Sticks & Stones (reprise)

***In recognition of our country’s newly minted ‘Disinformation Governance Board’ I thought I’d share this little short story I wrote early last year about a young man working for the Ministry of Propaganda in 1930’s Germany. It is about the true story of Bernhard Lichtenberg, a Catholic priest who successful spoke out against the regime, and against the scapegoating of Jews, for many years from his pulpit in downtown Berlin, directly in the shadow of the Ministry. Eventually he was arrested and died in Dachau concentration camp, but he made a huge difference by speaking bravely and boldly, in support of those people who were blamed for the problems of the day, much as we are beginning to see in our own day:

Sticks & Stones

Now it is clear to see, who was right and who was wrong. Back then everyone thought they were right. But now we know who were the good guys, and the bad, and who the innocent victims were. But at that time, nothing was clear. Now, hindsight has sorted the roles that everyone played, though it has also inoculated us from any lessons we might learn from history. Because the roles are scrambled once again—as they were then—and once again, everyone thinks they’re right. We hear the cry, “Never again!” and yet we know that humans are bound to make the same mistake over and over again; old mistakes are newly minted by the successive generations. God forbid! But God allows.

This suffering begins slowly, imperceptibly; and gradually grows to become a tidal wave, irresistible and inescapable. This is a familiar pattern; one can insert their choice of protagonists-antagonists into this pattern, from every age and every place throughout history. It begins with words, repeated over and over again, within a context of fear, directed against some, for the benefit of others. Even children know this pattern, and can play this game adroitly; but what begins with words, unchecked, often eventually ends with sticks and stones. Someone, perhaps many, will ultimately lose their lives.

I began working at The Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda fresh out of University. While in school I had been a journalism student, and had also taken several classes in advertising. These skills were highly sought after by those working within the new Ministry. I was recruited to assist in the Ministry’s efforts to educate our people—to enlighten them. It was a far cry from working for an advertising agency, from trying to convince consumers to buy this shaving cream or that perfume, as I had always expected would be my career. It was much nobler in fact, because we were going to help convince our citizens to become better people. Our mission was to teach morality to the young and the old, and to help them understand who is good and who is bad. Ultimately, we were there to protect our people through education, and to help them recognize their enemies, in order to keep them safe from the dangers that their enemies posed. And we worked hard, for the good of our people, so that future generations could enjoy peace and happiness.

From the start, we understood that in order to control a society—for the good of society—and to rule a civilization, to establish safety and peace in that civilization—this could not be accomplished by power alone. And no single man, no matter how charismatic, could wield this power successfully for very long, without first controlling the spirit of the age, without determining and dictating the zeitgeist of that society’s culture. We knew we had to control the understanding and the thinking of our people. So they would think only our thoughts, reject other ideas as dangerous, and act as they should, for the benefit of our party, and the flourishing of our nation. Anyone, or any party, with greater ambitions, must of necessity control the cultural and intellectual life of that nation. This meant suppressing opposing viewpoints, castigating those with views different than the party’s, and eventually eradicating all opposition. The more subtly and inconspicuously this could be accomplished, the better and more complete the results. If people are unaware they have been molded by us, and if they accept the thoughts we’ve taught them as wholly natural, they will believe sincerely that they are still free thinkers. But in truth, they are not. Although, I must admit, that discerning the truth became more and more difficult for everyone, even for those of us working within the Ministry.

Within a very few years our successes mounted, to a degree that surprised us. We had essentially taken over the universities, installing professors that were hand-picked by our party, censuring or firing any who spoke out against the party. Soon after this, the ideas generated by these academics, trickled down to the secondary and primary educational systems and this gave us great opportunity to shape the young minds of our nation, and to ensure greater safety in the future, and to pave the way for a more equitable society.

