Nicolas Stebbing CR travels to Germany
Flossenbuerg. Anyone who knows the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer will know that name. It is the concentration camp where Bonhoeffer was executed on 9th April 1945, shortly before the War ended. For some reason I had always thought Flossenbuerg was a small relatively benign place, unlike the notorious Auschwitz, Belsen or Dachau. I could not have been more wrong. In December I visited Flossenbuerg with Sr Mirjam of the Lutheran Christusbruderschaft. It was an appalling place.
Basically Flossenbuerg was a stone quarry and the camp was built as a penal labour colony in 1938. The stone was used in Nazi building programmes. The first prisoners were German and Czechoslovakian but as the war got under way they were the usual mixed bag of Russians, Polish, Jews and anyone who fell foul of the Nazi regime. Their treatment was brutal. Most worked in the quarries and were forced to carry large stones on their shoulders. They were beaten, maltreated, starved, mocked and shot. Sub-camps were started nearby with other labour projects such as manufacturing parts for Messerschmitt fighter planes. The Nazi industrialist, Albert Speer, was heavily involved in setting up the camp and used the slave labour it provided. Most inmates were male though towards the end of the war women and children also arrived.
Many, many inmates died from the combination of starvation, disease, brutal treatment and casual executions, but the camp was also used as a place of execution for undesirables. Hundreds of Russian prisoners were killed there. Hundreds of Polish captives were also shot there. A detail that particularly moved me was a form carefully filled out to describe a 16 year old Polish boy, with full name, date of birth, mother, father and place of birth, and then the note he had been shot. Why? Hundreds of Jews also were sent there specifically for execution. A gibbet was erected in front of the prisoners’ barracks so that anyone deemed guilty of a crime could be hanged in full site of his comrades. Others were executed in the sub-camps. In all about 100,000 people were imprisoned at Flossenbuerg and about 30,000 died there. Amongst those were Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Admiral Canaris and other members of the Hitler bomb plot.
That is a brief summary of a horrible story. One needs to go round the museum, read the prisoner accounts and see the photographs to realise something of the brutality to which these people were subjected. To their very great credit the German people have remembered this suffering. At first, after the War, Flossenbuerg was partially covered over with buildings and to this day the stone quarries where so many laboured and died are covered with houses. But the central part of the Camp has been cleared; some buildings remain: the SS administration block, the kitchen, the laundry, which has been turned into a museum and the parade ground where the prisoners were gathered and sometimes executed. There still exists part of the punishment block and the courtyard where Bonhoeffer and so many other prisoners were executed. The museum is unflinching in its account of the suffering inflicted on the prisoners and even offers some marvellous human touches: a wonderful cartoonist who manages to mock his brutal oppressors.
A little way apart from the barracks but looking down on the cemetery and the sub-camps where so many were killed is a Catholic Chapel of Christ in the Dungeon. And in that chapel a bust of the Lutheran Bonhoeffer – ecumenism in suffering. Behind the altar is a large crucifix, and where normally Mary and John are standing there are images of brutality, on one side a man being beaten, on the other a man carrying a great rock.
I was struck by how different the modern German view of the Second World War is to ours. We glory in it. They repent. We have memorials to the brave Spitfire pilots and the Londoners under bombing. Fair enough. German memorials show the worst things they did. It is their way of saying ‘No more War’. It was their main reason for creating the European Union. It remains high on their reasons for maintaining the Union. Never again must Europeans go to war.
There were Allied atrocities in the War. The bombing of Dresden killed 25,000 people in one night (compare 30,000 in 6 years at Flossenbuerg) and more than half of them were women and children. The firestorm of Hamburg was horrendous and killed around 40,000 civilians. Movingly, the night after seeing Flossenbuerg I had dinner with a pastor friend, Hans Haselbarth, whose mother had removed him and his brother from Dresden the night before the bombing, in response to a dream.
In the courtyard where Bonhoeffer was hanged is a memorial tablet to him, Canaris and other members of the Hitler bomb plot who died there. A few yards away is a memorial to fourteen Allied soldiers, members of the SOE who also died there, and other memorial plaques to French, Czech and Polish men killed in that place. It is a reminder that all the European nations suffered from Nazism, including Germans, and all the European nations took part in the defeat of Nazism, including Germans. Looking at the horror and the suffering one realises another dimension of ecumenism, the search for Christian unity.
A few days before I went to Flossenbuerg I was with the Benedictine monks at St Matthias, Trier. When I first visited Trier in 1973 two monks, Fr Maurus and Fr Martin, who had suffered years of imprisonment at Dachau, were still alive. We have had a friendship with that Community for over fifty years. Sitting in choir this last time it was good to feel ‘I am at home here. I belong here.’ The evening after I had been at Flossenbuerg with Sr Mirjam I was with her Sisters in their Lutheran community, celebrating the Eucharist. It was good to feel the brutality and the divisions of the War exorcised through our participation in the one Christ who cannot be divided.
We long for a united Church, not just so that we can visit Rome as full members of the Catholic Church but so that we can work together more effectively with our German Christian brothers and sisters, with French, Romanian and Russian Christians, with Christians from all over the world to bring peace where there is war and to prevent the destruction that violence against human beings and the environment is causing throughout the world. I think of Isaiah 5:
Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill…. He looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes…he looked for justice but behold bloodshed, for righteousness, but behold a cry…
Can we Catholic members of the Church of England turn our eyes away from our trivial concerns and see there is injustice, destruction and suffering within our borders and outside our little island, and try to do something about it?
Fr Nicolas Stebbing is a member of the Community
of the Resurrection, Mirfield.