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Christmas Eve 2017: Light, Life, and Love in Hell, Kurt Reuber and the Madonna of Stalingrad

Bundeswehr zeigt "Stalingrad"-Ausstellung

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is late on Christmas Eve and I am reflecting about the true meaning of Christmas in a world where hope seems to be dying before our eyes. This morning I preached in my Chapel from the Christmas story in the Gospel of St. Luke, the same passage I preached on a week or so ago with the German NATO contingent. The story of the incarnation, of God coming in the weakness of a tiny baby who would grow up and be crucified not far from where he was born is of profound importance for my faith, because it is not a pie in the sky promise of prosperity and power, but God who can be present in midst of the human made hell of war.

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. In December of 2016 after the election of Donald Trump I began to hedge my bets, but a year later I do believe that it can, and very well may happen again. So in such a world I must try to find hope wherever I can find it, especially as I seen the pattern of a descent into authoritarianism which has been so much a part of 20th Century European history developing in the United States. I worry about that because I can see nothing good coming of it, and notice friends, including Christian clergy openly advocating against the safeguards, the checks and balances put forth in our Constitution and laws to ensure that the President has unchecked power; and that means the power to plunge the nation into war.

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.

k_reuberl

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 and 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.

pg-34-stalingrad-2-getty

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.”

drkrop

As the brutal 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.

I praying for an end to war and likewise that the United States will not fall victim to a lawless authoritarian leader who seems intent on stoking the fires of more wars.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, History, Military, ministry, nazi germany, Pastoral Care, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

The Authoritarian String of Tricks: Learning from History

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It has been a bit under ten months since President Trump took the oath of office as President of the United States. Over that time his actions have been similar to other leaders of history who have gravitated towards authoritarian rule. Today I want to share the words of British military theorist and historian B.H. Liddell-Hart on what happens when authoritarian, or would be authoritarian leaders gain control of a government. His words, from his short, but profound book Why Don’t We Learn from History are worth the considered read for anyone with an open mind who can, despite the proliferation of propaganda can still see clearly. Liddell-Hart wrote:

They soon begin to rid themselves of their chief helpers, “discovering” that those who brought about the new order have suddenly become traitors to it.

They suppress criticism on one pretext or another and punish anyone who mentions facts which, however true, are unfavourable to their policy.

They enlist religion on their side, if possible, or, if its leaders are not compliant, foster a new kind of religion subservient to their ends.

They spend public money lavishly on material works of a striking kind, in compensation for the freedom of spirit and thought of which they have robbed the public.

They manipulate the currency to make the economic position of the state appear better than it is in reality.

They ultimately make war on some other state as a means of diverting attention from internal conditions and allowing discontent to explode outward.

They use the rallying cry of patriotism as a means of riveting the chains of their personal authority more firmly on the people.

They expand the superstructure of the state while undermining its foundations by breeding sycophants at the expense of self-respecting collaborators, by appealing to the popular taste for the grandiose and sensational instead of true values, and by fostering a romantic instead of a realistic view, thus ensuring the ultimate collapse, under their successors if not themselves, of what they have created.

This political confidence trick, itself a familiar string of tricks, has been repeated all down the ages. Yet it rarely fails to take in a fresh generation.

Yes it has been nearly ten months and one can see President Trump following the script of authoritarian rulers. So many of the things that the British historian and theorist noted are present in the actions, words, and policy of the President and his administration.

The book is worth the read.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, leadership, News and current events, Political Commentary

Trump and “Total Solutions” 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

On this day in 1941 it appeared to Hitler and his henchmen that the Wehrmacht would soon defeat Stalin’s Red Army and Complete Hitler’s conquest of the European continent. In the cold blooded calculations of the Nazis it was time to begin the planning to settle their accounts with the Jews. On that day, seventy-six years ago Herman Goering, acting on the orders of Adolf Hilter sent the following order to Reinhard Heydrich, the head of Himmler’s Sicherheitsdienst and the Reichssicherheitshauptamt or Reichs Security Main Office: 

Berlin, July 31st 1941

To: Gruppenfuhrer Heydrich

Supplementing the task assigned to you by the decree of January 24th 1939, to solve the Jewish problem by means of evacuation and emigration in the best possible way by according to present conditions, I hereby charge you to carry out preparations as regards organizational, financial, and material matters for a total solution (Gesamtlosung) of the Jewish question in all the territories of Europe under German occupation.

