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Pastor Peter Otto: A strong Foundation

Sermon on the 29th of October, 2006 in Kaltenkirchen

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Faith!

Hamburg on the 10th of November, 1943. Penitentiary Holstenglacis. It is 18:00 hours. Four men are sitting in their cells waiting, since half-past-twelve, in other words, shortly after their midday meal, for their execution. The first sign of light: “Prepare for your execution! The shirts of the candidates for death are sliced open and stripped off their shoulders. Their arms are tied behind their backs” (Pelke, 65). The four are led to the guillotine: Death by decapitation.

The official documents note the exact time of death in each case:

  • 18.20 hours: Eduard Müller
  • 18.23 hours: Johannes Prassek
  • 18.26 hours: Hermann Lange
  • 18.29 hours: Karl Friedrich Stellbrink

Their blood flowed together. Why were the three Lübeck chaplains Johannes Prassek, Hermann Lange und Eduard Müller, as well as the Lutheran Pastor Karl Friedrich Stellbrink executed on the 10th of November, 1943?

Let us turn the clock back a good two years and set out in the summer of 1941, in Westphalian Münster. There is an atmosphere of great intensity in the Church. What is he about to say this time? The sermons of two and three weeks ago had become public like wild-fire in town and in half of Germany. “courageous and provoking” said some, “Irresponsible and lacking caution” said others.

The Lion of Münster – That’s how some named Bishop Clemens August Count von Galen after he delivered his sermons in July and August of 1941. He was spurred on to deliver them by the fact, that on Hitler’s direction, wards of sanatoria or mental hospitals, i.e. the disabled, had been spirited away elsewhere and shortly thereafter reported as deceased.

In his third sermon Bishop von Galen again bluntly takes a stand. He speaks of the treatment of so-called “unproductive members of the people” by the “Third Reich”.

“They cannot produce any goods anymore, they are like an old piece of machinery, no longer able to be operated, they are like an old horse, permanently lame, they are like an old cow , no longer able to produce milk. What does one do with that old machine? It is sent to the scrap yard. What do you do with that lame old horse, that old unproductive animal? No, I don’t want to carry this comparison to its conclusion; it is too terrible to contemplate or imagine.”

“No, we are talking about people here, our fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters! Poor people, sick people, yes “unproductive” people for all I care. But does that mean they have lost the right to Life? Do you or I only have the right to live, as long as we are productive, or as long as others deem us productive?”

The Lion of Münster roared – and Hitler’s Reichsminister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels thereupon noted in his diary in the middle of August 1941:

“One didn’t expect a great deal of support from Catholicism in this war, but for a peer of the Church to degrade himself by abetting the enemy, that must be seen as a crime worthy of attention by the State Prosecutor”.

But von Galen’s sermons didn’t just sound in Berlin. They were also read in Lübeck, copied, distributed and discussed. Johannes Prassek, chaplain at the Herz Jesu Church, was the main driver of the project. Together with Karl Friedrich Stellbrink, Pastor of the Lutheran Luther Parish and the other chaplains of the Herz Jesu Church, Hermann Lange and Eduard Müller; as well as a number of other parishioners, Prassek discussed the von Galen sermons und the events that led to them. What happens, if you return home from the frontline wounded and are forced to live with a disability? That was one question posed by Prassek during a discussion group session with members of the parish, among them a soldier, a mole. In his own sermons Prassek increasingly takes a more and more distinct stand, becomes more and more critical. He criticises the Hitler regime. Members of the parish warn him: „you are putting yourself in jeopardy!“ But he cannot do otherwise and replies:

“At least we priests must have the courage to tell the truth. Otherwise people will think everything is alright. What can they do to me, anyway?”

They could make an example of the Lübeckers. In the spring of 1942 the presbytery is searched and Johannes Prassek arrested at the end of May. After that in mid June Hermann Lange, Eduard Müller and a further 18 lay people. The Lutheran Pastor Stellbrink had already been arrested in April. In June of 1943 they were all sentenced to death by the Volksgerichtshof (Peoples’ Court) in Lübeck. The second chamber of that court had travelled from Berlin to Lübeck especially for this case.

“In the name of the German People [...]. Each of the accused has committed crimes of listening to foreign broadcasts, treasonous aiding and abetting of the enemy and sabotage of defence capability [...] The accused are obstinate, fanatical and utterly unreasonable haters of the National-socialist State [...] For crimes against the whole of the People as committed by the accused Prassek, Lange, Müller there can be [...] but on, the most severe penalty, as prescribed for the protection of the people: The death penalty”.

