My Father, the Mensch

Holocaust memorial, Berlin

Postwar Germany, according to the writer Manfred Jurgensen, who grew up there, was “a period which often posed much more danger than the war itself. Severe deprivation, starvation and death were everywhere. This generation grew up without any real parental guidance and direction, and living through the years where all norms of society were virtually absent, it’s amazing so many young Germans grew up to be decent members of society.”  [Link].

This is true, but  I could safely travel alone as a six-year old boy by train from Frankfurt to Berne.  And I wasn’t the only one.  Although postwar Germany was in many ways a profoundly, unimaginably terrible place — William Manchester calls it “one vast Bedlam” — there was also much spontaneous kindness, compassion, and heroism.[1]

Without belittling Jurgensen’s amazement at the decency of so many young Germans who grew up in this Bedlam, it’s useful to recognize that moral values don’t come only from imitating positive models, like saints.  Decency can arise just as well, and perhaps more compellingly so, as a reaction to the absence of moral values.  There is a French proverb,  “L’adversité fait l’homme, et le bonheur des monstres” —  hardship makes men, prosperity makes monsters.

The generation that built German fascism had childhoods in the relatively structured and normal years prior to World War I, yet birthed monstrosities whose enormity and atrocity boggle the comprehension.  The postwar generation of Germans, growing up amidst the terrible consequences of that monstrosity, has worked hard to achieve normalcy, decency, and a sense of self-respect.   The postwar generation’s project of truth telling and moral reconstruction, like the physical rebuilding of the country, involved millions of individuals, and sometimes required explosive demolition of the old facades.  You see the results now in many places: memorials to the Holocaust, exhibitions of Gestapo atrocities, museums of former prisons, wall plaques honoring victims and resistance heroes, films, dramas, books — a whole culture of truth telling, a labor of taking responsibility and recapturing empathy.  To be sure, there is also a fatigue with this stirring up of the past, even though there is much that remains to be stirred up, and there are disturbing fringe elements who deny or ennoble the atrocities, and there are depressing layers of complacency and willful stupidity.  But we Americans can’t climb on too high a horse about problems like those.

One of the things I missed by emigrating from Germany as a boy of eleven was participation in my generation’s coming to grips with the legacy of its parents and struggling to find a new foundation for feelings of self-worth.  In writing this blog, perhaps I may catch up with some of my German peers in their truth-telling project.  Better late than never!

The psychological climate of postwar Germany was heavy with fatigue and grief.  Large numbers of people were shellshocked, numb, fatigued, dazed, lost, at their wits’ end.  Even when the situation gradually improved and the survivors picked themselves up and started anew, there remained a more lasting burden of repression and denial that became visible to me only years after I had left.

I got a small, almost comical glimpse of this blanket of denial in the early years in Frankfurt, when my mother hung some of our pillowcases out to dry.  Featherbeds were standard in those days, and were commonly covered in red cotton.  The red pillowcases looked so pretty hanging out on the railing in the sun that I picked one up, held it over my head, and started down the stairs waving it in the breeze.  My mother quickly stopped me, giving anxious looks around to see if neighbors had spotted me.  It meant nothing to me at the time, but much later I understood.  Waving the red flag had cost many Germans their lives.

Everything that brought to the surface the events of those days had to be suppressed.  Sigmund Freud saw the psychological mechanism of repression as characteristic of civilization in general.  He could not have imagined the mountainous weight of repression that burdened the psyche of adult Germans in the Allied zones after the war.  Everybody knew something about somebody, everybody had something to hide, and living together in peace meant pretending ignorance about all of it.  Just about every face was a facade, every life story probably a lie, every intimacy an invitation to treachery.  People buried their truths behind multiple walls of lies and silences, until they forgot themselves.

A German filmmaker whom I met and loved some years ago, Claudia von Aleman, made a documentary about her mother, in which she asks her mother what she did during the Nazi time.  As the camera is running, there is a long, painful silence.  I have never seen a commercial film with such a prolonged and intensely discomforting scene.  Finally the camera cuts away, its point made.

Tearing the Silence is the apt title of a book of interviews with postwar Germans who emigrated to America.  The author is the German-American writer Ursula Hegi, author of the best-selling novel, Stones from the River, and other works of fiction.  Her contributors reveal how they have tried to come to grips in the American context with the atrocities committed before their birth in Germany.   They all had, as I do, the “grace of late birth.”  Yet the monstrosities committed in the name of Germany cast their shadow over the innocent offspring.  Some felt a guilt and shame similar to the anguish of survivors.  Some felt resentment at being blamed for the crimes of their parents.  All had to struggle with a national identity, a defining label, that was synonymous with genocide and barbarity.

How did that go with me?  As a small child in Fürstenhagen (“the Village” here) I could not fathom any of it.  A farm boy pushed me into the stinging nettles and a neighbor girl hit me pointblank in the face with a rock, but I did not understand the political motivation of these acts, or our household’s chronic shortage of food in a village of prosperous farmsteads, until many years later.  My political identity as an opponent of the regime was already cast before I had any inkling of how the sides were drawn.

I owe that to my mother.  Before the war, in Berlin, my mother was active in the underground fraction of the German Protestant Church (the Bekennende Kirche or BK) and had been arrested and briefly interrogated by the Gestapo; she was the first theology student to be so honored.  She went to Basel to study theology with Karl Barth, a liberal theologian who was forced out of his professorship at Bonn, and out of Germany, because he refused to sign a loyalty oath to Hitler.  There she met my father, a kindred spirit.  Back in Germany, my father was arrested by the Gestapo and held for months.  On his release he was drafted into the German army. He was sent to the Eastern Front, a death sentence.  I was not yet four when the war ended. In Frankfurt after the war, my mother worked as secretary to Eugen Kogon, a prominent anti-Nazi writer, concentration camp survivor, and anti-Nazi political theoretician, until emigrating to the United States.

In the postwar climate in Germany, when everyone strove to prove that they had been anti-Nazi all along, these were good credentials.  My mother had put together a credible and uplifting story.  In the past year, when I gained access to the documentary record deposited in various German archives — the Germans are very good at archives! — I was able to confirm that in its main outlines, the story is true.  Yet I also became aware of some issues that made me intensely uncomfortable.  I deal with them here.

My Father’s 1934 Membership in the SA

In the Spring of 1934, shortly after the end of his compulsory year of labor service, my father joined the S.A. and remained in it for a year.  The S.A. were the notorious brownshirts, hoodlums and thugs who made their mark by breaking up peaceful demonstrations by Social Democrats and Communists in the pivotal election campaigns of 1932 and earlier.  What was my father doing joining this fascist organization just at the beginning of his theology studies at the university in Marburg?  We’ll never know; he never mentions it in any of the correspondence that has survived.  People who have studied this period tell me that in 1934 pretty much all the students belonged to the SA — its ranks in 1934 had swelled to four million members —  and that for some students it was a way of avoiding the pressure to join the Nazi party.

1934 was, in any event, a pivotal year for the SA.  At the beginning of the year, the SA chief Ernst Röhm was making headlines with the declaration that the National Socialist revolution was not over, and that a second phase was underway aimed at implementing the “socialist” planks of the Nazi platform, including the nationalization of big industry and confiscation of  large landed estates.  The SA’s core membership was drawn heavily from working class and unemployed elements who took the “socialist” rhetoric of the Nazi party at face value.  Röhm’s declarations, together with his ambition to have the SA replace the regular army, brought Röhm into sharp collision with Hitler, for whom the “socialist” planks were nothing more than windowdressing, and who relied on the support of the biggest industrialists (such as Krupp) and bankers, as well as the regular army (the Wehrmacht).  After weeks of intrigue and infighting, on June 29, 1934, Hitler, supported by the SS, the Gestapo, and elements of the regular army, claimed that Röhm intended a putsch, and in the next few days he had Röhm and about 200 other top SA leaders and allies arrested and executed.  This blow, known variously as “the night of the long knives” or the “Röhm Putsch” (even though no putsch was actually planned), broke the back of the SA, and its influence dwindled.[2]

One has to remember that the BK clergy, like the German clergy almost as a body, were neither Communist nor Social Democrats, the two major alternative voting blocks in the late Weimar Republic.  Martin Niemöller, a founding member of the BK and its chief spokesperson until his arrest in 1937, had voted for the Nazis in the 1932 election that brought Hitler to power.[3]  In the early days of 1934, many members of the BK had illusions about the Nazi party and its program, and hoped to find a place within it.  Eberhard Bethge, a leading member of the BK and later one of its historians, wrote

One could, I think, yield to the illusion during the first three years of the Nazi period that even a pastor or a theologian could find his place in the party and, thereby, in the new German society which the party wanted.  We were proud when one of us marched in an SA uniform in 1934.  Then the difficulties of that became greater and greater. [4]

Even membership in the Nazi party was, in those early days, considered compatible with membership in the BK.  Pastor Wilhelm Niemöller, the younger brother of Martin Niemöller and an early activist  in the BK, was a Nazi party member, and when the party tried to throw him out because of his BK organizing activities, he appealed his expulsion and, after a year’s struggle, was readmitted. [5]  But by the summer of 1936, when the Nazi state began mass arrests of BK clergy, riding these two horses became next to impossible.  I’ve sketched a very short history here.

"Is fanatical follower of the BK and belongs neither to the N.S. Student Assn nor to any other NS organizations."

My father left the SA on March 1, 1935.  He never joined any other organization.  His non-membership was noted in November, 1935, in his application for financial aid at the university in Tübingen, where he transferred after the year at Marburg.[18]  It was recorded again by an official of the Gestapo in October 1939, while he was in prison: “Is fanatical follower of the BK and belongs neither to the National Socialist Student Association nor to any other National Socialist organizations.” [77]

My Father’s 1939 Release from Prison

More troublesome is the issue of how my father got out of prison.  There are two versions, my mother’s, and the Gestapo’s.  My mother writes, in her memoirs,

A cousin of Pastor Nicolaus [Heinrich Brüggensiecker], who was known in the family as not being a Nazi, was informed by Nicolaus’ parents of his cousin’s imprisonment by the GESTAPO. He was outraged. On leave at Christmas Eve he appeared in his lieutenant’s uniform at the prison in Frankfurt demanding that the GESTAPO release Pastor Nicolaus. All the GESTAPO officers were drunk to the hilt. They released the “swine.”[6]

Daring exploits such as this Christmas Eve jailhouse rescue probably did occur, and not only in the movies.  But the documents in the Gestapo archives give a different version of my father’s release.  The file shows that my father was imprisoned because and so long as he refused to answer questions about his first theological exam: where had it taken place, who had administered it, and so forth.  But on December 23, he told his jailers that he was now ready to make a statement, and the next day, Christmas Eve, he signed a two-page document that gave the date and place of the exam, named the examiners, and named his brother-in-law, Helmut Wolf, as the courier who had brought him the examination papers.  A copy of the statement with what appears to be my father’s signature is in the file.  My father was released the day he signed the statement.

He signed the statement on the advice of the BK’s emissaries.  BK lawyer Paul Schulze zur Wiesche, head of the BK’s national legal department, after conferring with the prominent BK pastor Otto Fricke in Frankfurt, and with the support of the national BK council of brethren in Berlin, wrote that in his visit to Albrecht and to his fellow prisoner Hans Schulz:

I emphasized above all that these two assistant preachers have an erroneous idea of the “directives” of the leadership of the BK in the Rhineland — namely, they assume that it is their duty to refuse absolutely to testify. But the leadership of the BK takes the position that when confronted with testimonial statements, one can calmly declare that one does not dispute the content of these statements; and one has to help the young people to abandon these false ideas.[7]

Pastor Fricke, whom my mother held in very high esteem, no doubt repeated this message in his own visit on December 20.   A vital point in dissolving my father’s resistance, very likely, was the assurance that his examiners — senior clergy in the BK — had meanwhile come forward and revealed their roles; there had been a separate proceeding in Düsseldorf where, in the words of national BK chairman Kurt Scharf, “the whole matter of exams was settled and closed with the state police.”[8].   This allowed my father to say, in his Christmas Eve statement:

Three months ago I made no statements because I was not able to take responsibility for exposing the business of the church, such as examinations, to criminal prosecution. […]  In view of the fact that the persons in questions have in the meantime identified themselves, I am no longer bound by these considerations.

But then he goes on, in the final sentence:

Our church cannot and never will bind its members to a pledge of solidarity. It must allow each individual the personal responsibility of standing up, to the extent of his personal belief, for the freedom and purity of the gospel of salvation.

That sentence sprang from a tortured conscience.  Yes, the BK leadership at the highest level had advised him that the “directive” of the Rhineland council of brethren did not mean what he thought it meant, and yes, the names of his BK examiners were already public (or at least police) knowledge, but still, naming names — and naming his brother-in-law Helmut Wolf as courier! — had to arouse powerful feelings of guilt that could hardly be quenched by a rhetorical formula like “standing up … for the freedom and purity of the gospel of salvation,” whatever that meant.  Gospel or no gospel, you didn’t rat out your comrades.  My mother, in her memoirs, had put the matter plainly in regard to her own arrest and interrogation by the Gestapo in Berlin in 1937:

The people in the (underground) church organization in which I indeed was involved helping Jews had a solemn understanding and commitment that we would divulge absolutely nothing and nobody’s name to the Gestapo. The only answer we would ever give to any question would be: “Ich verweigere die Aussage.” (I refuse to answer.) And this is what I said again and again and again.[9]

There wouldn’t be much of an underground organization (church or otherwise)  if its members named one another to the Gestapo.  And so, in signing the Christmas Eve statement that secured his release from prison, my father entered the realm of moral shadows.

What did my mother know?  It’s possible that she knew the true story of his release, but chose to join with my father and with Brüggensiecker in fabricating the more palatable tale of the drunken guards and the Christmas eve jailhouse rescue.  It’s also possible that my father and Brüggensiecker concocted the rescue story between them and kept my mother in the dark.  Germany  was full of secrets like this.  It’s too late now to ask her, and I don’t know that I would have confronted her on the issue during her lifetime, had I known.  She had enough pain and disillusionment in her life.

I have an obvious bias in this matter.  If my father had not been released from prison, but sent to a concentration camp — and the order to send him was filled out and awaiting Berlin’s signature — I would not have existed.[10]  It is difficult to see clearly where the needle of the balance scale settles when one’s life hangs on one side, and a fundamental principle on the other.  That, of course, was the same dilemma my father faced, but much more urgently.

I can say two things in his defense.

The first point is that he remained a BK member in good standing.  On my father’s return to Essen, he continued working as a vicar in the BK as an illegal, off the government payroll, unlike the official clergy, until he was drafted, sometime in the spring of 1940.  He applied for and obtained leave from the military in the fall, studied for and took the second set of clandestine exams with the BK, and was ordained in the BK, still as an illegal, until he was called back into the military in the spring of 1941.   His death was noted and mourned in the few remaining BK newsletters of the time.  He remained true to his calling.