Just as importantly, the press was consolidated under our direction so that dangerous ideas could be suppressed. Likewise, we gained influence over the film industry, the theaters, publishing houses, and radio. We established an overarching Chamber of Culture that oversaw the production of cultural material within our country; with sub-chambers in each specific field of endeavor: such as film, education, and radio. And each of these Chambers required its members to agree to party principles. In order to work in any of these fields, all members were approved by the Party Chamber, signed loyalty statements which ensured quality cultural, and these chambers also controlled unruly members who might become problematic within their field, and dangerous to the general public. 

In these ways, and many more, we were able to create an atmosphere of stability and safety throughout the entire country. We became a blessing to our citizens; and everyone was grateful for our efforts, and especially our results, which made people feel confident and secure. Admittedly, for some people in our country, these measures created a grave difficulty; however, these people were all given the opportunity to renounce their dangerous thoughts and activities and join our party. Well, not all were given this chance, of course, but many of them were indeed allowed this opportunity. And if they chose not to join us, they only had themselves to blame. We couldn’t feel sorry for them if they insisted on believing things that were hurtful, and damaging for our people. So ultimately if they wouldn’t change, they had to be eliminated, for the good of everyone.  

In the summer of 1937, I was promoted within the Ministry, and was given a private office on the second floor of the Ordenspalais, the Ministry headquarters, overlooking the nearby public square, in the heart of Berlin. My new job was to assist in monitoring the activities of the clergy throughout Germany. Our first goal was to help priests and pastors communicate the views of the government to their flocks. However, in cases where clergy willingly chose to corrupt the population with views opposing our party, we had authority to censure, fine, confiscate property, or if necessary, arrest and imprison them; in order to keep the messages coming from the pulpits free of corruption. We walked a fine line however, because many of these pastors and priests had very loyal followers, and were beloved; so our job demanded nuance, and a fine touch in order to gently persuade these men to do and say the right things, without causing their flocks any unnecessary concern or agitation. Time yielded successes. Most were eventually brought under our wing and willingly accepted our guidance. But there were a small percentage who remained vocal in their opposition to the government’s positions. 

One such dissident priest was named Bernhard Lichtenberg, who served at St Hedwig’s Cathedral, which was located barely half a mile to the northeast of our Ministry offices. He had been a thorn in our side for many years, preaching from the very beginning against what he termed ‘a persecution of the Jews’. He was very outspoken, and the government would have silenced him even as early as in 1933, when the Gestapo had searched his residence for seditious materials; but they came up empty handed. Complicating this particular situation, as I’ve already mentioned, was the fact that he was very well known, admired and beloved by many people living in Berlin. This emboldened him, and for nearly ten years he had acted with impunity directly under our noses; but by 1938 we were losing patience with him and his days were numbered. But then something surprising and wholly unexpected happened in the fall of that year, which led to a new and secret alliance—an alliance which shielded the priest from the wrath of the party. Well, it was more like the appearance of a hidden benefactor and protector; and this silent partner, quietly began to subvert the plots aimed at his destruction. Instead, redirecting all menace and malice away from him towards other targets, thereby allowing Father Lichtenberg to continue his work against the regime.

But now I have a confession to make, and it is one that must certainly come as a great surprise, as it stands so starkly against the flow of everything that I have related thus far. It is true that I was and had always been a great believer in our party, and in its goals for a bright and equitable future for our people. My parents were both members of the party, as were all of my friends, so I had no reason to doubt the sincerity and honor inherent in our motives and methods. So it is peculiar, to say the least, that I should have been suddenly thrust into a cataclysm of internal doubts; and a clash of values and moralities waged within me. I was never a religious person, nor was anyone close to me religious, so the marginalized and moral failings of the clergy, and their peculiar philosophy of human failure had never had any pull upon me. As far as any of us were concerned, Christianity was an abhorrent fantasy based upon superstition, and it elevated the worst qualities of human weakness. It was just one more thing to be eradicated over the course of time; so that human power and a new and better morality could exist and guide us.

