Alfred Delp

Alfred Delp

Alfred Delp was born in Mannheim, Germany, on 15th September 1907. He had a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. Delp was baptised as a Catholic and attended a Protestant elementary school and was confirmed in the Lutheran church in 1921. Delp converted to Catholicism at the age of fifteen and three years later he was ordained as a priest in 1937. (1)

A strong opponent of Adolf Hitler he joined the Kreisau Circle, a small group of intellectuals who opposed the Nazi Party. This group, formed in 1940, included Helmuth von Moltke, Peter von Wartenburg, Adam von Trott, Wilhelm Leuschner, Julius Leber, Dietrich Bonhoffer and Jakob Kaiser. "Rather than a group of conspirators, these men were more of a discussion group looking for an exchange of ideas on the sort of Germany would arise from the detritus of the Third Reich, which they confidently expected ultimately to fail." (2)

The group represented a broad spectrum of social, political, and economic views, they were best described as Christian and Socialist. A. J. Ryder has pointed out that the Kreisau Circle "brought together a fascinating collection of gifted men from the most diverse backgrounds: noblemen, officers, lawyers, socialists, trade unionists, churchmen." (3) Joachim Fest argues that the "strong religious leanings" of this group, together with its ability to attract "devoted but undogmatic socialists," but has been described as its "most striking characteristic." (4) Delp's main role was finding "common ground between Christian and socialist trade unions". (5)

Delp was highly critical of the hierarchical bureaucracy of the Catholic Church, which he said had lost sight of human beings as the subject and object of ecclesiastical life. He agreed with Adam von Trott who wrote about the Kreisau Circle: "The key to their joint efforts is the desperate attempt to rescue the core of personal human integrity. Their fundamental ambition is to restore the inalienable divine and natural right of the human individual." This was something that Delp called "God-guided humanism". (6)

Delp joined the editorial staff of the Jesuit publication Stimmen der Zeit (Voice of the Times). It had previous got into trouble for publishing Mit brennender Sorge (On the Church and the German Reich), an encyclical of Pope Pius XI, that was critical of the government in Nazi Germany, that had been issued by 10th March 1937. The encyclical condemned breaches of the 1933 Reichskonkordat agreement signed between the German Reich and the Holy See. It condemned "pantheistic confusion", "neopaganism", "the so-called myth of race and blood", and the idolizing of the State. The encyclical states that race is a fundamental value of the human community, which is necessary and honorable but condemns the exaltation of race, or the people, or the state, above their standard value to an idolatrous level. The journal was original shut down for four months but was finally closed down in 1941. (7)

Delp was assigned as rector of St. Georg Church in Munich. Delp secretly used his position to help Jews escape to Switzerland. According to Hans Mommsen, Delp had "probably the most productive mind in the Kreisau Circle". He did not believe that simply returning to religion, to the "Christian state", was a real solution. "It was necessary for man to rediscover himself in a real sense that embraced all aspects of life - to overcome his self-alienation - before he could be reintegrated into 'community' and 'nation' and become responsive to a religious message." (8)

Delp remained active in the Kreisau Circle and Joachim Fest argues that what brought the men together was not principally a determination to overthrow the Nazi regime, but more a discussion about what a post-Hitler Germany would look like: "There was a strong utopian streak in their thought and planning, which was infused with Christian and socialist ideals, as well as remnants from the youth movement of a romantic belief in the dawning of a new era. They basically believed that all social and political systems were reaching a dead end and that capitalism and Communism, no less than Nazism, were symptomatic of the crisis deep and all encompassing in modern mass society." (9)

In January, 1942, a group of men that included Alfred Delp, Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, General Friedrich Olbricht, Colonel-General Ludwig Beck, Colonel-General Erich Hoepner, General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, Colonel Albrecht Metz von Quirnheim, General-Major Henning von Tresckow, General-Major Helmuth Stieff, General Erich Fellgiebel, General Paul von Hase, General Lieutenant Karl Freiherr von Thüngen, General Fritz Lindemann, Lieutenant Fabian Schlabrendorff, Major Hans Ulrich von Oertzen, Wolf-Heinrich Helldorf, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, General-Major Hans Oster, and Hans Gisevius, all senior figures in Abwehr, Wilhelm Leuschner, Ulrich Hassell, Hans Dohnanyi, Carl Langbehn, Josef Wirmer, Carl Goerdeler, Julius Leber, Adolf Reichwein, Helmuth von Moltke, Peter von Wartenburg, Johannes Popitz and Jakob Kaiser, decided to overthrow Adolf Hitler. The conspiracy was called Operation Valkyrie. (10)

At first most of the group favoured a coup but rejected the idea of assassinating Hitler. They argued that the ethical and religious laws of Christianity must be strictly observed. Several military figures such as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and Field Marshal Günther von Kluge were against killing their Commander-in-Chief, even though they knew that he deserved death. However, eventually people who were opposed to Hitler on religious and moral grounds, such as Delp, came to the conclusion that Hitler needed to be assassinated. (11)

Lieutenant-Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg agreed Delp and was now convinced that he was morally justified in taking this action. His religious and ethical beliefs led him to the conclusion that it was his duty to eliminate Hitler and his murderous regime by any means possible. Just before he left on his mission to kill Hitler he said: "It is now time that something was done. But he who has the courage to do something must do so in the knowledge that he will go down in German history as a traitor. If he does not do it, however, he will be a traitor to his conscience." (12)

