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Lichtenberg, Bernhard°


LICHTENBERG, BERNHARD ° (1875–1943), German anti-Nazi priest. Lichtenberg, a devout Catholic, was born in Ohlau, southeast of Breslau. He grew up in a Protestant-dominated area with a Catholic minority suffering under Otto von Bismarck's anti-Catholic Kulturkampf persecution. As Lichtenberg matured he combined Catholic piety with political Catholicism, ultimately serving in the Catholic Center Party of Germany. After graduating high school, the young man went to seminary and was ordained a priest at the age of 24. Assigned to various parishes around Berlin, he revealed great dedication to the Catholic faith and boundless energy to his parishioners. At the core of his message, taken directly from the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, was to love one's neighbor in everyday life situations. This would become more difficult with the rise of the National Socialists to power.

As Hitler led the Nazi Party to political success, Father Lichtenberg, now monsignor, was assigned to St. Hedwig's Cathedral in Berlin. He regarded the Nazi movement as immoral, unchristian, and totally incompatible with Catholic teachings. This revealed itself with Lichtenberg's opposition to the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring and to the Nazi "euthanasia" campaign. It came again in 1935 when Lichtenberg received a report on conditions at the Esterwegen concentration camp and sent it on to the Prussian Ministry of the Interior. This would not be the last time that Lichtenberg refused to violate his conscience in order to appease the Nazi state. It would also be the beginning of the Nazi call for the arrest and imprisonment of this "nuisance."

Following the events of *Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938, Lichtenberg took a step which would single him out from all other Catholic Church leaders. Immediately following the events of the Nazi pogrom, Lichtenberg went to the pulpit of St. Hedwig's and publicly proclaimed: "We know what happened yesterday. We do not know what tomorrow holds. However, we have experienced what happened today. Outside, the synagogue burns. That is also a house of God" (quoted in K. Spicer, p. 171). From that day forward, Lichtenberg publicly prayed for both Jews and converted Jews until his arrest in 1941.

On August 29, 1941, two young Protestant women went inside St. Hedwig's Cathedral to study its architecture. While inside, they overheard Lichtenberg saying his daily prayer for the Jews. This encounter led to Lichtenberg's denunciation. Following the denunciation, the Gestapo charged that they had found material in the priest's home that suggested "hostile activity to the state." Among the found items was a statement by Lichtenberg, which defended the Jews and urged his listeners to follow the dictum of Jesus, "You shall love thy neighbor as thyself." Repeating this core belief in the course of his lengthy interrogation, Lichtenberg also stated that he considered Jews as his neighbors "who have immortally created souls after the image and likeness of God" (Spicer, 179).

Lichtenberg was found guilty of treacherous acts against the state and for violating the pulpit law. For his crimes, Lichtenberg was sentenced to two years in prison. Undaunted, Lichtenberg repeatedly requested that he be allowed to go on a transport with deported Jews to the Lodz ghetto. Throughout his imprisonment Lichtenberg's health deteriorated. Upon his release from Tegel prison on October 22, 1943, the Gestapo apprehended the worn-out man and sent him to a work camp. On October 28, 1943, the Reich Security Main Office decided that Lichtenberg needed to be removed from the work camp on the grounds of maintaining public safety. Following this order, the now 68-year-old priest, in failing health, was moved from a holding location to be put on a train destined for Dachau concentration camp. In transit, Lichtenberg died.

Lichtenberg can perhaps best be remembered as an exceptional man who steadfastly defended both the rights of the Catholic Church and the rights of all human beings suffering persecution at the hands of a regime he regarded as despicable. On June 23, 1996, Pope John Paul ii beatified Lichtenberg as a martyr to the faith.


K.P. Spicer, Resisting the Third Reich: The Catholic Clergy in Hitler's Berlin (2004).

[Beth Griech-Polelle (2nd ed.)]

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