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Pastor Jens-Martin Kruse: They testify to the unity of the Church

Speech on 6th of September, 2004 at a prayer for peace in Milan

In the troubled early summer of 1932, in Germany already a highly crisis-ridden time, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. In the context of the Apostle Paul’s exhortation “Set your minds on things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3: 2), he emphasized in apparent reversal of the meaning of the text that Christians indeed do set their minds on “the things that are on earth” – precisely because they are Christians. And for this reason, Bonhoeffer asked his congregation in a critical way

“whether we Christians have enough strength to testify to the world that we are not dreamers and do not walk around with our heads in the clouds. That we do not let things come and go just in the way they are, after all […] But, rather, that we, exactly because we set our minds on the things above, protest all the more persistently and purposefully on this earth. Protest with words and deeds […]” If the Church no longer summons this strength, “then”, so Bonhoeffer continues, “we must not be surprised when there again will be times for our church, too, when martyrs’ blood will be demanded.”

A few months later, this situation became reality in Germany. In the first half of 1933, the National Socialists took over power. The apparently positive attitude of the NS regime toward Christianity obstructed the view for many Christians of the true goals and intentions of the National Socialists. Neither the Catholic nor the Evangelical Church saw Hitler’s “seizure of power” as a reason for adopting any kind of protest or resistance. However, resistance to the new ruler soon grew within the churches. It was not the resistance of the churches as a whole. But, there were individual Christians or small groups within the churches who “protested with words and deeds” against the unjust regime of the National Socialists. Resistance in a totalitarian state was not a path already traced out. Whoever became involved in it embarked upon an uncertain and dangerous journey: sometimes with the silent approval of the majority of fellow Christians, in exceptional cases supported by congregations or church leaders, mostly in the free venture of faith as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Among those who bore witness to their faith in this way in the North German city of Lübeck were the Evangelical-Lutheran pastor Karl-Friedrich Stellbrink (1894-1943) and the three Catholic chaplains Johannes Prassek (1911-1943), Eduard Müller (1911-1943), and Hermann Lange (1912-1943). Because these four Lübeck clergymen had protested together in the name of Jesus Christ against the crimes of the National Socialists, they were executed on November 10, 1943, in a prison in Hamburg.

Pastor Stellbrink and Chaplain Prassek had gotten to know each other at a funeral in the summer of 1941. This spontaneous contact led to conversations and the exchange of information and news. Thus, for example, Stellbrink passed on to Prassek texts by the Evangelical Landesbischof Theophil Wurm. Prassek, on his part, sent Stellbrink the sermons of the Bishop of Münster, Clemens August Graf Galen, delivered in summer, 1941, against the so-called euthanasia program (the killing of mentally ill persons) of the NS regime. Together with Chaplains Müller and Lange, they made copies of these texts and distributed them to congregational members and friends.

A co-operation between pastors of the Evangelical and the Catholic Church was, at the time, not at all usual in Germany. As a rule, there was practically no personal or pastoral contact among the officials of the two separated churches. Pastor Stellbrink and Chaplains Prassek, Lange, and Müller, however, overcame the existing distance between their churches because they perceived in each of the others that spirit of Jesus Christ that moved and motivated them. This experience let them stand together as brothers, and strengthened their courage to take steps together, across confessional boundaries, in Lübeck against the NS regime.

Pastor Stellbrink already had attracted attention repeatedly in the late 1930s because of his critical stance in regard to the state authorities. He was a figure with his own unique personality that defies categorization. He does not belong to the “Confessing Church”, but, on the contrary, had been called to the pastorate of the Luther-Kirche in Lübeck in 1934 because he was considered at that time to be a convinced follower of the National Socialists. When he recognized, however, how anticlerical and inhuman the acts of the National Socialists were, he gradually freed himself from the totalitarian claims of party and state, and also expressed his distance to the NS regime publicly. Stellbrink was expelled from the NSDAP as early as 1937. Prior to this, he was summoned before an internal party court because he had continued to maintain contacts with Jews. In addition, he had received repeated warnings about his critical sermons. 

As in the case of Pastor Stellbrink, it also had not remained hidden from the state power that the three young Catholic chaplains, too, clearly took a position against the NS regime. The three clergymen had come to the Herz Jesu congregation in Lübeck in 1939 and 1940. They quickly became popular in the congregation. In their worship services and congregational groups, in their meetings with young people, and in their pastoral counselling of soldiers, they took a position of increasing clarity against the injustice and the offences of the National Socialists. The Gestapo reacted to these activities of the three chaplains in summer, 1941, by sending an informer into the Catholic rectory who, for the next year, in the guise of a “convert”, collected further incriminating material against the clergymen. In addition, the chaplains’ close association with the Lutheran pastor Stellbrink raised the suspicions of the state. So had these four Lübeck clergymen and their co-operation come to the attention of the state. All that remained was to wait for an opportunity to get rid of these irksome pastors and to use them to set an example as a deterrence to others. The opportunity came in the spring of 1942.