Thereupon Prassek exclaims: “Thank God, this farce is done with!” Karl Friedrich Stellbrink is sentenced to death as well. The sentences are carried out five month later in Hamburg. On the 10th of November, 1943 all four are executed on the guillotine. Johannes Prassek had previously written on the title page of his bible “Who can force the one, able to die?” These words recall the sermon of Bishop von Galen, who called out, on the 3rd of August, 1941: “Rather to die than to sin!”

Dear Parishioners! Whoever wants to honour truth so passionately need a strong foundation. Today’s first reading and gospel are the key for me to understand our Four Lübeck Martyrs. In both texts it is said:

“You shall love your Lord with all your heart, all your soul and with all your might!”

And Jesus added: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these two”.

The love of God and the love of neighbour encouraged the Bishop of Münster to voice his courageous sermons. The love of God and the love of neighbour also led the Lübeck Martyrs into conflict with the Nazi-dictatorship. Whoever truly loves God and neighbour cannot remain silent, when human rights and to right to life are trampled underfoot.

As Christian we cannot remain non-participating spectators like the “Three famous monkeys” who see nothing, hear nothing and ultimately say nothing Our Faith forces us also to comment politically, that is unavoidable. Jesus Christ was sentenced for political insurrection and was nailed to the cross; “King of the Jews” was written as the verdict on the cross. As such he was accused in front of Pilate. It was treason; it was against the Emperor of Rome.

The four Lübeck Martyrs were likewise sentenced and executed as politcal insurrectionists. They had taken a stand against the ideology and politics of the National-Socialists.

Thus our Faith is anything but un-political. When one remembers the four clergymen year after year in Lübeck, Hamburg and elsewhere in the Arch-diocese of Hamburg, it simultaneously becomes legacy and commission. A legacy because the four ministered in our diocese, because the urns of Hermann Lange and Karl Friedrich Stellbrink are standing there, in Lübeck.It is also a commission, because remembrance includes the promise to be aware what takes place in our state and society today.

We only need to open a newspaper, and headlines catch our eyes.

Segeberger Zeitung (Segeberg News) 1st of November, 2006: “Abortion still in the 7th month?”

A Spanish private clinic, according to a Danish Television report, allegedly is performing such abortions. Pregnant women (also from Germany), who cannot legally have an abortion in their home country, can avail themselves of this service. If a child of that age were to see the light of day, it would be able to survive.

The public is furious!

Segeberger Zeitung, 2nd of November: “Disabled kept like a slave”

A married couple kept a 29 year old mentally retarded man like an animal and fatally abused him. The pair is now facing a court.

The public is furious!

Segeberger Zeitung, 2nd and 3rd of November: “Symbols of the Wehrmacht on cars“ und “Ministry confirms Palm on vehicle”.

German soldiers had attached a symbol of the Afrika-Korps of the Wehrmacht to vehicles of the German Bundeswehr.

The public is outraged by this deed!

Outrage always makes the rounds when right-wing extremist violence causes attacks on Jewish establishments, bodily injury or the use of anti-constitutional symbols.

When children in our country become the victims of parental violence and authorities fail to intervene, we are outraged. Life must be protected. And article 2 of our constitution (Grundgesetz) talks of the Right to Life. And this right may only be challenged on the basis of a law.

We become sensitive when children suffer, are mistreated and die as a consequence. Take a look at the newspapers of the last few days:

Süddeutsche Zeitung, 31st of October, 2006: “Disbelief after an incomprehensible act. A young woman has given birth to a child in a coffee-house toilet and allows it to choke – no-one wants to admit having noticed a thing.”

The 22 year old woman pushed the body into a hygienic container after giving birth. In order to make it fit, she exerted extra pressure. The child suffocated. 
The public is outraged by this deed!

Segeberger Zeitung, 2nd. of November: “Celina’s death before the court”

A two month old infant was mistreated by its 19 year old mother that badly, it died.

The public is outraged by this deed!

Segeberger and Süddeutsche Zeitung, 3rd. of November, 2007: “Kevin’s death to be investigated”

The gruesome death of the two year old boy from Bremen is to be thoroughly investigated. The abused body of the child was found in the refrigerator of his drug-dependant father. It is unclear, why authorities did not check on the child and its father regularly.

The public is outraged by this deed!

Süddeutsche Zeitung, 3rd. of November, 2006: “Long custodial sentence in the Red Cabbage case!”

A mother has cause the death of her 17 month old son by feeding him only red cabbage. He became unable to swallow after his father had caused him to suffer a severe concussion. His father will go to jail for nine years, the mother for four years.

The public is outraged by this deed!

We become sensitive when lives are trampled on. There is an outcry in the media and in politics. We become sensitive when right-wing thought, propaganda and violence become visible.

