Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Miner, Journalist, Martyr: Blessed Nikolaus Gross

MINER, JOURNALIST, MARTYR: BLESSED NIKOLAUS GROSS By PEADAR LAIGHLÉIS Oboedire oportet Deo magis quam hominibus. (Acts V, 29) I WAS RECENTLY in Frankfurt Airport and called into Terminal 1’s Orthodox Chapel. I saw one icon of a young man wearing a white medical coat over a grey Wehrmacht uniform, holding a white rose in his hand. This is St Alexander Schmorell, the German Russian Orthodox member of the White Rose resistance group who was canonised as a martyr by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad on February 5, 2012. I asked myself how likely was it for the Catholic White Rose members, Willi Graf, Christoph Probst and Dr Kurt Huber, to find their causes advanced for sainthood. For the same reason, one might ask the same of the Catholics involved in the July 20 conspiracy, such as Colonel Claus Schenk Count von Stauffenberg. However, the Church is extremely prudent about whom she venerates as martyrs among political activists and conspirators, even among those who oppose a regime as evil as the Third Reich. For all that, many Germans and other Europeans have been beatified and even canonised for their stand against National Socialism. Most are familiar with Ss Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein. Our last issue had my predecessor outline the martyrdom of Blessed Titus Brandsma, the Dutch Carmelite academic and journalist for whom this Review is named. In early issues, Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian conscientious objector was described in these pages. Blessed Titus and Blessed Franz present contrasts among the vast gallery of ordinary Catholics—clergy, religious and laity—who opposed Hitler. One was a university rector who was close enough to the Dutch Bishops to have an input into the drafting of the Bishops’ pastoral letter on Nazi racial policies. The other was a married Franciscan tertiary, a peasant with little education and a wild background who served as a church sacristan. Blessed Franz opposed the Anschluss in 1938 and was guillotined for refusing to serve in the Wehrmacht as a combatant. Blessed Franz was born in Sankt Radegund, close to Hitler’s birthplace in Braunau am Inn and not distant from Pope Benedict XVI’s birthplace in Marktl on the other side of the border. Nikolaus Groß (given in English as Gross) is less well known. Nikolaus was born in Niederwenigen (now Hattigen) near Essen (Diocese of Essen) in the Ruhr District on September 30, 1898. His father was a miner. Nikolaus attended the local Catholic primary school between 1905 and 1912 and then went to work in the mines himself, spending five years underground. He used his limited spare time to study and in 1917, he joined the Gewerkverein Christlicher Bergarbeiter (Christian Miners’ Union). In 1918, he became a member of the Centre Party. The following year, he entered the Antonius Knappenverein (St Anthony Miners’ Association). At the age of 22, he was youth secretary for the Christian Miners’ Union, soon after he was assistant editor of Bergknappe (“The Miner”). His organisation work as a trade unionist brought him as far as Silesia. He married Elisabeth Koch, who was also a native of Niederwenigen and together, they had seven children. One of his greatest concerns was the education and religious formation of his family, something he described in a pamphlet Sieben um einen Tisch (“Seven around one Table”). Moral dimension At the beginning of 1927, he became assistant editor of the Westdeutschen Arbeiterzeitung (“Western German Workers’ Paper”), the publication of the Katholishen Arbeiter-Bewegung (KAB or Catholic Workers’ Movement). Soon afterward, he became editor-in-chief. He saw his duty to give Catholic workers guidance regarding society and the world of work, but it became clearer to him that political and social questions involved a moral dimension and demanded a spiritual contribution. In this, he followed the ideas of the 19th Century Bishop of Mainz, Wilhelm Emmanuel Baron von Ketteler (1811-77). Ketteler, known as the “Workers’ Bishop”, believed that reform of society must be preceded by reform of attitude. In Nikolaus Groß’ own day, Ketteler’s grand nephew was Blessed Clemens August Cardinal Count von Galen, Bishop of Münster. From 1929, Nikolaus Groß was based in Ketteler House in Cologne and he already formed a clear opinion of the rising National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Since 1927, he had co-operated closely with figures such as Mgr Otto Müller, Bernhard Letterhaus and Jakob Kaiser, who would become leading figures in the resistance movement many years later. Groß saw Nazism as political immaturity and absence of discernment. He believed the success of the Nazis to be a temporary glitch that would fail as soon as Germany returned to normal politics. He showed this by pointing to the lack of ideas emanating from the National Socialists and the refusal of Hitler to answer questions of policy while pursuing unlimited power. Groß supported Heinrich Brünning’s (Chancellor 1930-32; Centre Party) policy of attempting to integrate the Nazis into political and constitutional office in the hope of diluting their ideological edge. It is only in retrospect, we see this to have been illusory. For all that, Groß opposed Nazism. He identified with the left of the Centre Party (still present in the post-war CDU/CSU). Pointing out the developing relationship between Hitler and the industrialists while the former was appealing to the working class, he said: “This is a pretty division of power: the National Socialists dominate politics, the entrepreneurs the economy. The worker is a carrier donkey for both.” On the incompatibility of Nazism and Catholicism, he wrote: “We reject National Socialism as Catholic workers, not only on political and economic grounds, but decisively