Category Archives: faith

Back in the Fight

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

So, it has been just over 50 hours since I returned from our trip to Germany and I am back in the game and ready to fight.

My travel overseas gave me time to clear my head and take stock of my life right now, personally and professionally. It was what I needed.

I have many challenges where I work. I won’t go into details here but they do not involve my staff. In 10 and 1/2 months I will be retired from the Navy after a combined 38 years of enlisted and officer service, active and reserve in the Army, Army Reserve, Army National Guard, and the Navy.

That being said for the past year I have been depressed about work, so much so that I hated to get up in the morning to go there. The work I did to support the congregations of my chapels despite lack of funding, loss of personnel, and other factors that I cannot go into now made things almost unbearable had it not been for the support of my staff. I can only be thankful for them.

Likewise, I came to realize again that actions mean more than words in many if not most aspects of life. Standing at the graves of Sophie and Hans Scholl, the site where Clause Con Stauffenberg, General Ludwig Beck and others were executed, and were Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis’s to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg gave me new life to fight for what I believe in.

Anyway, I will write more about this tomorrow.

Until then,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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A Visit to Lutherstadt Wittenberg

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

For the first time in 22 years during our recent trip to Germany I returned to the city where a little known Augustinian Monk and Professor of Theology, Dr. Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation and changed the world forever. There had been other revolts against the Catholic Church by various dissenters but none of them had ever found and ear with rulers who by their support could change the status quo and protect them from being tried as heretics.

To be tried as a heretic meant that you were also in violation of the law of the local monarch or the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and likewise an enemy of the State. Once convicted of heresy the the opponents of the regime were then executed in whatever way the Church and State deemed to be the most effective way of discouraging future dissenters.

Luther was not only a keen theologian, he knew how to gain the support of common people, as well as the princes and other members of the nobility who knew that they were getting screwed by both the Church and the Empire. Thus while his theological motives based on his experience of the grace of God were genuine, he understood the political implications of his theology which broke the chains of Germans Protestants to Rome.

The result would lead Luther’s political supporters into multiple wars against Rome and the Holy Roman Empire, and then against German dissenters who dissented from Luther. It would also set the stage for successful breaks from Rome in England, and in Geneva, where John Calvin proclaimed a harsh and cold version of Protestantism. In many ways Luther never fully rejected parts of Catholic doctrine such as the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ, and the efficacy of Baptism for the forgiveness of sins, despite writing circles around himself to show his differences with Rome. He would never be Protestant enough for Calvin, or Ulrich Zwingli of Zurich, or the later more radical Calvinist separatists in France, Holland, England, and Scotland. Of course none of those were acceptable to the Radical Reformers of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement in Holland which spread to England in the guise of the early English Baptists, who were simply Anabaptists who had thrown out pacifism.

Luther was a remarkable man with many flaws. His theology led to married clergy, the Bible being translated into German and then many other languages. In fact Luther’s translation of the Bible into German helped birth the modern German language as much as the later King James Bible did for English some 80years later.

Likewise, through his emphasis on the Three Solas, Sola Gratia, Sola Fides, and Sola Scriptura he opened the door for individuals to have more say in their spiritual lives and interpretation of the Christian faith, which led to many more breaks with the Church, his Church within a few years. Luther opened the door to a Christianity which has never stopped splitting, often with ugly consequences, and sometimes reforming for the better. Luther was a huge influence on John Wesley who influenced me like William Wilberforce and John Newton who helped abolish slavery in England and it’s colonies. At the same time one cannot overlook just how Luther’s vehement denunciations and demonizations of the Jews helped set the stage for the German anti-Semitism that brought about the Holocaust.

But all that being said from a theological point of view Luther shattered the theological oneness of the western church. Instead of one Pope, Luther opened the door for everyone to be his own Pope.

