The Lübeck martyrs

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It would be easy to say that all Germans were bad during WWII and that none of the Catholics and Protestant Christians lifted a finger to fight the Nazi regime. Although I hear this increasingly, it is a wrong assumption to make. In fact there were many who risked their lives,knowing quite well the chances of being caught and being tortured and executed were high. The 4 brave men commonly referred to as the Lübeck martyrs are a good example.

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Fathers Hermann Lange, Eduard Müller and Johannes Prassek, along with Lutheran pastor Karl Friedrich Stellbrink, were guillotined in a Hamburg prison in November 1943.  The Nazi regime found them guilty of “defeatism, malice, favouring the enemy and listening to enemy broadcasts.

What distinguishes these four also is the fact that in the face of National-Socialist despotism they overcame the divide between the two faiths to find a common path to fight and act together.

All four were executed by beheading on 10 November 1943 less than 3 minutes apart from each other at Hamburg’s Holstenglacis Prison (then called Untersuchungshaftanstalt Hamburg-Stadt)

The Catholic priests worked at the Herz-Jesu Kirche (Sacred Heart Church) in the centre of Lübeck, Prassek as a chaplain, Müller as assistant minister and Lange as vicar. Stellbrink was pastor of the city’s Lutherkirche (Luther Church). The four had been close friends since 1941, exchanging information and ideas, and sharing sermons, including those of Clemens August Graf von Galen, Catholic bishop of Münster.

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In his Palm Sunday 1942 sermon, Stellbrink had interpreted a British air raid on Lübeck the previous night as God’s judgment. He was arrested on 7 April 1942, followed by Prassek on 18 May, Lange on 15 June, and Müller on 22 June. In addition to the clerics, a further 18 Catholic lay people were arrested, including Stephan Pfürtner, who would later become a moral theologian.

A year later, between 22 and 23 June 1943, the trial of the four men took place before the second chamber of the People’s Court, with Wilhelm Crohne presiding. He had journeyed to Lübeck specifically for the hearing. The clerics were sentenced to death for ‘broadcasting crime [specifically, listening to enemy broadcasts ], treasonable support for the enemy and demoralisation of the Armed Forces’. Some of their co-accused lay brethren received long prison sentences. The trial became known as the “Lübeck Christians’ Trial”, an indication of the anti-Christian bias of proceedings.

The clerics were immediately transferred to Hamburg’s Holstenglacis Prison, which had become the regional centre for executions in 1936 and had added an execution building with permanently mounted guillotine in 1938.The Catholic bishop under whose care the Catholic priests fell, Wilhelm Berning (Diocese of Osnabrück) visited the priests in prison and wrote a plea for clemency, which was rejected. Pastor Stellbrink received no support from his Province’s church authorities, and prior to his execution was ejected from Holy Orders because of his conviction.

Pastor Karl Friedrich Stellbrink’s career is not without controversy. He, who was sentenced and executed as an opponent of the Nazi Regime, came to Lübeck as a supporter of that regime in 1934. Stellbrink supported the program of the NSDAP (National-Socialist German Labour Party) from a German-national point of view and had welcomed Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power with great hopes. Contributing to his expectations would have been the romanticised picture of Germany which Stellbrink would have carried with him during his time of service as pastor to German parishes in Brazil (1921 to 1929).

 

Pastor Stellbrink and familiyStellbrink, like many others, fell victim to the deceptions of Hitler, who pretended to be a Christian and liked to quote biblical texts. As time proceeded, Stellbrink’s idea of a fruitful symbiosis between Christendom and National-socialism proved to be nothing but an illusion. stellbrink_bA crucifix covered up with a greatcoat at the chapel of the Vorwerk Cemetery during the funeral of a Lübeck Nazi personality was to him the beacon of Christ-hatred, a hatred which he openly denounced in his sermon on Palmarum (Palm Sunday) 1942, after the terrible bombing raid on Lübeck: “God has spoken in a loud voice and the people of Lübeck will once again learn to pray”. This sermon led to his arrest by the Secret State Police (Gestapo), which was followed by the arrest of the three catholic priests. Also arrested and charged were 17 members of the catholic community and an evangelical-Lutheran parishioner. They were tried and sentenced to various lengths of imprisonment, except for two cases, which were deemed to have served their time in remand.

