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Bernhard Lichtenberg - "If You Believe You Have to Resist"
The priest, Bernhard Lichtenberg, was beatified on 23 June 1996 in Berlin during a celebration Mass in which 130,000 people participated. This honoured the memory of his courage when, during the Third Reich, he prayed
for the non-Aryan Christians, for the Jews and for all the poor prisoners of the concentration camps, at the daily public evening prayer in the Cathedral of St. Hedwig in Berlin. For almost three years he continued to pray in this way in public, until he was denounced, arrested and finally imprisoned for two years.
Many questions arise. This man showed courage in a dark time, but his attitude leads us to ask "What about the others?" We look at those who remained silent, who chose to adapt, to adjust. Lichtenberg was not alone, he was a member of the leading clergy in Berlin, to a certain degree protected by his superiors and his bishop, even by the Pope. But why were there so few Lichtenbergs? Why was there prayer for all who were persecuted only in the cathedral of St. Hedwig, and not in every German church, cathedral or chapel? Why did the bishops and priests not cry out as "one man" when the people to whom Jesus of Nazareth belonged, were led into torture and gas chambers? Why did Lichtenberg become the man who challenged the powers of nazism?
Lichtenberg's experiences in his childhood and youth were marked by two important facts: the very pious Catholic family life transmitted by his parents to him and his three brothers, and the diaspora situation of the Catholic community in Silesia. He was born in 1875 in Ohlau; his father had a little grocery store and suffered directly the consequences of Bismarck's "Kulturkampf. . The Prussian population boycotted his shop, "...one did not buy from Catholics". Early on Bernhard learned something about being part of a minority, about solidarity and also about standing up for personal beliefs and convictions and he experienced resistance against unfairness and injustice.
His school years were unremarkable except that he was known for his talent for rhetoric and his temperament. From an early age he wanted to become a priest. He studied from 1895 to 1898 in Innsbruck and Breslau where he was ordained in 1899. He was sent as a chaplain to Neisse, the so-called "Rome of Silesia", where he got to know established traditions and structures. One year later his bishop sent him to Friedrichsberg-Lichtenberg, on the outskirts of Berlin.
Priestly Ministry in Berlin
The contrast could not have been greater; Neisse, small and quiet, Berlin full of life, socially and politically "boiling", the largest industrial city of the Continent at the time. The capital had grown since 1871, the foundation of the Reich, from 800,000 to more than two million people. The little village where Lichtenberg began his ministry from 3,000 to 43,000!
Here Lichtenberg had his first pastoral experience in another diaspora situation. He fought for Catholic schools and other social interests of his different parishes. He became more and more involved in local politics, defended the interests of the Church against liberal and other parties and decided to join the "Zentrumspartei", a party of more conservative and national orientation.
In 1913 he became the parish priest of the church of Jerzjesu in Charlottenburg, at the time still outside Berlin, today right in the middle of the city. Charlottenburg had 350,000 inhabitants, among them 36,000 Catholics, thousands of foreigners, especially many Poles. And his little chapel had only 400 seats! He made possible the impossible, and founded five more chapels, persuading different religious communities to settle in Berlin. During this lime he was also more and more involved in political activities on the city council. This was not-unusual since priests were considered independent and integrative forces. His interests were mainly educational and social politics but also the peace movement. With the Dominican, Franziskus Stratmann, he was active in the "Friedensbund deutscher Katholiken" (Peace alliance of German Catholics) against militarism, the glorification of the war as the "last adventure of man". This position brought him almost "naturally" in opposition to the Nazi party which was represented on the same city council by Joseph Goebbels, (later Minister of Propagands during the Third Reich). These "battles" reached a critical stage when the Friedensbund wanted to show the Remarque-flm "Im Westen nichts Neues" (Nothing New in the West), an anti-war film about the first world war. The result was an enormous campaign against Lichtenberg in the mass-media, mainly by the leading Nazi papers.
In 1933 the Zentrumspartei was dissolved, all former members were interrogated by the Gestapo, their houses searched. Between 1933 and 1941 Lichtenberg was interrogated at least seven times by the Gestapo, but his main activities were not the political ones. Above everything else he was a Chaplain and his personal life was marked by prayer, private and communal
Lichtenberg and the Jews
There is no hint that Lichtenberg had a special relationship to the Jewish people. He saw in every human being, especially in those who were persecuted, a creation of God, for whom his help and intercession were needed. His way of responding was by the "public prayer" which made him famous throughout Berlin and which was later the basis for the main accusations against him. Every night he prayed in the church with his community and always included those who were persecuted or lived in very difficult circumstances: he prayed for the people of Russia during the Revolution, for the people of Mexico and Spain. And when the synagogues were burning, the Jewish shops plundered and the first Jews were deported, tortured and assassinated, he prayed: "And let us pray for the non-Aryan Christians and for the Jews. We know what happened yesterday, we do not know what will happen tomorrow, but what happened today we have seen with our own eyes: Outside the temple is burning; this is also a house of God". When the first soldiers were wounded and died he prayed for all soldiers "of both sides", for the victims of all bomb attacks, for the prisoners in the concentration camps. All this was the most natural thing in the world to do.