His theology also allowed rulers to break from Rome and still support their own State Church. In the various fiefdoms of Germany some went with Luther, others Calvin, and still others Zwingli. In England, Henry VIII took the Church of England out of Rome and that church recognized the English King, or at times the Queen the head of the Church.Without Luther to shatter the barrier between Church and State, there would likely never have been the freedom granted to the great

This when the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States wrote those documents they were absolutely opposed to the government of the United States having a State religion or for that matter even endorsing any sect of Christianity. The great Virginia Baptist and friend of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, John Leland wrote:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. … Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”

Luther certainly would not have agreed with that, but he opened the door to it and we should all be grateful that he did. One wishes that the Christian Nationalists of the United States would read their United States history because they are try to establish a particular minority sect of Christianity, a fundamental evangelicalism rooted in the political theology of John Calvin as the official State religion. To do so they are using a man who would shame the Medici Popes in his profound disregard and disrespect of anything resembling the Christian faith; for his carnal indulgence, his wanton greed, vain pomposity, and his narcissism which borders on self-deification. Luther would have recognized him and them as frauds of the most odious kind.

Luther’s flaws are many. He suffered severe, probably clinical depression, and many PTSD from the beatings administered by his father. That was not helped by his understanding as a young man, theology student, and monk of a very punitive and angry God who he could never please. His life crisis came at a time in his life, between 28 and 32 years old, when developmental psychologists tell us that many great thinkers, intellects, and leaders have their breakthroughs.

He was also at times terribly sarcastic, vindictive, and angry. He could turn on friends and former students who broke with him in a visceral manner. He was also beset by an anti-Semitic streak that while it was a part of the times that he lived was used by other German anti-semites, especially Hitler’s Nazis in their persecution, and later extermination of the Jews. He was also prone to see the religious wars of his time, be they against the Turks, the Roman Catholics, or the Radical Reformers, through the lens of an apocalyptic worldview.

Despite all his flaws he is one of the most important men in history. Without his break with Rome and the support of European nobility there probably would have been no Enlightenment as we know it for the great artists, writers, scientists, and others of that period would likely have never had safe places to go beyond the limits of Medieval Scholasticism and Aristotelian philosophy.

Likewise the principle of the Reformation is that Reformation never ends. The Church must continually reform or die. Unfortunately, that is seldom the case, the Christian Church has always been resistant to change and frequently is the last holdout against truly evil movements. Christians, not just in the United States, frequently heed the call of racism, nationalism, and misogyny more than any other group. Of course there are other religions where many of the faithful and their leaders do the same thing, but today’s post is about Luther and the the Christian faith.

Luther understood that the Gospel must speak to the issues of the day. He said: A gospel that doesn’t deal with the issues of the day is not the gospel at all. In our day those issues are ones that I think that had he lived among us that Luther would see and preach about. I could see him boldly condemning the court preachers of Donald Trump, (yes I see the split infinitive and I don’t care – to “boldly go” as someone we’ll know has said). Men like Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell Jr., and Franklin Graham wouldn’t stand a chance against the Monk from Wittenberg. Neither would the Medici President and his sycophant supporters who scream in indignation when he or they are exposed for who they are.

So, until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“The Most Appalling Site Imaginable” George Patton’s Experience at the Ohrdorf Subcamp of Buchenwald

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In our day there are fewer and fewer people who lived through or personal saw or documented the evils of the Nazi Concentration Camps. Likewise, there are a host of Holocaust deniers who produce a plethora of pseudo-scholarly articles claiming to be legitimate historians. Even more frighteningly the rise of apologists for the Nazi regime including those who are active members of allegedly conservative parties in the United States and the European Union is beginning to influence politics. The abject racism, rejection of anyone considered racially inferior, and quite often their unhidden anti-Semitism show that what lies in the dark heart of Naziism is not dead and in fact is rising.

In the United States its rise is being fueled and legitimized by the Presidency of Donald Trump who has referred to American Nazis and White Supremacists as “very good people” after one of their protests where an anti-Nazi demonstrator was murdered and others brutally attacked. In the same time frame a good number of Republican candidates have exposed themselves as White Supremacists and actual Nazis while running for office. A host of new-Nazi and White supremacist organizations openly meet and flood the internet with their race hatred.