and resolutely on our religious and cultural position.” He had already described the Nazi Party as the “Mortal enemy of the present State”, so it is not very surprising that Robert Ley, leader of the Deutschen Arbeiterfront (German Workers’ Front) described the Westdeutsche Arbeiterzeitung as hostile to the state after 1933. Obey God more than men After the Concordat between the Reich and the Catholic Church in 1933, the Westdeutsche Arbeiterzeitung was renamed Kettelerwacht at the urging of Bishop Berning of Osnabrück. Nikolaus Groß had to adapt to the new regime and attempt to write between the lines following a three-week ban on the newspaper. His first priority as a trade unionist and journalist was to maintain the Church’s autonomy. The newspaper was permanently banned in November 1938. The reason seems to have been an understated comparison between National Socialism and Bolshevism: It cannot be said of either world view with the same right that the life of mankind was worthy to be lived and meaningful to the end if everyone would follow it. From then on, Groß had to work through producing pamphlets and speaking personally in attempt to immunise his readers against Nazism. Nikolaus Groß was no orator; he had had to work very hard to obtain the learning he had. However, circumstances transformed him into a persuasive speaker. Henceforth, he was part of the growing resistance to Hitler within Germany, on the simple conviction that one must obey God more than men. Active resistance Mgr Otto Müller, Bernhard Letterhaus and Nikolaus Groß formed the leadership of the Cologne Circle, a network of Catholic opponents of Nazism in the Rhineland and Westphalia. The group had been evolving towards active resistance for some time. Groß established contact with the more extensive Kreisau Circle through the academic Father Alfred Delp SJ. More importantly, links were forged with the Berlin resistance group around Carl Goerdeler. Though there were differences between the Kreisau and Berlin circles, at this point the Cologne Circle were integrated into a comprehensive web of German opposition that ran from Protestant and Catholic conservatives, aristocrats, the military, liberals, trade unionists, social democrats and communists. Members of the various groups took risks to perform dozens of functions to enable to the network to continue to exist. From 1940, Nikolaus Groß experienced arrests, interrogations and house searches. He made every effort to continue his work. He wrote two pamphlets, “Is Germany Lost?” and “The Great Tasks”, which ultimately fell into the hands of the Gestapo. The conscription of Letterhaus increased Groß’ work in Düssseldorf but also meant that the Cologne Circle had regular contact with Goerdeler. Groß spent this time considering his position and the relationship between his faith and the political milieu. In 1943 he put together his personal Profession of Faith. To select a quote: “If it is demanded of us to do something which goes against God or the Faith, not only may we, but we must refuse this obedience. For God’s Law always stands higher than man’s law.” The next question was whether it could at times permissible to take active steps to subvert the authority of the regime. Church on trial for treason The day before the assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20, 1944, Mgr Caspar Schulte of the Paderborn Diocese spoke with Groß, saying “Herr Groß, remember that you have seven children. I have no family for which I am responsible. It’s a matter of your life.” Groß answered: “If we do not risk our lives today, how then do we want one day to justify ourselves before God and our people?” Nikolaus Groß was arrested on August 12, 1944, and imprisoned in Berlin. His wife visited him twice and saw signs of torture on his hands and arms. His letters from prison to his wife and children request their prayers but also show one who was himself in constant prayer. On January 15, 1945, he was sentenced to death by Roland Freisler, President of the People’s Court, with the words: “He swam in treason and now he must drown”. Freisler’s trials of Groß, Mgr Müller, Father Delp and other representatives of the Kreisau Circle was an attempt to convict the Church herself of treason. He was executed on 23 January 1945, following which he was cremated and his ashes were scattered over a sewage farm. One may reject the notion of tyrannocide if one imagines John Wilkes Booth hovering over Abraham Lincoln in Ford Theatre in Washington in 1865 and crying “Sic semper tyrannis”. The July 20 plot was altogether different. It was a conspiracy to displace one of the most evil tyrants ever to take power in world history. Many hundreds of considerate and thoughtful people came to this conclusion and prepared for a coup d’état to replace the entire government of the Third Reich. When Count von Stauffenberg placed the brief case under the table in the Wolf’s Lair, it was to signal a provisional government led by Carl Goerdeler as acting Chancellor which would seek to end the war. Perhaps the traditional criteria of the just war might apply: Were all other options exhausted? Certainly. Was there reasonable chance of success? Yes. Would bloodshed be at a minimum? Had the conspirators succeeded, this would have been the case. The question remains how the Church will evaluate this type of reasoning, however complex it may have been. Nikolaus Groß had no part in the planning or the execution of the assassination attempt, but played a role creating the network that was to enable a new civil and military administration to come to power in Germany following an assassination. As to whether he was right or wrong in the circumstances, the Church herself passed judgement on October 7, 2001 when Pope John Paul II beatified Nikolaus Groß. His feast is kept on January 23. Ora pro nobis.

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