A school teacher speaks words of faith just days before his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis.
– By Jeanne Kun
“Don’t be sad,” Father Alfred Delp wrote to a friend from a Nazi prison as he waited for his death sentence to be carried out. “God has helped me so wondrously and so perceptibly up to now. I still am not at all frightened. That is probably yet to come. Perhaps God has willed this waiting state as the extreme test of my reliance. I assent. I shall endeavor to fall into the furrow as fruitful seed for all of you and for this land and nation that I wanted to serve and help.”
Alfred Delp was born on September 15, 1907, in Mannheim, Germany, the son of a Lutheran businessman, Friedrich Delp, and his Catholic wife, Maria. He was baptized in the Lutheran Church at the wish of his father, and converted to Catholicism when he was seventeen. Two years later, in 1926, Alfred entered the Society of Jesus. He studied theology in Holland and, from 1931 to 1934, taught at a Jesuit school in Feldkirch, Germany.
As Alfred matured, he was concerned with what he came to understand as modern man’s estrangement from God. This concern, apparent in his theological writings and meditations, opened his eyes to the political depravity of National Socialist (Nazi) Germany. Later he was to write of this estrangement and moral sickness; “Our lives today have become godless to the point of complete vacuity.” The solution, he knew, was for man to find his fulfillment and happiness in God, not in himself.
Delp was ordained in 1937, and around this time he also began writing for a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit (The Voice of the Time), in Munich. In 1939, he became the magazine’s editor and openly wrote of his views on the evils of Nazism. After the publication was banned and the editorial buildings taken over by the Nazis in 1941, Delp became pastor of a parish in Munich-Bogenhausen. Because he continued to voice his dissenting views, the Gestapo kept him under surveillance. At the same time, he began to assist Jews fleeing from Germany.
In 1943, at the request of Count Helmuth von Moltke and with the permission of his religious superiors, Delp joined the Kreisau Circle. The “circle” was an anti-Nazi group of Germans of all denominations that had formed around the country. Foreseeing the demise of the Nazi government, the group secretly began to draw up plans for a new social order to be built along Christian lines after the war. Delp was actively involved in developing the basis of Catholic social teaching for the new order. Even to discuss the postwar period, however, was considered an act of treason by the Nazi government.
On July 20, 1944, an assassination attempt against Hitler failed. Shortly afterwards, on July 28, Delp was arrested, although neither he nor Moltke, unlike some members of the Kreisau Circle, had been involved in the plan. He was repeatedly beaten and interrogated by the Nazi secret police. During seven months in solitary confinement, he wrote letters to friends, composed a series of meditations, and kept a diary.
Delp’s trial was handled with ruthless expertise and arrogance, with no serious defense allowed for the prisoner. It was held in front of Gestapo agents and an obedient jury. They could not incriminate Delp as a conspirator in the assassination plot, so they dropped those charges. Nonetheless, on January 11,1945, Father Delp was sentenced to death for high treason because of his repudiation of Nazism and his hopes of building a new Germany on Christian principles. On February 2, 1945, he died by hanging at the Plotzensee prison in Berlin.
“The words of one who has been obedient unto death cannot be dismissed or gainsaid,” wrote the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in the introduction to Alfred Delp’s prison writings, which were published in English translation in 1963. “These meditations ‘in the face of death’ have a sustained, formidable seriousness unequalled in any spiritual book of our time. This imposes on us the duty to listen to what he has said with something of the same seriousness, the same humility, and the same courage.”
The article is excerpted from the book, Even Unto Death: Wisdom from Modern Martyrs, edited by Jeanne Kun, The Word Among Us Press, © 2002. All rights reserved. Used with permission. The book can be ordered from WAU Press. Jeanne Kun is a senior woman leader in Word of Life Community in Ann Arbor MI, USA.
See a selection of prison meditations written by Alfred Delp