On 20th July, 1944, Stauffenberg entered the wooden briefing hut, twenty-four senior officers were in assembled around a huge map table on two heavy oak supports. Stauffenberg had to elbow his way forward a little in order to get near enough to the table and he had to place the briefcase so that it was in no one's way. Despite all his efforts, however, he could only get to the right-hand corner of the table. After a few minutes, Stauffenberg excused himself, saying that he had to take a telephone call from Berlin. There was continual coming and going during the briefing conferences and this did not raise any suspicions. (13)

Stauffenberg went straight to a building about 200 hundred yards away consisting of bunkers and reinforced huts. Shortly afterwards, according to eyewitnesses: "A deafening crack shattered the midday quiet, and a bluish-yellow flame rocketed skyward... and a dark plume of smoke rose and hung in the air over the wreckage of the briefing barracks. Shards of glass, wood, and fiberboard swirled about, and scorched pieces of paper and insulation rained down." (14)

Stauffenberg observed a body covered with Hitler's cloak being carried out of the briefing hut on a stretcher and assumed he had been killed. He got into a car but luckily the alarm had not yet been given when they reached Guard Post 1. The Lieutenant in charge, who had heard the blast, stopped the car and asked to see their papers. Stauffenberg who was given immediate respect with his mutilations suffered on the front-line and his aristocratic commanding exterior; said he must go to the airfield at once. After a short pause the Lieutenant let the car go. (15)

Adolf Hitler had survived the blast. He was seized by a "titanic fury and an Unquenchable thirst for revenge" ordered Heinrich Himmler and Ernst Kaltenbrunner to arrest "every last person who had dared to plot against him". Hitler laid down the procedure for killing them: "This time the criminals will be given short shrift. No military tribunals. We'll hail them before the People's Court. No long speeches from them. The court will act with lightning speed. And two hours after the sentence it will be carried out. By hanging - without mercy." (16)

Alfred Delp was arrested and was taken to the People's Court where he was tried by Roland Freisler. He denounced Delp for allowing his church to be used by the conspirators. "You knew well that treason was taking place. But of course, such a holy, consecrated fellow as you would be anxious to keep your tonsured scalp out of danger. No you went off to pray that the plot would go along lines pleasing to God." (17)

Alfred Delp was condemned to death and hanged on 2nd February, 1945.

Primary Sources

(1) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998)

Alfred Delp was a member of the Kreisau Circle in the conspiracy against Hitler. Converted to Catholicism at the age of fifteen, he entered the Jesuit order three years later and was ordained a priest in 1937. Joining the Resistance in 1942, he prepared a draft for a Christain order to replace the Nazi regime. He was arrested in late July 1944 after the failure of the July Plot.

(2) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997)

It was founded and held together by Helmuth von Moltke, a great-grandnephew of the celebrated army commander of the Franco-Prussian War, who worked in the Wehrmacht dubbed the Kreisau Circle after the estate owned by the Moltke family in Silesia, although it met there only two or three times. Its intense discussions, conducted in working groups, took place more frequently in various locations in Berlin; beginning in early 1943 most were held on Hortensienstrasse in Lichterfelde, at the home of Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, another bearer of a famous name in Prussian history... While Moltke has been described as the "engine" of the group, Yorck von Wartenburg was its "heart".

Around Moltke and Yorck gathered what at first glance appeared to be a motley array of strong-willed individuals with markedly different origins, temperaments, and convictions... The most striking characteristic of this group, apart from its strong religious leanings, was its earnest and quite successful attempt to attract a number of devoted but undogmatic socialists...

A number of figures from the Christian resistance also joined the Kreisau Circle, including the Jesuits Alfred Delp and Augustin Rösch, as well as prominent Protestants like the theologian Eugen Gerstenmaier and the prison chaplain Harald Poelchau. Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg and Julius Leber were also loosely affiliated with this group...

There was a strong utopian streak in their thought and planning, which was infused with Christian and socialist ideals, as well as remnants from the youth movement of a romantic belief in the dawning of a new era. They basically believed that all social and political systems were reaching a dead end and that capitalism and Communism, no less than Nazism, were symptomatic of the crisis deep and all encompassing in modern mass society.

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(1) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 62

(2) Louis R. Eltscher, Traitors or Patriots: A Story of the German Anti-Nazi Resistance (2014) page 298

(3) A. J. Ryder, Twentieth Century Germany: From Bismarck to Brandt (1973) page 425

(4) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 157

(5) Anton Gill, An Honourable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler (1994) page 168

(6) Hans Mommsen, Alternatives to Hitler (2003) page 55

(7) Paul O'Shea, A Cross Too Heavy: Pope Pius XII and the Jews of Europe (2011) pages 156-157

(8) Hans Mommsen, Alternatives to Hitler (2003) pages 53-54

(9) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 158

(10) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) pages 184-185

(11) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977) page 371

(12) Louis R. Eltscher, Traitors or Patriots: A Story of the German Anti-Nazi Resistance (2014) page 298

(13) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977) page 400

(14) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 258

(15) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977) page 401

(16) William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1964) page 1272

(17) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 62