Stephen Redmond SJ recalls the life of Alfred Delp, a member of the 'Kreisau Circle', (so-called by the Gestapo), a group opposed to the Nazi regime and all it stood for.
Mannheim is in West Germany in the Rhine country, south of Frankfurt. There, on 15 September 1907, a son was born to a Catholic domestic servant and a Lutheran clerk, both unmarried until a month after the birth. The baby was named Alfred. Some years later, the Delp family moved to nearby Lampersheim. Though baptised a Catholic, Alfred attended a Lutheran school where he was taught Lutheran doctrine and received Lutheran confirmation. He was bright, mischievous and addicted to books.
He became friendly with the local parish priest who instructed him in the Catholic faith and saw to his first Holy Communion and Catholic Confirmation. He entered a minor seminary and seemed to be a promising candidate for the diocesan clergy. But he was beginning to think of the Jesuits. Perhaps their adventuresome history (including their expulsion from parts of Germany in the anti-Catholic Kultur-Kampf/Culture Struggle led by the imperial chancellor von Bismarck and only recently totally repealed) had influenced him. He entered their novitiate in Feldkirch in Austria in 1926.
Alfred Delp took his first vows in 1928 and moved to Pullach near Munich for his philosophy as the rumblings of National Socialism were beginning to infringe on German society. He studied hard and wrote a book on Martin Heidegger whose philosophy of ‘Being’ and ‘Human Being’ had an undertone of extreme nationalism that appealed to the up-and-coming Nazis.
After Pullach, he was sent back to Feldkirch to join the staff of the Jesuit school there, with its student body of various nationalities. In 1934, because of a Nazi demand for a thousand reichmarks for every German citizen living outside of Germany, the Jesuits transferred the German pupils to Saint Blasien in southern Germany, establishing a school there where Delp experienced Nazi propaganda directed at young people in the shape of the Hitler Youth, externally like the Christian scout-hood he himself had practised and directed but imbued with a very different creed.
His next destination was the theologate established in the Netherlands by Bismarck-expelled Jesuits. After his two-years there during which he got his book on Heidegger published, he was back in Germany in Frankfurt to complete his theology and prepare for ordination.
In June 1937, he was ordained priest in Munich in St Michael’s church – the church made famous by the anti-Nazi sermons of the Iron Cross hero-chaplain of World War I and frequently arrested (now Blessed) Rupert Mayer. After his theology and tertianship, (the final phase of Jesuit formation) Delp was on the staff of the intelligentsia-focused Stimmen Der Zeit/Tune the Time until it was banned by the Nazis in 1941.
The German background to those twenty-five years of Jesuit life was fast-moving and ominous: the middle-of-the-road Weimar Republic threatened by Communist and Nazi extremists; the triumph of the latter with Hitler’s accession to power in 1933; military re-armament; annexation of Austria and other territories; anti-Jewish terrorism; anti-Christian action; Nazism declared the only political creed; Nazification of the young; papal condemnation of racism; the first year of war with German victories through much of Europe ...
While rector of a suburban parish in Munich he cautioned young people against Hitler Youthism, sheltered Jews on their way to Switzerland, coped with bombing raids, supported bomb-victim and (in response to his provincial superior) became a member of the ‘Kreisau Circle’, as the Gestapo called it.
It was an unusual anti-Nazi resistance movement - neither violent nor military, that hoped to present post-Nazi Germany with a constitution and social outlook that respected human rights and religious freedom and abhorred tyrannical nationalism. Its main founder was Count Helmuth James von Moltke, a great-grandson of the legendary von Moltke who had defeated Napoleon III at Sedan, thus with Bismarck paving the way to the Second German Reich.
Members were of various backgrounds. Discussions were held here and there, the main venue being von Moltke’s estate of Kreisau in Silesia. Members were valued not only for discretion but for insight into social issues. Delp was regarded as an expert on the social teaching of the Catholic Church. According to von Moltke’s wife, he contributed not only knowledge but a certain serenity and joy.
On 20 July 1944, Hitler narrowly escaped death when a bomb exploded beside him in his headquarters on the eastern front. The would-be assassin was Count Claus von Stauffenburg, whom Delp, uninvited, had visited six weeks before. He and other officers were promptly arrested and shot. Some members of the Kreisau Circle were rounded up; Delp being arrested on 28 July just after Mass.
Nearly all of his ‘way of the cross’ was in three Berlin prisons: the Gestapo Moabite, where he was brutally treated and urged to leave the Jesuits and join the Nazis; the more ‘ordinary’ and more humane Tegel and the Plotzensee where he was executed. It was the Tegel custom for relatives and friends of the prisoners to help them with laundry and other needs. The chaplains, both Catholic and Protestant, helped Delp for some time but his foremost ‘servicers’ were two remarkable Resistance young women both named ‘Marie-Anne’. Writings to and from him were concealed in ‘Mariannes’ laundry.
A special item that he received was altar bread and wine. Before beginning Mass at night he would quietly knock the walls of his cell and knocking would continue from cell to cell so that he had a unique congregation (not all of it Catholic) in prayer and engracement. In an inner pocket, he had what he called his Sanctissimum – a consecrated Host doubly protected by linen. All prisoners were handcuffed but sometimes guards, deliberately or carelessly, would leave the cuffing loose so that one hand could be freed - a boon for Delp in saying Mass or writing.
He took his final vows in the Society of Jesus on the feast-day of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady before a Jesuit friend authorised to receive them. A prison guard was present as also, surely, the Sanctissimum . He must have been very conscious of this Presence when he was praying and writing. His religious pieces, including one on the Sacred Heart, are profound and challenging, as relevant to our time as they were to his. Several letters express his concern about his coming trial. Would he be accused of learning of the Hitler assassination plot from Stauffenburg? He had already denied this while admitting his visit to him.
His trial judge on 9 January 1945 was the notoriously anti-Catholic, anti-Jesuit Roland Friesler. He inveighed against Delp as a Jesuit and colleague of Moltke. The Stauffenburg issue was mentioned but not pursued. (Moltke was tried the next day and got similar treatment). They were both sentenced to death by hanging. Moltke was executed on 23 January. His farewell letter to his wife is perhaps the most beautiful Christian love-letter ever written: ‘You are my thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians.’
Alfred Delp of the Society of Jesus died on 2 February 1945. So far, as we know, his last letter was to the ‘Mariannes’ – ‘ Pray and have faith. Thank you. Dp.’ Where he and Moltke and other freedom-lovers died is now a place of pilgrimage. Visit it next time you are in Berlin.
(Main source: With Bound Hands by Mary Frances Coady)
Advent of the Heart by Alfred Delp is available from Ignatius Press: www.ignatius.com