Lihtenberg prayed, but he was also a very practical person. On 31 March 1931 he sent a letter to the President of the German Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Bertran, asking him to intervene against the boycott of Jewish shops and department stores -without success. On 18 July 1936 he personally brought a letter of protest to the office of Minister President Goering, the second in command of the Reich, protesting against violations of human rights, especially in the concentration camp of Esterwegen. He spoke about the assassination of the unionist, Hiezemann, the communist, Roehr, the shooting of the Jewish artist Loewy and the treatment of the Jewish prisoners. At this time the Gestapo proposed to arrest Lichtenberg and send him to Esterwegen so that he might be convinced "of the order and cleanliness of the camp". When the discrimination and persecution of the Jews increased, organised help became necessary. Several groups were founded: Caritas Notwerk Hilfsausshuss fur katholische, Nicht Arier and finally the HiIfswerk belm Bischoeflichen Ordinariat in Berlin, which was the direct responsibility of Lichtenberg. In October 1941 an anonymous leaflet was distributed in Berlin showing the yellow star and then a description of the atrocity campaign against the Jews. Lichtenberg wanted to react and to read the following announcement during the Sunday Mass:
"An anonymous campaign leaflet against the Jews is being distributed to the houses in Berlin, in which it is said that every German who helps and supports Jews out of false sentimentality, commits treason against the German people. Do not be disturbed by this anti-Christian thinking, but act according to the commandment of Jesus "And you shall love your neighbour as yourself!"
Arrest, Imprisonment and Death
However Lichtenberg was arrested two days before this statement could be read, but it had an important significance during the trial which followed.
On 29 August two students hearing his evening prayer "for all who are persecuted and for the Jews" denounced him. It is not really clear why the Gestapo waited for almost eight weeks before his arrest. They searched his apartment and found a copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf with critical remarks in the margin and the text about the leaflet prepared for the following Sunday. Lichtenberg had no illusions about the future. He was too well known by the Gestapo from his early activities in Charlottenburg. But he had no fear of the authorities. When asked about the notes in the margin of Mein Kampf, he said "I recognise Adolf Hitler as the leader of the Reich and therefore I pray for him especially every morning. But if you say that my marginal notes reveal an open critique of his person and the situations created by him, then I have to declare the following: The actions of a person are the consequences of his ideas. If the ideas are wrong the actions cannot be right. During this interrogation I have already permitted myself to point out some of the wrong ideas of Adolf Hitler. Therefore the resulting actions cannot be right". Asked about his relation to the Fuhrer, he answered "I have only one Fuhrer (leader) Jesus Christ". So Lichtenberg was accused of "disturbance of public peace" and of treason and sentenced to two years in prison which he spent in Tegel. This was a very hard time for him. For years he had suffered kidney and heart problems which now exacerbated. Malnutrition did not help. He tried to live this time with monastic spirituality and regarded it as a noviciate, but he was not spared anguish, despair and great fear. The perspective of release after two years kept him alive. His friends and family tried to encourage him but had few possibilities to alleviate his situation. On the day he was finally released the Gestapo re-arrested him in front of the prison and brought him to the concentration camp of Dachau, because he was judged as "stubborn, unrepentant and a danger to the public". On the way to Dachau he died at Hof, 68 years old. His funeral in Berlin became one of the last great Catholic demonstrations against Nazism. Thousands of people came despite all the difficulties and the vigilance of the Gestapo.
Primacy of Prayer
In reflecting on this life with its political and social activities, it is easy to forget that Lichtenberg was arrested for his prayer. His activities had been known for a long time, the Gestapo watched him, all his letters were used against him, but he was denounced, arrested and finally sentenced for his public prayer in the cathedral. Prayer is a confession to God Almighty who is above dictators and tyrants. Those who pray are feared by them as a mortal danger. Like all real prayer it has nothing to do with "pious talk". Lichtenberg's prayer was a confession to God whom he knew as present and as the essence of his life. It was a witness of his faith but also a promise to all present that God was and is with those who suffer and are persecuted, regardless of their religion, race or culture.
H.G. Mann: Prozess Bernard Lichtenberg, Ein Leben in Dokumenten, Berlin 1977.
Alfons Erb: Bernhard Lichtenberg, Dompropst von St. Hedwig zu Berlin, Berlin 1946.
Otto Oglermann: Bis zum letzten Atemzug, Das Leben and Aufbegehren des Priesters Bernhard Lichtenberg, Leipzig 1983.
Christian Feldmann: Wer glaubt, muss widerstehen, Bernhard Lichtenberg, Karl Leisner, Herder Verlag 1996.
Dr. Rosemarie Wesolowski
is a Sister of Our Lady of Sion.