But why should the life of an unborn, disabled child be less deserving of protection than that of a non-disabled child? Where is our outrage when we are told that 94% of parents with a down-Syndrome child (medically termed Trisomy 21, because the 21st chromosome is not constituted of two parts, but of three, earlier also called “mongoloid”) decide to have an abortion?

The trend becomes clear: The disabled are rejected. Fewer and fewer disabled children are born. The result of pre-natal diagnosis. That saves health funds and the social-state a lot of money. It leaves the anxious question, where does this trend lead to? Ultimately, 90% of all disabled become so only at birth or later in life [Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin 44, 3rd of November, 2006, page 10].

If one is permitted to kill the disabled in the mother’s womb, then why not later on? Is killing in the womb less evil than the killing of the disabled in concentration camps at the time of National-Socialism? Is the decision of parents to have their unborn child killed in the womb less of a moral wrong, because it happens in post-war democratic Germany, and not on the behest of the Nazis, to kill disabled people in concentration camps, because it happened then during the fascist German Reich of the Führer and Dictator Adolf Hitler?

I am not saying that people, parents, doctors or politicians who today have carry the responsibilty for the killing of the unborn disabled, are Nazis. But I am aware that we condemn, again and again, when we commemorate the deeds of the Nazis ( like the killing of disabled in concentration camps), but today have transposed the killing into womb and have created sets of rules under which such killing remains exempt from punishment under certain circumstances. Where is the outrage of the present? It seems to me the outrage over past acts is the greater.

Those responsible during the NS-rule had to stand trial at Nuremberg and were punished. How can we have laws today which exempt killing of the disabled in the womb from punishment?

How will it continue? If killing in the womb is permitted, the why not later? When a child comes into this world disabled? Ask the parents: To kill or let live? Quadriplegic after a traffic accident. Ask the wife: Do you want your husband home with a disability or better we kill him instead?

Grandpa has Alzheimer. That costs a lot of money. Nursing care. That costs time for the family, besides, there’s not much more you can do with him. Injection and Bye, bye?

I said earlier, that thanks to pre-natal diagnosis disabilities can be detected in the unborn child. But genetic techniques can do a lot more. In the meantime it has been shown which gene-defect is responsible for diabetes, or the possibility to suffer from Alzheimer’s. Also two items of costs for health insurances or the social-security. Why not become selective here as well? And what else will the studies of genetics reveal in times to come? Which one of us would be sitting here now, it it were known, which genetic defects we suffer from and pre-natal diagnosis would have been the norm?. Surely, not I.

I am a diabetic. I don’t want to rubbish genetic research; I have science to thank for my Insulin. Without it one could not produce human Insulin. We would still be dependent on bovine or porcine insulin. We would be much more restricted in our lives. Allergies would be more plentiful.

My little sister, who has Down-Syndrome, would not exist.

Dear Parishioners, we remember the Lübeck Martyrs, who were executed because they, among other things, distributed sermons of the Bishop of Münster Clemens Graf von Galen. He had stood up for the Right to Life. Unrestrained. For all. Also for people with physical or mental disabilities. With disgust we turn away from Nazi-ideology, we condemn the killing of the disabled in concentration camps.

But what are we saying to the killing of the disabled in the womb? Are we afraid of the possibilities consequences of pre-natal diagnoses?

What would Bisshop Clemens August Graf von Galen say and preach? What would Johannes Prassek, Hermann Lange, Eduard Müller and Karl Friedrich Stellbrink say and preach today?

Legacy and commission are their deaths and memorial. Their legacy is simple. Their commission much more difficult. But why? If we open our mouth we are not threatened with political persecution or murder by a totalitarian regime.
As it says in the “Martyrologium” about the Lübeck Martyrs:

“(…) on the 10th of November, the chaplains Johannes Prassek, Hermann Lange and Eduard Müller had to give their lives under the guillotine, at the same time the Lutheran Pastor Karl Friedrich Stellbrink, as he, just as they, were not willing to follow no-one else but Christ.

“They had lived among us. They loved the Majesty of Creation, the Light of Truth. They loved the old churches of our town, and above all the loved the people in their care. They loved Life to the full.

“Because they were friends of God.”

That is not just a legacy, it is also a commission. Amen.

English Translation: Hans-Heinrich Boeker, Wyoming, Australia



Pastor Peter Otto, one-time Chaplain of the Priory of Herz Jesu in Lübeck, in a Holy Mass at the opening of an exhibition about the Lübeck Martyrs on the 29th of October, 2006 in Kaltenkirchen and on the 5th of November, 2006 in Bad Bramstedt held a sermon, in which he asked, among other things, what the martyrs would criticise today.