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Freiheit! Sophie Scholl and the White Rose: Examples for all Resisiters

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-six  years ago a young German woman stepped up the the guillotine at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison. She had been tried and convicted of treason for distributing a series of anti-Nazi leaflets by the Nazi Volksgericht or “People’s Court” under the direction of the notorious Judge Roland Freisler who gained further infamy in his show trials of those suspected of participating in or supporting the July 20th Bomb Plot against Hitler.

The woman was Sophie Scholl, a student at the University of Munich she was just 22 years old. Her story and the story of the resistance group that she was at the center of is remarkable for the moral clarity that she and her friends displayed in an era where most people were willing to look the other way, if not unreservedly served Hitler’s Third Reich.

She and those who like her resisited Hitler’s Third Reich at the height of its power are worthwhile examples for those who resisit President Trump here. Russia’s Putin, and so many other authoritarian leaders in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The precious truth is that Freedom must be defended from those who use patriotism as a prop, and racism as the raison d’etre of their political, social, and foreign policy of their regimes.

 

 


The story of Sophie and the White Rose is a remarkable story because stories like this are often buried by the propaganda machines of totalitarian regimes; but the shock of what these young people did was so great that the Nazi propaganda machine had to publicly confront it with the goal of instilling such fear that no one else’s would dare repeat it. What politicians, generals, and others could not do to shake the Nazi regime a handful of university students accomplished.

There are a number of monuments scattered around Munich to the White Rose movement, but the most remarkable is the monument in front of the university where they studied and where they distributed their leaflets.  Facsimiles of their publications and letters are part of the pavement, looking as if they have been dropped on the ground for someone to pick up.

Scholl, as well as her friends were students, some who in the course of their time of study who had been drafted into the Wehrmacht as medics, serving on the Russian front before returning to the University. There were five of them, Sophie, Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorrel, Hans Scholl, and Christoph Probst, plus one of their professors, Professor Dr. Kurt Huber who began a resistance cell that focused on telling the truth about the crimes of the Nazi regime, and the lies of Hitler.

Telling the truth in a dictatorship is dangerous and although Sophie and her companions could have remained silent they had consciences that were guided by reason and human rights, as well as by their Christian faith, a faith which remained despite their aversion to the institutional church for its complicity with the Nazis. As she stood before Freisler and the Volksgericht she was recorded as saying:

“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.”

Too many people lacked the courage to speak as Sophie did in her day as all too many do today. It is far easier to take the path of least resistance. Laurence Rees in his history of Auschwitz wrote:

“…human behavior is fragile and unpredictable and often at the mercy of the situation. Every individual still, of course, has a choice as to how to behave, it’s just that for many people the situation is the key determinate in that choice.”

Sophie and her circle of friends in the White Rose chose how courageous people behave in such abominable conditions. They published a series of six leaflets which they printed themselves and distributed around the university, the city, and to like minded people in a number of other cities. They asked those who got them to make as many copies as they could and distribute them. They were in the process of drafting a seventh when Scholl was spotted distributing them at the university by a maintenance man who was a member of the Nazi Party. She and her friends were arrested on February 21st 1943 by the notorious Nazi People’s Court under the direction of Roland Freisler on the 22nd, and executed by beheading at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison on the 23rd.


The members of the White Rose were bold and defiant in the face of evil, of course those that have that kind of courage usually have short life expectancies in a totalitarian state, but they did not back down. Their pamphlets and graffiti criticizing Hitler garnered the attention of the Gestapo and when they were caught they were brutally tortured, but none backed down.

Their criticisms of Hitler and his Third Reich were hard hitting. Since all of the students had spent much of their childhood teenage years in Nazi organizations which were designed to make loyal little Nazis, their resistance came as a shock to many. All were children who could have easily due to their family background taken the easy road, but chose the more honorable and dangerous road.


Their pamphlets are striking, and each focused on a different part or aspect of the Nazi regime. In their first leaflet they wrote:

“Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct.” They urged their readers “Therefore every individual, conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilization, must defend himself as best he can at this late hour, he must work against the scourges of mankind, against fascism and any similar system of totalitarianism.” And to “Offer passive resistance – resistance – wherever you may be, forestall the spread of this atheistic war machine before it is too late, before the last cities, like Cologne, have been reduced to rubble, and before the nation’s last young man has given his blood on some battlefield for the hubris of a sub-human. Do not forget that every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure!”

Such was their beginning, but they went on to attack the Nazi, leaders, the Nazi system, and especially the silence of their countrymen over the extermination of the Jews and Polish intellectuals. They asked in the second leaflet:

“Why do German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes, crimes so unworthy of the human race? Hardly anyone thinks about that. It is accepted as fact and put out of mind. The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals; they give them the opportunity to carry on their depredations; and of course they do so…. For through his apathetic behavior he gives these evil men the opportunity to act as they do; he tolerates this “government” which has taken upon itself such an infinitely great burden of guilt; indeed, he himself is to blame for the fact that it came about at all! Each man wants to be exonerated of a guilt of this kind, each one continues on his way with the most placid, the calmest conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!”

