

Alexander John (1886–1945)

Criminal Counsillor and SS-Sturmbannführer John commanded the Border-Police Commissariat of the Gestapo since 1941 in the Lübeck Zeughaus (one-time armoury). He directly influenced witnesses and changed their meaning to the desired effect. Chaplain Prassek warned the housekeeper of the Catholic presbytery Johanna Rechtin in a letter smuggled from prison: “Be wary of Criminal Counsillor John! That man is utterly nasty and insidious“. In 1942 John was awarded the „Kriegsverdienstkreuz II. Klasse mit Schwertern“ (Cross of Distiguished War Service, 2nd class with Swords) for his work. On the 5th of May, 1945 he committed suicide together with the one-time Lübeck Lord Mayor Otto-Heinrich Drechsler in Mölln.

Ernst Lautz (1887–1977)

Erst Lautz during the Nuremberg TrialsLautz as Oberreichsanwalt (Chief Reichs-Attorney) signed the indictment against the three Catholic priests and the lay people arrested at the same time. He was sentenced to ten years imprisonment during the Nuremberg Trials, but pardoned in 1951. He moved to Lübeck and received a monthly state pension of 1,300 Deutschmark. The Lübeck prosecuting authority began proceedings against him for aiding and abetting in homicide, but the case collapsed. He died in 1977 and was buried in the Burgtorfriedhof Cemetery in Lübeck.

Otto Thierack (1889–1946)

Otto Thierack © Bundesarchiv /Bild 183-00627-0504 / unbekannt / CC-BY-SAThierack joined the NSDAP (National-Socialist German Workers Party) already in 1932 and began a stellar career: In 1933 Minister for Justice in Saxony, 1936 President of the Volksgerichtshof (Peoples Tribunal), 1942 Reichminister for Justice. Shortly after assuming office he limited the processes for petitions of clemency. He firmly rejected the petitions for clemency for the Lübeck Martyrs. After his apprehension by the Allies he was interned and poisoned himself in October 1946 in his internment camp before he could be indicted before the Nuremberg Trials of Jurists.

Wilhelm Crohne (1880–1945)

The judge and vice president of the Volksgerichtshof (People's Court) Dr. Crohne assured Bishop Berning on the day before the trial began that there was no need to fear a death sentence. During the proceedings Senatspräsident Crohne presided. As deputy to Freisler (Chief of the Volksgerichtshof / Peoples Court) he displayed an attitude similar to Freisler’s by insulting the accused in the vilest manner. Crohne took his own life shortly before the war ended.

Friedrich Hehr (1879–1952)

Executioner Friedrich Hehr from Hanover had been charged with the task of executing death sentences in Hamburg as well. The remand prison “Hamburg-City” had been designated as “Central Place of Execution” in his area of activity “Vollstreckungsbezirk V” (Precinct of Execution). In 1938 a new guillotine had been installed there. Hehr travelled to Hamburg for executions from Hanover. The execution normally took place at 6:00 pm, later Hehr asked to arrange an earlier time so that he might be able to meet an earlier train home to Hanover. Between 1938 and 1945 Hehr executed hundreds of condemned. He received an annual salary of 3,000 Reichsmark – plus 65.00 Reichsmark per execution, which netted Hehr for executions in 1943, in Hamburg alone, 4,320 Reichsmark. This put him in the class of top earners. After the war he acted as executioner for the allied occupation and executed a further 85 death penalties. He died in 1952 in Hanover.


Texts: Sebastian Fiebig
English Translation: Hans-Heinrich Boeker, Wyoming, Australien


Bishops Berning and von Galen © Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1986-0407-511
Bishop Wilhelm Berning (Osnabrück) and Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen (Münster) during von Galen’s investiture as Bishop in 1933 in Münster. Picture Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1986-0407-511 / H. Maier / CC-BY-SA.