The second point is that all of the examiners whom he identified in his Christmas Eve statement — senior BK clergy — survived the Nazi period and the war, and most of them went on to have important church careers in postwar Germany. [11]  His statement identifying them was not the cause of their mortality.   His brother-in-law Helmut Wolf, whom he identified as courier, was not arrested, but was drafted into the military along with virtually every other Protestant clergyman who was not a Nazi, and survived my father by three years.

I cannot love my father as a saint.  I have to embrace him, and I do, as a flawed, divided, internally contradicted person — a Mensch, a human being.

My Father’s Military Service in 1940

My father was released from prison in Frankfurt on December 24, 1939, and promptly went to Essen.  The military order that inducted him for the Eastern front took effect on April 1, 1941.  My mother’s memoirs give the impression that he faced the moral and political issue of military service and underwent his military training then, in 1941, for the first time:

We were married for almost six months when the dreaded postcard arrived: Draft starting April 1, 1941. We were devastated with rage and fear. My husband did not want to be a soldier in Hitler’s army and he did not want to march into other people’s land and shoot and kill. In this fascist state there was no way out as “conscientious objector” – this category was nonexistent. There was no way to escape to another country – the borders were all closed or overrun by Hitler’s armies. If a man refused to fight in the war, I he would be shot by the military. The only way out would be suicide. Suicide was no way out for him. Besides, I, his wife, was pregnant with our first baby. Turmoil in his heart and mind, he went.

On April 1, 1941, the military started to train my I husband.[12]

My mother’s memoirs have a gap in the year 1940.  In fact, my father was drafted into the Wehrmacht in the spring of 1940 — the exact date is not known, but was not later than April 1 — and served in a reserve batallion in the invasion and occupation of France.   The evidence for it is not only the records of the Wehrmacht, which give the number of his regiment and division, but also my father’s own letters to the dean of the BK’s clandestine educational service, Johannes Schlingensiepen, in which he describes his unit’s path across the Maginot Line and asks for Schlingensiepen’s (“Jensen’s”) assistance in getting a leave of absence to complete his studies.[13]   My mother also knew at the time — how could she not — that Albrecht served in France; in her letter of April 2, 1940, to Helmut Gollwitzer, who was himself then in the German military on the Western front, she writes that Nico “is now also a recruit in West Prussia”  — “West Prussia” being an ironic reference to France.[14]  Yet in her reminiscences decades after the events, this first period of military service is completely missing.

My father’s letters from 1940 give no evidence of the kind of soul-searching agony that my mother describes for 1941.  The initial military induction order arrived at my father’s home in Essen in late 1939, while my father was in the Gestapo prison, and was suspended during his incarceration.  Its revival upon his release could not have been a surprise, and service in the military at that time, when resistance to the German invasions was relatively light, must have appeared as preferable by far to rotting in a Gestapo prison.  My father’s letter of  July 16, 1940, to Schlingensiepen even looks at his military service as staking a claim for better treatment for the clergy after the war.   [15]  And in his initial letter from the Eastern front, dated April 3 1941, while all was still quiet there, his initial concern is

Now I have to suffer a lot because due to my vacation I missed out on promotions, so that my former peers are now my superiors.  It would be a great relief for me if this situation were to change.  But of course that can happen very quickly with the Prussians.  Don’t count this as a complaint, it’s only a careful staking out of a position. […]  The general mood here is that we are in the final stage of the war, and are only waiting for the finish.[111]

It was only three months later, when it became clear that this was not the end of the war, but just the beginning, that there is a profound change of tone.  Then, and only then, comes the soul-searching and the memorable passages that appear, in retrospect, like a prophecy out of the Book of Revelation:

But what kind of soldier am I?  God alone knows how torn up is the heart of a Christian in this war on this side.  But He alone also lets me know with granite certainty that I can only live now and forever by his mercy.  Because I really survive from day to day, from hour to hour, only because and insofar as I am raised out of the death pit of guilt — my guilt and the guilt of our beloved people, this people that is persecuted, betrayed, and shamed, and suffers itself to be shamed — into life under his merciful freedom.  If this certainty were not more total for me than the whole totality of our State, which will one day be shattered to pieces like a clay pot, then I would have to commit suicide today, or, if I were a lesser man, I would have to drink myself unconscious.

Instead, I praise with all brothers in spirit the lord on the cross “who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned man, purchased my freedom from all sins, from death and the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his sacred precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death, so that I may be his and that I may live under him in his kingdom and serve him.”

That is my salvation from wrongdoing, and if I have a hope for our country, then it is this:  when it is shattered to pieces — and God does not suffer contempt, he is the true LORD — that it may know that God himself has done it, by his immeasurably hard grace, in order to wake it up once again, and this time hopefully forever, from its boundless dreams — dreams that cost too much blood, innocent blood — and, if it please HIM, to give it a new beginning.

Private Albrecht Nicolaus, have you gone totally mad?  Well, where am I?  Where?  I stand at the gates of Russia and I am supposed to be fanatically enthusiastic and win, win, win at any cost.  But if the censorship reads this letter, then I will be liquidated tomorrow, a saboteur of victory, a miserable traitor.  Quo vadis, Germania!

My mother, of course, knew my father better than I did.  In her description of how he felt when he received his first induction order, she may well have been describing his inner state at that time.  But it’s more likely, given the record of his earlier correspondence, that she was projecting his final agonized concept of June 1941, at the gates of the Soviet Union, backward in time, and in the process sweeping under the carpet his military service in France in 1940, which fit ill into the picture.   Despite or perhaps because of my mother’s very rigid and upright moral idealism, she was not free of the temptation, so endemic among postwar Germans, of justifying, rationalizing, and airbrushing family history.

Why Does it Matter?

Why is truth important?  Wouldn’t it be better to gloss over the flaws in the family picture, to let skeletons stay in the closet?  Certainly, it’s more pleasant to bask in the reflection of an idealized father and mother than to come to grips with how they really were.  The trouble with two-dimensional images of ancestors is that they distort self-knowledge.  Self-knowledge is indispensable in real, three-dimensional life.  If I think that my father was invulnerable to Gestapo pressure, I will think that I, too, am above displaying weakness under duress.  This belief disarms me; it whispers to me that I am prepared to meet any challenge, when I am not. Paradoxically, the illusion of invulnerability renders me vulnerable.  The illusion of strength makes me weak.  But if I know that my father, who was a very principled, strong-willed and devout man, could be maneuvered and coerced into repudiating his bond of solidarity with his fellow believers, then I will be on guard against the same weakness in myself.  I will be alert to my own failings, my own vulnerabilities.  Forewarned is forearmed. One hopes of course that the occasion to test this knowledge in a Gestapo-type prison situation never arises again.  But self-knowledge matters in more than situations of extreme duress; it matters always, in war and peace, in hostility and in love; it matters every day.  Self-knowledge is a true mirror for the knowledge of others and of the world generally.  It is both the result of and the precondition for living in reality.

Does it diminish my love and respect for my parents to know their weaknesses?  Not at all.  They both took enormous risks under overwhelmingly difficult circumstances to stand up for their beliefs and to assist victims of persecution.  They helped to keep alive the moral reputation of the German Protestant church, and indirectly of the German people.  To know that imperfect human beings were able to rise to these heights, under those conditions, is enormously empowering.  It means that heroism is within the reach of ordinary, flawed persons, everyone.  With that knowledge, one becomes invincible.

  1. [1] Ilse Margret-Vogel captures some of this in her Berlin wartime memoirs, Bad Times, Good Friends, Harcourt-Brace NY 1992, ISBN 0-15-205528-2
  2. [2]This account is drawn mainly from the German Wikipedia article, “Röhm Putsch“.  The English language Wikipedia article, Knight of the Long Knives,  is also informative.
  3. [3]Barnett, op. cit. p. 27
  4. [4]Quoted in Victoria Barnett, For the soul of the people, Protestant protest against Hitler, p. 32
  5. [5]Barnett, op.cit., p. 34
  6. [6]The reference to “swine” stems from my mother’s earlier effort to have my father released on the ground that the Wehrmacht had drafted him; the Gestapo official at the prison had yelled at her, “Out of the question!  The swine is unworthy of the front!”
  7. [7]Quoted in About My Father (2)
  8. [8]Letter, Scharf to Hesse, Oct. 19, 1939.  Of course, this settlement was only temporary.  In the spring of 1941, the regime opened a new wave of repression against the BK and put a final stop to its education and examinations.  See brief discussion and sources here.
  9. [9]Memoirs
  10. [10]It’s also possible that he would have been released, though somewhat later, without signing the statement; efforts were underway to transfer him and Schulz to Düsseldorf, where the decree outlawing the BK’s examinations was not being enforced at that moment, or where an amnesty was in place, according to a Nov. 13  letter from Hasse to Schulze zur Wiesche. [99]
  11. [11]See About my Father (3)
  12. [12]Memoirs 
  13. [13]See About my Father (2)
  14. [14]See Postscript
  15. [15]See Postscript

About My Father (3)

Albrecht Fritz Nicolaus on the day of his ordination, March 16, 1941, Essen

(Continued from About my Father (2))

The ink was hardly dry on Albrecht’s BK ordination certificate when the official church got wind of it and took steps to prevent a repetition.  In a letter dated May 7, 1941, while Albrecht’s regiment was nearing the Soviet border, the then president of the Konsistoriat in Düsseldorf, the governing body of the official church in Westphalia, Karl Koch, wrote:

Through a series of coincidences, the Konsistorium has learned that in March of this year, apparently at the end of the month, the Council of Brethren (Bruderrat) held another illegal examination, namely in the house of the Rhineland Mission in Barmen, with the participation of Pastor Delius, a member of the executive committee of the mission.  So far we have learned the names of 4 candidates who were examined, 3 of them in the 2nd exam, 1 in the 1st exam.  The latter was the son of Pastor Immer in Barmen, who is in the military service and apparently obtained leave for this illegal examination.  Among the 3 former is the BK-vicar Nikolaus [sic] from Werden.  Pastor Schlingensiepen ordained two of the candidates immediately afterward in the Clausentrasse Hall, namely a certain Lütje and another from Marienberghausen.

The recent candidates are being inoculated with the line that this is not an examination but just a kind of conversation about religion, but a candidate who recently visited the General Superintendent and was asked about it was very indignant at the thought that the exam was not being valued as such, and he argued to the contrary that the exam was divided into separate subjects like regular exams and that they got a grade for each subject.  It is therefore an idle play with words when the Council of Brethren wants to make the state agencies believe this is not an examination.  This is also clear from the fact that the BK itself attaches to these exams the legal consequences that follow , especially from the 2nd exam, as just happened again, namely ordination.

In my view it is absolutely necessary for the church to take energetic steps against these continuing illegal and secretly disguised examinations.  In a meeting with Oberkirchenrat (chief church director) Euler and Kirchenrat licensee Sinning we resolved that the Konsistorium’s plan to suggest Sup. Lic. Sachsse for appointment to the Theological Examining Office depends on the immediate and total cessation of the illegal examinations.  If Sup. Sachsse is unable to give this assurance or is unable to achieve this result, then the Konsistorium must report the matter to the minister via the EO with the request to permit the commencement of disciplinary proceedings against the principal participants of the Council of Brethren, Pastors Schlingensiepen and Beckmann.  …. And we at the Konsistorium will send the Rhineland Mission a special message with a reminder that the Mission obtains from here every year substantial funds from the collection.

Karl Koch

Koch was one of the high dignitaries of the old church who had been ousted from their posts when the Nazi-led Deutsche Christen took over most of the churches in 1933-1934.  This drove him into the arms of  the Pfarrernotbund (Pastors’ Emergency League) and then into the BK, where for a time he played a leading role.  Shortly thereafter, he regained some of his former positions, and became a collaborator of Bishop August Marahrens, a notorious two-faced dignitary who, like Koch, had been ousted by the Nazis, joined the BK, was then reinstated, and made his career posing as a Christian on the one hand and on the other hand supporting the extermination of the Jews and praying for Hitler and blessing the invasions of other lands.

At the bottom of the letter, a handwritten note, probably by Koch, adds:  “All payments to the Rhenish Mission are hereby blocked until further notice.”   Copies of the letter went to church officials Euler, Sinnning, Sohns, Horn and another whose name is illegible.

  • Karl Euler headed the Konsistorialrat of the official church in the Rhineland, and had distinguished himself in 1933 by hounding Ernst Flatow, a hospital chaplain in Cologne, born of Jewish parents who had converted to Christianity, out of the church.  Flatow was deported to the Warsaw Ghetto where he died.
  • President Karl Friedrich Horn was President of the official church in the Rhineland and founder of the so-called Ordnungsblock, a group of clergy who tried to stake out a middle position between the Nazi-led Deutsche Christen and the BK, a stance which led Karl Barth, earlier a friend, to break off relations with him.
  • RAL Sohns was an SS Sturmbannführer who was in charge of Rhenish official church finances.[1]
  • Waldemar Sinning was a nonentity who followed orders.[2]
  • The “minister” Koch mentions would have been Reichsminister für Kirchliche Angelegenheiten — Minister for Church Affairs — Hans Kerrl, a close confidant of Hermann Göring.  Kerrl had previously served as the Nazi Minister of Justice; he lived in a lakeside villa stolen from a Jewish businessman’s family.  The liquidation of opposition in the churches was his principal business.

Notice banning students who took BK classes

The BK had established its own seminaries shortly after the Dahlem conference in late 1934.  Bonhoeffer ran one in rural Finkenwalde under the protection of a sympathetic nobleman.  There were five altogether. [3] Victoria Barnett’s book, For the Soul of the People, describes how the BK seminary in Berlin (the Kirchliche Hochschule) ran.  Students enrolled at the regular university would walk singly or in small groups, to avoid attracting police attention, to a pre-arranged meeting place at someone’s apartment, always a different one, to hear lectures and hold discussions.  The safest meeting place was in an apartment upstairs from a local Nazi party office.  The Gestapo was always close on their heels.  Then, in August 1937, Himmler’s decree made the taking and giving of BK theological exams, and by extension participation in study leading to such exams, criminal acts.  University students found a notice on their classroom doors announcing that any who visited classes taught by the BK would be banned permanently from all universities in Germany.

BK Pastor Hans Asmussen

BK Pastor Heinrich Vogel

Before the end of May, 1941, the Gestapo arrested 23 people involved in the Berlin BK seminary  including the principal lecturers, Pastors Hans Asmussen and Heinrich Vogel.  They were all imprisoned in the pretrial detention facility (Untersuchungsgefängnis) in Berlin until their trials in December that year.  All were convicted of violating the Himmler decree of August 1937.  Most were sentenced to time served and then released, except for Martin Albertz and Günther Dehn, who served additional time.  That was the end of the Kirchliche Hochschule and of the BK’s theological exams.

On July 6, 1941, a secret memo by Nazi party boss and Hitler confidant Martin Bormann called for the total elimination of all religious opposition.  All members of the BK”s federal governing body were arrested, at least for a time.  At least 18 BK clergy were murdered in concentration camps; there was a special block at Dachau for them and for other clergy deemed oppositional.[4].

