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The Priest Who Stood Up to Hitler

He knew it would cost him his life.

Father Franz Reinisch was a Catholic priest who refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler or serve in the German army, even under penalty of death.

Born in Austria in 1903, Franz was sickly as a child but excelled academically and enrolled in law school in 1922. After attending a four week Catholic retreat, Franz decided to become a priest instead of a lawyer, and entered seminary in Brixen, Italy, near the Austrian border.

Franz was ordained as a priest in 1928, and joined a monastery in Bamberg, Germany. The strict house rules, including no smoking, were prohibitive and Franz decided to escape. He climbed over the wall, but when he passed the Lourdes Grotto, he felt a strong physical sensation of someone holding him back. This was the pivotal moment in his life. He finished his theological studies in 1932 and became a youth preacher with a unique ability to connect with young people. He joined the Schoenstatt Apostolic Movement, a program of spiritual renewal within the Catholic church, and began traveling throughout Germany as a popular public speaker.

As Adolf Hitler rose to power in the early 1930’s, Franz was appalled at Hitler’s hateful rhetoric and horrific genocidal plans. He came to believe that Hitler was the anti-Christ, and began bravely speaking out against the Nazi regime.

A common theme in Franz’ speeches was the fundamental incompatibility between Nazism and Christianity. Soon, the Gestapo found out about Franz’ public criticism of Hitler, and in September 1940 he was banned from delivering any speeches or sermons. Instead he served the Church by translating ecclesiastical messages from Rome into German for publication in German magazines.

Franz knew that it was only a matter of time until he was drafted into Hitler’s army, but he told his friends he would never agree to serve. They didn’t believe he would actually refuse an order from Der Fuehrer, but Franz responded, “You cannot take an oath to a criminal. You cannot follow an authority that brings only murder and death into the world.”

On April 15, 1942, Franz received his induction notice and was ordered to report for duty at the Bad Kissingen barracks. He deliberately showed up one day late, insisting that “This government has no right to order me to do anything.”

Immediately upon arrival, Franz stated that he was not prepared to serve in the army, and moreover absolutely refused to take the oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler. He said that he would swear allegiance to the German people, but not to the man Franz considered the epitome of evil.

17,000 Catholic priests were called up to serve the Third Reich, and Franz was the only one to refuse to swear allegiance to the Nazi dictator.

Military leaders were shocked at Franz’ brazen insubordination. They arrested him and brought him before a court martial on charges of undermining military morale. During the trial, Franz was imprisoned at Berlin-Tegel, where the prison chaplain denied him communion for failing to do his duty. In prison, Father Franz prayed and wrote poetry. On August 20, 1942, the prosecutor announced that Franz was sentenced to death.

The priest was allowed to make a brief statement. He said, “This convict is not a revolutionary; a revolutionary is a head of state or a public enemy who fights with fists and violence. I am a Catholic priest with only the weapons of the Holy Spirit and the Faith; but I know what I am fighting for.”

Father Franz spent the night praying and writing letters to his parents and four siblings. At 3:30 am he was led to the execution chamber, where he was beheaded by guillotine. His last words were “Love and suffering into joy.”

In the decades since his tragic death, Father Franz has received many honors, including streets, bridges and chapels named after him all over Germany. There is a movement to have him canonized as a saint, and his feast day is August 21.

For taking a stand against evil at the cost of his own life, we honor Father Franz Reinisch as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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