Karl Leisner: a martyr of Nazism

The figure of this Catholic priest and martyr of Nazism is a model of joy in the face of suffering. His priestly ordination took place in a concentration camp in the middle of the Second World War.

News Desk (04/07/2021 11:00, Gaudium Press) On February 28, 1915, Karl Leisner was born in the town of Rees, near the Dutch border. His father was Wilhelm and his mother, Amalie.

Karl’s childhood was marked by a strong Catholic piety, especially devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was largely inspired by his mother. However, he met his greatest benefactor when, at the age of 11, he entered high school: Father Walter Vinnenberg, who was the religion teacher.

The “story of a soul”

On 27 February 1927, after a meeting with the priest, the young man began to write his “Story of a Soul”, a diary in which he kept a record of all the graces, temptations and resolutions he took. Such an object would be the greatest source of data that could be obtained from Leisner.

Both his friends and this notebook were witnesses of his physical, intellectual, and spiritual maturity; of an unusual honesty and a capacity to influence that was uncommon, even more so among children. Proof of this maturity is one of his journal entries: “inwardly without unworthy, disordered, vulgar thoughts. Honesty! Externally: always with correct habits and attitudes (at table). Distinction and politeness”,[1] as well as: “Begin the day with a ‘sursum'[2] to God. To begin the day with courage and piety. Rise quickly and punctually. Reflect calmly, then act boldly.”[3]

A vocation at the dawn of the Second World War

In 1931, at the age of 16, he was elected head of the Catholic Youth in his district. From then on, several resolutions emerged from his spirit: to extend the Catholic faith in the most concrete acts; to provide no room for action of the devil; to have a tight programme; never to feel sorry for oneself, amongst others.

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On January 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of the Reich. In view of this, Karl wrote prophetically in his diary: Dies ater Germaniae (black day for Germany). And then: “I love my country, but first of all I am a Catholic”. This was the starting point of a frontal enmity between him and Nazism.

Three months later, he left for a retreat in Schoenstatt, where he received all the graces of the Covenant of love for Mary and of abandonment as an instrument in her hands. Seeing the struggles that he would face, he asked for the grace of discernment of good and evil to face everything that would happen, and also an “unyielding will, tenacious courage and deep faith. Together, he adopted two mottos: “Castitas in omnibus” and “Da virtutem, Domine.”[4]

Shortly afterwards, during a retreat, he felt a deep desire to become a priest. Therefore, on May 7, 1934, he entered the seminary at the Collegium Borromäum in Münster. For the beginning of his studies he asked for “a holy ardour, a strength full of pride, a deep humility, a total and luminous purity, a firm hope and a burning love”.

His requests for life in the seminary were a “discipline of thought, look and tendencies” and the ability to make speeches “speaking freely, without text”.

The diary also tells of a meeting Karl had with Pope Pius XI, who welcomed him with particular attention.

In 1938 he entered the major seminary, preparing for the diaconate, a ministry he entered on 25 March 1939.  That same year he expected to receive the second degree of the order, but… something unexpected happened.

Paths of Providence

One day, a trusted friend of his came to tell him that Hitler had been the object of an attack, however, he had not died. Leisner could not hold back a sigh: “Schade! (What a pity!). The supposed friend reported him to the superior of the hospital (Karl had contracted tuberculosis), who had him arrested, which he did on 9 November.

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On March 16 of the following year he was interned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and at the end of the same year he was transferred to Dachau concentration camp along with 2,600 other priests.

Karl Leisner contracted a severe haemorrhage in March of the following year, which caused typhoid fever. Despite all his infirmities, he was treated by the SS guards almost savagely. This was on purpose, since the camp chief had given an order to kill all the sick. In fact, that is what came to pass, for a third of the priests who died while at the camp.

Although the situations were deplorable, Karl never lost heart; so much so that he signed his letters always writing “Immerfroh”, which means: always happy.[5]

Hearing that Bishop Gabriel Piguet, Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, had also been led to Dachau, Leisner sent a request to Bishop Klemens von Galen,[6] Bishop of Münster, in order to obtain permission to be ordained on the sly by the newly arrived bishop. Permission was granted and on 17 December 1944, in the presence of 2,300 priests the ordination ceremony took place. Fr Leisner’s joy was indescribable, for, despite his deteriorating health, he was able to fulfil his long-awaited wish.

However, the new priest could not celebrate his first Mass until 26 December, the feast of St. Stephen, due to his physical weakness.

From the concentration camp, to the honour of the altars

To the joy of the ordination was added another relief: the death of Hitler (by suicide, incidentally) on 30 April 1945. This meant the liberation of the concentration camp after 2,000 days of veritable hell. However, since typhoid fever had spread and killed 10,000 people in four months, Karl had to wait until he was moved to another hospital. This was done on 4 May.

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Now, good events did not hide the fact that the day of his death was approaching and that his state of health was getting worse and worse. Despite this, some consolations were granted him, such as the visit of his parents and sisters.

On June 29, 1945, the day that marked the end of his earthly passage, Karl was, as always, joyful, for as the Latin adage says: “talis vita, finis ita,”[7] so too he who, at the beginning of his life, had so much enthusiasm, piety and determination, would not let himself be shaken at the hour of his death, certain that “one arrives at the light through the cross. This marked the last moments of his existence.

On June 23, 1996, Father Karl Leisner was recognized with the honor of a martyr and proclaimed blessed.

The words of St Paul the Apostle to the Romans could well be applied to him: “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Tribulation? Anguish? Hunger? Nakedness? Danger? Sword? But in all these things we are more than conquerors, thanks to Him who loved us” (Rom 8:35-38).

By Luiz Eduardo Trevisan

1] LEJEUNE, René. Le Prisonnier du Bloc 26: Bienheureux Carl Leisner, martyr du nazisme. Paris: Pierre Téqui, 2011, p. 28.

2] Referring to the Holy Mass, in which the priest says: Sursum corda (Hearts on high, to God).

3] LEJEUNE. Op. cit.

4] Respectively: “chastity in everything” and “give me strength, Lord”.

5] Cf. ZELLER, Guillaume. La baraque des prêtres: Dachau, 1938-1945. Paris: Tallandier, 2015, p. 208.

[6] One of the most radical prelates in the struggle against Nazism. He became known as the “Lion of Münster”.

7] “As was life, so will death be”.


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