The BK’s illegal education, examination and ordination of theological students came to an end in the spring of 1941.[5]   My father, Albrecht Nicolaus, was one of the last pastors, perhaps the very last, whom the BK was able to ordain.

Practically all the “illegals” — theology students, vicars, and clergy ordained by the BK — were drafted, as a deliberate policy aimed at decapitating the BK parishes.  By the summer of 1941, 270 of the 300 illegals from the Rhineland and 132 of 154 from the Berlin region were in the military and on the Ostfront.[6]  By contrast, clergy belonging to the Deutsche Christen, the Nazi-affiliated group, were able to obtain deferments and discharges rather easily.  Of the BK illegals, it is estimated that more than half lost their lives in the war.[7]  Albrecht’s schoolmate and brother in law, the BK pastor Helmut Wolf (the husband of his sister Lieselotte) was another victim; he was killed in 1944.

Besides the stick, the official church also extended to the young BK clergy the carrot of legalization.  Clergy ordained by the BK were not recognized by the official church. They could not draw civil servants’ salaries, as did the clergy of the official church.  If they died, their families were not entitled to church pensions. Depending on the location, they could be denied entry to church property, and were frequently harassed, arrested, and sometimes beaten by Nazi hoodlums.  Nevertheless, theology students in major parishes overwhelmingly opted for the BK, and the official church had a difficult time replenishing its aging ranks.  The official church therefore offered to legalize BK clergy, but on condition that they take the theological examinations a second time, with official church people — Nazi sympathizers and collaborators — as examiners.  Candidates for legalization also had to expressly disavow allegiance to the BK and swear an oath of loyalty to the Nazi state.[8]  The legalization proposal touched off a firestorm of controversy between the BK and the official church, and within the BK.   Albrecht never applied for legalization, and my mother never initiated a proceeding to have him legalized posthumously.  Thus, when I asked the official church registry in Essen in 2001 for records regarding my father, the answer was that no such name was on its pastoral roster.  My father remained an illegal to the end.

The history of the German Protestant Church after the Nazi defeat in 1945 is a very large chapter covered by a massive literature that I do not have time or inclination to survey.  I want to conclude this review of my father’s brief life by sketching the subsequent fates of his theological mentors.

Karl Barth, of course, survived the war in Switzerland and became one of the giants of 20th century theology.   He died in 1986.

Pastor Wilhelm Busch of Essen was imprisoned several times during the Nazi era but survived; he continued after the war as a preacher and church leader, and was active in the Social Democratic Party.  He died in 1966.

Pastor Johannes Böttcher, who ordained my father and in whose pastoral office in Essen Albrecht’s first theological exam took place in 1939, together with  Pastor Heinrich Held, also of Essen, who was one of my father’s BK examiners, are credited with saving the lives of 50-60 Jews who lived hidden in the cellars of bombed-out buildings in Essen.  Even after Sept. 17, 1944, after the deportation of the last Jew, when the regime declared the city officially “Jew-free,” these BK pastors secretly brought them food purchased with ration stamps donated by members of BK parishes for “needy members of the parish.”  Böttcher survived, became a local church leader, and died in 1949.  Held also survived, became a leader of the post-war church, and died in 1957.

Pastor Heinrich Schlier, another of my father’s BK examiners, survived the war and became a famous professor of theology at Bonn before converting to Catholicism; Pope Paul VI appointed him to the papal Bible commission.

Pastor Johannes Schlingensiepen, the unofficial dean of the BK’s educational effort nationwide, survived and became a major leader in the postwar Protestant church; he died in 1980.

Helmut Gollwitzer became a Russian prisoner of war,  was released in 1950, returned to Germany, and was a prominent theologian and political activist; he died in 1993.

[end]

  1. [1]Günther van Norden, Politischer Kirchenkampf, Die rheinische Provinzialkirche 1934-1939, Verlag Rudolf Habelt Bonn 2003, ISBN 3-7749-3156-9, pp. 158-160.
  2. [2]Id., pp. 107, 245, 247.
  3. [3]http://www.niemoeller-haus-berlin.de/ausstellung/tafel17.html
  4. [4]http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirchenkampf#Kriegszeithttp://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pfarrerblock_(KZ_Dachau) 
  5. [5] Leonore Siegele-Wenschkewitz, Carsten Nicolaisen (ed.), Theologische Fakultäten im Nationalsozialismus, Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1993; ISBN 3-525-55718-3; p. 290
  6. [6]Barnett, p. 87, citing Bethge as source.
  7. [7]Barnett, p. 87
  8. [8]Günther van Norden, Politischer Kirchenkampf, Die rheinische Provinzialkirche 1934-1939, Verlag Rudolf Habelt Bonn 2003, ISBN 3-7749-3156-9, p. 245.

About My Father (2)

(Continued from About My Father (1))

My father, Albrecht Fritz Nicolaus, 1940?

Those “trials by fire” were not far off.  After a year of study in Basel, in 1938 Albrecht returned to Germany.  He spent approximately a month in Berlin, finishing his theological studies.  In early summer of 1938 Albrecht spent  almost a month traveling in the UK, visiting London and Edinburgh among other places.  On June 27, he wrote from London to Helmut Gollwitzer in Berlin.  Gollwitzer had taken over Martin Niemöller’s parish in Berlin-Dahlem after Niemöller’s arrest by the Gestapo in 1937.[1]

Helmut Gollwitzer ca. 1960

Albrecht had come to know  Gollwitzer through Margot, who of course lived in Berlin and was active in BK circles there.  In the letter, Albrecht chats about his conversations with various people in English church circles and around the British peace movement.  He wrote that he could hardly take a step in his travels around England without people raising questions about Germany.  Albrecht also wrote that he had been invited to participate in a conference at Oxford the following spring.

Denis Riley 1936

Among the people Albrecht met in England were Gladys and Denis Riley in Horsforth, Leeds.  The Rileys were committed pacifists, active in the No More War Movement and then in its successor, the Peace Pledge Union.  Denis, formerly the manager of an insurance agency and active in the Presbyterian Church, had become radicalized in the course of the 1930s and by 1938 had left his agency and the church and devoted his time fully to activism.  He was also an environmentalist, as the 1936 photo to the left shows; it depicts him during a group project cleaning up the tailings of a coal mine.

At Christmas time, having returned to his home in Essen, Albrecht wrote the Rileys a letter in English.  In went approximately like this:[2]

A stack of Christmas greetings from many friends I got to know during my stay in England lies on the table in front of me, awaiting answers.  I will begin with your letter of October 12, because it is very instructive.  I have not forgotten you, but if you recall, you will realize that I found myself in a crisis because I had to finish my assignments by December 22, namely a lecture (sermon?) and an hour’s lesson plan for children, all as part one of my exam.  I had to work hard until midnight for several weeks, but with the help of a good friend who copied the whole essay of 90 pages, I was able to finish the work on time.  Now I am free for the holidays this week, but then I have to plunge back into the work until Easter for the second race.  If all goes well, I will then be what you call a “curate” (assistant pastor).

Now you will understand what I was doing in Berlin.  I completed my studies in conjunction with the Staatsbibliothek.  In the next three months I will stay at home and wait eagerly for further news of you personally and your work for the PPU.

Naturally I was very interested in what you told me about the days of the crisis and about the opinions of people in your circle.  I thank you first of all very much for the greetings from your quarterly meeting in October, and ask you please to send everyone my best wishes in return.  I knew the president, the doctor K.R., through correspondence.  If I ever return to England it would be a pleasure to meet her personally.  Please be so kind as to forward the enclosed photo to her so that she can remember me better.

Let me begin the second page with greetings and my best wishes for Christmas (already past) for you and your family, and for a happier new year than the past one was.  I hope that you are having much joy with your two sweet daughters; I would love to see them again.  I hope Gladys is making more progress in German so that she can be a well informed guide for you if you come to Germany.

Although we are at Christmastime, the world is much disturbed by strife and war.  I cannot write you my true feelings about the events in Germany, Europe and elsewhere.  But it may be the general opinion in all of Germany, perhaps also in your own country, that the peace gained in September may easily be gone by Spring.  I regard with deep humiliation and sorrow the contribution that my own country has made to the current state of affairs.  At the same time, I need to mention my growing disappointment with the policy of English and French statesmen, and others.  This is a policy of men who focus on preserving the peace while forfeiting their freedom and independence.  There is something cowardly in the blustering joy of many who feel that the war has been put off for a little while.  Isn’t it remarkable that this delay swells the influence of a peculiarly German spirit?  All over the world, people are discovering a new faith in their national ‘God,’ in their might, weapons, race, blood, and soil.  I marvel at the readiness of the world around us to help all kinds of refugees, and I know very well from my own friends how helpless they are in this country, but the same nations, through their preparations for the coming war, are on the road to making refugees in much greater number.

I do not need to make “peace” — it is a very important task, but not mine; but I will say that in the Christ v. Antichrist debate, I respect only the people who seek a middle way.[3]  Beware of those who judge this question from the human standpoint and not from Christ’s revelation!  Human ideals are well worth suffering to uphold them, but it is not within our power to overcome the enemies of God without him, or by concluding a “truce” with their representatives.
With all my best wishes, Nico

The reference in the last paragraph regarding “the peace gained in September” is to the Munich Agreement, in which the Great Powers of Europe (Britain, France, Italy) allowed Germany to occupy the Sudetenland, dismembering Czechoslovakia.  The Munich pact is today widely condemned as appeasement of Hitler; it paved the road to greater aggression and to the world war.

The Gestapo office in Essen, a branch of the Gestapo district Düsseldorf, intercepted and confiscated this letter on Dec. 27, 1938; it never reached the Rileys.  However, it took some time for the Gestapo to identify the sender, who had signed it only as “Nico” and mailed it without a return address.

While the Gestapo was hunting for the letter writer, Albrecht in January 1939 took his first theological exam under the auspices of the BK.  The BK ran a semi-clandestine seminary and also operated a parallel ordainment office which examined candidates for the office of pastor and, if they passed, ordained them.  These exams and ordinations were off the official church books, and the clergy who were created by this process had no standing with the official church and could not collect salaries as civil servants, as was the case with the clergy of the official church.  The exams consisted of two parts, generally taken about a year apart.  For his first exam, Albrecht wrote a 90-page research paper, “The Doctrine of the Church According to the Apostolic Fathers.”  As part of the exam, he gave a sermon on the theme of Matt. 11:2-10, a text dealing with the imprisonment of John (the Baptist)[4].  He also had to write essays on the topic “Christology in the Letter to the Hebrews” and “Cyprian’s Doctrine of the Church.”  He passed the exam.[46]

By early March 1939 at the latest, the Gestapo had found its man.   On March 23, 1939, a Gestapo functionary in Essen, Maupel, wrote a registered letter marked “Secret” to his head office in Düsseldorf with an analysis.  Maupel writes:

The letter contains language which allows one to conclude that the writer is a member of the “Bekenntnis-Front” and stands in opposition to the National-Socialist state.  The writer’s oppositional posture can be seen especially in the following sentences:

Here Maupel quotes at length the last paragraph of the letter, concluding with “making refugees in much greater number.”  He continues that the members of the Peace Pledge Union, mentioned in the letter,

are said to be under Communist influence.  According to English newspaper stories picked up by the German press, members of the PPU recently invited Jewish emigrants from Vienna and members of the Communist unemployed workers’ movement for lunch in the most expensive hotel in London.  According to the same articles, the unemployed at the lunch had previously been active with the “International Brigades” in Spain.

After the Essen branch of the Gestapo succeeded in identifying Albrecht as the author of the letter, it imposed postal surveillance on him.  (The file does not indicate awareness of the earlier postal surveillance of 1936 following Albrecht’s letter to Pastor Busch; the filing system was not that good.)  The second surveillance intercepted a letter Albrecht wrote on March 2 1939 to Maria Netter in Basel, Switzerland.  Netter, from Berlin, was one of Albrecht and Margot’s fellow students in Basel in 1937-38; Margot writes about her in her memoirs.[5]

Albrecht’s letter to Netter mentions that his exam will shortly be behind him, “like a merciful thunderstorm,” and he is thinking of reviving his “old plan, to do a doctorate under the old master,” which could only mean Barth; but he asks Netter to keep this “under a seal of silence.”  At the same time, he now has “several opportunities to work for a longer period in England.”  His current life, he says, is a “high-speed spin around certain textbooks where I’m acquiring a final polish.”

The Gestapo made two typescripts of Albrecht’s letter to Maria Netter from the original Gothic handwriting, but Maupel judged its content “irrelevant in itself.”  Although there is nothing politically incriminating in Albrecht’s letter to Netter, it alerts the Gestapo that Albrecht is preparing for an exam — what exam, with whom, for what? — and that he is thinking of leaving Germany, either for Switzerland or England.

Maupel in Essen also notes, at the conclusion of his March 23 letter to Düsseldorf HQ:

Furthermore, it has been established that N. has a relationship with a Margret (?) Eickhoff, residing at Pfalzburgerstr. 83 in Berlin W. 15.   Apparently this E. is his fiancée.

The Gestapo head office in Düsseldorf replied to its Essen branch office on April 5.  The Düsseldorf official, who signed himself only as “J.A.,”  agreed with Maupel’s estimate of the Riley letter.  He wrote that Albrecht’s paragraph about the Munich Agreement amounts, in his estimation, to a violation of paragraph 90f of the Reichsstrafgesetzbuch (Federal Penal Code),

or represent at least an attempt to violate the cited paragraph.  I therefore request the commencement of a prosecution against Nicolaus under paragraph 90f.  Please send me two copies of the proceedings together with the final conclusion.  The original letter is to be taken as evidence in the prosecution.  I request further that Nicolaus’ home be immediately searched for additional material — letters etc. — and that his passport be secured at the same time.

Paragraph 90f defined something like state libel.  It was a 1934 creation of the Nazi state.  In 1939, it read as follows:

§ 90f. Wer öffentlich oder als Deutscher im Ausland durch eine unwahre oder gröblich entstellte Behauptung tatsächlicher Art eine schwere Gefahr für das Ansehen des deutschen Volkes herbeiführt, wird mit Zuchthaus bestraft.[6]

Anyone who publicly, or as a German abroad, brings the reputation of the German people into grave danger by means of an untrue or grossly distorted statement of fact, will be punished by imprisonment.

J.A. sent a copy of his letter to the Gestapo head office in Berlin, with the following notation:

Nicolaus’ statements allow the general conclusion, first of all, that he is a follower or a member of the Bekennende Kirche.  The letter further reveals that he is interested in the efforts of the Peace Pledge Union in London and is connected with followers of this association.  What is more, Nicolaus’ statements contain a criticism of the global political events of the past year, which must be considered nothing other than an infamous libel and expression of contempt for everything German, and in my estimation as a crime within the meaning of paragraph 90f of the Reichstrafgesetzbuch.  I will therefore initiate a prosecution against Nicolaus under the cited paragraph and will report on the outcome at the appropriate time.

The postal surveillance imposed on Nicolaus did not yield further incriminating material.