Realising the true character of National-socialism was paralleled with Stellbrink’s growing friendship with the three catholic chaplains and the von de Berg family, who played a leading role in the catholic community in Lübeck. While Stellbrink’s initial anti-catholicism had been implanted during his education, it turned into acceptance. This friendship also led to the appreciation of the importance and implications of the sermons of the bishop of Münster, Graf von Galen, which revealed irrefutably the criminal and inhuman character of the Nazi regime. It resulted in their copying and duplicating these sermons together, which were distributed among the community. This was the true reason for their arrests, trials and executions.

Stellbrink stood, like many other evangelical theologians before 1933, for a tradition which had an anti-catholic, anti-jewish character. „Against Rome and Juda!“ became their motto, because both were deemed to be un-German and alien to the German psyche. As his anti-catholic stance withered so did his anti-jewish attitudes.

Pastor Karl Friedrich Stellbrink thus took a long route, which changed from a German-national and National-socialist conviction, his rejection of catholicism and judaism, to their acceptance and a furtherance in the latter phase of his life; yet it ultimately led to his conviction.

Fifty years would pass before the North Elbian Evangelical Lutheran Church, successor of the Lübeck Lutheran church body, would initiate court proceedings to clear Stellbrink’s name and admit their shame at how this noble martyr had been treated.

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Johannes Prassekprassek_b was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1937, Father Prassek was assigned to Herz-Jesu Church together with Eduard Müller and Hermann Lange. He openly warned soldiers and youth groups against anti-Semitism, and protested the shooting of prisoners and Jews. Under German law at that time, such words were subject to the death penalty if reported to the Gestapo. Because of his sympathy for Polish workers who were forced laborers in the area, Father Prassek learned Polish so he could minister to them. Again, such ministry was illegal and could have led to his arrest – but the Gestapo never found out.

Eduard Müllermueller_b grew up in a very poor family, and he first trained to become a joiner, prior to studying for the priesthood. Ordained as a Catholic priest in 1940, he served at the Herz-Jesu Church. His youth group work and a discussion group he directed were very popular. Having experienced trade training himself probably gave him special rapport with young journeymen of the discussion group he led.

He took part in the copying and distribution of literature critical of the regime and allowed discussions, critical of the regime, during group meetings with young men. Müller never lost his gentleness, not even in the clutches of the Gestapo.

Hermann Langelange_bwas an intellectual preacher. He told young soldiers in discussions, that participation in a war was strongly against the Christian faith. He wrote in a letter from prison on 25 July 1943 about the ecumenical consequences of the sufferings he and his fellow Catholics had shared with their Lutheran neighbors, even prior to the shared arrests and imprisonment: “The common sufferings of the past few years have brought about a rapprochement of the two Churches. The imprisonment of the Catholic and Protestant clergy is a symbol both of their joint suffering and of the rapprochement”

They felt, like many others, the liberating tone of these sermons, which broke the silence and proclaimed aloud the thoughts many had in their hearts, when the Nazi action for the ‘destruction of unworthy lives’ began, with the euthanasia of mentally disabled people.

The men’s last letters, written just hours before their deaths, have been preserved. Father Johannes Prassek wrote to his family: “I am so happy, I can hardly explain how happy.  God is so good to have given me several beautiful years in which to be his priest.

“Do not be sad!  What is waiting for me is joy and good fortune, with which all the happiness and good fortune here on earth cannot compare.”

Father Eduard Muller wrote to his bishop: “It gives me great pleasure to be able to write a few lines to you in this, my last hour.  Whole-heartedly, I thank you first of all for the greatest gift which you gave me as a successor of the apostles, when you placed you hands on me and ordained me as God’s priest.

“But now we must embark upon this – in human terms difficult- final walk, which is to lead us to Him, whom we served as priests.”

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Martyrs of Gorkum(Gorinchem)

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This story might surprise many for the Netherlands is known as a tolerant and multi cultural society, this wasn’t always the case.

The Martyrs of Gorkum (Dutch: Martelaren van Gorinchem) were a group of 19 Dutch Catholic clerics and friars who were hanged on 9 July 1572 in the town of Brielle (or Den Briel) by militant Dutch Calvinists during the 16th century religious wars in the Low Countries.

As of 1572, Lutheranism and Calvinism had spread through a great part of Europe. In the Netherlands this was followed by a struggle between the two denominations in which Calvinism was victorious. On 1 April of the next year, Calvinist forces and a rebel group called the Watergeuzen (Sea Beggars) conquered Brielle (Den Briel) and later Vlissingen.

