On this date in 1945, labor activist Nikolaus Gross entered the ranks of Catholic martyrs of Nazi Germany.
A miner turned newsman of the Catholic labor movement, Gross was a peripheral associate of the July 20 Plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He had been known and watched as a dissident and was detained shortly after the plot’s failure, but was only put to death after months of torture, along with a batch of other smaller fish in the conspiracy.
A prelate recalled a conversation he had before the dangerous venture was attempted:
I said to Nikolaus Gross on the day before the assassination attempt on Hitler of 20 July 1944: “Mr Gross, remember that you have seven children. I have no family for which I am responsible. It’s a matter of your life.” To which Gross made a really great statement to me: “If we do not risk our life today, how do we then want one day to justify ourselves before God and our people?”
Gross is notable as the first Catholic lay victim of Naziism subsequently beatified by the Church. The timing (he was beatified in 2001) is interesting to note.*
The long-running controversy over the complicated role of Catholicism writ large — if indeed such a thing could be assessed at all — during the Holocaust had surged into popular conversation with the 1999 publication of Hitler’s Pope.**
Was the Vatican’s silence during the war years complicity or powerlessness? How does one measure and weigh the behavior of the hierarchy as against individuals who risked death in resistance large and small — and they against others who collaborated for advantage, and against the vast multitude who simply went along? Can we speak of a responsibility of “the Church” for its own history of anti-Semitism, and if so, what did that mean for the live people facing real choices in the 1930s and 40s?
Bound up as they are in their respondents’ own present-day agendas, these questions seem certain to remain a point of conflict. Propagandists will always keep their own store of exemplars in either perfidy or saintliness, but let us give Nikolaus Gross no less than his due: he answered his duty unswervingly, and on this day, answered with his life.
Online accounts differ as to whether Gross was hanged or beheaded. Both methods were in use.
* Lest too grand a claim of causal relationship be inferred, note that beatification is a meandering procedure of bureaucracy rarely answering the day’s headlines; that the late Pope John Paul II elevated such legions to the choirs of heaven as to provoke complaints of debased coinage; and that in an Italian church headed by a Polish pontiff honoring a German martyr, the relationship between fascism and Catholicism was not something that, as in the English-speaking world, might have waned into forgetfulness before a timely work of popular history.
** The controversy surrounding this book, and the author’s subsequent moderation of some conclusions, is covered in a Wikipedia article. Naturally, it spawned more books — both in support of its thesis of Catholic collaboration and against.