In each of the letters they asked their readers to offer some form of resistance to Hitler and the Nazi State but urged passive resistance, but in the third missive they went into more detail, including something that anyone who thinks that they are loyal to their country need to appreciate:

“The meaning and the goal of passive resistance is to topple National Socialism, and in this struggle we must not recoil from any course, any action, whatever its nature. At all points we must oppose National Socialism, wherever it is open to attack. We must soon bring this monster of a state to an end. A victory of fascist Germany in this war would have immeasurable, frightful consequences. The military victory over Bolshevism dare not become the primary concern of the Germans. The defeat of the Nazis must unconditionally be the first order of business… And now every convinced opponent of National Socialism must ask himself how he can fight against the present “state” in the most effective way, how he can strike it the most telling blows. Through passive resistance, without a doubt…”

Eventually their tracts became more biting, and in fourth the metaphysical linking Hitler to Satan and Anti-Christ.


They wrote:

“Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed…. I ask you, you as a Christian wrestling for the preservation of your greatest treasure, whether you hesitate, whether you incline toward intrigue, calculation, or procrastination in the hope that someone else will raise his arm in your defence? Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler.”

In the fifth leaflet they spoke of where the Nazi war effort would end and the responsibility of not only Hitler but the German people for it:

“It has become a mathematical certainty that Hitler is leading the German people into the abyss. Hitler cannot win the war; he can only prolong it. The guilt of Hitler and his minions goes beyond all measure. Retribution comes closer and closer. But what are the German people doing? They will not see and will not listen. Blindly they follow their seducers into ruin. Victory at any price! is inscribed on their banner. “I will fight to the last man,” says Hitler-but in the meantime the war has already been lost…. Do not believe that Germany’s welfare is linked to the victory of national Socialism for good or ill. A criminal regime cannot achieve a German victory. Separate yourselves in time from everything connected with National Socialism. In the aftermath a terrible but just judgment will be meted out to those who stayed in hiding, who were cowardly and hesitant.”

In the aftermath of the disaster at Stalingrad they published their sixth and last issue before being caught. In it they urged Germans to fight against the Nazi Party and regime, and confronted the way that since its inception Hitler and the Party corrupted the meaning of honor and freedom:

“Freedom and honor! For ten long years Hitler and his coadjutor have manhandled, squeezed, twisted, and debased these two splendid German words to the point of nausea, as only dilettantes can, casting the highest values of a nation before swine. They have sufficiently demonstrated in the ten years of destruction of all material and intellectual freedom, of all moral substance among the German people, what they understand by freedom and honor. The frightful bloodbath has opened the eyes of even the stupidest German – it is a slaughter which they arranged in the name of “freedom and honor of the German nation” throughout Europe, and which they daily start anew.”

Just over two weeks later they were caught and in Freisler’s People’s Court convicted and executed. During their trial, if it can be called that, Freisler and others expressed their shock that young Germans could commit treason. Sophie had no problem confronting her accusers:

Her last words before going to the guillotine were unapologetic: “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?” On the back of the order condemning her to death she wrote the word Freedom.


There are leaders in many nations today intent on destroying freedom and in many places the people and the country’d institutions fall in behind them, usually by painting pictures of threats so imminent that people willingly trade real freedom for a false security. It is a dangerous world and all of us must be alert to changes in society and question what comes out of the mouths of leaders, and even more so their true believer followers.

Sophie Scholl and her companions understood the risk, but they got their message heard at the highest level of government, and most were killed. But their example of courage and belief in freedom and human rights is still stronger that they mightiest despot, and unlike their mighty yet evil rulers, they are the ones that Germany remembers.

Last year I visited her grave in Munich’s Friedhof at Perlacher Forst, it is humble but gravesite, but it is obviously a place of remembrance and pilgrimage. When I go o Munich this year I will again make my pilgrimage to places where she and the White Rose used non-violent protest to speak truth about the Hitler regime when most of the population, knowing the truth did nothing to resist.

I think that there is a lesson for us as well, and I think that it is a lesson that many of our young people will understand better than their elders, especially in the age of President Trump.  That my friends gives me hope for the future.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Hope In Hell: Dr. Kurt Reuber and the Madonna Of Stalingrad

Bundeswehr zeigt "Stalingrad"-Ausstellung

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is almost Christmas and I am reflecting about the true meaning of Christmas in a world where hope seems to be dying before our eyes. In such an environment I reflect on men who lived in a human made hell, a hell made by hate filled ideologues who launched the world into its bloodiest war, and I wonder, could it happen again? A decade ago I would have said it never could again happen, but now I am not so sure. So, in the age of Donald Trump, I must try to find hope wherever I can find it.