At least, this is what I had always thought; this is what I was always taught to believe. Yet, in the midst of the sudden and overwhelming violence which took place all across Germany one November night in 1938, I was also overcome within myself, by a sudden and overwhelming revulsion at what I witnessed. Mobs took up stones and broke shop windows throughout the country; men gathered sticks and used them to beat fellow Germans. Granted, they were Jews, but still somehow their cries and their blood chilled me to the bone. And all of a sudden I felt newly repulsed by the plethora of our party’s words (and ideologies) which had clearly led to this violence, all of the great accumulation of statements that had been made leading inexorably towards this violence, which purposed the wholesale destruction of others. And even all of the piles upon piles of materials that I myself had generated in support of our positions, all of which blamed the Jews for our country’s economic woes and ethical failings, none of these things had effectively prepared me for the visceral reality of smelling their spilt blood, seeing their broken bones, and witnessing their destroyed humanity. Perhaps their destruction was something that should have filled me with glee, but all it did was fill me with horror and remorse. This was not the success I had thought it would be. No, this violence was wrong, and I acknowledged this fact in the depths of my being. My soul revolted against this violence, and my heart broke; my chest felt as though it would burst open in protest.

But my mind couldn’t accept this new idea, I couldn’t rationalize such a sudden and complete turnabout; my reason resisted a change of course. It couldn’t be done, I reasoned. I had an excellent position now within the party, everyone I knew were members, they were my friends, I had nothing to lose by maintaining my status quo, but everything to lose if I changed it. Could the party be wrong? It had always sounded so good and so right. Regardless what I may truly think now, it would clearly be best for me to continue to play along with the party line.

All of these things, and many others plagued me and cast me into a somber mood as I walked through the streets of Berlin later that night, weaving my way past broken storefronts, burned out buildings, and everywhere—the shattered glass. I made my way past the Bebelplatz, and continued eastward, alongside the State Opera House, where I stopped and took a closer look a poster glued to its northern wall. It was a familiar sight: a poster announcing nightly vesper services at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, and publicly defending the rights of the Jewish minority. I had seen these posters plastered around town for many years, all put up by Father Lichtenberg himself, or by those who served under him. These posters had been an annoying nuisance up until now; but this night, I saw it as a new possibility and a calling to something within me that I had never before considered. I was curious to hear what Bernhard Lichtenberg might say in his nightly homily, and I resolved to attend vespers the following evening.

Though I could easily explain my presence in the church the next night as information gathering, and nobody in the Ministry or the party would question me about this, still I felt extremely nervous and agitated as I entered the building and took a seat in the dark, against a side wall. My heart was pounding, and sweat glistened upon my forehead. I wiped it off with a handkerchief as I looked timidly to my right and left, and then fixed my gaze rigidly straight ahead, focusing upon the figure standing in the front of the church. It was Father Lichtenberg, and he was already in the midst of his oration, “These synagogues that were burned last night, just outside, all around our fine city, these too are places of worship; these also are houses of God! No one has a right to desecrate these, to destroy them, no matter their justification. We must halt these outrages now, before much worse abuses soon fall upon us all. The Jews are not our enemy. They are not the cause of our problems. Wake up from this fallacy—this deceit—a horrible lie having been repeated over and over, to divide us along racial lines. No, we are all the enemy, each of us our own enemy, and the enemy of each other; if we allow ourselves to believe these lies and then to act upon them, we are in the wrong. You say you want to right past wrongs, to make reparations?! If this is true, then make yourself right, in truth! The past is done, nothing can be changed now that has been done before. You want reparations?! Repair your own heart! That is the reparation that is needed! Stop fearing your brother and sister, no matter who they are: Jew, gypsy, black man, or white. Demand of yourselves, each of you, courage and righteousness, virtue and honor! Settle for nothing less than goodness and mercy, forgiveness and love within your own souls. I’m asking each of you now, when you leave tonight and return to your home: Pray for your enemies! Think of them by name, and desire good things for them. And pray like this every night, from now on, this is how we will make the future brighter for our nation; only by turning our enemies into our friends! We will never be able to right the wrongs of the past. They are past. But we can right the wrongs of the future, by acting rightly: Now! How can we demand these shop owners to pay for something they aren’t responsible for? For shame! We have destroyed their livelihoods, and even beaten them in the streets! Why take our vengeance out upon these innocents?! We blame and scapegoat others, and it is immoral, and will only lead to more suffering in the future, if we don’t change course now!”

