Font size

Vicar Gerhard Staudt: Discovery of Truth

Sermon on the 10th of November, 1970 in Lübeck

My devout Listeners!

If I am to honour the Lübeck Martyr-Priests today, I cannot, like other preachers before me, refer to any personal encounter with them. At the time when they, having been sentenced to death, were transferred from Lübeck to the Hamburg prison on Holstenglacis, in the summer of 1943, I imprinted my own first childhood impressions into my memory: Burning houses and the hectic evacuation from the bombed city of Hamburg. For my generation the so-called “Third Reich” is not a „lived-with” past.

Therefore, please, do not think me as being disrespectful, when I pose the question during this service: Are these Martyrs still of any significance to us? Do they really have anymore to tell us than some other great man from the history of “Heroes and Saints”?

To raise them up onto a high, out of reach pedestal – would be, on the one hand, a gallant method to avoid having to think about it. But it would be a superficiality, which would be a highly inadequate recognition of the Four’s witness. They do not deserve to be made into a myth by us. A myth may be admired, but does not ask for a pledge.

The letters speak a plain language. They were not written by “Supermen of Holiness”, but by tortured, frightened men. They had not wished for this bitter kind of witness and were afraid that their human strength might give out. Aware of his frailty, Eduard Müller writes: “It is only today that I begin to surmise the greatness of the Saints and stand full of admiration before their heroism which cannot be surpassed by anything. How far away we are from such demeanour!”.¹ Admittedly, they continually confess in their letters, how they were comforted by reading the Bible, by prayer and most of all by secretly celebrating the Eucharist. The letters are an exciting endorsement of Christ’s promise in the Gospel: When they drag you before tribunals, do not fearfully wonder how to defend yourself. The Spirit will instruct you what to say at that hour.

But despite the assuredness of such support, Prassek remains level-headed. He does not assume the role of hero for Christians outside the prison walls. Everyone will just have to do his duty where he is placed: “You see”, he writes, “I am forced to do the will of God, even if I did not want to. But you should voluntarily, on your own, shape your life so it conforms to the will of God”.2

This citation in my mind is especially relevant, devoted listeners, when we seek to find a meaning for our times in the Lübeck Martyrs. Prassek himself tells us where our obligations begin, under completely different conditions, today...

To turn a predetermined position on Faith into fact, that was then as is now the task of life, even though other solutions are demanded under today’s changed conditions. Then, there was one clear position for Prassek and his fellow prisoners: Here, Christ and his commission to the Church – there the totalitarien state and its arrogated claim to the entire man. Whoever realised the irreconcilable contrast and wanted to remain inwardly true, had to run into conflict with that state. Being a witness to Christ had to make them enemies of the unjust state.

The separation between “willed-by-God” and “God-adverse” no longer is so easily detected today. There exists in our pluralistic state an almost incomprehensible range of opinions and ideologies. No-one is put before the court, because he uttered critical questions. On the contrary: Questioning is affirmed and wanted so much so, that it can become a self-satisfied mania for questioning and criticising. These fronts and opposites even run through the middle of a Church. Many are devout Christians, but are only able to identify with their church community in part.

Establishment of Truth today is a most difficult undertaking for the individual. Many young people want to turn adversity into a virtue. They don’t want to commit or allow themselves to be committed. They hope, in a fundamental abeyance, to remain open and free and safe from any authoritative measure, wherever it may come from. That such an attitude hardly provides a stimulus for serious engagement, need not be proven.

Indecision in the long run becomes impossible for a Christian sustain. The Gospel forces every serious listener to take a stand. It forces every generation to give an answer, appropriate for their time.

The Lübeck Martyrs, and with them many, many other fellow sufferers had found the valid answer to the challenge of their time. Valid her means: In agreement with the Gospel.

When we honour their deeds today, we must also give account as to what is demanded of us by our time. With all those intra-church controversies there are, nonetheless, sufficient demands no Christian can squeeze past into a corralled, private space. I would like to briefly mention a few:

There is the newly-awakened consciousness of the Church as the people of God. It would be unworthy of a citizen of that people, to allow himself to be driven like a sheep without a will. The Church needs thinking, confirmed contributors.
Worth mentioning is the ecumenical movement, surely the fruit of the common threat during thee “Third Reich”. Pastor Stellbrink and Vicar Lange became friends on death row. – Christian unity must not be seen as something between a few experts.

Finally the perhaps most notable sign of our time: Christians and Christian communities increasingly discover their responsibility for the world. Whether it concerns questions of race or guest workers in Germany, development policies or de-militarisation: As Christians we are credible in as much as we make the need of the weak our own. The example of the persecuted CJA in Brazil shows that serious engagement can have the same consequences today as it had during the “Third Reich”.

The question of engagement, however, always is also a question of Faith. It is the question of determination with which we cling to the word of God, even there, where it appears dark and mysterious to us. When it comes to determination, the witness of the martyrs remains timeless. What Prassek wrote on the 27th of January of 1943, is so very current today, that I shall conclude this sermon with it.

“If there could never be doubts about God’s truths, what could then be great about our Faith? It is so easy for me to cast myself down into the abyss, when I carry within me the belief that I shall be caught without harm. But to do the same on His word alone, which I even doubted to be true, when nothing in me speaks with that same belief, to plunge into the depths, that demands pretension”.3


1 Josef Schäfer, „Wo seine Zeugen sterben ist sein Reich“. Letters by the decapitated Lübeck clergymen and statements by witnesses. Hamburg 1946, p 67f
2 ib. p. 19
3 ib. p. 30



Gerhard Staudt, now Parish Priest in Hamburg-Volksdorf, held this sermon on the occasion of the Memorial Service on the anniversary of the death of the Lübeck Martyrs, on the 10th of November, 1970 in the Priory Church of Herz Jesu in Lübeck, as the then local vicar.