Pastor who stood up to the Nazis

22 July 2009

A. E. Gordon dwells on the life of Paul Schneider, a German pastor killed by the Nazis 70 years ago this month

Too ordinary for a martyr? Paul Schneider with his wife Gretel

Too ordinary for a martyr? Paul Schneider with his wife Gretel

IT IS humbling to live one’s life in the shadow of a martyr — for that is what Pastor Paul Schneider undoub­tedly was.

What, after all, is a martyr? Not simply someone who is killed by a dictatorial authority, but someone who sees everything in black and white: under Hitler’s rule, someone who had made the teaching of Jesus Christ so much the core of his being that he could not fail to distinguish clearly between the demands of the Kingdom of heaven and the beast­liness of the Nazi regime.

I might protest that, in 1939, I refused at a large military parade in central Berlin to salute the swastika flag. But what a feeble protest that was compared with the bold and con­sistent witness of Pastor Schneider.

In his early days, he seemed too ordinary to be a future martyr, al­though the text given to him at his confirmation hinted at his fate:

To this was I born, that I should bear
witness to the truth.

At that time, Paul Schneider was a simple countryman. He served in the First World War, and was badly wounded. He was ordained in 1932, having married Gretel in 1926. They had six children — five boys and one girl.

In 1933, the year Hitler came to power, the claims of Nazism came to his notice. Both Ernst Rohm, head of the SA, who accused the Church of “bigotry”, and Joseph Goebbels, who delivered the new Nazi line on morals, called forth replies from Pastor Schneider in his sermons and letters.

He clearly understood the anti-Christian nature of Nazism, and the party took due note of his activism. Those within the Church who gave unflinching support to Hitler op­posed Pastor Schneider, and tried to discipline him.

From that day forward, Pastor Schneider had nothing to do with the “German Christians”. From Hochel­heim, he moved to the parishes of Dickenschied with Wornrath, still in the Rhineland. There were constant clashes with the local party leader­ship. He was interrogated 12 times in the winter of 1935-36. Gretel could see clearly the shadow of the future, and begged Paul not to seek out martyr­dom. He gave his word; but, when called upon to witness, he assured her, witness he must.


On 31 May 1937, he was arrested and kept in strict confinement, al­though treated decently. After eight weeks, he was issued with a letter of banishment from the Rhineland; this he tore up and threw into a waste bin.

Pastor Schneider knew that the state could not legally separate a pastor from his parish; he would inevitably be acquitted by a judge. But the Gestapo operated its own law. Per­suaded by a friend whom he trusted, he quickly moved to Baden-Baden (outside the Rhineland). He realised that, almost inevitably, the concentra­tion camp would be his lot. The temp­ta­tion must have been strong to abandon his stand (had he not done enough?) and live a quiet life thereafter.

Turning his back on temptation, he wrote in late September to Hitler, set­ting out his complaints and calling on the head of state to authorise justice. He then travelled to Dickenschied and preached there the following Sunday. That afternoon, on the way to Wom­rath, he was arrested. After two months in detention, the decision was taken on 27 November 1937 to send him to Buchenwald concentration camp. He passed through the gates marked with the words: “To each his due deserts.”

Paul’s first five months at Bu-chenwald, in spite of continuous toil in the quarry and the machinations of the SS, passed without serious prob­lems. On Hitler’s birthday, 20 April 1938, however, the order was given that all prisoners should greet the swas­tika flag by taking off their caps.

“Paul, don’t do anything stupid,” whispered a Christian fellow-prisoner.

Pastor Schneider alone refused, re­ceived 50 lashes, and was dragged, covered in blood, to the detention cells. Here the noted sadist Martin Sommer was in charge.

Nevertheless, from time to time Pastor Schneider climbed to the small cell window and preached sermons to the assembled prisoners. “Come to me,” he called one day, “all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” At these times he would be thrown to the ground and beaten into unconsciousness.

In the summer of 1939, Sommer strung up Pastor Schneider in his cell for several days, as if crucified. At that time, a fellow-prisoner, observing him, thought of the prophet Isaiah:

He was despised and rejected of men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted
with grief.

The end came on 18 July 1939, when Pastor Schneider was mur-dered by an overdose of a heart stimulant.

His grave in Dickenschied was a place of pilgrimage for many, during and after the war. Gretel survived for another 64 years, tirelessly building upon Paul’s witness. (I was called upon to speak at her funeral.) Now she rests in the grave next to her husband.

Most of the family survive. Evmarie, the only daughter, will be 80 in 2009. She and her husband have become close friends, reminding me that we do live in the shadow of a martyr, her father.

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