With Bounds Hands: A Jesuit in Nazi Germany

Born in Mannheim, Germany, in 1907, Alfred Delp joined the Jesuits in 1926 and was deep into his training in the Society by the time the Nazis were flexing political muscle against all opposition, including Jesuits who preached against the evils of totalitarianism.

In 1937 Delp was ordained in Munich, where the Nazis had had run-ins with Jesuit provincial Augustin Rösch, one of Delp's former superiors, who had been encouraging Jesuits to defy Nazi harassment of Jesuit schools and communities.

Rösch knew Helmuth von Moltke, a Protestant nobleman who was convinced that the Nazi victories in the early years of WWII would not last and was envisioning a Germany free of Hitler. He told Rösch that his group (dubbed the Kreisau Circle by Nazi intelligence) wanted advice from someone familiar with Church teachings on social justice. Rösch suggested Delp, who started attending the group's clandestine meetings.

On July 20, 1944, an assassin's bomb that had been snuck into Hitler's meeting room killed staff but only wounded Hitler. Nazi reaction was swift; army chief of staff Claus von Stauffenberg and other suspects were arrested and shot. Delp, ensnared in the Gestapo's wide net, was charged with knowing about the plot.

One damning point was that in June 1944 (on D-Day, actually) Delp had visited Stauffenberg, known to the Kreisau Circle to have contact with resistance groups. Delp was found guilty, but not of conspiracy in the attempt on Hitler's life, rather, of meeting with others who talked about a Germany free of Hitler, treasonous behavior in the judge's mind.

Letters Delp smuggled out of jail are records of his strong faith even as his hopes of avoiding execution faded daily. "My offense," he wrote in one, "is that I believed in Germany and her eventual emergence from this dark hour of error and distress."

He was hanged in a Berlin prison on February 2, 1945.

Delp on Trial

Alfred Delp, SJ, knew he was on trial for his life in this Berlin courtroom in January 1945, charged with knowing about a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. Seated behind him is Helmuth von Moltke, another implicated in the plot.

In one of the four existing photos of Alfred Delp, SJ, from his trial for high treason in January 1945, the 37-year-old priest stands with his square jaw thrust upward, his hands extended, his fingertips together as if trying to make a clear and reasoned point. He wears a business suit with a shirt and tie. There is animation, and even defiance, in his stance. His physique appears strong and reveals no signs of the six-month ordeal he has just been through: nine weeks of interrogation as well as beatings and psychological pressure to abandon the Jesuits for the Nazis, followed by four months of solitary confinement. He emanates confidence, or so it seems. He has always been loyal to the highest ideal: justice for all humanity under God's law. No evidence links him to the July 20 attempt on Hitler's life, the purported reason for his arrest.

Through high windows, broad daylight fills the courtroom. Stoic guards in Prussian helmets flank Delp. Behind him sits the lanky Protestant nobleman-lawyer Helmuth von Moltke, also on trial, whose vision of a German constitution based on Christian social principles launched the resistance group known as the Kreisau Circle. Since Delp joined the group three years ago, the two have become good friends. Religious differences have paled in the light of their common ideal of a renewed society. It will soon become clear that Moltke's fate has been decided by his association with Jesuits.

On January 23 word reaches Delp that Moltke and other members of the Kreisau Circle have been executed. Why them and not him? Does God have some grand plan that will see him walk out the prison's door a free man? These months in captivity have done much to purify him and have given him new insight, new sensitivities. The barred window, the fettered hands, and the narrow cell door that can open only from the outside -- these have become his teacher, his mentor, his spiritual director. He has wrestled with God, over and over again, falling close to despair at times. All his securities and his life's promise have crumbled: his stature as an intellectual, his talent for writing and preaching, his political ideas, and his vision for a better society.

On the last day of January, the door of Delp's cell in Tegel Prison is opened; he is led to a car and driven to Plötzensee Prison, a short distance away. There, he is led through the front door, across the broad courtyard, and into the cellblock known as the House of the Dead. He is handed the striped uniform of the condemned prisoner and a sheet of paper that lists the articles of clothing he is leaving behind. He signs the paper with a shaking hand and dons the prison garb. All he has left of his own now is a rosary. At his request, he is brought a copy of The Imitation of Christ.

At Tegel Prison, a system devised by the chaplain and two social workers allowed Delp to have letters smuggled in and out with the laundry. Here, in Plötzensee Prison, the House of the Dead, no such system exists, and it is probably just as well. He has written his farewells, and there is nothing left to say. All that remains now is to face God. Between the time he signed over his clothes in emotional distress and the chaplain's final visit just before he is led away, a peace has settled upon him. "In half an hour, I'll know more than you do," he tells the chaplain with a smile.   *

Delp with his family

Delp's family surrounded him on the occasion of his first mass, July 4, 1937. He had a reputation among Jesuits as a highly critical and rebellious individual who chafed under rules and regulations. One of his final letters concluded with "Don't let my mother tell 'pious legends' about me; I was a brat."