However, there was a hitch.  The Essen branch of the Gestapo replied to its Düsseldorf head office on May 23 that on April 13, Nicolaus had left Essen and moved to Braunfels an der Lahn, at Schlossstr. 3, and was expected to remain there until the beginning of October.  “The requested interrogation could therefore not be undertaken here.”  Braunfels was not under Düsseldorf’s jurisdiction; it belonged to the Gestapo office in Frankfurt.

On May 31, 1939, J.A. at the Gestapo office in Düsseldorf wrote to the Gestapo office in Frankfurt, forwarding the Riley letter, and adding:

I therefore request to take the further measures against him from there, and if necessary to initiate a prosecution under paragraph 90f.  I also think it appropriate to search Nicolaus’ residence for further material — letters etc. — and at the same time to confiscate his passport.

Frankfurt did not immediately respond.  On September 1, 1939, J.A. at the Düsseldorf Gestapo office prodded his Frankfurt counterpart, asking for a status report on the matter.  This time, Frankfurt moved.

Independently of J.A.’s exertions in Düsseldorf, the Frankfurt Gestapo had had its eyes on Albrecht for some time.  Albrecht was then a vicar (assistant pastor) to Pastor Hasse in Braunfels.  On July 4, the file indicates, an unknown person sent Nicolaus a French newspaper.  The Gestapo confiscated it and questioned him.  “He pretends not to know who the sender is.  He is being kept under observation.”  [77]  My mother wrote that Albrecht advised parishioners in sermons and privately to keep their children out of the Hitler Youth and the Nazi girls’ organization. [7]

On September 18, the Gestapo arrested Albrecht in Braunfels and brought him to Frankfurt, about 40 miles south.  He was placed in Schutzhaft, which means “protective custody,” but was then a term for the Gestapo’s secret interrogation centers.  At the same time, the Frankfurt Gestapo official in charge, Schenk,  filed an application with the Gestapo head office in Berlin to have him transferred to a concentration camp.[8] [57]  

Berlin’s interest in the Riley letter, however, had faded.  On September 1, 1939, Germany had invaded Poland.  The Munich Agreement was now ancient history, and Albrecht’s 1938 letter expressing doubt about the durability of the Munich peace was all too obviously well founded.   While Albrecht was being held incommunicado in the Gestapo prison in Frankfurt, the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin decided that the Riley letter was stale.  On October 10, Schenk in Frankfurt advised J.A. in Düsseldorf via telegram that “The issue relating to the ‘Letter from Nicolaus to Dr. Mr. Denis Riley in Horsforth/England’  was evaluated in my application for his placement in a concentration camp and was found of no interest from the security standpoint.” [70]

But Berlin was interested in Albrecht for another reason.

 In March 1939 N. took the first theological exam administered by the examining committee of the Rhenish Bekenntnis synod.  This exam is prohibited by the RFSS[9] as of Aug. 29, 1937.  Interrogated by police in the State Police office in Frankfurt, N. refused to give any testimony about the BK’s examinations, based on a directive from the BK’s Council of Brethren.[57]

The Gestapo file in Frankfurt noted on October 4 that Nicolaus

Is a fanatical follower of the BK and belongs neither to the NSV (National Socialist Student Union) nor any other National Socialist organizations.  Refused to testify regarding his illegal theological exam with the BK synod in the Rhineland.[77]

Efforts to free Albrecht began immediately.  According to my mother’s memoirs, Pastor Joachim Beckmann, the head of the BK in Düsseldorf, learned of the arrest, and informed Pastor Otto Fricke, then the BK leader in Frankfurt, who told Albrecht’s parents in Essen where Albrecht was.

Paul S.v.W.

Paul Schulze von Wiesche,  a prominent Düsseldorf attorney who led a parallel life as head of the BK’s Department of Law and Administration, got wind of Albrecht’s arrest within two days.  But it took two weeks before he could go to Frankfurt and try to intervene.  On October 4, Schulze von Wiesche penned a letter to the Council of Brethren of the BK in Berlin:

 In the above-cited matter I had a conversation on Saturday morning[10] with the head of the State Police office in Frankfurt (Main), Herr Regierungsrat Felis.

I asked for a conference with the two prisoners in order to advise them, as I have done in previous cases, that an absolute refusal to testify in this case is senseless. My request was refused and I was advised that the State Police in Frankfurt simply does not permit attorney visits in State Police matters.

It was further explained to me that the decision no longer lies in Frankfurt but in Berlin. These cases were being reported to Berlin, or would be reported to Berlin immediately, requesting the decision of the State Police Office there.

Pastor Fricke, Herr Oberlandesgerichtsrat Barthelmes, Herr P. Steck and I are of the opinion that somebody from the Prussian Council must appear before the Stapo Office in Berlin immediately, to prevent bad things from happening.

I assume that in the case of Nicolaus, a bad report will go to Berlin, because Nicolaus apparently was interrogated three or four times and not only remained silent, but also did not conduct himself correctly. Herr Regierungsrate F[elis] was also somewhat annoyed about this case — I assume– because a lower official, without first asking the head of the State Police office, permitted Pastor Fricke to visit Nicolaus, and despite Pastor Fricke’s counsel, Nicolaus continued his absolute refusal to testify. It should be noted that if Vicar Nicolaus in fact did not behave in a tame fashion (nicht zahm benommen), it should not be held against him, because in the presence of Pastor Fricke he apologized to the interrogating official, and this official accepted the apology.

I emphasized above all that these two assistant preachers have an erroneous idea of the “directives” of the leadership of the BK in the Rhineland — namely, they assume that it is their duty to refuse absolutely to testify. But the leadership of the BK takes the position that when confronted with testimonial statements, one can calmly declare that one does not dispute the content of these statements; and one has to help the young people to abandon these false ideas.

I hope it is possible for you to achieve something in Berlin. Surely you will also have learned something about this matter from the daughter of P. Reiter.

Please keep me up to date at all times about the status of this matter.

With friendly greetings,”(signed)[95]

The other vicar arrested at the same time as Albrecht was Hans Schulz. Little is known about him or his case, except that he, too, was later sent to the Eastern Front.[122]

Before writing his letter, Schulze von Wiesche had telephoned Albrecht’s parents, and they had called my mother.  On Oct. 3, Margot wrote to Gollwitzer in Berlin, “I just wanted to tell you that it is now perfectly clear that Nico was arrested solely because he gave no answer to the question about the completion of the exam in Hessen, as directed by the Rhineland Council of Brethren.”[126]  Because Albrecht’s case was being managed by the Gestapo HQ  in Berlin, where she lived, she set about getting permission to visit him.  She writes in her memoirs:

One day I took off from work and went to GESTAPO headquarters in Berlin. I was cool on the outside but pretty scared inside. At the reception desk (in a huge cage) I filled out a form, stated name and address and reason for my visit. I did not have to wait long. A guard took me to a door with the name of the person inside and some impressive civilian title that I don’t remember. I knocked politely and opened the door.

At the end of a large room sat a rather young man, about 30ish. His long feet were resting on the desk, his back leaned back comfortably. On the floor was a huge Persian rug which struck me as most unusual for a German office of any bureaucracy. Usually such offices were Spartan, no luxuries. I immediately suspected that the rug was stolen from a wealthy Jewish family. The guy was (or seemed) very relaxed. I told him who my fiancé was and why he probably was arrested.

He smiled tolerantly. “Yes, yes, happens all the time. People have adjustment problems. The new order. Ha, ha.”

From a small stack of books on his desk he took out Rosenberg’s “Mythos des 20. Jahrhunderts”, a brew of the official Nazi ideology.

“See this here – all stupid stuff – for the stupid people”.

He searched my eyes for a reaction. I looked back at him – cold as a fish. I wasn’t going to fall in this trap. I wanted permission to see my fiancé. He told me he could not give it to me. He first had to investigate the case. He told me that I probably would hear from him in a few weeks. Was I ever relieved when I got out of the lion’s den.

Meanwhile, attorney Schulze von Wiesche’s Oct. 4 letter to the BK’s Council of Brethren in Berlin had stirred up a reaction.  The attorney’s reference to “directives” issued by the BK’s Rhineland Council of Brethren — directives on which Albrecht relied for his refusal to testify about BK examinations —  was marked with a red pencil and an emphatic exclamation mark in the margin.  On October 19, Pastor Kurt Scharf, then the president of the federal conference of regional councils of brethren, and as such the highest dignitary in the BK, wrote a letter on the stationery of the Brandenburg region of the BK to Pastor D. Hesse in Elberfeld:

Dear Brother Hesse:

In the attachment I forward to you a letter from Brother Schulze zur Wiesche, in which he reports about his conversation with the head of the State Police office in Frankfurt/Main. The latter, Herr Regierunsrat Felis, apparently reported immediately to the Gestapo office in Berlin.  And here in Berlin, a complaint was raised about the paragraph marked in red.  As we discussed today, this assertion by Brother Schulze zur Wiesche has to be corrected, perhaps by way of a clarification by the Rhineland Council to the effect that directives of this kind were never issued, and that the whole matter of examinations has been settled and closed with the State Police office in Düsseldorf; and the Rhineland Council should protect the two brothers, and a request should be made to the Gestapo office on the Prinz-Albrechtstrasse for the brothers’ release. They should point out also that the Frankfurt office probably is not sufficiently informed about the conclusion of the prosecution in Düsseldorf.

May God assist in bringing this matter to a good and speedy conclusion.

The former Untersuchungsgefängnis in Frankfurt

On Oct. 26, Hesse wrote to the influential Pastor Beckmann in Düsseldorf, urging investigation and action.[97]   These efforts had a significant success.  Attorney S.v.Wiesche obtained a hearing on Albrecht’s and Hans’ cases before the regular (pre-Nazi) criminal court in Frankfurt — a common tactic that won some victories even as late as 1939 — and the judge there threw out the case for lack of valid charges.  In fact, the Himmler decree of 1937, outlawing BK examinations, had been temporarily suspended  by an amnesty order dated Sept. 9, 1939, just eight days before Albrecht’s arrest.[78][11]  On Nov. 3, 1939, Albrecht was released, a free man.

My father, Albrecht Fritz Nicolaus, 1941?

In the courthouse hallway, the Gestapo re-arrested him and hauled him before a judge of the Sondergericht (special court),  a parallel structure of Nazi courts.[12]  The Sondergericht judge issued a new arrest order under another Nazi law dated December 2 1935[13] and bound him back to prison on Nov. 4. But there was an important change. Albrecht was no longer in the secret Gestapo prison but in a pretrial detention facility (Untersuchungsgefängnis) in downtown Frankfurt.  He could have visitors, including legal counsel, and other privileges.[99]

Meanwhile, a draft order for Albrecht had arrived at his parents’ home in Essen.  Martin and Anna believed that the induction order, which came after all from the powerful German Wehrmacht, might be used as leverage to spring Albrecht out of prison.  They asked Margot to try.  When she finally got permission to visit Albrecht, weeks after her visit to the lion’s den in Berlin, Margot traveled to Frankfurt.  With the draft order in hand, she first went to the district military draft office for the Hessen region, of which Frankfurt is the chief town.  The officer in charge there told her that “the military has absolutely no authority” to get her fiancé out of the hands of the Gestapo.  The only thing he could do was to make a note in Albrecht’s file and delay the induction.[14]  She then went to the prison and tried the draft argument again with the head warden.  He screamed in her face, “Out of the question.  The pig is unworthy of the Front.”[15]  The best Margot was able to do is to visit Albrecht in his cell No. 56, and to bring in a small pair of scissors to trim his finger- and toenails.[16]

Pastor Fricke in Frankfurt engaged another BK-friendly attorney, Metzger, from Darmstadt, who visited Albrecht on November 10.[82]  On Nov. 11, Albrecht was allowed to subscribe to a newspaper, but only to the Frankfurter Volksblatt, a Nazi Party rag.[83, 88]   Albrecht’s mother Anna may have visited on the 13th.[99]  Attorney S.v.Wiesche visited both the vicars on Nov. 16.   On December 16th, Albrecht’s cousin Heinrich Brüggensiecker, the son of his mother’s sister, who was an officer in the Wehrmacht, came to see him in full uniform.[90]  On the 19th, Pastor Fricke brought three books for the two vicars, and on the next day Fricke visited in person.

My father, Albrecht Fritz Nicolaus, holding a photo of my mother, 1941?

All this time, the Gestapo repeatedly called Albrecht for interrogation.  They presented him with a statement naming the names of the BK examiners who had administered his first theological exam earlier in the year, and demanded that he sign it.  He steadfastly refused, and answered all questions about the examination with silence.  Pastor Fricke, in the unauthorized visit earlier in his imprisonment — the visit that so annoyed Regierungsrat Felis — had urged Albrecht to yield.  Attorney Metzger, hired by Fricke, repeated the message.  Attorney S.v.Wiesche did likewise, no doubt citing Pastor Scharf’s admonitions to Pastor D. Hesse to the effect that there was not and had never been a directive by the Rhenish Council of Brethren advising BK prisoners to keep silent.  It was brought home to him that the Gestapo already knew all the names.  Finally, a few days after Fricke’s second visit, Albrecht yielded.  He signed a statement containing the names of his examiner, and the name of his brother-in-law Helmut Wolf who had acted as courier.  The concluding paragraph read:

In conclusion I want to confirm that I am acting today, as in previous questioning, without instructions from third parties, and entirely on my own responsibility.  Three months ago I made no statements because I was not able to take responsibility for exposing the business of the church, such as examinations, to criminal prosecution.  This makes clear that I had no intention of offering resistance to the force of the state, but sought to uphold nothing more than the freedom and respect of my conscience.  In view of the fact that the persons in questions have in the meantime identified themselves, I am no longer bound by these considerations.  Our church cannot and never will bind its members to a pledge of solidarity.  It must  allow each individual the personal responsibility of standing up, to the extent of his personal belief,  for the freedom and purity of the gospel of salvation.[72-73]

The next day, Christmas Eve, a Gestapo official gave Albrecht a lecture and issued an order banning him from living or working in the Frankfurt police district.  After that, Albrecht was let go.  He returned immediately to his parents’ home in Essen.

He was not quite done with the prison, however.  On the 28th, Albrecht sent a postcard to the management of the prison.  He asked that all mail for him be forwarded directly to Essen, and that the remaining issues of the newspaper from his subscription be kept there.  He also inquired what happened to a package that his father had sent him at the prison two weeks earlier.  Someone at the prison responded by postcard dated January 9, 1940, that a package for him had arrived on the 30th but had been given back to the postal employee to be forwarded to his new address.  That was all.