The fact is that anyone who denies the Holocaust, attempts to minimize it, or advocates the same policies of race hatred and violence against political, religious, or other opponents is no better than the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Likewise, those who stand by and say nothing are worse. As Yehuda Bauer wrote:

“The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.”

The good thing is that there were people who took the time to record what they saw in the Nazi Concentration Camps and exposed those deeds to the world in such a way that only perverted and evil people could brazenly deny those facts.

One of the most detailed descriptions of a liberated Concentration Camp was written by General George Patton in his memoirs entitled War as I Knew It.

… we drove to Ohrdruf and visited the first horror camp any of us had ever seen. It was the most appalling sight imaginable.

A man who said he was one of the former inmates acted as impresario and showed us first the gallows, where men were hanged for attempting to escape. The drop board was about two feet from the ground, and the cord used was piano wire which had an adjustment so that when the man dropped, his toes would just reach the ground and it would take about fifteen minutes for him to choke to death, since the fall was not sufficient to break his neck. The next two men to die had to kick the board out from under him. It was stated by some of the Germans present that the generals who were executed after the Hitler bomb incident were hanged in this manner.

Our guide then took us to the whipping table, which was about the height of the average man’s crotch. The feet were placed in stocks on the ground and the man was pulled over the table, which was slightly hollowed, and held by two guards, while he was beaten across the back and loins. The stick which they said had been used, and which had some blood on it, was bigger than the handle of a pick.

Our guide claimed that he himself had received twenty-five blows with this tool. It later developed that he was not a prisoner at all, but one of the executioners. General Eisenhower must have suspected it, because he asked the man very pointedly how he could be so fat. He was found dead next morning, killed by some of the inmates.

Just beyond the whipping table there was a pile of forty bodies, more or less naked. All of these had been shot in the back of the head at short range, and the blood was still cooling on the ground.

In a shed near-by was a pile of forty completely naked bodies in the last stages of emaciation. These bodies were lightly sprinkled with lime – not, apparently, for the purpose of destroying them, but to reduce the smell. As a reducer of smell, lime is a very inefficient medium.

The total capacity of the shed looked to me to be about two hundred bodies. It was stated that bodies were left until the shed was full and then they were taken out and buried. The inmates said some three thousand people had been buried from this shed since January 1, 1945.

When our troops began to draw near, the Germans thought it expedient to remove the evidence of their crimes. They therefore used the inmates to exhume the recently buried bodies and to build a sort of mammoth griddle of 60 cm. railway tracks laid on a brick foundation. The bodies were piled on this and they attempted to burn them. The attempt was a bad failure. Actually, one could not help but think of some gigantic cannibalistic barbecue. In the pit itself were arms and legs and portions of bodies sticking out of the green water which partially filled it.

General Walker and General Middleton had wisely decided to have as many soldiers as possible visit the scene. This gave me the idea of having the inhabitants themselves visit the camp. I suggested this to Walker, and found that he had already had the mayor and his wife take a look at it. On going home those two committed suicide. We later used the same system in having the inhabitants of Weimar go through the even larger slave camp (Buchenwald) north of that town. (Excerpted for G. Patton War as I Knew It)

Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote after seeing the camp:

The same day [April 12, 1945] I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.

Eisenhower was so moved that he ordered that the best reporters and newsmen come and record what he had seen. He did not want the horrors to be denied by history. He wrote:

I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that `the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’ Some members of the visiting party were unable to through the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to Patton’s headquarters that evening I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.

The fact is that as much as we want to pretend that what happened a Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Soribor, Belzec, and Treblinka are images from history that cannot happen again, however, they are an ever present reality and they cannot be ignored. Sadly, I cannot help but to imagine that this can and will happen again in my lifetime.

I go to a quote from one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek the Next Generation called The Drumhead uttered by Jean Luc Picard:

We think we’ve come so far. Torture of heretics, burning of witches it’s all ancient history. Then – before you can blink an eye – suddenly it threatens to start all over again.

That is our reality. There are people, even neighbors and those that we think are friends who would be perpetrators or bystanders when those that transgress the way of Trump are take us from our homes and families because of our beliefs. I would love to be wrong about this, but I am a historian and a theologian and I know the human condition far too well to sit back and remain silent, no matter what the cost.

