Alfred Delp, S.J., was hanged for high treason in Berlin-Plötzensee at the age of 37. He had been condemned to death only a few months before the end of World War II, after a mock trial presided over by the fanatical priest-hater Roland Freisler. The execution took place just after three oclock in the afternoon of Feb. 2, 1945. It was the feast of the Presentation, one of the days when Jesuits have traditionally professed their final vows. At Hitlers command, Delp’s ashes were scattered to the winds. There was to be nothing by which to remember him.
Had Delp survived the war, he might have returned to the editorial staff of the periodical Stimmen der Zeit in Munich, where he worked from July 1939 to April 1941, when the Gestapo abolished the magazine.
In contrast to the popular Jesuit Rupert Mayer, whom Pope John Paul II beatified in 1987 along with the Jewish Carmelite Edith Stein in Munichs Olympic Stadium, Delp was not given the honor of the altar. Nor has he exerted such broad influence among other faith communities as Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
In the Face of Death
The best-selling book In the Face of Death, a posthumously published collection of Delp’s meditations, notes, journal fragments and letters from his six months of imprisonment, stands alongside Bonhoeffers later classic, Letters and Papers From Prison. After the war, Delp’s book suddenly made his name known to a broader public. The small volume was regularly enlarged with newly discovered texts. It went through many editions and came out in paperback in 1958. Translated into French, English and Spanish, the book has become a classic and belongs in the canon of 20th-century spiritual writing. It was one volume of a trilogy whose other parts, Committed to the Earth and The Mighty God, were edited and published later.
Thomas Merton judged Delp's words smuggled out of prison to be perhaps the most insightful Christian meditations of our time. In the Introduction to an American translation that appeared in the 1960s under the title Prison Writings, Merton did not hesitate to describe Delp as a mystic. More than six months of confinement in Berlin brought about a striking change in his personality, a significant maturing of which one reads with increasing fascination. Solitary confinement, torture, hunger and depression all changed Delp, but they did not break him. He underwent a change not chosen but forced upon him, a change that especially impresses young people today, and his reflections have become a legacy for future generations. Hitlers plan for the priest did not succeed. Alfred Delp is not only known today; he still inspires.
Thomas Merton judged Delp's words smuggled out of prison to be perhaps the most insightful Christian meditations of our time.
New interest in Delp’s writings during the 1980s led to the publication of his Collected Writings, edited in five volumes by Roman Bleistein, S.J. In 1989 Bleistein also published a valuable biography, Alfred Delp: The History of a Witness. The motto for the 1984 German Katholikentagan important gathering of Catholics from all walks of life that takes place every two yearsheld that year in Munich, recalled Delp’s words: Let us trust life, since we do not have to live it alone, for God lives it with us. Delp, his hands bound, had scratched those words on the wall of his prison cell on Christmas Eve 1944.
The world is so full of God. From all its pores, it seems, God wells toward us, Delp had written a few weeks before, as he waited for his trial, expressing a sober mysticism that was at the same time a mysticism of open eyes, to use Johannes Baptist Metz's phrase. Delp did not transfer his longing for a better world prematurely into the hereafter.
A Lutheran Background
When Maria Bernauer held the newborn Alfred in her arms on Sept. 15, 1907, she harbored only one thought: Will my sons father finally marry me now? After his sister Justina, Alfred was the second child born outside of marriage. The wedding took place a month later, and the boy became legitimate; then four more children were born into the family.
Although Alfred was baptized as a Catholic, his Protestant father insisted that he attend a Lutheran school and receive his religious education there. Still, after the family moved from Mannheim to Lampert-heim, the teenager kept in contact with his Catholic parish. He was confirmed as a Lutheran in March 1921, but a slap in the face from a Lutheran pastor he had come late for instruction because he was visiting the Catholic pastor led to a change: in June that same year he received first Communion and then confirmation in the Catholic Church. The following year he attended the diocesan seminary in Dieburg, joined the Bund Neudeutschland (a Catholic youth movement) and four years later passed his final secondary school examinations at the head of his class. A month later, on April 22, 1926, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Tisis near Feldkirch, Austria.
After two years as a novice, the young Jesuit followed the orders usual course of studies: three years studying philosophy; three years as a prefect, first at the boarding school Stella Matutina in Feldkirch and then for several months at Sankt Blasien in Germanys Black Forest; followed by four years of theology in Valkenburg, Holland, and in Frankfurt am Main in Germany. On June 24, 1937, exactly 400 years after the ordination of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, Delp was ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal Michael Faulhaber in Munich. Among the other Jesuits ordained with him was Alois Grillmeier, S.J., who would become a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council and, in his old age, a cardinal.
Since the authorities refused to allow Delp to matriculate at a German university, in the summer of 1939 he joined Stimmen der Zeit, where he was responsible for sociological topics. After the editorial building was confiscated and expropriated by the Gestapo, in early summer 1941 Delp became administrator of the old parish church of St. George in the Bogenhausen section of Munich. He was a beloved, wholly engaged priest for his people. He also made fun of Gestapo informers as they copied down his sermons.