First of all, Pastor Stellbrink was arrested on April 7, 1942. The specific reason given for this was the sermon he delivered on Palm Sunday in the Luther-Kirche. In the night before this sermon, English warplanes had dropped their bombs over Lübeck’s Old City district. Pastor Stellbrink was active throughout the night in saving people’s lives and in helping to extinguish fires. Tired from lack of sleep and agitated by what he had experienced, he stood in the pulpit on Sunday morning and reminded the congregation of the Living God who reveals himself in concrete events. There are no written records of his sermon, but listeners have understood its central message and summarized it as follows: God has spoken with a powerful voice. The people of Lübeck will learn to pray once again.” The news spread through the city like wildfire: Pastor Stellbrink in the Luther-Kirche, so it reported, had called the bomb attack a “divine judgment”, an objection by God against that which took place in Germany through the NS regime. This doubt in regard to the omnipotence of the system could not be tolerated, and so Pastor Stellbrink was arrested by the “Gestapo” a short time later. Then, in May and June, 1942, the three Catholic chaplains Prassek, Lange und Müller also were arrested, along with eighteen laypeople of the Catholic congregation as well.

The prisoners had to wait for more than a year for their trial. Then, it took place on only three days in June, 1943, before the People’s Tribunal (Volksgerichtshof) meeting in Lübeck. The judgement that was pronounced on June 23, 1943, was settled upon beforehand. All four clergymen were condemned to death for the cause of subversion of the defense capability, preparation of high treason, aiding the enemy, and radio crimes. On the same day, Chaplain Prassek wrote in his copy of the New Testament: “Sit nomen Domini benedictum! (The name of the Lord be praised!) Today I was condemned to death.” And on the title page he wrote: “Who can hope to coerce the person who can die?” After his conviction, Chaplain Lange wrote: “Personally, I am quite calm and await firmly what is to come. Once one really has achieved complete devotion to the will of God, then there is a wonderful peace and the consciousness of absolute security.” So did all four Lübeck clergymen tread the path of their martyrdom uprightly and remain true in their discipleship to Jesus Christ to the very end.

A few days after the trial, they were transported to a prison in Hamburg. For several weeks, Pastor Stellbrink and Chaplain Lange shared a cell. In a letter from August 14, 1943, Lange writes in regard to this time: “Stimulating conversations and shared activities shorten the days that, after all, drag on so slowly and, yet, vanish so quickly,” The condemned men waited for almost five months on their execution. After one and a half years in prison, in which isolation, torture, and hunger were a part of their fate, Eduard Müller, Johannes Prassek, Hermann Lange, and Karl-Friedrich Stellbrink died, one shortly after the other, under the guillotine in the prison on the Holstenglacis on the evening of November 10, 1943. The blood of the four Lübeck martyrs literally flowed together.

This shared blood witness of the four Lübeck martyrs is, for the Evangelical as well as for the Catholic Church, “an enduring legacy and an ecumenical obligation.” According to the Evangelical understanding, martyrs belong among the saints who are chosen by God to be an example so “that we become stronger in our faith when we see how grace has befallen them and also when we see how they have been helped through faith; and, in addition, so that one takes their good works as an example.” In this sense, the martyrdom of the four Lübeck clergymen is “an enduring legacy”. For, they preserved their faith even in suffering and bore witness to the truth in Jesus Christ even unto death. Where the majority of Christians in Germany remained silent, they possessed the courage to oppose lies and intimidation in the name of Jesus Christ and, thereby, to make clear that the power of evil is limited within the reality of faith. Because in them faith and action corresponded to each other in an impressive manner, the four Lübeck martyrs, as trustworthy Christians, are examples for all who seriously want to follow Jesus Christ.

The blood witness of the four Lübeck martyrs is “an ecumenical obligation” of special importance because, first of all, no where else in Germany in the National Socialist period did Evangelical and Catholic clergymen “protest with words and deeds” against the NS regime in such an unambiguous ecumenical mutuality. Chaplain Lange described the significance of their spiritual solidarity concisely when he noted in July, 1943: “The suffering borne in common over the last years has brought the two Christian churches closer to one another. A symbol of this community of suffering, but also of reconciliation, is the shared imprisonment of the Catholic and the Evangelical clergyman.”

Second, the shared martyrdom of the Lübeck clergymen shows in an exemplary manner that, after a long period of antagonism, “Protestants and Catholics […] have experienced a martyrdom in partnership for the first time”, a fact significant for the history of Christianity. Thereby, a qualitatively new phase in the history of both churches has begun, behind which they cannot be permitted to fall. Thus, the life and death of the four Lübeck martyrs make clear to us how closely Christian people once lived out their community of faith. In the process, the Lübeck clergymen did not disregard confessional differences. But, through their shared witness, they reminded their churches that, by virtue of the one foundation of faith, they are brothers and sisters in faith, not strangers or enemies. The concept of “reconciled diversity” was not yet available to them. But, as far as the content of the concept is concerned, they lived this exactly. With their shared martyrdom, the four Lübeck clergymen testify to the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ that has never been lost, and represent a promise for a Christianity that must find its way to visible unity in reconciled diversity.

For this reason, we can conclude with the words of Pope John Paul II:

“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. It shows the Christians of the twenty-first century the path to unity. It is the legacy of the Cross, which is seen in the light of Easter: a legacy that makes Christians rich and gives them support while they begin their journey into the new millennium.”



Pastor Jens-Martin Kruse spoke on the occasion of a prayer for peace organised by the Community of Sant'Egidio in Milan September 6th, 2004. Pastor Kruse guides the Evangelic-Lutheran Parish of Rome.