I had a Facebook exchange with a friend who is a retired Navy Chaplain. He is very much a Trump supporter and apologist. He is very happy about Justice Kavanaugh being in the Supreme Court. The stories of the victims and their claims did not matter to him. Despite that I do not believe that he is a bad man or an evil person. I simply believe that like Martin Niemöller that he has made a bad choice in the man and party that he currently supports and that he will eventually regret it. I could be wrong, he might not turn out to be a Niemöller, but a Reichsbishof Müller. Sincerely hope that he does not become the latter.

I keep quoting historian Timothy Snyder, but he was all too correct when he wrote these words less than two years ago:

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.

If you don’t believe me read the words of the President, his closest supporters, the prominent political preachers of the Christian Right, and any number of Trump leaning columnists, pundits, and politicians. There are some who are so far gone that they will accuse any opponent of being disloyal, not the the Constitution or the law but to President Trump. One of those people tried to get my commanding officer to have me tried by Court Martial for a sermon in which he lied about what I said. I had to spend my money to hire a lawyer to defend me from the false charges and have them dismissed during the preliminary investigation.

Trust me, I know what resistance will mean if this President and his cult like followers are not stopped. Our fate will be worse than that of Nazi Germany because we should have known better. We should have learned from Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. We should have learned fro Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller, we should have learned from the Nuremberg trials, but we have not.

For the next four months, and maybe more should the Democrats fail to gain a majority in the House or Senate, President Trump will have all the branches of the Federal government in his power. With the laws already enacted in the Patriot Act and numerous executive orders there is little to stop a President who has no respect for the law or the Constitution from declaring full emergency powers should any war, terrorist act, or natural disaster be declared.

So with all of that happy commentary I will leave you until tomorrow when, God willing, I will be back in the United States.

Until then have a good night, and please, never forget.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Businesslike Execution of Punishment adjusted for the Development of the Nation: A Visit to Flossenbürg Concentration Camp

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last week on our way from Munich to Berlin we stopped to visit the memorial at the site of the former Flossenbürg Concentration Camp. For most people it is best known as the site where Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, General Hans Oster and others implicated in the 20th of July plot to assassinate Hitler. However, the evil committed there was far greater than the execution of these outstanding men.

In May of 1938 the SS-Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungshauptamt or the SS Main Economic and Administrative Office constructed a labor camp for German political and other prisoners at the town of Flossenbürg near the Czech border in northern Bavaria. Directed by SS Gruppenführer Oswald Pohl, a former German Navy officer and paymaster. Already a dedicated Nazi, Pohl gave up his Navy career in 1933 to take a commission in the SS at the behest of Heinrich Himmler who desired to use Pohl’s military administrative experience to set up a more professional and efficient administrative branch.

Pohl was the man for the job, and over time his influence grew. He was appointed to head the Hauptamt Haushalt und Bauten or the Main Office for Budget and Construction, and over time his responsibility continued to grow. German historian Heinz Höhne who wrote of Pohl:

Four potent departments placed Pohl’s hand firmly on the levers of power in the SS empire: he was in charge of the entire administration and supply of the Waffen-SS; he controlled the 20 concentration camps and 165 labor camps; he directed all SS and Police building projects; he was in charge of all SS economic enterprises.

But in 1938 Pohl was just beginning his rise in the SS. He realized that the Concentration Camps could be used for economic reasons as well as the punishment of the Reich’s enemies. Himmler appointed Pohl to oversee the economic and business operations of the camps. In March of 1938 they began at Mauthausen in Austria by partnering with the SS operated German Earth and Stoneworks Corporation (DEST) excavate Granite using Slave labor. In May they did the same at Flossenbürg.

Pohl’s understanding of labor was thoroughly Nazi, he wrote:

“SS industries [Unternehmen] have the task…to organize a more businesslike (more productive) execution of punishment and adjust it to the overall development of the Reich.”

