Font size

Chaplain Peter Otto: We must not be silent

Sermon on the 4th of November, 2000 in Lübeck

Reading: Deuteronomy 6:2–6
Gospel: Matthew 12:28b–34

Dear Brothers and Sisters in faith!

There is a tense atmosphere in church. What is he going to say this time?. The two sermons two and three weeks ago went through the township of Lübeck, if not half of Germany, like wildfire. “Courageous and provocative”, said some. „Careless and incautious”, said others.

The Lion of Münster – that’s what they called Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen after his sermons, which he had held in July and August 1941. He was stirred by the fact that inmates of sanatoriums and mental institutions, on orders from Hitler, had been removed and shortly thereafter reported as having died. 
Bishop again bluntly took a stand in his third sermon. He comments on the treatment of so-called “unproductive members of the people” by the Third Reich:

“They are no longer able to produce goods, they are like an old machine which no longer works, they are like an old horse irreparably lame, they’re like the old cow which no longer gives milk. What does one do with such an old machine? It is scrapped! What does one do with that lame horse, that unproductive animal? No, I don’t want to bring this comparison to its end, it is too terrible in its evaluation and impact. [...]

“No, we are dealing here with people, our fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters! Poor people, sick people, unproductive people, if you will. Does that mean the have lost the right to live? Have you, have I a right to live only as long as we can be productive, as long as others regard us as productive?”

The Lion of Münster had roared – and Reichsminister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels notes thereafter in his diary in the middle of August 1941:

“One cannot expect too much from Catholicism in support of this war, but for a Prince of the Church to lower himself to serve as a beater for the enemy, that does amount to a crime ripe for action by the State Prosecutor”.

But the sermons of von Galen did not ring out just in Berlin. They had been read, copied, distributed and discussed also here in Lübeck. It was due mainly to Johannes Prassek, Chaplain here at Herz-Jesu-Church. Together with Karl Friedrich Stellbrink, Lutheran Pastor of the Luther-Parish, and the other two chaplains of the Herz-Jesu Parish, Hermann Lange and Eduard Müller, as well as other people in the community, Prassek discussed the von Galen Sermons and the events which gave rise to them. Johannes Prassek boldly takes a stand in his own sermons more and more. He deals out strong criticism of the Hitler Regime. Parishioners warn Prassek: „ You are endangering yourself!“. Yet, he cannot help himself and replies:

“At least we priests must have the courage to speak the truth. Otherwise people might think that everything is alright. How could we do that?”.

One could make of the Lubeckers an example. In the spring of 1942 the presbytery is searched and Johannes Prassek arrested at the end of May, then in the middle of June Hermann Lange, Eduard Müller and another 18 lay people. The Lutheran pastor Karl Friedrich Stellbrink had already been arrested in April. 
In June of 1943 they are sentenced in Lübeck by the Volksgerichtshof (Peoples’ Tribunal). Its Second Chamber had travelled from Berlin especially for this trial and found as follows:

“In the name of the German People [...] The accuse have each committed crimes against the Broadcasting Act, treasonable facilitation of the enemy and degradation of the will to defend […]. The accused are obstinate, fanatical and totally unteachable haters of the National-Socialist State. […] For criminals against the whole of the people such as the accused Prassek, Lange and Müller there can be […] but the most severe penalty the law allows for the protection of the people: The death Penalty”.

Whereupon Prassek exclaims: “Thank God, this farce has come to an end!”.
Karl Friedrich Stellbrink is sentenced to death as well. The sentences are carried out 5 months later in Hamburg. On the 10th of November all four are executed on the guillotine.Johannes Prassek had earlier written on the title page of his bible: “How can you force someone who is able to die?” That reminds us of the sermon of Bishop von Galen on the 3rd of August 1941, who had called: “Better to die than to sin!”

Dear Parishioners, dear listeners! Whoever is willing to honour truth so unstintingly needs a strong foundation. To me the reading and gospel are the key to understand the four Lübeck Martyrs. In both text it read: You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might”. And Jesus added: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these two”.

Love of God and love of neighbour had compelled the Münster Bishop to deliver his daring sermons.

Love of God and love of neighbour led to the conflict between the Lübeck Martyrs and the Nazi dictatorship.

Whoever really loves God and neighbour cannot remain silent when the rights of men, the right to life are trampled underfoot.

As Christians we cannot remain uninvolved spectators, as those three famous monkeys, who see nothing, hear nothing and therefore say nothing.

Our Faith compels us also to comment politically and is inseparably connected to it. Jesus Christ was sentenced as a political rebel and nailed to the cross, the four Lübeck Martyrs were likewise sentenced as political rebels and executed. Thus our faith is anything but “unpolitical”.

When we commemorate the Four Clergymen here in Lübeck, year after year, it becomes for us a legacy and a commission as well. It is a legacy, because the Four worked here, because the urns of Hermann Lange and Karl Friedrich Stellbrink are with us in Lübeck. But it is also a commission, because the memorial encapsulates the duty to remain watchful for what is happening in our times, in our state and society.

As Christians, whether baptised a Catholic, a Lutheran or whatever, we cannot remain silent, when men are trampled to death, because they are, as a homeless or alien, different.

We cannot remain silent, when men are excluded or their right to asylum questioned.

We cannot remain silent, when pre-natal medical diagnosis recommends the killing of an unborn child, because it might be disabled.

We must not remain silent, when social laws concerning the care of the aged and disabled only guarantee a minimum of care, but the whole person in body and soul finds less and less regard.

We must not remain silent, when the prosperity of our nation grows at the expense of poorer nations, because multinationals exploit people elsewhere.

These are all only examples for the many big and small, world-political and mundane instances, when we Christians must not be silent. For the sake of God and the sake of Man. Where your and my obligation lays remains to be discovered by ourselves. Maybe, in the first instance, now, in a moment of reflection. Amen.



Chaplain Peter Otto, by now a Parish Priest, held this sermon on the occasion of a divine service broadcast on the 4th & 5th ofNovember, 2000 in Lübeck. He refers to everyday situations which demand words and actions from Christians.