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Alfred Delp SJ: a man transformed

30 November, 1999

Alfred Delp was born in Mannheim, Germany, in 1907 and joined the Jesuits in 1926. After his ordination he worked as a journalist. During the war he became involved with a group envisioning a Germany free of Hitler….

1944, Munich-Bogensee
After morning Mass in his parish church on July 28th, two men approached Fr Alfred Delp.  They spoke for a few minutes and then led him away to the Gestapo Headquarters in Briennerstrasse.  For the next five months he was held in custody, interrogated and tortured.  On January 11th the People’s Court found him guilty of High Treason.  He was hanged in Plotzensee Prison, Berlin, on February 2nd, 1945.

Alfred Delp was one of many Germans who were horrified at what the Nazis were doing.  As a sociologist he worked on the Jesuit journal Stimmen der Zeit.

When the journal was banned by the Nazis he was appointed Rector of St Georg, Bogensee.  Every Sunday Gestapo members sat in his congregation and took careful notes.  Delp always said what he thought.  Two years earlier he had joined the Kreisau Circle, an anti-Nazi group that was planning a new social order to be built on Christian lines after the war.  Since that involved a complete rejection of Nazism it constituted High Treason.  The court tried to implicate Delp and his friends in the attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20th, 1944, but the effort failed.

In his final months he managed to smuggle his diaries out of prison.  When they read them, his Jesuit borthers and friends discovered a man who had been transformed.

After the verdict: an extract from his diary
“One of these days the door will open and the warder will say, ‘Pack up, the car is coming in half an hour….’  I ask my friends not to mourn, but to pray for me and help me as long a I have need of help.  And to be quite clear in their minds that I was sacrificed, not conquered.  It never occurred that my life would end like this.  I had spread my sails to the wind and set my course for a great voyage, flags flying, ready to brave every storm that blew.  But it could be they were false flags or my course worngly set or the ship a pirate and its cargo contraband.  I don’t know.  And I will not sink to cheap jibes at the world in order to raise my spirits.  To be honest I don’t want to die, particularly now that I feel I could do more important work and deliver a new message about values I have only just discovered and understood.  But it has turned out otherwise.  God keep me in his providence and give me strength to meet what is before me.

It remains only for me to thank a great many people for their help and loyalty and belief in me, and for the love they have shown me.  First and foremost my brothers in the Order who gave me a genuine and beautiful vision of life.  And the many sincere people I was privileged to meet.  I remember very clearly the times when we were able to meet freely and discuss the tasks in front of us.  Do not give up, ever.  Never cease to cherish the people in your hearts – the poor forsaken and betrayed people who are so helpless.  For in spite of all their outward display and loud self-assurance, deep down they lonely and frightened.  If through one man’s life there is a little more love and kindness, a little more light and truth in the world, then he will not have lived in vain.

Nor must I forget those to whom I owe so much.  My those I have hurt forgive me – I am sorry for having injured them.  May those whom I have been untrue forgive me – I am sorry for having failed them.  May those to whom I have been proud and overbearing forgive me – I repent of my arrogance.  And may those to whom I have been unloving forgive me – I repent of my hardness.  O yes – the long hours spent in this cell with fettered wrists and my body and spirit tormented must have broken down a great deal that was hard in me.  Much that was unworthy and worthless has been committed to the flames.

So farewell. My crime is that I had faith in Germany, a faith surmounting even a possible interim of desolation and darkness.  That I did not believe in that insensate trinity of pride, arrogance, and force.  And that I did this as a Catholic Christian and a Jesuit.”

An Uncomfortable Contemporary

Patrick Riordan SJ of the Milltown Institute looks at Alfred Delp as a man for our time.

Alfred Delp was no conspirator. He wasn’t even very political.  But he was seen as a threat by the regime, and rightly so, because he saw through the Nazis and their promises.

Rejecting not only Nazism, he disputed the claim of all modern states and political parties to be perfectly competent to achieve their own goals.  He challenged the bold announcements of some idyllic future and the assurances that one’s own political party will make it happen.  He knew the radical woundedness of the human and of all human affairs.

Delp was convinced that the proper attitude of men and women should be one of listening.  He spoke of the bended knee, the attitude of the woman or man who knows their own smallness before the enormity of God.  In contrast to the self-glorying poses of demagogues he pleaded for hearts open to love, prepared to recognise in the stranger women and men called to share in the same destiny of friendship with God.  This in contrast to the widespread tendency, not only of the Nazis but of many ordinary people, to see others as things to be used and discarded when they become a nuisance.

In our day too people are concerned about Nazism.  Recently 300,000 people went onto the streets of Munich to decry the rising tide of violence directed against immigrants.  That violence is not itself the essence of Nazism but it arises out of the cauldron of popular feeling which Nazism was so adept at exploiting.

Delp had the words to speak of the faults of Nazism.  But, his thoughts do not allow us to point the finger at the arsonists of Rostock or the skinheads on the streets of the new Germany only.  He has questions which are directed at us.  Perhaps we too would find him an uncomfortable contemporary.

For more information see: http://www.companysj.com/v211/delpajesuit.htm

This article first appeared in AMDG: a publication of the Irish Jesuits. 1993