Flossenbürg’s prisoners initially worked in the granite quarry above the town. They, like other slave laborers were exploited and even the more pragmatic views of Pohl’s office in terms of exploitation were based on the policies of extermination. As time went on Pohl developed a formula to base the economic profits of each prisoner. This was based on the “rental” of each prisoner to industry, minus food and clothing, the profits from anything left by them when they died, minus the expense of the cremation, based on an expected lifespan of nine months as a slave laborer. Pohl expected a profit of about 1,630 Reichsmarks per inmate employed as a slave laborer.

Flossenbürg was one of the second generation camps designed to be more than a place of extrajudicial punishment for enemies of the Nazi regime. It was designed for economic exploitation and extermination through work. While the initial inmates were Germans it would become a place where people from eighteen nations were worked to death.

Like Mauthausen, Flossenbürg supplied laborers to DEST which ran the quarry. The quarry is still in operation, though most of the work is done by machines run by very few actual well paid workers. The machines can be heard from the grounds of the former camp.

The camp grew and so did the numbers of prisoners, especially from countries conquered by the Nazis. Germans who made up the majority of the prisoners from its opening until late 1940 were eclipsed by Poles, Russians, and Hungarians. By the end of the war the camp had housed about 100,000 prisoners, of which about 30,000 died or were executed there.

As the number of deaths rose the process to dispose of the remains of the victims required that a crematorium be constructed. It was built in a valley at the base of the camp and ashes were disposed of near it in what is known as The Valley of Death. Those killed not only included those inmates who were worked to death, died of starvation or disease, but also the Polish and Soviet prisoners of war killed on the orders of the regime.

In 1943 the Messerschmitt facility in Regensburg moved parts production for the Bf-109 fighter plane to Flossenbürg. Camp inmates became part of the workforce producing those parts as well as other munitions for the German armaments industry.

The camp was liberated by the American 90th Infantry Division on April 23rd 1943.

The camp memorial is off the beaten track for most people. Visitors must make a special point to visit it. Unlike Buchenwald, Dachau, or Bergen-Belsen it is quite isolate from places that most people would go. Even so there are a significant number of Germans, and other Europeans, especially young people, who go to the camp to learn. In addition to the museum there is an education program with seminar rooms, guest speakers, and speak alike programs. A number of buildings have been preserved including the Camp Administration building, the Detention building where the special prisoners were housed, the laundry and camp kitchen which house the museum and special exhibits, the crematorium, two guard towers, and the SS Officer Club, or Casino. The last houses the education center as well as a small cafe for visitors.

In The Valley of Death near the crematorium there is what is called the Pyramid of Ashes, the Square of the Nations, and a cemetery. Above them are a chapel dedicated to the victims and a Jewish memorial.

For me I think that the most powerful images I will remember are The Valley of Death and the courtyard outside of the Detention barracks where Bonhoeffer, Oster, and Canaris were executed. The SS Camp doctor wrote the only account of the death of these men:

“On the morning of that day between five and six o’clock the prisoners, among them Admiral Canaris, General Oster, General Thomas and Reichgerichtsrat Sack were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

That being said, while Bonhoeffer, Oster, and Canaris resonate with me I cannot ignore the fate of the 30,000 other men and women who died at Flossenbürg. They were victims of the Nazi policies on race and men like Pohl who extracted the last bit of profit they could make off of the lives and labor of their prisoners before they killed them.

Unfortunately with humanity being what it is and the desire to seek profit and power over the good of people what happened at Flossenbürg could happen again. There are men like Oswald Pohl today who would not hesitate to try to make a profit off of so called enemies of the state.

That is why we always have to remember what happened there and fight to ensure that it can never happen again.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Price of Resistance: Remembering the Men of Operation Valkyrie

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Three days ago in Berlin I visits the memorial to the men of the German resistance movement who attempted to remove Hitler from power a number of times, and then resorted to attempted assassination. Their final attempt occurred on July 20th 1944. The building from which they attempted to seize power was the headquarters of the German Army, the Oberkommando des Heeres, located on Bendlerstraße.