To Friedrich and Maria Delp
end of November 1944

Dear Mother, dear Father,

Perhaps it's going to be possible to get news to you somehow. I can imagine the awful worry you must have, especially not knowing exactly what's happening. I wish I could have spared you this worry as much as, and even more than, I wish I could have spared myself this trouble.

My arrest is connected to the July events. I knew some of the people who were involved, and I'm accused of knowing about the plans beforehand and not reporting them. Of course this is a very serious charge, and it's very worrisome. But we don't want to lose courage, but rather trust in God, who has always been there to help us.

I'm placing all my trust in God and asking very much for your prayer. As things look now, the trial will likely be in mid December, and if so you'll certainly be informed at that time.

Forgive me for all the worry I'm causing you and thank you for all the countless good you've done for me. God bless you. Greetings to my brothers and sisters.


Delp sailing

In high spirits in this 1943 photo, this was nonetheless the time when Delp started meeting with the Kreisau Circle, a group of German intellectuals aghast at the terror the Nazis had unleashed in Europe and at home. Delp was to fall victim to that terror himself within two years.

To Luise Oestreicher
December 16, 1944

Dear L.,

I don't know whether or not this is a farewell letter. These days we just never know. I don't know if or when these lines will ever reach you, but I'm not writing them as a "last word." In some part of myself, I believe with a firm certainty in life and in a new mission. But I'm also honest enough to say that from a human point of view, I don't see much possibility of that....

How am I doing? There's not much to say. If the Donaustrasse [Delp's code name for a member of the resistance who had told the Nazis that Delp knew of the plot] sticks to his statement, I'm dead. If he's sensible and reasonable enough to revise it, perhaps the matter can be straightened out orally. Perhaps. As far as official records are concerned, I've been written off.

What used to be called elegance and self-confidence has all been completely and utterly crushed. Painfully. Don't worry -- I'm going to try hard not to break down, even if I have to go to the gallows. I know that God's strength is with me the whole way. But it's sometimes really quite tough....

God has now put me in a place where I can't get out. And whatever I've undertaken has failed. One door after another has closed. Even the ones I thought were open for good. No help has come from the outside and probably couldn't anyway. About what happens inside it's better to be silent. So here I've been put now, handcuffed and locked in a narrow cell. There are only two ways out: one is through the gallows into the light of God, and the other through a miracle into a new mission. Which way do I think I'll be going, here in the "kindergarten of death"? We're taken outside for an hour and in a bull-headed manner are led around in a circle, closely watched, with guns, etc. All the other people around are shooed away. So then we walk around in the circle, handcuffed, counts and civil servants, officers and laborers, diplomats and economists. At some corners you can speak toward the wall and the person behind hears you. That's how conversations take place in the "kindergarten of death." Yesterday I asked a Protestant friend whether we were still having a church service. "Of course," he replied. "I'd rather hope myself to death than perish in unbelief."

During these weeks I've learned and relearned enough for years....

The execution chamber where Delp died

The execution chamber at Plötzensee Prison, outside Berlin, where the People's Court sentence of death on Delp was carried out in early 1945

To his fellow Jesuits
January 11, 1945

Dear Brothers,

Here I am at the parting of the ways and I must take the other road after all. The death sentence has been passed and the atmosphere is so charged with enmity and hatred that no appeal has any hope of succeeding.

I thank the Society and my brothers for all their goodness and loyalty and help, especially during these last weeks. I ask pardon for much that was untrue and unjust; and I beg that a little help and care may be given to my aged, sick parents.

The actual reason for my condemnation was that I happened to be, and chose to remain, a Jesuit. There was nothing to show that I had any connection with the attempt on Hitler's life, so I was acquitted on that count ... The rest of the accusations were far less serious and more factual. There was one underlying theme -- a Jesuit is a priori an enemy and betrayer of the Reich. Moltke was treated abominably as well because he was associated with us, especially with Rösch. So the whole proceedings turned into a sort of comedy developing a theme. It was not justice -- it was simply the carrying out of the determination to destroy.

May God protect you all. I ask for your prayers. And I will do my best to catch up, on the other side, with all that I have left undone here on earth.

Toward noon I will celebrate Mass once more and then in God's name take the road under his providence and guidance.

In God's blessing and protection,

Your grateful

Alfred Delp, SJ

Mary Frances Coady, the author

From With Bound Hands: a Jesuit in Nazi Germany -- The Life and Selected Prison Letters of Alfred Delp by Mary Frances Coady (Loyola Press 2003, 800-621-1008 or www.loyolapress.org). Ms. Coady, from Toronto, whose work has appeared in various literary journals, is the author of four other books.

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