October 21 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Father Laurentius Siemer -- a spiritual leader of the German resistance movement during World War II. Imprisoned by the Nazis, he later became a TV celebrity.
Father Laurentius Siemer was repeatedly imprisoned by the Gestapo beginning in 1935. As a leader in the Dominican order, he was later hunted down by the Nazis, who believed he was a co-conspirator in the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944. Siemer managed to flee and escape certain death.
Following the war, Siemer was a government consultant who helped draft the German constitution. He also established the Walberberg Institute, an educational center for young people in a convent near Bonn. Known for his quick wit, he was both a strong advocate of "Christian socialism" and a popular TV talk show guest known as the "TV Father."
Entering the Order
But Siemer surprised people long before he became a Nazi resistor and TV celebrity.
Born as "Josef Siemer" into a large family on March 8, 1888 in northern Germany. He astounded his relatives when he decided to enter the "Order of Preachers," more commonly known as the Dominican Order.
There, he studied philosophy and theology and was ordained a priest -- "Father Laurentius" -- in 1914.
He became rector of the Order's high school in Vechta in 1921, and was elected Provincial of the Dominican Province of Teutonia in 1932.
Siemer eventually became a steadfast opponent of the Nazi regime. He called on Catholics not to adhere to the cultural currents of the time, but instead, to live by the principles of their religion.
Priests as criminals
In 1935, the Gestapo arrested Siemer in Cologne during the so-called "currency fraud cases."
"The Dominican Order dramatically influenced Catholics in their philosophical views," said Maria Anna Zumholz of the Institute for Historical Regional Research at the University of Vechta.
"In order to destroy the good reputation of the Dominicans, the Nazis accused them of fraud," she said.
Father Laurentius spent three months in a Cologne prison before being transferred to a jail in Oldenburg. His lawyer managed to eventually force his release.
Laurentius's co-defendents and long-time friends, Thomas Stuhlweissenburg and Titus Horten, also Dominicans, did not survive imprisonment.
Following his release from jail, Siemer travelled to Rome in 1937, and then around the world, with stops in Sri Lanka, China and the United States.
In 1940, the Gestapo began their onslaught on Catholic monasteries, which were searched, appropriated and sometimes transformed into military hospitals.
"Many Gestapo reports stated that Dominicans were papal stormtroopers and therefore had to be annihilated," said Father Rainer Maria Groothuis, author of the book "Serving a Supranational Power -- German Dominicans During the Nazi Regime."
"That was the decisive goal of the regime, not just against the Dominicans, but effectively, against all orders," he said.
Laurentius became increasingly involved in the resistance movement in Germany, but he kept many of his activities secret from his fellow Dominicans so as not to implicate them.
After the failure of the assassination attempt against Hitler on July 20, 1944 and the executions of nearly all of his co-conspirators, Father Laurentius found himself on the Gestapo's death list.
Yet when the Nazi secret police appeared on his monastery's doorstep in his native Oldenburg region on September 16, he evaded arrest. While a fellow priest distracted Gestapo officers at the front gate, Siemer fled out the back door and into a neighboring barn.
Although the Nazis sought him throughout the country, Father Laurentius survived in a hideout until the end of the war.
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