I am not going to retell the story of those men. I have written about the event and some of the men a number of times. Among them at the headquarters were Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who had planted the bomb, General Ludwig Beck, General Friedrich Olbricht, Lieutenant Colonel Merz von Quirnheim, and Stauffenberg’s aide, Lieutenant Werner Von Haeften. All were captured by Wehrmacht Guard forces commanded by Major Remer when it was clear that Hitler was still alive.

Beck was given the opportunity to kill himself but failed and was shot where he lay while Stauffenberg, Olbricht, Quirnheim, and Haeften were tried by a drumhead Court convened by General Friedrich Fromm and executed in the square in the middle of the complex. Fromm had known about the plot but had refused to commit himself to it. When it was clear that Hitler was alive he overcompensated and had them executed to cover up his involvement. This did not save him, he was arrested soon after, tried by the Volksgericht headed by Roland Freisler, and executed in 1945.

I stood in that square where they were executed and I was moved. They paid paid the ultimate price for their act of resistance and I wonder if Americans who claim to be resisters would be willing to pay that price if that was the only remaining option.

Other plotters not in Berlin or at the Bendlerstrasse complex were either arrested and later executed, or committed suicide. One of those men, General Henning von Tresckow said the following shortly before his death:

The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if just ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope that for our sake God will not destroy Germany. None of us can bewail his own death; those who consented to join our circle put on the robe of Nessus. A human being’s moral integrity begins when he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his convictions.

In the United States we still have the option of elections and for the moment most of our institutions are still holding out against a lawless administration. How long that will remain I do not know. Every day that I wake up without discovering that the United States has not experienced its Reichstag Fire moment I am relieved and say a prayer of thanks; but I worry, especially after a chapel member and strong supporter of President Trump tried to get me tried by Court Martial for a sermon in my chapel. I had to hire a lawyer to fight the charges during the preliminary investigation.

Thankfully, I was exonerated and did not have to face a trial because what the man had said was a bold faced lie. Despite that, the comments of some people who said I did not do what I was accused of doing were still quite harrowing in how they portrayed me and my beliefs. It was as if I was a caricature of a raving leftist. The fact is that I do not blindly follow any political party line. I have been a military officer and chaplain for almost all of my adult life, I have served under six Presidents and there are none who I agreed with on every issue, but my oath is to the Constitution, not any President or party despite my current party affiliation.

On some issues I am very liberal or progressive, and others quite conservative, but in each case I try my best to base those positions with my Christian faith, as well as my belief in the great proposition of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal…” and my belief that Abraham Lincoln was correct when he said in the Gettysburg Address “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

However, history shows that when authoritarian leaders seize power that most people, even opponents find a way to make peace with the regime. This is a fair question to ask of anyone.

A hashtag, tweet, or Facebook like or dislike does not define integrity or strength of character, it is what they do in the crisis when the personal costs are factored in. I have already experienced that to a degree, and I know what I will do because I have already had to do it. Yet most people have not hit that point, and honestly I pray that they never do.

Many of the men who acted on July 20th 1944 did so knowing that if they failed in their attempt that they would die and that their families too would be condemned. Of course they no longer had the opportunity that Americans today have to vote or to speak out publicly. They and their country had sacrificed that when sat silently when Hitler dismantled the Republic and the opposition parties, with the exception of the Social Democrats, voted themselves out of existence and allowed Hitler to rule as a dictator. Likewise, many Social Democrats and Communists converted to the NDSAP or minded their own business and looked the other way after the Nazis seized power. The same was true of most German Conservatives.

The German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a part of the plot, but who had been arrested earlier through his association with leaders of the resistance in the German military intelligence service, wrote:

“If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

The men of the German resistance tried and failed more than once to stop Hitler. They were not perfect men, but in the end they made a stand that they knew would cost them, their family members, and their friends dearly.

I wonder if we would have the courage to do it should the institutions of the Republic fail and Trump or any other would be authoritarian leader of any party gain absolute power. By and large the leaders of the GOP, even those who fought his nomination and warned about the danger he posed, have already surrendered to Trump. The most notable is Senator Lindsey Graham.