Where the competency of other organizations touches on this matter, the organizations are to collaborate. 

I charge you further to submit to me as soon as possible a general plan of the administrative material and financial measures necessary for the carrying out the desired final solution (Endlosung) of the Jewish question.”

Goering

That order set the stage for the completion of a program of mass killing that had already began as Heydrich’s Einsatzgruppen followed the Wehrmacht into the Soviet Union killing hundreds of thousands of Jews up close and personal. The order would eventually form the basis of the final solution which would be fully implemented as policy after the Wansee Conference of January 20th 1942 and Heydrich’s killing by Czech commandos not long afterward. During that time men who had previously unblemished records of service sacrificed their sacred honor to carry out Hitler’s decrees, while many more remained as silent witnesses of their evil deeds. 

The German program of genocide was replicated by Stalin against Jews and other non-Russians of the Societ Union, without the Nazi’s racial bloodlust. 

Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin wrote something that we should be concerned with today as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin each work to secure their greatness on the lives of others deemed to be their enemies: 

“Dead human beings provided retrospective arguments for the rectitude of policy. Hitler and Stalin thus shared a certain politics of tyranny: they brought about catastrophes, blamed the enemy of their choice, and then used the death of millions to make the case that their policies were necessary or desirable. Each of them had a transformative utopia, a group to be blamed when its realization proved impossible, and then a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory.”

So far only Putin has used a policy of mass murder to achieve his goals, but if actions follow words, then President Trump will not be far behind his Russian tutor in tyranny. The President has already named who he blames for his failures: liberals, Democrats, blacks, LGBTQ people, Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants, Muslims, women, the news media, educators, scientists, and more recently the former GOP mainstream headed by Senators John McCain, Susan Collins, Lisa, Murkowski, and his former chief of staff Reince Priebus. 

In the past few days I know of a number of politically liberal military officers, all junior chaplains, whose conservative chaplain superiors are threatening their careers and freedom to voice their faith online, simply because they and their churches stand against Trump’s latest attack on transgender military personnel. This, despite the fact that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has said that as of now there is no change in policy towards transgender personnel and the fact that chaplains may faithfully stand by and proclaim their churches or religions teachings, even if they conflict with the views of those in power. 

My question is simple: If the President continues threatening American citizens, will he finally decide that his opponents need to be liquidated to achieve his goals? In light of the President’s words and tirades against his opponents, which grow increasingly more violent on a daily basis, this is a fair, if still hypothetical question. But even so, since he, and many of his supporters openly speak of using violence against their opposition, and voice their admiration for Putin, Turkey’s Erdogin, and other dictators, it must be asked especially when a Fox News host, Jesse Watters, even said “A lot of people wish President Trump was a dictator…” 

A dictator? If I recall correctly our founders warned of us of this day as they debated the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

I just wonder, if the President were to give such orders, just who in his administration or among its allies will be the modern Goering and Heydrich? Who will be the men, or women, who given the chance would order, coordinate, and maybe even kill for the President to set the stage whatever final solution he is attempting to achieve. I wonder who will write the order after Trump tweets it, and who will sell their souls to execute it. Honestly, I don’t know who will eventually do that. All I know is that I take my lead from General Ludwig Beck who resigned his office rather than lead an invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and who gave up his life in the attempt to overthrow Hitler in July of 1944: 

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.” 

I do hope others will do the same if the President issues orders that are illegal, unconstitutional, or go against American values or international law. There was a time that I could not imagine that happening, but with every passing day of the Trump presidency I become less sure of that. 

Likewise, I wonder who will get the blame for the catastrophes unleashed by our President, but based on his past actions and current words, there is one person that will not accept any blame, and that is the President. He never has in done so in any private, public, or political venue. 

So in the midst of this I am reminded of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and I must ask the question he did: 

“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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