In his new book I Will Not Serve: The Priest Who Said “No” To Hitler, Irish author David Rice has found a timely subject in the moral courage of one Catholic priest who refused to tailor his conscience to suit the times he lived in.
If we're lucky we won't have to live through an era of moral obscenity, where every social ill is blamed on vulnerable out-groups or racial minorities, where our media is relentlessly attacked by men in positions of great power and where faceless corporations write our laws and rampant cronyism diminishes our government.
Like us the greatest generation weren't very lucky in this regard, having to contend with the worst moral evil the world has ever seen in Nazism and the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Rice, who now lives and works in Ireland, has found a mighty subject for his lifelong preoccupations in Father Franz Reinisch, the literally towering figure who point blank refused to serve in Hitler's armed forces or swear his allegiance to him when 17,000 Catholic priests were called up to serve.
By 1942 Father Reinisch had already witnessed the brutal persecution of the Jewish people and of the members of Germany's main churches and his mind was already made up. Hitler, he felt, was an avatar of human evil the like of which he had never seen and Reinisch refused to imperil his soul in his service.
In his fictional telling of a factual tale the English speaking world is learning, many for the first time, how this brave and principled man stood up to the threats of military, civil and even church authorities, leading to his arrest and eventual court martial.
To refuse to serve was so remarkable, necessitated such courage, that it staggered the military leaders who heard his statement. For many it was treason, a matter for instant execution. Reinisch said he would swear allegiance to the German people but not to their dictator.
In processions the swastika began to replace the eucharist in the monstrance, Reinisch noticed, and prayers began to be offered to the Fuhrer rather than God. Rice quotes a actual schoolbook prayer that reads as follows: Fuhrer, my Fuhrer, given to me by God/May you long guard and receive my life...I thank you today for my daily bread...My faith, my life/Heil, my Fuhrer.”
By the start of the war up to 6000 citizens a week were bowing to pressure to renounce their Catholic faith and sign an apostasy form. To remain a Catholic was now tantamount to opposing the Nazis and they would not countenance any dissent.
Reinisch's friends had listened to him assure them that he would refuse to sign up to the army and serve when the time came. They all knew by 1939 that the time would be coming. “If you don't serve you will be shot!” they told him. “Then so be it,” he replied.
You won't be so tough when the time comes they insisted. But Reinisch was resolute. “You cannot take an oath to a criminal,” he insisted. “You cannot follow an authority that brings only murder and death into the world.”
Reinisch stood his ground, for which he was eventually guillotined by the Third Reich in 1942. There is a movement to have him canonized as a saint now.
Whether that happens or not he has already achieved an enduring stature that will last as long as the history of the war itself does, as this important and inspirational book reminds us.