Stauffenberg was right about men like Graham and the GOP leadership when he made this observation about most German military leaders and government officials:

“You cannot expect people who have broken their spine once or twice to stand up straight when a new decision has to be made.”

Likewise I wonder about the many people that claim to be resisters when the cost is still relatively low. Will they stand when their social or economic status, career, family, or lives are in danger? As I said earlier it is a fair question. People are people no matter what and history too often shows that even resisters often find ways to adjust to authoritarian governments.

Tresckow said:

It is almost certain that we will fail. But how will future history judge the German people, if not even a handful of men had the courage to put an end to that criminal?

There are many lessons to be learned in this. Will we learn them?

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“Open the Gates…” Berlin’s Neue Synagogue on Oranienburg Straße

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We are spending our last night in Berlin after a rather quiet day which included a visit with Dr. Rink, the Bishop of the German Evangelische military chaplain service. We spent an our and a half with his and his chief spokesman at his office. I should have gotten some pictures of us and the offices but forgot because it was such an interesting visit. We will be leaving in the morning which is a holiday, the Tag der Deutschen Einheit, or day of German Unity which celebrates the official reunification of Germany in 1990. The preparations here are quite extensive with much of the area around the Brandenburger Tor and Reichstag blocked off for events and an already large police presence.

This afternoon I took a walk around the district that our hotel, the Hotel Dietrich Bonhoeffer Haus is located. Not far from it is Berlin’s Neue Synagogue, the restored frontal portion of a building dedicated in 1866 by Berlin’s Jewish community. Among those present at the dedication was Otto Von Bismarck, the the Minister President of Prussia prior to the Unification of Germany in 1870.

It was a massive structure that could hold over 3000 worshippers and its Moorish architecture and resemblance to the Alhambra in the Spanish city of Grenada. It was one of the first large buildings to be of iron construction. It is a beautiful structure with its great golden dome topped by a Star of David flanked by two smaller domes.

In addition to its place as a center of worship it was a center of Berlin’s largely assimilated and liberal Jewish community. Berlin was the center of the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah in Germany, and Prussian Jews enjoyed full citizenship and civil rights going back to 1850. The movement emphasized secularism and equality. Prominent Jewish citizens included Albert Einstein, as well as theater and film director Max Reinhardt; composer, music theorist, writer, and painter Arnold Schoenberg, composer Kurt Weill, who is famous for his song Mac the Knife which was popularized in the United States first by Louis Armstrong and then Bobby Darin; and painter Max Liebermann, who was President of the Prussian Academy of Arts until the Nazi takeover in 1933. Additionally, Louis (Lazarus) Lewendowski the highly acclaimed liturgical composer and musician who put his imprint on much Jewish liturgical music used around the world today.

It was used for public concerts and it hand an organ and a mixed choir thanks to Lewendowski, making it a part of a distinctly western and liberal strain of Judaism. In 1929, Einstein performed a renowned violin concert in it.

When the Nazis seized power in 1933 the repression of Berlin’s Jewish community began. Jews lost their citizenship, their employment in the Civil Service and military, membership in professional organizations, and suffered many other humiliations and persecution. As a result many Jews left Germany. Einstein, Schoenberg, Reinhardt, and Weill all fled to the United States. Liebermann died of a heart attack in 1935. He lived near the Brandenburger Tor and reported said as Nazi Stormtroopers marched through it celebrating their takeover of the government: “Ich kann gar nicht soviel fressen, wie ich kotzen möchte.” (“I could not possibly eat as much as I would like to throw up.”)

Despite Nazi repression the Synagogue continued to operate and became a center for Jewish relief efforts. It was one of the few synagogues spared destruction during the Kristallnacht terror organized by Joseph Goebbels on November 9th 1938. A group of Nazis broke into the synagogue, vandalized the Torah scrolls, and attempted to set fire to the building. A Berlin Police Lieutenant named Wilhelm Krützfeld took action and ordered the mob to disperse because the building was a protected historical building. To make his point he drew his pistol and threatened the vandals. His actions allowed the Feuerwehr to arrive and ensured that the building was not burned. Krützfeld reported his actions and only received a verbal reprimand from the Nazi Police President Graf Helldorf who had played a major role in the organization of Kristallnacht. Krützfeld and members of his precinct also helped Jews with identity papers and warned them of Gestapo raids. He was transferred in 1940 and because he could no longer serve the Nazi state requested retirement due to health reasons in 1943. Following the war in 1945 he returned to active police service and died in 1953. his superior, Helldorf, became a part of the anti-Hitler conspiracy and was condemned to death by Roland Freisler and the Volksgericht in 1944.