In Essen, Albrecht worked briefly as a vicar serving BK parishes.  This paid no salary; he had to make do with parishioners’ charity and occasional fees for baptisms and other ceremonies.  His postponed military induction order of the previous year was revived.  He entered the Wehrmacht some time in the spring of 1940 — the exact date is not preserved — and by the end of April was with the 3rd Infantry Reserve Batallion 216 in or around Strasbourg, and at the end of May was with “Special Purpose Marching Batallion 86,” apparently also on the Western front.  On July 16, 1940, Albrecht wrote to Johannes Schlingensiepen, the dean of the BK”s national education department:

O.K. July 16, 1940

 .Dear Pastor:[…]

A brief review:

 After 8 weeks training in the East, to the Saar front in the reserves.  With the opening of the offensive, penetrated as second wave behind the front through the Maginot Line via St. Arnold into Lothringia, without firing a shot. Deactivated by the truce 24 hours before battle, and now sent back to the vicinity of Frankfurt (!) a few days ago for rest and reorganization of the ranks.  What comes next is hidden from us for reasons that are partly benevolent, partly sinister.  So much for my bloodless war story.[…]

 .Are you in agreement that it’s time for us to raise demands for peacetime based on our participation in the war?  Our position is rather clear, namely that we can press more strongly for state assistance, to the extent that this still has a function in the church.  I am sure that these thoughts are yours as well, but I would like to know positively whether these have already given rise to new steps.Perhaps you will find time to give me a short notice about this — in any event this would make me very happy and I am grateful in advance for your effort.

 .Isaiah 6:13 applies as prayer and message to everything that I have written and held back.[17]

Sincerely,
Albrecht Nicolaus

P.S.  My parents just wrote that you have asked them for my address … here it is, and many thanks.

The exclamation point after Frankfurt is probably a reference to the Gestapo’s order on 12/24/39 forbidding Albrecht to live or work in the jurisdiction of the Frankfurt police.  But, meanwhile, on April 27 and again on May 9 and May 15, 1940, a Gestapo hand noted in Albrecht’s Gestapo file that his prosecution for taking the illegal BK exam was dropped based on the amnesty of Sept. 9, 1939.[57,76]  It’s unlikely that Albrecht was given notice of this development, which would have exposed the total absence of a legal foundation for his arrest on September 18, 1939, nine days after the amnesty.

On August 6, 1940, Albrecht wrote another letter to Schlingensiepen, whom he addresses this time under the code name of “Jensen.” In veiled language, he asks Schlingensiepen to draft up an official-looking study program that Albrecht can use to get an educational leave of absence.  Albrecht is now working with the divisional staff, and has high hopes of being able to get away and finish his theological studies.

Soldier Nicolaus
0974 .O.K. August 6, 1940 .

Dear Herr Jensen,On my return from some wonderful vacation days I find your letter and am happy to find in it, as well as in a conversation with P.H., grounds for confidence for an unwavering continuation of our path in the church.  But what would please me most of all for personal reasons is the fulfillment of a wish I share with many others like myself, namely to come to an orderly end of our education during the war.  P.H. was surprised that I had not yet received a delivery for it, but I think that matters are all right.  I only want to give one hint.  The only way to succeed in getting study leave during this period when our division is idle is to have in hand a written invitation.  I am currently with the division staff.  Please pass on my new military postal address.  To where questions of training and education are understood.  Please compose such a paper; I will take care of its proper use!

That is what I have to report about “the present situation.” It allows us to move our personal things into the foreground again.

With grateful greetings,

I remain your
Albrecht Nicolaus

The dates are uncertain, but it’s clear that the ruse worked.  In September, Albrecht and his brother-in-law Helmut Wolf apparently served briefly as vicars to Pastor Edgar Boué in Oberkassel near Bonn [47], and by October 3 Albrecht was back in Essen, where Pastor Busch performed the marriage ceremony uniting him with Margot, who would shortly become my mother.  A page from the family registry book showing Busch’s performance of the wedding ceremony, and below that, my baptism, is on the right.

Marriage and baptism certificates

During this break from military service, Albrecht returned to his theological studies and took the first part of his second exam, again with the BK, again clandestinely, on November 13, 14, and 15, 1940.  [47]  Pastor Heinrich Held, who had the honor of being the first Protestant pastor to be arrested by the Nazis, evaluated Albrecht’s Nov. 13 performance as “All in all — interrupted for 3 hours by an air raid alarm — a good performance, which promises good things.” [47]  Albrecht’s thesis was on the topic, “The Nature and Significance of the Antichrist in New Testament Eschatology.”  He delivered a sermon, part of the exam, in the Werden section of Essen on Christmas Eve 1940.[47]    I was conceived at the end of December.  Albrecht took and passed the second part of the second exam in January, 1941.  He was ordained in the BK, still clandestinely, by Pastor Johannes Böttcher, on March 16, 1941.

Albrecht Fritz Nicolaus on the day of his ordination, March 16, 1941, Essen

He delivered his ordination sermon the same day in the BK parish Essen-Werden.  His theme was Hebrews 12:2, “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  The sermon, in which Albrecht acknowledged “having sat for years under your preaching, dear Brother Busch,” closely followed the doctrinal lead of Karl Barth.  He pokes fun at a fellow who doesn’t know what he believes because his authorities haven’t finished yet defining the new faith.  “What can a faith accomplish that was founded by men? We have as founder of our faith the son of the eternal God.”  He admits that new faiths can arise quickly, but then the wind shifts, and they are gone again.  He exhorts his flock to place all their hope in the grace that is offered them, as obedient children, through the revelation of Christ.[49-51]

Two weeks later, the military swallowed him again.  He reported for induction on April 1.  This time, “unworthy” or not, he was sent to the Ostfront, the epic slaughterhouse in which more than 30 million people eventually lost their lives.  He soon came to regret the efforts that had been made to free him from the Gestapo prison in 1939.  On June 20, 1941,  he wrote from his tent near the Russian border:

It really would have been easier to bear if nobody had “liberated” me from the Frankfurt Gestapo prison for the Wehrmacht. (I know it was a well intentioned friendly deed.)  Wasn’t the Gestapo official, this representative of the absolute state, correct when he answered your petition to set me free because I had been drafted, by screaming in your face, “This pig is unworthy of the front!”  I thank you for the tears, you know I do, that filled your eyes because of this obscenity.

The German onslaught on the Soviet Union began two days later.

My father wrote the following letters to my mother and indirectly to the circle of BK friends in Essen while he was stationed on the Ostfront during the spring and summer of 1941. Margot made typescripts of them and helped to circulate them.  After the war, Margot’s originals were lost, but Herr Ludwig found copies of the typescripts in the BK archives in Düsseldorf.

April 3, 1941. In all this business the big thing for me is not to lose sight of the goal.  The hardest thing, first off, is the lack of brotherhood.  I started by passing the word that I have a nice warm room and everyone is cordially invited every evening at 6.  But naturally I’m not trampled by a mob.  More important is the time when we clean our rifles and the breaks during the day, generally.  The day before yesterday we had half the company involved in a conversation between me and a Sturmführer.  But you know yourself:  Struggle is enough, but rest and fellowship are rare.  Nevertheless, I’m content, even cheerful, when I think about the position I’ve got into, thanks to the grace of our lord Jesus Christ, in the face of all this violence and sin.  The folks that have to get drunk every week are really the desperate ones….

April 20 1941, from the East.  I have the special pleasure of being able to report how my work is moving forward around me here.  In this battalion there are three theologians; the eldest is the pay master.  He recently had the idea to try to establish services in this almost entirely Catholic area.  The batallion commander went along, and the local Pope had a nunnery chapel de-consecrated, and since then we’re cheerfully at work.  On Good Friday I gave communion to about 20 men, including 3 officers.  But today, misfortune struck.  The third one among us, a neutral from Duisburg-Wanheim, gave the sermon, and he turned Peter into a Führer and the Führer into Peter who had the “mission to lead” (after John 21:15 ff).  Of course we’re going to ship him out via a resolution in the synod.  Even worse luck had it that his company commander more or less ordered all the Protestants to attend this “presentation” so that about 45 men had to swallow this rot.  — I have nothing worse to report about myself than this spiritual annoyance.  … “In misery, but always cheerful.”

May 20, 1941:  In the meantime I’ve moved far to the east into a land where hunger and beatings reign.  There is great loneliness.  Everything that belongs to the normal life of a mid-European is lacking here.  The only warlike thing is the rumors about our mission.

But the question you will probably find most interesting is the kingdom of God and its role among the rough and a bit savaged men of the barracks.  We know that for years the spiritual life in Germany has revolved around the church question, and now we look to the future and ask ourselves what role God may allow us to play.  One thing is clear above all:  the past years have been a time of privation and atrophy of genuine nourishment for the soul.  In the few weeks that I’ve been a soldier again — oh, it already seems like a long time — I’ve had much more opportunity for evangelism than before.  Through various substitutions and personnel changes I’ve come together with comrades who read the Bible with me.  In general, as far as my faith goes, I live under the shield of the respect that even the most godless man has for an open profession of faith.  One thing that pains me a lot is that I have such a pitifully small understanding of what Finney emphasizes so much:  to speak in simple words about Jesus Christ in the language of those whom I’m trying to reach.  Discourse with the so-called “better classes” is so much easier — but it’s a weakness.  I’m going to work on this.

May 20, 1941.  My duties are notably pleasant.  You might not believe this if you saw us careening through bottomless swampy roads after a drenching thunderstorm, like a motor plow, a giant mud  thrower.  But it’s more interesting than marching drills and barracks duty.  There’s rumors again now of  a move, supposedly as a result of the new agreement.  But agreements are practically guarantees of imminent declarations of war.  Let’s wait and see.

May 23, 1941 (Ascension).  Don’t say anything bad about Prussians.  They are closer to the heavenly kingdom than we usually fear, because despite everything they gave us the day off, even though a long set of new orders came down yesterday.  Some people say the officers did the “old man” in yesterday evening, during a birthday party at the expense of a blissfully happy papa, but I believe that the officers’ hearts were turned by a brilliantly beautiful morning after a long period of rain and maybe also because of the open air religious service.  The pulpit, made of egg crates decorated with pine boughs, stood in a parking lot.  A whole army of jackdaws screeched overhead.  Green meadows, birch trees in bloom — it was the perfect spot for “Nature Christians” and for elevated words from Ernst Moritz Arndt. The preacher certainly looked sharp, but he stood far from God’s kingdom with his sermon to the 80 men present.  The jackdaws had good reason to be screeching, and the sun, after just a brief look, went into hiding.  Too bad the Ascension didn’t inspire him with joy for our lord; not a word about that.  The best thing about it was a few conversations afterwards, critically recognizing this derailment.  My own officer borrowed my little Bible; he said he was very interested in the OT, and could I lend him the book.  That was the Feast of the Ascension here today.  I really miss our singing in the parish back home.

May 29, 1941.   One thing is important enough that I should mention it.  It’s spring here in the countryside, filled with the glory and ripeness of approaching summer, a mercy for this land.  Every blooming branch gives me more joy than certain others enjoy the sinking of 10,000 tons of shipping.

June 9, 1941.  Time is standing on its head.  Today we worked through the night, slept in the morning, and then more of the same old routine.  I rarely have a quiet hour like this morning.  After a refreshing bath I lay down in a beautiful meadow and read Romans 8, and thought again at length about the sermon that I wanted to deliver on Easter about verse 1, and so I found a reason for prayer and gratitude and joy.  It pains me always to reflect on the fate of our prayers. Our brothers are in prison, most of the parishes are wiped out by the draft, and the people are full of fear and trembling for bread and future.  Many women write now that life is harder now than before, and everyone is trying to get set for a third winter of war, full of inner doubts about all the pathetic speeches.

June 20, 1941. Get ready today for a pretty long letter, which will cost me the rest of my paper, because circumstances are rarely favorable, above all the fact that the beast of war has not broken out yet.  Let’s be clear:  it rages so savagely in its cage that nobody wants to take the risk of guarding it.

I’m reminded now of a Latin template for the placement of “cum”  — Ceasar cum Rubiconem transissat …  Ceasar and the Rubicon are close at hand, and so the “cum” hangs like a sword just over our heads.  Maybe you will have read the commentary about it in the newspaper before this letter reaches you.  In recent days, they’ve arrived at yet another ostentatious peace agreement.  We came, we saw, and now we still have to conquer.  In the meantime, we inherited a role that promises somewhat more bellum gallicum than before the turn of the year.  Without a doubt, the longest voyage remains before us.  I read your little Steppen book with growing interest, sharpened by the best local color — nous verrons.

When I look around me now, behold — all the players have taken their places, the chief playwright Ivan Ivanovich from the Lenin Opera peers through the cracks in the scenery — the director is coming.  Is the end nearer now?  Us?  Me?  Or is this the beginning of the end?  Can we also beat England on the sea or on the Volga?  — A deluded strategy, tenable only against the background of a striving for world conquest — thus spake Roosevelt.

But God has the last word.  Psalm 2:

He who sits in heaven laughs, and the lord holds them in derision —

“them” — that’s us!

You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel –

“them” — that’s us!

Us lords, we of the master race, and I am a soldier of Adolf Hitler, the Führer of these magnificent ones.  It really would have been easier to bear if nobody had “liberated” me from the Frankfurt Gestapo prison for the Wehrmacht. (I know it was a well intentioned friendly deed.)  Wasn’t the Gestapo clerk, this representative of the absolute state, correct when he answered your petition to set me free, because I had been drafted, by screaming in your face, “This pig is unworthy of the front!”  I thank you for the tears, you know I do, that filled your eyes because of this obscenity.

But what kind of soldier am I?  God alone knows how torn up is the heart of a Christian in this war on this side.  But He alone also lets me know with granite certainty that I can only live now and forever by his mercy.  Because I really survive from day to day, from hour to hour, only because and insofar as I am raised out of the death pit of guilt — my guilt and the guilt of our beloved people, this people that is persecuted, betrayed, and shamed, and suffers itself to be shamed — into life under his merciful freedom.  If this certainty were not more total for me than the whole totality of our State, which will one day be shattered to pieces like a clay pot, then I would have to commit suicide today, or, if I were a lesser man, I would have to drink myself unconscious.

Instead, I praise with all brothers in spirit the lord on the cross “who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned man, purchased my freedom from all sins, from death and the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his sacred precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death, so that I may be his and that I may live under him in his kingdom and serve him.”

That is my salvation from wrongdoing, and if I have a hope for our country, then it is this:  when it is shattered to pieces — and God does not suffer contempt, he is the true LORD — that it may know that God himself has done it, by his immeasurably hard grace, in order to wake it up once again, and this time hopefully forever, from its boundless dreams — dreams that cost too much blood, innocent blood — and, if it please HIM, to give it a new beginning.

Private Albrecht Nicolaus, have you gone totally mad?  Well, where am I?  Where?  I stand at the gates of Russia and I am supposed to be fanatically enthusiastic and win, win, win at any cost.  But if the censorship reads this letter, then I will be liquidated tomorrow, a saboteur of victory, a miserable traitor.  Quo vadis, Germania!

June 25, 1941:  Now the ominous sphinx has unveiled its grisly visage.  Before Sunday dawn, after a sleepless night, we waited in our trenches for the first shot.  The first drumbeat came at 3:15, and then it never stopped.  If you had been awake at 3:15 on Sunday morning you would have worried endlessly from then on.  But please, don’t do it.  Now we are being tested again.  Since 9 am on Sunday we are in Russia.  Even the flora shows it: we left fields of cornflowers behind us and entered into poppies.