I didn’t hear the conclusion of his speech, I couldn’t sit there any longer. His words cut through me in a frightful way, and I ran quickly out the doors to escape their damning; his statements fell on me like a pile of burning embers. I wanted to be angry. I wanted to hate him more now than ever I had in the past—him, and everyone like him—but I couldn’t. It was as if my mind were shackled in place, and even under my determined prodding, it wouldn’t fly to the hateful places I was accustomed to haunting. I couldn’t think at all in that moment, but rather I fled instinctually to save myself—though in a haze—and I wandered the streets of Berlin, crossing over the Schloss Bridge, stopping there, and staring down into the swirling depths of the waters below me. The light from the streetlamps overhead reflected upon the small rippling waves as they moved swiftly past me—flickering upon the surface, jumping and catching like an old movie-reel, which lulled me into a pleasant, forgetful trance.  

The fragmented light which played upon the water slowly coalesced into images my mind could recognize: I saw Herr Goebbels, my boss, gesturing boldly before a crowd of admirers; I saw all of us smiling and laughing—my parents were there, and my friends, those I had attended university with, and some of whom I now worked with—all of us saluting and cheering in unison, happily united in our common delusions. But these images now made me nauseous. The waves upon the river’s surface shifted slightly in a light breeze, and abruptly broke up these images in my mind; and for a moment I noticed a sweet smell in the air, which I breathed in deeply, remembering the nearby Linden trees, before I returned to my reverie in the waters below. And next I saw Father Bernhard Lichtenberg there, standing in his pulpit, admonishing and inspiring me with a completely new and different set of ideas. And my heart warmed uncontrollably as I watched him; against my wishes, I smiled and felt…hopeful. This feeling startled me, and caused the images to suddenly vanish. And I looked up, gazing vacantly down the river as hope turned back to fear, and I worried for myself. What would become of me now? I couldn’t easily go back to who I had been; and yet, it was deadly to become who I thought I might be.  

I returned home and suffered through a long, sleepless night, tormented by conflicting visions of my future. I feared myself most of all. What would I do in the morning? Would I go to my office in the Ministry of Propaganda and do my work as if nothing had happened? Could I even do that? But if not, then what? Would I quit? One doesn’t quit jobs like this. So then, what?! Would I flee the country, or join Father Lichtenberg, or hide in my apartment forever?! Impossible! Why not just become a Jew then, damn it all, and face the wrath of the country?! Let them destroy me too. I despaired of myself, and of every option for my future. Bewildered by my situation I lay down upon my bed, and despair lulled me to sleep.

When I awoke the next day, my bed was drenched with sweat and I was shaking uncontrollably. I had come down with a cold or flu, and this allowed me several days of recovery, which enabled me to put off any decisions about my future life. During this time I attempted to put Father Lichtenberg’s words into action, but found I knew nothing about prayer, or how to pray for an enemy. The idea seemed very strange to me, to talk to God; who up to that moment, I hadn’t even believed existed. How does one make God listen to them? These were uncharted waters; they left me very disoriented and uncomfortable. So rather than attempt prayer, I decided to simply think a few kindly thoughts towards Father Lichtenberg. I hoped for his safety, imagining him continuing his nightly speeches in defense of the Jewish population without interference. And then it occurred to me that I could keep him safe, if I were careful and if I used my position within the Ministry wisely. 