I think most of my readers know that I am a career military officer and have served in peace and war as a chaplain. That service includes a tour in Iraq, a war, which by almost any standard would have been considered unjust and illegal, yet I served there, and came back a changed man. As such the stories of those who served in war, especially those who serve in hopeless battles, and even in evil causes during Christmas have a special place in my heart. One of those men was a German pastor and medical doctor named Kurt Reuber.

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As I said, Reuber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor, likewise he was an accomplished artist and used that medium to convey his own faith, and doubts. He was a friend of Albert Schweitzer in 1939 he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army. By November 1942 he was a seasoned military physician serving with the 16th Panzer Division, part of the German 6th Army, which had been fighting in the hell of Stalingrad. When his division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut off from most supply and without real hope of relief, he like other physicians continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.

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However, unlike most physicians, the care Reuber offered care included spiritual matters, as he sought to help his soldiers deal with the hopelessness of their situation. As Reuber reflected on the desperation of the German soldiers in the Stalingrad pocket. He wrote to his family.

“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St. John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”

The picture was drawn on the back of a captured Soviet map and when he finished it he displayed it in his bunker, which became something of a shrine. Reuber wrote:

“When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall…The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love…Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.”

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As the siege continued men came to the bunker for both medical care and spiritual solace.  On Christmas Eve Reuber found himself treating a number of men wounded by bombs outside the bunker. Another soldier lay dying, just minutes before the soldier had been in the bunker singing the Christmas hymn O Du Froehliche.  Reuber wrote:

“I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of Champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor’s bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: ‘I’ll finish the carol with first. O du Frohliche!” A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere.”

On January 9th 1943 with all hope of escape or reinforcement gone Reuber gave the picture to the battalion commander as the officer was too ill to carry on and was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from the pocket. Reuber’s commander carried the Madonna out of the pocket and returned it delivered it to Reuber’s family, preserving it for all.

Reuber was taken prisoner and survived the harrowing winter march to the Yelabuga prison camp. In late 1943 Reuber wrote his Christmas Letter to a German Wife and Mother – Advent 1943. It was a spiritual reflection but also a reflection on the hope for life after the war, when the Nazi regime would be defeated, and Germany given a new birth.

Reuber wrote:

“The concatenation of guilt and fate has opened our eyes wide to the guilt. You know, perhaps we will be grateful at the end of our present difficult path yet once again that we will be granted true salvation and liberation of the individual and the nation by apparent disappointment of our “anticipation of Advent”, by all of the suffering of last year’s as well as this year’s Christmas. According to ancient tradition, the Advent season is simultaneously the season of self-reflection. So at the very end, facing ruin, in death’s grip – what a revaluation of values has taken place in us! We thus want to use this period of waiting as inner preparation for a meaningful new existence and enterprise in our family, in our vocation, in the nation. The Christmas light of joy is already shining in the midst of our Advent path of death as a celebration of the birth of a new age in which – as hard as it may also be – we want to prove ourselves worthy of the newly given life.”  (Erich Wiegand in Kurt Reuber, Pastor, Physician, Painter, Evangelischer Medienverb. Kassel 2004. )

prisoner's madonna

Reuber did not live to see that day. He died of Typhus on January 20th 1944, not long after writing this and just a few weeks after painting another portrait of the Madonna, this one entitled The Prisoner’s Madonna. He was not alone, of the approximately 95,000 German POWs taken at Stalingrad only about 6,000 returned home.

His paintings survived the war and his family gave The Madonna of Stalingrad to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin after it was restored as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. Copies are also displayed in Coventry Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Volgograd, the former Stalingrad. A copy of The Prisoner’s Madonna is now displayed at the Church of the Resurrection in Kassel.

I have a print of the Madonna of Stalingrad in my office. It has become one of the most meaningful pictures I have since I returned from Iraq in 2008. To me they are symbols of God’s presence when God seems entirely absent.

Praying for an end to war.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“You’re Worse… You Went Along With it All, Even Though You Knew…” Loyal Servants of Evil Regimes

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the more sobering war movies that I have ever watched is the film Stalingrad. Released in 1993 it is the story of four soldiers of a platoon of soldiers of the 336th Pioneer Battalion. The Pioneers were the equivalent of American Combat Engineers. It is a sobering film to watch. In a way it is much like the film Platoon. Director Joseph Vilsmaier made the battle and the human suffering come alive with realism. There is no happy ending and there are few if any heroes. The men see, protest, are punished, and then are ordered to participate in war crimes.