June 30, 1941:  I wrote you earlier about the “classical” overture of this military campaign.  Goethe would have said, “A new epoch in world history begins here and now.”  And this time he probably would have been right.  The Sunday morning hour is memorable for me also for another reason;  over the booming of cannon fire I had a truly fine conversation on our commanding hilltop with a lieutenant, who asked me to tell him in clear and sober terms what I believe.  This lieutenant is a teacher and propagandist, but an open spirit.  Well, since that hour we’re in motion — straight ahead sometimes, sometimes in circles for days, and standing still in between.  Pray for me.  I have not lost my faith, although I was shamed by a prisoner, who got a bowl of food from us, and stood up on the grass first and said grace.  I am thinking more and more that I am living in a country full of faithful witnesses of our lord.  The Bolsheviks killed the local pastor with his family, and every church goer was threatened and watched by agents in front of and inside the church.  Many have been sent to Siberia, so that I might well say, our noblest war aim could be the liberation of Siberia, but, but …. don’t we have ‘Siberia’ in our own country?  Madness, madness!

July 11, 1941:  In the course of my day, all personal things are choked off by duty, meetings, distractions and etc.  Certainly I am here, but the Prussians only have my body as booty.  So, you see, there is desolation but without hopelessness.  Didn’t we read Revelation 21 when we parted in the Spessart at Easter?  Isn’t that enough for you and me?  And for all time?  Including for our son, whom you are going to have, this dearly beloved one!

I am not going to be able to find the time now to write to other people besides you.  Please send my greetings to the dear parents, to the parish in Werden, and to the friends in Basel, Frankfurt(!), and Berlin.  Thank them for all the hours of work, fellowship, and prayer.

A bomb or a shell caught my father on July 16.  There is a journal by a surviving German infantryman, translated into English, that describes this particular campaign day by day; it says that on July 16, near Rzadkowka, “bombers attack our position around noon.  A stockpile of ammunition was hit.  The explosion tears eight comrades apart.”  Source.   Albrecht was buried somewhere nearby.  On September 30, 1942, his remains were moved to a mass grave in a cemetery in the center of nearby Zwiahel.  There is an old map on the web that shows both places, here.  Today, the former Rzadkowka has been absorbed as a suburb by Zwiahel, which  is now called Novohrad-Volynskyi, in the Ukraine.   There is a German nonprofit agency that tries to keep track of the graves of German soldiers killed and buried in other countries; it has no additional information.

Hans Schulz, the BK vicar who was arrested and imprisoned with Albrecht, was killed the following day.[122]

 (Continued in About my Father (3))


  1. [1]  http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helmut_Gollwitzer
  2. [2]The Gestapo intercepted it and translated it into German.  The original has been lost, but the Gestapo translation — actually, there were two — has survived.  I have translated the Gestapo’s surviving German translation into English.
  3. [3]The Gestapo translation of this passage is suspect.  Albrecht may have written “ächten” — to reject, rather than “achten,” to respect.
  4. [4]http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+11%3A2-10&version=KJV
  5. [5] Netter, a photographer, graphic artist and art critic, took a famous photograph of Karl Barth.
  6. [6]http://delegibus.com/2010,1.pdf p. 516
  7. [7]https://nicolaus.com/my-mothers-life/frankfurt-1939/
  8. [8]There was a special block set aside in the Dachau concentration camp for clergy
  9. [9]Reichsführer SS, the title of Heinrich Himmler
  10. [10]That would have been Oct. 2
  11. [11]The Gestapo did not get around to lifting the warrant for his arrest on the original 1937 charges until May 1940.[78]
  12. [12]See also the shorter English Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sondergericht 
  13. [13]I have been unable to find a law of that date in the German legal code, http://delegibus.com/2010,1.pdf
  14. [14]https://nicolaus.com/my-mothers-life/frankfurt-1939/
  15. [15]https://nicolaus.com/my-mothers-life/frankfurt-1939/
  16. [16]https://nicolaus.com/my-mothers-life/frankfurt-1939/
  17. [17]”Even if one-tenth remain there, they will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, which when it is cut down leaves a stump. Its stump is a holy seed.”

About the Authentic Church

Being German and therefore having to begin with beginnings, I started writing my life story by writing the life story of my father.  My father’s life story, though brief — he died at age 27 — was very wrapped up with the German Bekennende Kirche, the Authentic Church, so that in order to understand him, I found myself having to learn about this institution.  The following paragraphs can serve as a very short introduction.  The literature on this topic is large, and what I have written here below is subject to addition and correction as I get more deeply into it.

About the English Translation of Bekennende Kirche

The name Bekennende Kirche (BK) is conventionally translated as “Confessing Church”  or sometimes, “Confessional Church.”  This is a technically correct translation; bekennen means in the first place to admit or confess.  Readers steeped in theology will know that theological declarations of principles, such as one at Augsburg in 1530, are “confessions.”

Yet the translation can easily mislead and put off a lay reader, because it creates the impression that this church somehow laid emphasis on confessions, in the sense of going into a dark booth and reciting your sins to a priest.  The BK had nothing to do with that kind of confession.

The verb bekennen, particularly in the reflexive form, sich bekennen,  also means to profess, to bear witness, to recognize and accept, to declare in favor of, to adhere, to embrace, to cling to.  These meanings come closer to the heart.

The BK arose because a sizable number of German Protestant clergy felt that the established official church leadership had let go of and turned its back on Christianity, had abdicated, abjured, denied, abandoned and played Judas to the faith in favor of National Socialist (Nazi) ideology. The BK was, by contrast, the church that adhered to, bore witness, professed, embraced, clung to, and upheld the original faith.  The core meaning of Bekennende Kirche is the real, true, genuine, and authentic church.  Pastor Martin Niemöller, who as much as any German defined the character of this organization, called it “the real church.”[1]

From this perspective, the conventional English translation of “Confessing Church” creates some estrangement, and from a partisan viewpoint appears almost cowardly by comparison with “Authentic Church,” the translation I think better.  The “Confessing Church” translation is also unfortunate because there is an American religious trend — completely unrelated — by the same name.

All that having been said, I will avoid the whole conundrum and move forward by referring to the organization from here on simply as BK.

Another potential linguistic confusion for the lay reader arises from the name of the Protestant Church in the German language.  It is the Evangelische Kirche, the Evangelical Church.  It is not to be confused with the fundamentalist, born-again evangelical trends in American Protestantism.  In Germany then and now, the Evangelische Kirche was and is the established mainstream church, encompassing approximately two thirds of all religious believers.  This is why my mother, when we emigrated from Germany to the States in 1953, found a tolerable fit not in any of the American evangelical denominations, but in the Episcopal Church.

A Very Short History of the BK

After taking power at the beginning of 1933, the Nazi party moved to integrate the Protestant churches, which enjoyed a great deal of regional autonomy, into a single centralized Reich church headed by a Nazi bishop subservient to Hitler.  By late summer, the Nazi church faction, the “German Christians” (Deutsche Christen) had taken over the majority of the regional church federations and ousted its leaders.  The displaced dignitaries were thus forced into an oppositional role.

At the same time, a younger cohort coalesced, critical both of the Nazi faction and the displaced old guard.  Among its leaders were Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, men whose names later became legendary.  Principal among the Young Reformers’ demands was the separation of church and state, so as to preserve the church’s independence from the overbearing secular authority.

Neither grouping, however, at first took a clear stand in defense of Christians of Jewish ancestry.  A plank in the Nazis’ Aryanization platform condemned Christians whose grandparents were Jewish as non-Aryans and moved to defrock them and oust them from their congregations.

The outspoken anti-Nazi theologian Karl Barth in Basel promptly and publicly upbraided the Young Reformers for their “flabbiness” in the face of church Aryanization. Stung by Barth’s words and their consciences, in the fall of 1933, Niemöller and Pastor Gerhard Jacobi of Berlin — my mother’s pastor — founded the Pastor’s Emergency League (Pfarrernotbund), which spoke out against the expulsion of converted Christians of Jewish ancestry from the church, gave aid to its victims, and opposed organizational and doctrinal encroachments by the Deutsche Christen.

The League soon had pledges of membership from more than a third of the Protestant clergy in Germany.

The PEL’s energy in the face of the Nazi takeover of the church led in May 1934 to a nationwide meeting of oppositional clergy in Barmen, about 20 miles south of Essen (and, coincidentally, the birthplace of Frederick Engels).

The Barmen meeting created an elected council of delegates, the Bruderrat (Council of Brethren) and adopted a joint statement of theological principles, the Barmen Declaration, written largely by Barth.  The unanimous final vote at the Barmen conference was the high point of enthusiasm and unity of the diverse forces present.

The Barmen text had no explicit political content, but political implications lay not far below the surface.  The leading thesis of the Declaration, notably, took implicit aim against the so-called “natural theology” of the Deutsche Christen, which elevated the swastika to parity with the cross, equated the Third Reich with the kingdom of God, and conflated Hitler with Christ.  A corollary Barmen thesis said, in veiled language, that Christians owed obedience to the state only to the extent that the state respected the principles of the church.

The Barmen conference was the founding event of the BK. In the fall of 1934, a follow-up conference held in Niemöller’s church in Berlin-Dahlem drew the practical consequences of the Barmen principles.  It called on Protestants to disaffiliate from the official Reich church and to recognize the BK as the sole legitimate church authority, i.e. the real church.  Thus the German church was formally split in two.

German Protestantism in the early 1930s had approximately 18,000 pastors.  Of these, approximately one third adhered to the Nazi-affiliated Deutsche Christen (German Christians),  and somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 pastors  belonged to the BK. [2]

With its now open and public oppositional stance in matters of belief and church policy, the BK attracted additional support.  In some important localities, such as Frankfurt/Main, it drew 12,000 people to a show of solidarity in 1935, and in that region it enlisted a majority of the clergy.  In Westphalia, ninety per cent of the active Protestants, some half a million people, held membership cards in the PEL.[3]  New parishes affiliated with the BK formed in many parts of the country.

With its new strength in 1935, the BK won the reinstatement of a few of the ousted church dignitaries, and more importantly, it isolated and discredited the Deutsche Christen in public opinion and forced the regime to change tactics.  Instead of trying to take over the church by frontal assault, the Nazi regime now sought, for a period, to reconcile the BK with the Nazi-dominated official church.

This new tactic lasted until June 1936, when Niemöller on behalf of the BK addressed a memorandum to Hitler, politely but firmly denouncing the regime’s anti-Christian and anti-Semitic tendencies and deploring the concentration camps and the abuses of the secret police as un-Christian.

Now the glove came off.  The regime responded by arresting more than 700 BK-affiliated clergy, murdering many of them, confiscating BK funds, and prohibiting the BK from accepting offerings at its services.   Subsequent Nazi decrees in the following years prohibited the BK from teaching, holding examinations, or ordaining clergy.  In effect, the BK was driven underground.

Despite the repression, parts of the BK continued to function.  Its national and some regional councils continued to meet in secret.  BK parishes met in banquet rooms of restaurants, and when this was outlawed, in factory halls, warehouses, barns, private houses, or in open fields.  It maintained an underground seminary, administered underground theological exams, and held underground ordinations, such as my father’s in March 1941.  Newly-ordained BK pastors could not draw salaries as civil servants as the legal clergy did,[4] but subsisted by passing the hat and by donations for performing baptisms and funerals.  (This was my father’s situation as vicar in Essen-Werden in 1940-41.)

A number of individuals within the BK made notable efforts in opposition to the regime and in assistance to victims of persecution.

Among them was Heinrich Grüber, who in late 1938 founded the “Büro Grüber” in Berlin which assisted Jews, particularly Jews who had converted to Christianity, in hiding or escaping from Germany.[5]  [6]

Elisabeth Schmitz wrote a courageous memorandum calling on the BK to rise to the defense of Jewish people against Nazi persecution.

Individual parishes passed the hat to support Jewish individuals in hiding. BK members helped to forge residence passes, Aryan certificates, ration cards and other documents necessary for survival.

There were numerous individual acts of assistance and solidarity.

Countless members of the BK were punitively drafted, arrested, sent to concentration camps, and murdered.  Niemöller, Bonhoeffer, and Grüber, among other leading figures, were sent to concentration camps. Bonhoeffer was executed there shortly before the end of the war.  Niemöller and Grüber survived.

The Myth of the BK

The Allied authorities at war’s end declared the BK an “active anti-fascist resistance movement,” and from that seed was born the postwar myth of the BK.

Faced with an overwhelming weight of guilt for the Nazi atrocities, many Germans in the immediate postwar period sought to distance themselves from the past events and to identify themselves as members of the German resistance.  The BK, as one of the few non-Marxist organizations that opposed some Nazi policies and was persecuted for it, became in many eyes a shining beacon of heroic resistance to the Nazi regime.  Its mere existence and survival salvaged to some degree the German national character.

And in fact, some leaders and members of the BK demonstrated great heroism, and many paid the ultimate price for it. Yet the soft-focus image of the BK as a disciplined and cohesive resistance network locked in battle with the Nazi regime, along the lines perhaps of the French Résistance, was vastly inflated. This myth underwent critical demolition during the 1960s and ’70s as church archives and other sources opened up and historians worked their way through tons of surviving documents.  The much more fine-grained, gritty, and stomach-churning panorama of the BK that emerged (and is still emerging, as work continues) forms an important framework for my father’s brief life story.

The BK was not cohesive; it was torn by inner conflict.  It was not consistently a resistance organization; rather, it was a resistance network at some times and places, and at other occasions it conciliated and collaborated.  Many of its leading figures walked a tightrope, resisting one moment and collaborating the next.  This conflict arose from the nature of the major forces that made up the movement.

The Nazi takeover of the established regional churches in most of the German provinces in the summer of 1933 ousted many hundreds of church officials from their posts, and drove them into opposition and to the conference at Barmen.  These unseated dignitaries naturally sought to recapture the power, privileges, income, and other benefits of their positions.  They had little or no quarrel with Nazi ideology or politics in other spheres.  Many of them had contacts within the Nazi party or government.  Most of them believed that they would regain their posts by demonstrating that they could be just as useful to the Nazi regime, or more so, than the moronic Nazi puppets who had displaced them.  Their strategy was conciliation and collaboration.

The group around Niemöller, which came to be known as the Dahlem wing,  had less investment in the prerogatives of the old church, or were more willing to sacrifice the emoluments of office for the sake of principles.  This group included many of the lower-level clergy.  They were deeply offended by the  theological distortions that the Nazi-sponsored Deutsche Christen introduced.  The Deutsche Christen equated the swastika with the cross.  The Third Reich was the Kingdom of God.  Hitler was Jesus in modern form.  The Old Testament was too Jewish and should be dropped.  Not far beneath the surface of Nazi theology lay contempt for Jesus and the disciples because they were, after all, Jews.   A Christian didn’t have to go into the fine points of theology to be  offended.  Even after the Deutsche Christen were relegated to the background, the indelible stain of Nazi policy on the church was obvious and unpalatable.