I returned to work the following week, and among the directives on my desk, waiting for my approval, was one to authorize the detention of Father Lichtenberg, due to his outspoken critiques against the November Pogroms (more widely known as Kristallnacht) earlier in the month. If I signed the paperwork now, they would then be sent to the offices of the Gestapo, and Bernhard Lichtenberg would be arrested later that evening. I had always been a rubber stamper for these directives, never withholding my signature or raising any resistance to these arrests in the past; but now, I reconsidered my role and found my new life purpose in quietly and surreptitiously obstructing such things. My first action to this end, was crude and inartistic—I simply crumpled the directive and threw it into the trash. Our office staff was incredibly overworked, and this directive came from one of my subordinates, who I knew would never follow up on it.

Prior to adding my signature to a directive, I was the only one who would have seen it, so it was very unlikely it would ever be missed. However, after I sign a directive, a copy is then placed into our Ministry archives, another copy is taken to the Gestapo, one copy turned into an arrest warrant, and another is held in the Gestapo archives along with a copy of the arrest warrant; and a final copy of all related paperwork, including information as to the prisoner’s final destination, is placed into a file and is retained at another centralized location in Berlin. So it was very difficult to hide a directive after it left my office. I intercepted them before they made it any further.

Rather than getting arrested that evening, Father Lichtenberg gave another fiery oration, unaware of his new hidden benefactor, or how my interference had bought him more time. Weeks went by before he raised the ire of Dr. Goebbels himself, when Father Lichtenberg fiercely opposed the Cabinet’s decision to force Jewish shopkeepers to pay for the damages to all property resulting from the Kristallnacht pogrom. The Father called this decision an outrage and immorality of the highest order: adding insult to injury upon the Jewish community which first lost their shops, their properties, their places of worship, and in many cases even their own lives, and now the Nazi party insisted they also must pay for all of these losses themselves. Bernard Lichtenberg named Goebbels specifically in one of his homilies, and this incited Goebbel’s wrath. He demanded his immediate arrest and only after a great deal of persuasion, was I able to convince him that Father Lichtenberg was more useful to us free than in prison. I suggested, erroneously, that I had been investigating the Bishop of Berlin, Konrad von Preysing, and I needed Bernhard Lichtenberg free in order to finally get at the Bishop. “We need the minnow to get the shark.” I suggested with a wink; and Dr. Goebbels smiled wryly, relenting, and stated that “all the fish in the sea will eventually be ours”.

I attended evening vespers at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral at least monthly; enough to learn a great deal about Christian ethics from Bernhard Lichtenberg, but not so frequently as to arouse much suspicion from my fellow party-members. I had explained to my closest associates the need for my attendance there, in order to gather further incriminating evidence against the Catholic Church, and they wished me every success in my efforts. What impressed me the most about the Christian approach to morality was its emphasis on personal responsibility, an absence of blame towards others for the unfairness that all of us experience in our lives, and the personal courage to stand for human life, no matter whose life, and especially for the innocent and those who can’t defend themselves. Christians would do this even in the face of death. I had always been taught that Christians were weak, superstitious, and a danger to society due to their regressive ways of thinking. In my mind, they had always been the “bad” people, and I fought them aggressively; just like any good Nazi would do. However, Bernhard Lichtenberg’s speeches gave me another way of looking at this and I was shocked, and saddened, to realize that perhaps the Christians were actually “good” in that they defended life, personal freedoms; and they lived courageously heroic—in word and in action—most often to protect and serve others, rather than themselves.

My people spoke great flowing words, and made excellent speeches about the unity of our people, the hopeful future of our country, and the peace and safety we would provide for all of our citizens. However, in action we censored, and imprisoned, and finally killed those who disagreed with us, or those who we blamed for our problems. Actions speak louder than words, as is commonly said; and it was difficult for me to ignore my actions, or the actions of my family and friends in support of the party’s agendas. We valued power and control and would fight to achieve it, even though we spoke as if we cared about peace and human freedom. Whereas the Christians valued human life and freedom, and shunned power and control over others; and would even give up their own lives to achieve it. The difference was striking, and I had to admire Bernhard Lichtenberg and all those like him.

