Jesuit vs. the Nazis: The Remarkable Witness and Martyrdom of Father Alfred Delp

In the midst of the Nazi nightmare, a German Jesuit priest spoke out in defense of life, while also saving lives.

Father Alfred Delp found Nazism repellent and worked behind the scenes during World War II to save lives.
Father Alfred Delp found Nazism repellent and worked behind the scenes during World War II to save lives. (photo: Public Domain)

Underneath the horrors brought in the 20th century from all manner of totalitarian regimes was the cheapening of life.

Individuals were worth nothing on their own except for what they could contribute to the state, this ideology purported. Human beings were simply part of a mass. The state was everything, taking the place of God.

In Germany under the Nazis one way this played out was in its euthanasia program. First, children who had mental and physical handicaps were targeted. Later, it destroyed adults who were considered unfit for life.

The Nazi logic was threefold: It ended the imagined suffering of the person; hence, the term “mercy killing”; it took away the care of such people from “burdened” families and allowed more resources, such as food, to those who could benefit the state. There was a reason the Nazis called these poor souls “useless eaters.”

In the midst of this nightmare, Alfred Delp, a German Jesuit priest, summed up what it meant to destroy those who are in need of our love and care.

“A community that gets rid of someone — a community that is allowed to, and can, and wants to get rid of someone when he no longer is able to run around as the same attractive or useful member — has thoroughly misunderstood itself,” he is quoted as saying in With Bound Hands, an early biography of Father Delp by Mary Frances Coady. “Even if all of a person’s organs have given out, and he no longer can speak for himself, he nevertheless remains a human being. Moreover, to those who live around him, he remains an ongoing appeal to their inner nobility, to their inner capacity to love, and to their sacrificial strength. Take away people’s capacity to care for their sick and to heal them, and you make the human being into a predator, an egotistical predator that really only thinks of his own nice existence.” 


A Life During Wartime

Father Peter Nguyen, a Jesuit priest and assistant professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, has just published a monumental biography of Father Delp’s life called Against the Titans: Theology and the Martyrdom of Alfred Delp (Lexington Books/Fortress Academic). 

This 300-page book is a deeply philosophical biography. Father Nguyen looks at Father Delp’s argument against unrestrained militarism and war for war’s sake, something that was part of the air he breathed in Nazi Germany.

The title is a reference to that theme: The mythical Titan who is obsessed with power regardless of the means, like all totalitarians, is what Father Delp found so repellent about Nazism. Such a philosophy was the antithesis of the Sermon on the Mount.

To Father Delp, Christians were called to empty themselves of ego and lust for power and put all in the hands of God. It meant being a child of God and not a spawn of a deadly beast. Life, all life, had value, no matter superficial flaws.

“The Christian is committed to a task that is to be accomplished in the world and yet extends beyond the world because it is not enough for life to be built on one’s pride and the pursuit of worldly glory and honor,” Father Delp is quoted as saying in Father Nguyen’s biography. “The heroic attitude does not carry ultimate value in itself. It receives value and dignity from the gravity behind it, but even more so from the values that it is used to achieve.”

Father Nguyen explained in an email how he came to cover Father Delp’s story and, in turn, his own entry into the Jesuits.

“I undertook this book because I have a strong devotion to the martyrs. In a sense, being born in a country (Vietnam) that has produced 150,000 martyrs, the spirituality of martyrdom is in the blood,” he wrote. “Also, when I made a retreat in 1997 to discern a vocation to the Society of Jesus, my retreat director gave me a copy of Delp’s prison writings. Moved by Delp’s writings and witness, I entered the Society [of Jesus] in 1997.”


Witness to the Martyrs

Indeed, Father Nguyen writes that Father Delp fully understood the meaning of Christian martyrdom and its beneficial effects on those he would leave behind.

“I must relinquish and empty myself. It is time for the sowing, not the harvest,” he is quoted in Against the Titans. “God sows and he will reap. I want, at least, to fall into the earth and the hands of God as a fruitful and healthy seed. I need to arm myself against the pain and melancholy that sometimes strikes me. If the Lord God desires this path — and everything points to it — then I must walk it freely and without bitterness. May others live better and happier because we died.” 

Father Delp almost missed his calling. He was born in 1907 in Mannheim, Germany, to a Catholic mother and Lutheran father. He was confirmed at a Lutheran parish but a later argument with the pastor sent young Delp down the road to a Catholic church, where he eventually received first Communion and confirmation.

Delp was moved by his conscience at a time when many, even devout Christians, found it easier to stay quiet and keep their heads down. 

For, when the Nazis, like all totalitarians, counted on fear to keep those who went against the grain from speaking out, Father Delp became a lone voice amidst mass hysteria. 

Father Delp understood this completely. He could see the terrible isolation he would face by daring to question the obscenity of state-killing programs.

As included in Alfred Delp: Prison Writings, he wrote on Dec. 29, 1944, just three months before his execution, how he saw himself in his homeland:

“Western humanity today is spiritually homeless, naked and exposed. The moment we start to be anything beyond one of the masses we become terribly aware of that isolation which has always encompassed the great.”


Conscientious Faith

Father Delp’s crime, aside from having a conscience he could not suppress, was being a member of the clandestine Kreisau Circle, which he joined 1942. It was so named for the estate at which the group met, owned by Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, who was executed a month before Father Delp. The group contained 25 prominent German citizens who were planning for a Germany after Hitler and the Nazis. The group wanted a country based on Christian principles that included Catholic social teaching.

In a lecture at Regis College in Toronto in 2017, Father Nguyen noted that while Father Delp was a vocal critic of euthanasia, he seemed to be quiet on the fate of the Jews. That, said Father Nguyen, was strategic.

“He was engaged in helping Jews escape the Nazis and did not want to draw attention to his covert activities,” Father Nguyen said. “Delp was part of a wider underground network of concerned German citizens who helped Jewish people to escape Nazi Germany. He obtained food rations and money for Jews who were fleeing Germany through Munich. During their flight from Germany, he accommodated them in his rectory and the homes of some parishioners.”

When the July 1944 attempt to kill Hitler by some of his high command failed, the authorities rounded up not just those who were directly involved in the assassination attempt but anyone who was on the radar as against the regime.

Trials in Nazi Germany were nothing more than propaganda devices to suppress all thoughts of rebellion. Father Delp and others had the additional misfortune of being tried by Roland Freisler, a “fanatical priest hater.” 


Presented to Christ

The Jesuit magazine America described Father Delp’s last moments on earth

“The execution took place just after three o’clock in the afternoon of Feb. 2, 1945. It was the feast of the Presentation, one of the days when Jesuits have traditionally professed their final vows. At Hitler’s command, Delp’s ashes were scattered to the winds. There was to be nothing by which to remember him.”

His final words to the chaplain presiding at his execution revealed so much about Father Delp’s certainty that there was something beautiful on the other side.

“In half and hour I’ll know more than you do.”

Charles Lewis writes from Toronto.