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In June, Dordrecht and Gorkum fell, and at the latter the rebels captured nine Franciscans: Nicholas Pieck, guardian of Gorkum; Hieronymus of Weert, vicar; Theodorus van der Eem of Amersfoort; Nicasius Janssen of Heeze; Willehad of Denmark; Godefried of Mervel; Antonius of Weert; Antonius of Hoornaer, and Franciscus de Roye of Brussels. To these were added two lay brothers from the same friary, Petrus of Assche and Cornelius of Wijk bij Duurstede. At almost the same time the Calvinists arrested the parish priest of Gorkum, Leonardus Vechel of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and his assistant.

Also imprisoned were Godefried van Duynsen of Gorkum, a priest in his native city, and Joannes Lenartz of Oisterwijk, a canon regular from a nearby priory and spiritual director for the monastery of Augustinian nuns in Gorkum. To these fifteen were later added four more companions: Joannes van Hoornaer (alias known as John of Cologne), a Dominican of the Cologne province and parish priest not far from Gorkum, who when apprised of the incarceration of the clergy of Gorkum hastened to the city in order to administer the sacraments to them and was seized and imprisoned with the rest; Jacobus Lacops of Oudenaar, a Norbertine, who became a curate in Monster, South Holland; Adrianus Janssen of Hilvarenbeek, a Premonstratensian canon and at one time parish priest in Monster, who was sent to Brielle with Jacobus Lacops. Last was Andreas Wouters of Heynoord.

In prison at Gorkum (from 26 June to 6 July 1572), the first 15 prisoners were transferred to Brielle, arriving there on 8 July.On their way to Dordrecht they were exhibited for money to the curious. The following day, William de la Marck, Lord of Lumey, commander of the Gueux de mer, had them interrogated and ordered a disputation. In the meantime, four others arrived. It was demanded of each that he abandon his belief in the Blessed Sacrament and in papal supremacy. All remained firm in their faith. Meanwhile, a letter arrived from the Prince of Orange, William the Silent, which enjoined all those in authority to leave priests and religious unmolested. But to no avail.On 9 July, they were hanged in a turf shed.

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A shrub bearing 19 white flowers is said to have sprung up at the site of the martyrdom. Many miracles have been attributed to the intercession of the Gorkum martyrs, especially the curing of hernias.The beatification of the martyrs took place on 14 November 1675, and their canonization on 29 June 1867. They were canonised on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, as part of the grand celebrations to mark the 1800th anniversary of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul AD67.

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For many years the place of their martyrdom in Brielle has been the scene of numerous pilgrimages and processions. The reliquary of their remains is now enshrined in the Church of Saint Nicholas, Brussels, Belgium.

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Stratford Martyrs

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The Stratford Martyrs were a group of 11 men and two women who were burned at the stake together for their Protestant beliefs, at Stratford-le-Bow or Stratford near London in England on 27 June 1556, during the Marian persecutions.

Protestants were executed under heresy laws during persecutions against Protestant religious reformers for their religious denomination during the reigns of Henry VIII (1509–1547) and Mary I of England (1553–1558}

A detailed description of the event is in John Foxe’s book, The Acts and Monuments.Foxe lists those executed.

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The 16 accused had been brought to Newgate in London from various parts of Essex and Hertfordshire. There, beginning on 6 June 1556, at an ecclesiastical tribunal under the direction of Thomas Darbyshire, the chancellor of Edmund Bonner the Bishop of London, they were charged with nine counts of heresy, to which they all either assented or remained silent. All of them were condemned to death and later published a letter detailing their beliefs in rebuttal of a sermon that had been preached against them by John Feckenham, the Dean of St Paul’s. On the 27 June 1556, the remaining 13 were brought from London to Stratford, where the party was divided into two and held “in several chambers”. Here, the sheriff unsuccessfully attempted to persuade each group to recant, by telling them falsely that the other group had already done so.

The executions were said to have been attended by a crowd of 20,000. The exact place of the execution is unknown; the most likely site is thought to have been Fair Field in Bow (then known as Stratford-le-Bow), north of the present day Bow Church DLR station.An alternative suggested location is Stratford Green, much of which is now occupied by the University of East London Stratford Campus; however, this theory seems to date only from the erection of a monument to the martyrs in the nearby churchyard of the Parish Church of St John the Evangelist in 1879.

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According to Foxe, “eleven men were tied to three stakes, and the two women loose in the midst without any stake; and so they were all burnt in one fire”

In 1879 a large monument was erected in St John’s churchyard in Stratford Broadway, to commemorate the 13 and others who were executed or tortured in Stratford during the persecutions. The memorial is Grade II listed on the National Heritage List for England.