(Martyred by Nazis 1939, 1943)
Prior to World War II, Austria withstood the totalitarianism of Hitler’s German Reich, but an increasing number of Austrians found it appealing. Association with the Third Reich was inevitable when Nazi Germany invaded traditionally Catholic Austria on March 13, 1938. Resistance to Hitler’s ideology was strongest in the Alps of the Austrian Tyrol, but generally speaking, Austria became a typical enslaved Nazi province.
While many Austrian Catholics kowtowed too readily to Adolf Hitler, there were among them some who stood their ground against his un-Christian ideology. Only after World War II was their heroism discovered. For example, on November 24, 1996, Pope John Paul II beatified as martyrs two Austrian priests, victims of the Gestapo, the dread Nazi secret police. They were Bl. Otto Neururer, a diocesan priest, and Bl. Jakob Gapp, S.M., a member of the Marianist order. Both men were natives of the Austrian Tyrol, and reflected its deep peasant faith.
Father Neururer was the first Austrian priest arrested by the Gestapo. His story resembles that of St. John the Baptist. A woman in his parish wanted to marry a member of the “SA,” a Nazi paramilitary force. Since this man was both a professed atheist and a divorcee, Neururer forbade the wedding. The suitor at once reported him to the Gestapo. Otto was straightway arrested and sent to the prison camp of Dachau in Germany. Later he was transferred to Buchenwald prison camp. While there he managed to baptize a fellow prisoner. For this “crime” he was condemned to death by hanging: not by the neck but upside down, so as to prolong his agony. His glasses, his ashes and the charred remains of his rosary were returned to his parish. At his funeral hundreds followed his coffin in silence.
Father Gapp, after serving as a soldier in World War I, entered the Society of Mary (Marianists), a teaching order. While stationed at Graz, Austria, 1934-1938, he made a careful study of the ideology of the growing Nazi movement, comparing its literature with the teachings of the Church, especially Pope Pius XI’s brave encyclical against Nazism, Mit brennender Sorge. He became convinced that National Socialism was “abhorrent and totally irreconcilable with the Catholic faith.” After the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938, he experienced the grief of seeing even his own school put up pictures of Hitler in the classrooms. Required by his superior to wear a Swastika badge and greet people in public with a “Heil Hitler,” he conscientiously refused. He felt it his duty to continue in the schoolroom and in his sermons to denounce Nazism as anti-Christian. When a fellow teacher was reported as telling the children they should “hate and kill Czechs and Jews,” he considered himself duty-bound to refute him in his own class.
One day he reminded his pupils that since the French, Jews and Communists were all human beings, so the Christian is bound to love them. “God is your god,” he added, “not Adolf Hitler.” For those statements he was summarily suspended as a teacher.
By now Fr. Gapp was becoming a source of political embarrassment to his fellow Marianists. In 1939 they exiled him to their mother house in Bordeaux, France. Not long afterward he was sent still farther away, to their college in San Sebastian, Spain. He was ashamed to find that even there his brethren spoke well of Hitler. In 1942 he went to the British consulate in Valencia, hoping to get a visa to England. Although he got no visa, he did borrow some British newspapers that might tell him, as the censored German papers never did, just what was going on within the German Reich. Discounting the propaganda in this literature, he finally learned something about the current persecution in Germany, and its prison camps, and the international criticism of Nazi atrocities.
Once in Spain two men who claimed to be Jews asked him to instruct them in the Catholic Faith so that they might be baptized. Fr. Gapp consented. On a certain day in November 1942, the two “Jewish” students took him on a picnic near the French border. He never returned home, for the two phony Jewish pupils spirited him across into France where Gestapo agents were waiting to whisk him off to Berlin.
Thanks to the care with which this police agency kept its records, Fr. Gapp’s replies to his interrogators have all been preserved. He explained calmly that Nazi doctrine was entirely unacceptable to a Catholic. As a Catholic priest, therefore, it was his duty to put God before Caesar and denounce Nazism every step of the way.
One of his interrogators (who is still alive) says that Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo, insisted on reading transcripts of all that the Marianist priest said. Himmler eventually observed to one of the judges, that if the million Nazi party members were as committed to Nazism as Father Gapp was to Catholicism, Germany would be winning the war without difficulty.
On the basis of his visits to the British consulate, however, the court that tried Gapp condemned him to death for treason. Jakob Gapp was beheaded by guillotine at Berlin on August 13, 1943. The police would not release his body, fearing that Catholics would make a martyr of him. Ironically, the Gestapo itself did that in saving his records.
We can only be thrilled by the behavior of martyrs like these. But must we not further ask: how would we have acted if we were they?
–Father Robert F. McNamara