The Dahlem tendency saw in the conservative, conciliationist approach the spiritual death of the church.  If the conservatives had their way, centuries of religious doctrine would be jettisoned, replaced by a vicious caricature.  The church’s central function of spreading the gospel would be snuffed out.  The church would become an ornamental appendage of the state.  The clergy would be reduced to mumbling ceremonial platitudes at baptisms, weddings, and funerals.  The survival of the church as a living body required severing ties with the gangrenous official church and rebuilding on new foundations.

The conservatives saw in the Dahlem tendency the destruction of the old order which had elevated them to power, and which they hoped to see restored.  The Dahlem wing, in their eyes, could only provoke the Nazi regime to retaliation and repression, and imperil their expectations.  They believed that the BK either would be crushed or, if it survived, would offer them no places.

The picture was complicated by differences between Lutheran, Calvinist (Reformed), and United congregations; on whether the official churches had been taken over by the Deutsche Christen or were intact; and by regional and local divisions.  There were many intermediate opinions, attempts at compromise, switching of sides, and so forth; but on the practical issue of whether Protestants should cut ties with the official church and recognize the BK as the authentic church, opinion was polarized.  Matters came to a split at a BK conference in Bad Oeynhausen in February 1936.[7]  Each wing now organized its own provisional leadership bodies and administrative apparatus within the BK.  These were soon dissolved and replaced by others.  Intra-BK politics became intensely heated. The factions frequently appeared to be sabotaging one another.  The authority of the federal council of brethren that supposedly united all BK tendencies was limited and in dispute, and its relations with the separate councils of brethren of the German church districts were tenuous.  There was much confusion and chaos.

Even after the arrest of Niemöller in July 1937, the conservatives in the BK enjoyed a degree of tolerance from the regime and could operate semi-openly.  Some of them were Nazi party members or had inside connections that sometimes protected them, and these connections could in individual cases prove useful to rescue selected BK victims of repression.  Some in the Dahlem wing also had protectors on the inside, and were repeatedly released after being jailed.  Many of the estalished lower-level BK clergy led a double existence, leading BK parishes but drawing their salaries from the official church.  At services in some parishes, the collection plate was passed twice, once for the official church, and a second time for the BK.

The newly ordained clergy ordained under BK auspices were at particular risk because they were “illegals”  — their examination and ordination were not recognized by the official church.[8][9]  Women were marginalized.  Although permitted to take a full degree in theology as of 1927, neither the official church nor the BK ordained them as pastors.  They could at most work with women and children, at a fraction of a man’s pay.  Still, as the war decimated the ranks of male pastors, the BK offered the only opportunity for women to put their theological studies to some practical use. [10]

As a result of the conservative presence in the BK, and the general climate of repression after 1936-37, the BK as a whole was unable to take any action, take any position or make any statement on any issue of current importance outside the narrow bounds of church administration and church doctrine.  The persecution of the Jews and other minorities, the repression of “Bolsheviks,” the invasion of neighboring countries were all issues on which the BK as a whole was shamefully silent, or even displayed support for the regime.  This was true not only of the conservatives, but also of most of the Dahlem wing most of the time.  After the repression following the Niemöller memorandum to Hitler in 1936, overt political opposition to the regime and its policies, outside of narrow church issues, became extremely dangerous.  Many of the Dahlem figures knew full well that their opposition to Nazi theology and to the Nazi takeover of church administrations was a political struggle, but after 1936 they did not dare to call on their followers to employ political tactics, nor to form alliances in the mutual interest with other oppressed and persecuted groups.  The regime and the BK’s own conservative wing repeatedly attacked the Dahlem wing for harboring “Bolsheviks.”  The Dahlemites took pains to declare that the BK was not a haven for political opponents of the regime, to clothe its pronouncements always in theological terms, and to keep the issues narrowly focused on church matters.

Unlike the resistance organizations in France, Italy, and other occupied countries, the BK never derailed Nazi trains, ambushed Nazi soldiers, executed Nazi collaborators, or took any other acts of positive physical resistance against the Nazi state.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, alone among BK leaders, cultivated ties with members of the landed aristocracy who plotted to assassinate Hitler, and for this the BK disavowed him.[11]  The BK’s resistance was the resistance of the turtle withdrawing into its shell.

The taboo against political opposition in the BK is the reason modern church historians like van Norden and Ludwig took such notice of a few letters that my father wrote in which he expressed overtly political ideas.  Although most of these expressions were quite modest, they were a noteworthy rarity among BK adherents.

[To be continued]

Related posts: Margot Nicolaus memoirs

Profile of my Father

About my Father (1) and (2)  [in progress]



  1. [1]Quoted in Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, p. 42.
  2. [2] Matthew Hockenos, A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past, Indiana University Press 2004, p. xxv
  3. [3]Barnett, For the Soul of the People, p. 55
  4. [4]The separation of church and state, an ideal of the Weimar Republic, had not penetrated to the bottom line of church finance in Germany.  Both of the major churches, Protestant and Catholic, relied principally on the church tax, and the clergy were paid by the state as civil servants.
  5. [5]After the war, the “Büro Grüber” became the Evangelische Hilfsstelle für ehemals Rasseverfolgte (Protestant Aid Agency For the Racially Persecuted); my mother’s first job in Frankfurt was with this agency.
  6. [6](The “Büro Grüber” is the topic of a book by the historian Hartmut Ludwig, who also wrote the short profile of my father in the Protestant Profiles book.)
  7. [7]See the informative article Kirchenkampf in the German Wikipedia, http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirchenkampf#Spaltung_der_BK 
  8. [8]Wolfgang Gerlach, And the Witnesses Were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Persecution of the Jews, p. 188 [link].
  9. [9]I found this out during a visit to Essen in 2001. I stopped at the church office in Essen and asked what records they had of my father, who was ordained in 1941 by the BK.  The answer was, none.  I went away thinking it was merely a paperwork error.
  10. [10]Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People, p. 66.
  11. [11]http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirchenkampf#Kriegszeit

Thumbnail Profile of My Father

This thumbnail profile of my father appears in Protestantische Profile im Ruhrgebiet: 500 Lebensbilder aus 5 Jahrhunderten (Protestant Profiles in the Ruhr Region:  500 profiles from 5 centuries), edited byMichael Basse, Traugott Jähnichen and Harald Schroeter-Wittke, Hartmut Spenner publishers, Kamen (Germany) 2009, pp. 592-593.  The author is Hartmut Ludwig, a church historian and Doctor of Theology at the Humboldt University in Berlin.  The translation from the German is mine.

Nicolaus, Albrecht (Born May 8 1914 in Kiel, died July 16 1941 near Kiev).  “If I have one hope for this country, it is this, that it … may know that God himself did it, in order to awaken it once again and hopefully for the last time, with inconceivably hard mercy, from its unbounded dreams — dreams that cost too much blood, too much innocent blood — and, if it pleases HIM, to make a new beginning with it.”  Albrecht Nicolaus wrote these words to his wife Margot two days before the German onslaught on the Soviet Union.

Born on May 8 1914 in Kiel, he grew up in Essen-Werden, where his father was an office employee with Krupp.  After his high school completion exam (Abitur) in 1933 and his labor service (Arbeitsdienst), he studied theology in Marburg, Tübingen, Berlin and Basel from 1934 to 1938.  He belonged among the young theologians who identified already as students with the radical Bekennende Kirche (BK) and whose political analysis led them away from the Nazi state.  The theology of Karl Barth “became ever more precious to him in various trials by fire.”

Nicolaus asked Pastor Wilhelm Busch, head of the Protestant youth movement in Essen, for a “clear word” about the plebiscite of March 29, 1936, in which Hitler wanted the people to ratify his breach of the Treaty of Versailles via the German army’s march into the demilitarized Rhineland.  Nicolaus hesitated to “write a blank check for everything that will follow — and all this with a little ‘x’ — it is a real cross to bear!”  The Gestapo intercepted the letter.

After the Munich pact of September 1938, Nicolaus wrote to friends in England about his disappointment with the attitude of England and France toward Hitler’s demands.  “This is the policy of men who focus on guarding the peace while losing freedom and independence.  There is cowardice in the noisy celebrations of so many who feel that the war has been postponed for a little while.”  This letter also landed in Gestapo hands.

In the spring of 1939, Nicolaus sat for his first theological examination before the examining committee of the BK in the Rhineland.  In April 1939 he became vicar in Braunfels on the Lahn.  He was arrested there at the beginning of September.  At first, he refused to make any statement about his examination by the outlawed BK.  On December 24 he was released from prison in order to be drafted into the army.  The official screamed at his bride, “The pig is not worthy of the front.”  He was drafted in April 1940.  He married on October 3, 1940.  He sat for the second theological exam with the BK and was ordained on March 16, 1941, in Essen-Werden.

On June 20, he wrote his wife:  “God alone knows how torn up the heart of a Christian is in this war, on this side. … I stand at the gates of Russia and I am supposed to be fanatically enthusiastic about victory, victory, victory at any price — but if the censorship reads this letter, I will be liquidated tomorrow, a saboteur of victory, a miserable traitor!  Quo vadis, Germania?”

Albrecht Nicolaus became a casualty of war on July 16, 1941 near Rzadkowka in the Kiev district.

— Hartmut Ludwig

About My Father (1)

My father as baby, 1915

Growing up as a bomb baby in Germany, as I did, it was common not to have a living father.  About 2.5 million German children lost their fathers in World War II.  Source.  In my case, my father lost his life two months before I was born, so we never knew one another.

From my mother, I learned that she had met him while both were students of theology under Karl Barth in Basel.  While on a ski trip there, she lost a ski during a storm and would have perished, but Nico (as everyone called him) defied all odds to rescue her, and so she came to trust him.  (See her memoirs.)  He was good on the guitar and could play the violin.  They were both active in the underground fraction of the German Protestant Church, the Bekennende Kirche (BK).  They helped Jews hide or escape, they published newsletters — once, my mother told me, he was almost caught transporting a mimeograph machine — and they listened to BBC.  He was ordained as a pastor.  He was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo.  He was drafted and killed in the war in Russia.

Those tidbits were approximately the sum total of my knowledge of this man from whom I have half my genetic material and little else.  I assembled these few stones into a mosaic that made up the image of my father in my head.  It wasn’t much, but it was good.  Compared to many of my peers who did not know who their father was, or might have preferred not to know, or who had living fathers who abused them, I was well set up in the paternal role model department, at least in the imagination.

If I did not know more, the reason was partly that my mother did not know more.  Their whole relationship, from first acquaintance to last contact, spanned less than four years.  They lived together a total of five months.  Less than nine months elapsed between their wedding day and his death.  And then, directly after the war, in my mother’s move from the village of Fürstenhagen to the city of Frankfurt, a small truckload of items got lost forever, including the briefcase containing his letters and other memorabilia.  She had left only three photographs of him.

My mother’s memoirs, which I found among her papers after her death in 1997, gave me a much better picture of my mother, but added little of substance to my picture of my father.

There the matter might have rested indefinitely.  But one day in the summer of 2009 I got a phone call out of the blue from a woman who identified herself as a staffer at the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles.  She wanted to know if I was the “Kolja” Nicolaus who was the son of Albrecht Fritz Nicolaus and Margot Nicolaus born in September 1941.  (Indeed I am.)  A German historian in Berlin was looking for me.

Weeks later, after several false starts, I made an email connection with Hartmut Ludwig, a Dozent in the Theological Faculty of Humboldt University in Berlin.  Although he holds a Doctor of Theology degree, Ludwig refused the usual German honorifics, Doktor and Professor, and insisted on being addressed simply as Herr Ludwig.  His writing and teaching is focused on the modern history of the Protestant Church in Germany, particularly during the Nazi period.  During his digging in various archives, he had come across some letters from my father that had aroused his interest. He had pursued this thread, and had written a short chapter about my father as part of a German book, Protestant Profiles, that appeared in 2009.  (I have translated this text here in a separate post.)  In his research he found a mention of my birth, wondered if I were still alive, and whether I had any relevant material.

I sent Herr Ludwig, of course, my mother’s manuscript, together with all surviving documents in my hands, such as birth and death certificates, which might be helpful in nailing down dates.  We carried on a correspondence by email. This gave me a chance to polish up my rusty German writing skills and learn how to make Umlaute on an English-language keyboard.  In the fall of 2010, my wife, my elder son Fred, and I visited Berlin as part of a European trip, and we had a very pleasant dinner with Ludwig and his wife at the historic Hotel Albrechtshof.  It was an appropriate venue:  here the underground federal council of brethren of the BK had met during the Hitler period.

Ludwig knew a great deal more about my father than I did.  As a professional historian with a number of publications, he had access to the archives of the German Protestant Church; to the private archives of Karl Barth; to the university archives of Tübingen, where my father had studied; to the archives of the Krupp works, where my father’s father, my father, and my father’s sister had worked;  to the recently opened archives of the Gestapo in Berlin, Düsseldorf, and Frankfurt; and to several others.  He was able to photocopy some of the documents for me; others I later obtained from the archives myself, thanks to his lead.  I have been repeatedly impressed by the depth and detail of the archives’ holdings, and I am grateful to the staff members of the archives for their efficiency, friendliness, and readiness to assist.

Among the documents were copies of letters my father wrote to my mother from the Eastern Front in 1941, which had been circulated privately among members of the BK and so found their way into the archives.  There was also a letter my father wrote to Pastor Busch in Essen, asking for guidance on a political question — a letter intercepted by the Gestapo.  And there was a letter my father wrote to friends in England, likewise intercepted, that landed him in a Gestapo prison.  The German archives also contained files kept on my father by Gestapo officials in Essen and in Frankfurt, together with the files of the prisons where he was kept.

I am immensely grateful to Prof. Ludwig  for his initiative, which has given me the impetus and the foundation for piecing together a new, evidence-based portrait of my father.  Naturally, as a son I look at my father through a different lens than Ludwig, the historian of an institution and a movement.  Wherever possible, I have drawn on my mother’s memoirs and I have added some links via Google to people, places, and events that touched my father’s life.

My Father

Martin Karl Nicolaus' personnel file card with Krupp

My father, Albrecht Fritz Nicolaus, was born in Kiel on May 8, 1914.  His father, Martin Karl Nicolaus, born in Essen in 1885, had gone to work for the Krupp works in Essen in 1910, in the Hollerith department.  Hollerith cards were the computer data storage medium in that epoch.  A copy of Martin Karl’s personnel file card, preserved in the Krupp Archives, is on the right.

Only a year later, Krupp transferred Martin to the Krupp works in Kiel.  This was probably the Germaniawerft, where Krupp built U-boats.  In June of 1914, shortly after the birth of my father, Martin withdrew from the Krupp workers’ pension system, probably because he was promoted to lower management.

In Kiel, Martin met Anna Kroneberg, and they married.  Their first child, Lieselotte Nicolaus, was born on August 10, 1912.

Anna Nicolaus, nee Kroneberg, 1915

Anna Kroneberg had a sister, Minna, also in Kiel, who met and married K. J. Heinrich Brüggensiecker; and they had a son, Heinrich, a year after my father was born.  (Heinrich reappears much later in my and my mother’s story.)