The Kreisau Circle
Alfred Delp first came into contact with Count Helmut James von Moltke (1907-45) in March 1942, when Moltke asked Augustin Rösch, the Jesuit superior of the Upper German Province, for the assistance of a sociologist. The idea was to plan for a Christian social order in Germany after the expected collapse of the Third Reich under Hitler. In May and October 1942 and then again in June 1943, Delp took part in meetings of several days each. The group around Moltke, named the Kreisau Circle after the counts estate in Silesia, was not strictly speaking a resistance movement. There was no question of violently overthrowing the government.
During the meetings at the Kreisau estate, Freya von Moltke, the counts wife, was particularly struck by Delp’s youthfulness. The 96-year-old countess recently described her recollections when she was the guest of honor at a symposium held by the Catholic Academy of Bavaria in Munich. (She had advised her husband not to invite Konrad Adenauer to join the group because, born in 1876, he was much too old. In 1949 Adenauer became the first postwar chancellor of Germany.)
Count Moltke was arrested in January 1944 because he had warned a friend who was about to be arrested. Moltkes conspiratorial activity, however, was not discovered. Unaware of the conspiracy, Delp visited Count Claus von Stauffenberg in Bamberg in June. When von Stauffenberg was arrested on the morning of July 21, the day after a failed attempt on Hitlers life in the Wolfschanze (the Führers bunker in East Prussia), Delp was completely surprised. Seven days later the Gestapo arrested Delp as well.
Alfred Delp was a promising intellectual. His study of Martin Heideggers Being and Time was one of the first serious discussions of the philosopher by any Catholic. Karl Rahner said with a certain pride, that Delp was a good friend of mine; Rahner had taught Latin to Delp, then a novice, in the late 1920s, and the contact between the two never broke off. Just before Delp was arrested, Rahner learned from him personally, in the apartment Delp maintained as a parish priest in Munich, about his contacts with the Kreisau Circle. I believe, wrote Rahner, that Delp really belongs in the first rank of witnesses whose Christianity motivated them to resist the horror of National Socialism.
But Delp was also an intense, impulsive man, who could seem to be a know-it-all. That caused offense, as did his heavy cigar smoking and loud laughter. Among Jesuits he was considered a difficult character, almost a kind of tragic hero, like T. E. Lawrence, the English archeologist, diplomat and colonel known as Lawrence of Arabia, whom Delp much admired.
Tensions with Rösch, Delp’s provincial superior, were longstanding. Twice, in fact, Rösch put off granting permission for him to pronounce final vows. It was only on Dec. 8, 1944, that Delp, in prison with hands bound, was able to pronounce his vows in the presence of Franz von Tattenbach, S.J., as representative of Rösch, who was by then hiding from the Nazis.
The Nazis had offered Delp a reprieve if he would leave the Jesuit order. Instead, on the day of his execution, Alfred Delp wrote to his fellow Jesuits:
The real reason for my conviction is that I am and have remained a Jesuit. They could not show a connection to July 20. And the Stauffenberg charge could not be upheld. The other sentences that really had to do with knowledge of July 20 were less serious and more matter of fact. The atmosphere was so full of hate and hostility. The basic thesis was: a Jesuit is a priori an enemy and opponent of the Reich.
In the last hours of his life, Delp still hoped that the Russian troops would press forward to Berlin and free him. Can't history be a little faster? he asked the Catholic prison chaplain, who had no reply. In half an hour, said Delp, fearful at the brink of death, I shall know more than you.
That same day Freisler condemned to death Dietrich Bonhoeffer's brother Klaus and his brother-in-law Rüdiger Schleicher. The next day an air raid alarm went off during another trial, and the court building was hit dead center. Freisler, on his way to a bomb shelter in the basement, was killed by the collapsing ruins.
What We Inherit From Alfred Delp
In commemoration of Alfred Delp’s birth (Sept. 15, 1907), a number of events were held in Germany, starting on Dec. 8, 2006, when the Alfred Delp Society in Mannheim awarded honorary membership to Fritz Delp, his youngest brother, and former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Witnesses from his time are still alive: people who heard his sermons, friends and youth group members. On all of them Delp made a lasting impression.
Remembering the martyr Alfred Delp is a matter of conviction, of knowing that we must keep present before us his way of resistance against a totalitarian regime. What he wrote about a new social order, inspired by the social encyclicals Rerum Novarum(1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931), could later be found in the basic concerns of labor unions and political parties. Delp thought creatively about the missionary and servant roles of the church and critically about the church’s tendency toward bureaucratic rigidity. His ideas on the future role of religious orders now seem quite modern. Without God, Delp was convinced, we cannot really be human beings. And he would have raised critical questions about today’s generalized religiosity, which has little to do with God.
Remembering the martyr Alfred Delp is a matter of conviction, of knowing that we must keep present before us his way of resistance against a totalitarian regime.
What obligations does Delp’s legacy impose on us? Alfred Delp was not easy to manage. He was an uncomfortable, often non-conforming Jesuit, and in that way, even for his own order, a prophetic figure. His life, at risk of death in his prison cell, has become a legacy. We have more to learn from him than anyone as yet can say.
Read selections from the Alfred Delp’s letters.