The synagogue remained active until 1940 when it was ordered closed and taken over by the Wehrmacht which desecrated it and turned it into a warehouse for uniform supplies. It was badly damaged by allied air raids during the war and the main sanctuary was burned out and heavily damaged. The Ruins of the main sanctuary and the main dome were demolished in 1955 with the Jewish community meeting next door to the ruin.

In 1988 on the 50th year anniversary of Kristallnacht the process to restore it as a Jewish cultural center began and it reopened in 1993. The restoration only comprised the front section of the building, but in 1995 the Reformed Jewish community of Berlin was reestablished in it. Today it functions as a synagogue, a cultural center, and a museum.

If you come to Berlin you need to see it.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“Safe?! From What?” A Visit to the Grave of Sophie Scholl

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Our visit to Munich today was relatively quiet. We went to breakfast and then since Judy’s knees were not up to a lot of long walks or standing took our rental car out to see a couple of places that we haven’t been. We went to the grave of the anti-Nazi martyr Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and friend Christoph Probst who were executed in February 1943 for publishing anti-Hitler, Nazi, and war pamphlets. Following that we went to the BMW Museum and BMW World.

I will write about the latter later, but tonight I will write about a visit to the Friedhof at Perlacher Forst in Munich where Sophie Scholl is buried.

The cemetery is adjacent to the Stadelheim Prison where she was held before her trial and executed on February 22nd 1943. I have written about her and the White Rose resistance movement before. Last year I visited the White Rose Museum and study center at the Ludwig Maximillians University of Munich but last year I didn’t get the chance to make a pilgrimage to her gravesite. I made it a priority this year.

We parked on the street outside Stadelheim, which is still an active prison surrounded by tall walls and guard towers. While Judy waited with the car I walked to the cemetery and then to the gravesite which is on the opposite side of the cemetery from the main entrance. It is a very peaceful place, with many trees and the sections cordoned off by carefully trimmed grapevines.

When I reached the gravesite I paused, and remained for about ten minutes contemplating the cost of real resistance to tyranny. She and her companions had no political, military, or economic power. They were students, and a number had served as medics on the Eastern Front before resuming their studies.

Unlike the men who launched Operation Valkyrie 17 months later they had no connections to any kind of power: they were not part of the movement of German conservatives and militarists who initially supported Hitler and then had second thoughts. When Hitler came to power they were children. They resisted because they found what was happening to go beyond any sense of ethics, morality, or in some cases, like Sophie, their Christian faith.

At her trial she told the notorious President of the Nazi People’s Court, Roland Freisler:

Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.

While I was their I tried to imagine her courage as she testified to the truth and went to her death. The woman who shared Sophie’s cell wrote of her final words before going to her execution:

How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?

Many people today are being faced with the same questions that Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and friends, including Christoph Probst who was executed the same day had to make. Thankfully, for the most part the future imitators of Hitler have not yet seized full power in Europe or the United States, but it wouldn’t take much for that to happen. Too many people, and not just conservatives, would be willing to sacrifice freedom in the name of security if a major war, terrorist attack, or natural disaster that threatened their well being and/or their economic or social status occurred.

In such a situation, how many people would allow their government to oppress and terrorize people that they distrusted due to their race, ethnicity, or religion? I think that the numbers are a lot higher than we would want to admit. The preservation or self and wealth is often more of a motivation than faith, or the rights and liberties of others.

During the Nazi era many non-Nazis supported the Nazi programs because they thought that they benefited them. The same is true in any authoritarian State regardless of the ideology that it subscribes and its people hold dear.

Sophie said:

The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.

So until tomorrow from Munich,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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