After the end of World War I, in 1919, Krupp transferred Martin back to Essen; there he worked, apparently in the office of the Gussstahlfabrik (the cast steel plant) until the end of his life in 1942.

Albrecht was five when the Nicolaus family moved to Essen.  He did his primary and secondary school education there. His education proceeded on the college-bound track, and he completed his Abitur — the final exam that qualifies a student for entrance to university — in the spring of 1933 at the Reformrealgymnasium.

Lieselotte and Albrecht Nicolaus, Christmas 1930

Directly after his Abitur, Albrecht entered the Arbeitsdienst (labor service).  Instituted during the Weimar Republic in 1931 as a voluntary program to combat unemployment and to do public works projects, the Arbeitsdienst became compulsory with the Nazi takeover.   From April 1933 to March 1934, Albrecht did his labor service at Camp 2/44 in Stolzenberg, a place name that no longer exists, somewhere in Pomerania (northeastern Germany).  The work was very probably farm labor.  These camps had a partly economic and partly propagandistic purpose.  Apparently, some of the latter stuck to Albrecht.

In April 1934, at age 19, Albrecht enrolled as a theology student at the university in Marburg, an institution affiliated with the Protestant church.  There he joined a Wohnkameradschaft, similar to a fraternity house, affiliated with the DCSV, the German Christian Student Association, a group somewhat similar to the YMCA.

At the same time, on April 4, 1934, Albrecht joined the SA, the Sturmabteilung, the brown shirts. The photograph to the right shows Albrecht and his mother and an unidentified third person (possibly his sister Lieselotte) at a summer camp near Marburg in August, 1934, during the time that Albrecht was an SA member; perhaps this explains the haircut.  While in the SA, Albrecht earned two certificates of proficiency in sports.   He left the SA on March 1, 1935.  The DCSV, the German Christian Student Association to which Albrecht belonged at Marburg, was banned by the Nazis in 1938.

Albrecht passed his Hebrew language exam at Marburg in July 1934, and his Greek language exam in February 1935.  (He would have done his Latin earlier, in high school.)  Theology students needed to demonstrate proficiency in all three Biblical languages. In July 1935, Albrecht took and passed two exams in theological doctrine, with Profs. Maurer and Schlier at Marburg, earning a grade of B (“Gut“).   He obtained a waiver of one fourth of his fees and a scholarship of 60 Reichsmark while studying at Marburg.

Albrecht's vacation worker file card at Krupp

From July 1 to November 25, 1935, Albrecht worked at Krupp, where his father and sister also worked (she had begun there in 1929 as an accounting clerk).  He was a Ferienarbeiter (vacation worker) in the Büro für Arbeiterangelegenheiten — Office of Workers’ Affairs, probably what we would call today the “human resources” department.  He returned there a second time the following year, from July 1 to October 31, 1936.  (See file card, left; from Krupp Historical Archive)

Albrecht (right) and his father Martin in Essen, 193?

In November, 1935, Albrecht registered at the University in Tübingen in the theology school.  He immediately filed an application for a waiver of half the university fees.  In addition to evidence of satisfactory scholarship, he had to submit personal information and family financial data, which is duly preserved in the file.

The application attested that the family owned no land or other capital assets, real or otherwise.  Its only significant source of income was Martin’s salary as office employee (Büroangestellter) at Krupp, which came to 382.50 Reichsmark per month or 4,590 Reichsmark per year.  His earnings were below the threshold for the income tax and the wealth tax.  The family had no debts.  Lieselotte’s pittance went to subsidize Albrecht’s studies.  His summer job earnings covered part of his unpaid debt for fees at Marburg.  He did not belong to the Nazi student association or to any political party.  Albrecht’s mother had to undergo a serious neck operation and was being treated at the Krupp clinic.  The father’s health insurance would cover only a small part of the expected but still unknown medical bill; thus the family’s financial situation was strained.  The application was granted and Albrecht continued his studies at Tübingen.

Pastor Wilhelm Busch

The following spring, while at Tübingen, Albrecht wrote a letter to Pastor Wilhelm Busch which began his troubles with the Nazi police.

Pastor Busch was a prominent senior clergyman in Essen and was a mentor to the young Albrecht and a friend of the family.  Busch had begun as pastor of a parish of coal miners (Essen was a center of coal and steel production) and then became Youth Pastor, leader of the city’s Protestant young people.  The chief meeting place of this youth association was the Weigle Haus.  In 1933, the Hitler Youth made a practice of attacking various Catholic or Protestant youth club houses by night and taking them over.  Busch gathered about 100 of his older youth together and organized them to guard the Weigle Haus and defend it.  When the Hitler Youth crowd assembled and attacked in early 1934, Busch’s guards defended the house vigorously with hoses, sticks, and fists.  Not expecting resistance, the Hitler hoodlums, pursued by the defenders, fled to the nearest train station, where bystanders joined in beating them up.  The Weigle Haus was saved.   [Source]  The battle made Busch a hero with the city’s youth, but a marked man in the eyes of the regime.  Thus it was no surprise that Albrecht’s letter to Busch was intercepted by the Gestapo (the Geheime Staatspolizei, Secret State Police).

The original of Albrecht’s letter, written in the pointed and slanted Gothic handwriting of the day, has been lost.  But the Gestapo made a typescript, which survives (right).  The Gestapo official’s large diagonal handwritten note in the left margin says “Send immediately: express mail to D[üssel]dorf & Tübingen.” 

 March 23, 1936

Dear Pastor:

My letter was actually supposed to be about a different matter, but in the meantime something very pressing has come up: the plebiscite.

The ballot, which I received yesterday, drove me into something of a corner and I still don’t see the way out.  But I don’t want to risk my small capital of connections with the fatherland prematurely through light- or wrong-headed moves.  Still — a new parliament?  Because by giving my approval to March 7, I make out a blank check for everything that follows, all with a little “x” — it’s a real cross to bear!  Quite a bit more could be said on this topic.

Please don’t  make too much out of the fact that a young man of “today” wants to borrow civic advice from an old soldier of “yesterday.”  But I would be grateful to you for  a clear word.

Sincerely, your

(signed: Albrecht Nicolaus)

The event of March 7 was the German army’s march into the Rhineland, a demilitarized zone under the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno.   The plebiscite, scheduled for March 29, was to approve a new Reichstag (German parliament) composed almost entirely of Nazi party members, and to give a gloss of popular ratification to Germany’s flagrant breach of these treaties.  The plebiscite was exactly as Albrecht feared, a blank check for everything that followed.

A note in the Gestapo file indicates that Albrecht’s mail was placed under Postkontrolle (mail control) after this letter was intercepted, but nothing further of interest was found, and the mail watch on Albrecht was stopped for reasons of economy three weeks later. (It was resumed, however, two years later on account of another letter, discussed below.)

The Gestapo clerk in Tübingen writes on April 16, 1936,  that  “until now the only information we have on him is that he is active as an organizer among the so-called Bekenntnis-students in Tübingen.”  (Image to the right)

There is no indication that Busch received Albrecht’s letter, or that if he did, answered it.  He certainly did not answer it in writing, or the answer would be in the Gestapo archives.[1]  Busch was imprisoned and released several times during the Nazi era.  He married my parents on Oct. 3 1940 and baptized me on Oct. 12, 1941.  Busch survived the war and became an influential figure in postwar religion and politics.

Karl Barth

In 1937, Albrecht moved to Basel, Switzerland, to study under Karl Barth.  Barth is today revered as something of a Protestant saint.  In my parents’ time, he was a highly controversial figure.  He was a professor of theology at Bonn, Germany, when Hitler came to power.  He was instrumental in the formation of the Bekennende Kirche in 1934 and was the principal author of its theological manifesto, the Barmen Declaration.  The following year, he refused to swear allegiance to Hitler, was fired from the university, and forced to leave Germany.  He returned to his native Switzerland to teach at Basel, one of the oldest and most prestigious schools of theology in Europe.  He was a member of the trend of “dialectic theology,” which had remote roots in the German philosopher Hegel, and became its foremost advocate.  His thirteen-volume Church Dogmatics, which he began in 1932,  is considered a monumental classic of theology.

Barth’s most controversial teaching, in his academic work as in the Barmen Declaration, centered on the thesis that the sole source of the church’s truth was the teaching of Jesus Christ.  That may sound like a Sunday school platitude, but it was intended and received as a stab in the heart to theologians — particularly Nazi theologians — who held up church tradition, culture, history, nature, natural law, philosophy and of course political ideology and political leaders as equally or more important sources of church doctrine.  Students from Germany sympathetic to the BK came to Basel, particularly because the German theology schools had been largely purged of anti-fascists.

My mother Margot came to Basel at the same time.  In her memoirs (elsewhere on this website) she writes:

In the winter semester of 1937/38 there was a bunch of about half a dozen Germans of anti-Nazi background in Basel as students of theology, all of them eager to learn from Professor Karl Barth: Albrecht Nicolaus from Essen, Joachim Hanschkatz from Finsterwalde, Helmut Hesse from Wuppertal-Elberfeld, Maria Netter, Günther Völker, Ruth Wendlandt and myself, Margot Eickhoff, from Berlin. We all became good friends and, in the case of Albrecht Nicolaus and Margot Eickhoff, we got married two years later.

Lectures were delivered and seminars held at the old, old university building in Basel, overlooking the Rhine river from a high point. The benches and desks in the building were ancient: Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Dutch scholar, had sat there some time at the end of the 15th century! And I was sitting there now!

Karl Barth’s lecture halls were always crowded with students anxious to hear what the world-famous professor had to say. In the beginning it was very difficult to understand him because he had a very thick German-Swiss accent that was a strain on our ears. Eventually, we got used to it. The professor also wrote volume after volume, all very scholastic stuff with lots of quotes in Hebrew, Latin and Greek.

Barth’s domestic life was equally interesting.  In the heart of one of the stodgiest institutions in one of the most hidebound countries in Christendom, the famous Calvinist theologian was living in a ménage à trois.

Once a week the German theology students were invited to the midday meal (the main meal of the day) at various theology professors’ houses. This was a generous way of sustaining the German students on their meager budgets. So there I was at the great master’s house, at the great master’s table. Naturally, the great master sat at the head of the table and his wife to his right. There also sat the master’s two sons, also students of theology, and the invited guests. But who was the lady who sat at the master’s left side? The lady’s name was Charlotte von Kirschbaum. The master called her Lulu. He and Lulu did most of the talking. Barth’s wife was icily polite but mostly silent. It fast dawned on the invited students what was going on here.

Officially, Lulu was Professor Karl Barth’s secretary and co-worker. For him she had studied Hebrew, Greek and Latin and wrote all his manuscripts and letters. She had a room next to the master’s study and that’s where she devoted her life to Karl.

Karl Barth’s colleagues – we found out – had repeatedly told him that his marital infidelity was untenable for a Christian theologian and they implored him to separate himself from his mistress. But Karl Barth insisted that Lulu was sent to him by God and that he would insult God if he let her go. For Karl Barth’s wife divorce was unthinkable — he was a world-famous theologian.

Margot Eickhoff (later: Nicolaus) 1932

At least one student whom Margot knew was so devastated by the contradiction between the master’s writings and his home life that he quit school and went home.  But most of the students seemed to be far more impassioned by matters of doctrine than by prurient pursuits.  Margot, who was an attractive young woman, reports on her evening at a theology students’ dance party:

One of Karl Barth’s sons invited me to a dance at a party given by a fraternity to which a lot of theology students belonged. I was pretty worried that I would be a failure at dancing — I had never been at a dance before. I felt obliged to go since it was considered a privilege to go. I was able to buy a simple and inexpensive long cotton dress, pink with little black decorative bands, and there I was with a son of the famous professor, in line being looked over by the theology professors and the music started and we were supposed to dance. But did we dance?

No, Sir. All the Swiss and some of the German theology students stood and sat around a table upon which stood a bottle of cheap red wine – and all they did was discuss – of all things – the resurrection of the dead. Will you believe me? This went on for hours and hours. The Swiss students talked and talked while their French speaking colleagues danced and danced. The son of Karl Barth who had invited me to the dance never danced a single dance with me or anybody else.

Just before the end of the affair the other son of Karl Barth, Marcus, came and invited me to a waltz which I managed to do since he was a strong leader. His brother took me home in a taxi and said that he enjoyed my company although he had not spoken a single word to me all evening.

Albrecht became a special person for Margot in the course of a ski outing.  At that time and in that place, one could still cross from Switzerland to Germany and back without difficulties.  Margot writes:

 I wanted very much to go skiing in the mountains since a lot of students enjoyed doing it. Although I had never been on skis before, I did not think that there was I any thing to learn – it looked sooo easy – and so, one weekend a group of German students decided to spend a weekend in the nearby Black Forest, just across the border from Switzerland in Germany.

With a couple of borrowed skis I joined the group. Albrecht Nicolaus was part of our group. We decided to do the easy climb up the Feldberg, and the weather forecast promised beautiful snow. Barely halfway up the Feldberg, a snowstorm started with such wildness that I one could hardly see anything ahead. Under these conditions, the group split and it so happened that only Albrecht Nicolaus, “Nico” was near me. He encouraged me to go on and on because I became so tired that I only wanted to sit down in the snow and wait for the storm to subside. Without Nico’s encouragement I would have frozen to death sitting in the snow. […]

Suddenly my left ski loosened itself from my foot and disappeared in the white nowhere. Without a ski, my left foot got stuck knee deep in the snow. This time, I thought, I’m going to die in the snow.  But Nico did not want to leave me to die. He said that he would go back to the restaurant on top of the mountain and get (borrow) another pair of skies and come back to me. Quite frankly, I thought he could not possibly find the way back to the top of the mountain and then come back and find me in the white hell.

Where I was, I waited and waited and waited. When I had almost given up hope, there was Nico with a fresh pair of skis. He helped me to put them on and then kept to my side as we went on through the white unknown downhill, down, down.

Suddenly, there was a clearing and a small hotel was in sight. It was a youth hostel. We were safe. We got quarters for the night, separately, of course. The next morning we took the train back to Basel. When we arrived, our friends told us that they had already prayed for our dead souls.

In that night three experienced mountain guides had lost their lives in the snow storm.

This happened quite some time before Nico asked me to marry him. But from that day on I knew that I could rely on him with my life.

My father as a student, 193?

In Basel, Albrecht found not only his future wife and mother of his child, but also a new clarity and conviction.  Years later, after the war, Margot wrote to Karl Barth thanking him for his guidance.  After his time in Basel, Margot wrote, Albrecht “underwent a profound transformation in his nature.”  In Albrecht’s last letter before his death, she wrote, “my husband remembered very particularly the insights he gained through your work, which became ever more precious to him in many a trial by fire.”

Continued with About My Father (2)

  1. [1]The opinion is that of Günther van Norden, Die Jugendarbeit des Pfarrers Busch in Essen (The Youth Work of Pastor Busch in Essen), in Evangelische Kirche an Ruhr und Saar, Beiträge zur rheinischen und westfälischen Kirchengeschichte, Bielefeld 2007, p. 169

My Writings

Under construction