The battle of Stalingrad was one of the turning points of the Second World War, over a million Russian, German, Romanian, and Italian Soldiers died in the battle. Of the 260,000 soldiers of the German Sixth Army which led the attack in Stalingrad and then were surrounded by the Soviet counter-offensive, very few survived. Some escaped because they were evacuated by transport planes, but most perished. Of the approximately 91,000 German soldiers that surrendered only about 6,000 returned home.

I’ll write about that battle again around Christmas and on the anniversary of its surrender at the end of January, but there are two sequences of dialogue that stood out to me. The first is at the beginning of the battle where a German Chaplain exhorts the soldier to fight against the “Godless Bolsheviks” because the Germans believed in God and the officially Atheistic Soviet Union and its people did not. In his exhortation the Chaplain calls attentional the belt buckles worn by every soldier in the Wehrmacht, which were embossed with the words Gott mit Uns, or God is with us.

I am a a military Chaplain. I have been one since 1992, and the older I get the more distrustful I am of men who place a veneer of region over the most ungodly and unjust wars. For me that was frightening because I do know from experience that the temptation to do such things when in uniform is all too great, but how can anyone exhort people to acts of criminality in the name of God? I know that it is done far too often and I hate to admit I personally know, or know of American military chaplains who would say the same thing as the German Chaplain depicted in the film. Back in the Cold War while serving as an officer before I became a Chaplain I used to talk about the Godless Communists.

The second question is also difficult. I have been in the military for about thirty-seven plus years. Truthfully I am a dinosaur. I am the second most senior and the oldest sailor on my base. I have served during the Cold War as a company commander, was mobilized as a chaplain to support the Bosnia operation in 1996, I have served in the Korean DMZ, at sea during Operation Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch, and with American advisors to the Iraqi Army, Police, and Border troops in Al Anbar Province. I have seen too much of war but even though I could retire from the military today I still believe that I am called to serve and care for the men and women who will go into harm’s way.

That being said those who have read my writings on this site for years know just how anti-war I have become and why this dialogue hits so hard. Some of the members of the platoon are accused of cowardice and sent to a penal company in order to redeem themselves. The commander of the unit, a Captain who hold the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross is confronted by one of the men.

Otto: You know we don’t stand a chance. Why not surrender?

Captain Hermann Musk: You know what would happen if we do.

Otto: Do we deserve any better?

Captain Hermann Musk: Otto, I’m not a Nazi.

Otto: No, you’re worse. Lousy officers. You went along with it all, even though you knew who was in charge.

That is something that bothers me even today. I wonder about the men who go along with wars which cannot be classified as anything other than war crimes based on the precedents set by Americans at Nuremberg, and I am not without my own guilt. In 2003 I had my own misgivings about the invasion of Iraq, but I wholeheartedly supported it and volunteered to go there.

I was all too much like the German Captain. I went along with it despite my doubts. As a voter I could have cast my vote for John Kerry in 2004, but I didn’t. Instead I supported a President who launched a war of aggression that by every definition fits the charges leveled against the leaders of the Nazi state at Nuremberg. When I was in Iraq I saw things that changed me and I have written in much detail about them on this site, but I supported that invasion.

Now as a nation we are in a place where a man who openly advocates breaking the Geneva and Hague Conventions, supports the use of torture, and who both beats the drums of war, to the extent of appointing one of the most strident proponents of the invasion of Iraq as his National Security Advisor. Likewise, he holds the professional military in contempt appears to be angling for war in the Middle East against Iran even as he excuses the criminal actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and against American residents.

I have no doubt that unless something changes that a terrible war is coming and that our President will be a catalyst for it. But for the next nine months before I retire, I will remain in the military to care for the sailors, soldiers, marines, and airmen who will have to go to war and perhaps fight and die.

The thought haunts me and makes it hard for me to sleep at night and I do my best to speak up and be truthful in fulfillment of my priestly vows and my oath of office. Today, unlike my younger years; one thing for me is true: I will never tell any military member that God is with us in the sense that all too many Christian nationalists have done in the past.

I don’t actually think that I ever said the words “God is with us” in regards to advocating war in my career as a Chaplain, but I am sure that my words, and public prayers could have been interpreted in that way when I was younger, especially in the traumatic days after September 11th, 2001.

Likewise, I did go along with the war in Iraq even though I understood what it meant! and what the men and women who engineered it wanted when they took us to war. Sadly, I trusted my leaders too much, especially when Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke before the United Nations to prove the case against Iraq just before the invasion.

Supreme Justice Robert Jackson, who served as the Chief American Prosecutor at Nuremberg stated in the London Agreement:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

Now we live in a world where nationalism, ethnic, racial, and religious hatred are rising, and our own President seems to be abandoning the democratic and pluralistic ideas of or founders, while praising and tacitly supporting authoritarian and Fascist rulers around the world. Honestly, I dread what may befall us if he remains in power.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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