I was able to protect Father Lichtenberg from arrest for two years, but finally one evening in October 1941, the Gestapo swept in and took him, just before the beginning of his vespers service which I had become so fond of attending. The final straw was a letter of protest he wrote against our policy of forced euthanasia, which was being carried out with brutal efficiency, in order to eliminate the German population of the mentally deficient, the disabled, and those with epilepsy (among other conditions), which rendered them all ‘useless’ in the new German society we were building. His letter condemning this practice, gained widespread attention and was an embarrassment to the regime, both domestically and internationally. By 1941 I was no longer able to protect him, or any other clergy because all authority for arrests was transferred entirely to the Gestapo, and my office in the Ministry of Propaganda was no longer involved. I saw Bernhard Lichtenberg carried out of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral that evening, and loaded into the back of a truck, and I never saw him again. He was kept for interrogation in a local prison for some time, before he was finally transferred to the priest barracks in Dachau, in the fall of 1943. My understanding is he never made it to the concentration camp but died in transit, somewhere along the way.

I continued working for the Ministry for the remainder of the war, and applied myself where I could, to the covert resistance, and even sabotage where possible, of Nazi policy. When the war was over I was arrested, and tried for my role in support of the Nazi regime. Though I had also fought clandestinely against the regime, much of what I had done was difficult to prove, so in the end I was sent to prison for ten years. However, several documents were found to be material support for my defense, and I was eventually given a reduced sentence of five years. In my opinion this was fair, and I felt fortunate to serve my time, and pay for my part in that hideous experiment.

When I was released in the spring of 1951, I entered seminary and became a Catholic priest. I was trained as a missionary, and in 1955 was sent to western China to work with the ethnic Uyghur population in Xinjiang province. I have now been working in China as a Catholic missionary for nearly thirty years, and have witnessed many things between the People’s Party and the Uyghurs which are highly reminiscent of my time working for the Nazi party before and during the war. I always hoped that the lessons learned from that epic failure, would be learned and never repeated again. But alas, this is not the nature of humankind, particularly for those who adhere to the world’s vision of reality, where might makes right; and where those who hold the power, wield it in the name of goodness and righteousness, while practicing the opposite.

It is now 1984, and I still have great hope for our world. For wherever God’s people practice love and mercy, there is still hope. And in the face of oppression—or even in the face of extreme violence, such as the murderous policies which I participated in during the war, or what is now gathering here in western China—where there are courageous people ready to resist, and where there are lovers of God, there will always be hope and life.

I once believed that I was right—long ago in Germany, along with my family and my friends who served the Nazi Party—we were certain in our moral superiority. But eventually I learned, through the humble and courageous actions of Father Lichtenberg, that I had actually been very wrong. Now, I live my life defending and protecting a new minority against the inhumane actions of another party, in another country. It is the same thing all over again; but this time I know I am in the right. Yet, those in power believe I am wrong.

I am writing this letter, on the eve before my death. For I have been tried and found guilty, and shall be shot in the morning, at first light. It doesn’t matter what I have been accused of, for they are all lies; but the Party deals only in lies and falsehoods, it always has and it always will. I only hope that this letter will make it out of this place, and someone will read it, and will learn something from my story.

I am very grateful for my life. I am also very sorry for my mistakes, and for following my delusions for so much of this life. I am most grateful to Father Lichtenberg, for showing me the way of truth and light; even in the midst of utter darkness. I am in the light now, and I am joyfully awaiting first dawn. And after that, I am looking forward to a new life, lived in an even brighter light; in a day which never ends.

May God be with you all, and may He show His light upon you, as He did for me.

With Love and Hope,

Father Karl Braun

November 11, 1984


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