Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Albert Leo Schlageter: First Soldier of the Third Reich or Catholic War Hero?

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Albert Leo Schlageter: First Soldier of the Third Reich or Catholic War Hero?

Article excerpt

On May 26, 1923, on the outskirts of Düsseldorf, a twelve-man firing squad belonging to a French occupation army executed Albert Leo Schlageter, a German veteran of World War I, a holder of the Iron Cross, and a former member of the Freikorps. Earlier in the month, a French mil- itary tribunal had condemned Schlageter to death, after Schlageter and conspirators belonging to a former Freikorps unit had attempted to sabotage the delivery of coal from the occupied German Ruhr region to France.1 The French occupation of the Ruhr, which transpired after the German government had failed to meet the reparations obligations demanded by the Versailles peace settlements, was condemned throughout Germany, thus making Schlageter's actions widely popular with the German people. Schlageter's execution provoked a public outcry throughout Germany that raged for years. In 1931, with the foreign occupation of German territory at an end, a national committee supervised the erection of a monument in Schlageter's honor at the site of his execution in Düsseldorf.2 The ceremony dedicating the monument became a national event attended by thousands.

The centrality of the Schlageter mythology to the early propaganda of the National Socialists is well known.3 Nazi polemicists deployed the image of the martyred Schlageter to powerful effect both immediately after his execution, and again, when Adolf Hitler came to power in early 1933. On June 23, 1923, on the same day as Schlageter's burial in his home town of Schönau, Hitler proclaimed before a crowd of at least 20,000 at Munich's Königsplatz that "Schlageter's death should show us that freedom will not be won by protests, but by action alone."4 As explained by historian Jay Baird, the official rituals of the Third Reich would remember Schlageter as a "hero who made a blood sacrifice for the rebirth of Germany." From the party's earliest beginnings to its high point in power, Nazi mythology elevated the fallen hero Schlageter to the lofty realm of Nazi immortals.5

As Baird has also pointed out, however, the Nazis were "but one of several groups competing for control of the Schlageter legacy."6 It is the intent of this article to consider the role of Germany's Catholic fraternities in staking their claim to the Schlageter legacy. At the time of Schlageter's execution in 1923, Germany's Catholic fraternities were among the most prominent institutions in what contemporary observers and later historians of this period have described as Germany's Catholic milieu.7 Since approximately the middle of the nineteenth century, Germany's Catholic fraternities had been the focus of life for Catholic students at a time when Germany's Catholic minority population experienced widespread discrimination from German authorities and from Germany's non-Catholic population, principally in Protestant-ruled and dominated German principalities and states in the German Confederation and Empire, successively. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Germany's three major Catholic fraternity organizations, the Cartellverband der katholischen deutschen Studentenverbindungen (CV), the Kartell-Verband der katholischen Studentenvereine Deutchlands (KV), and the Verband der wissenschaftlichen katholischen Studentenvereine Unitas (Unitas), had served as training grounds for leadership in the Catholic Center Party.8 Their alumni were also strongly represented in Germany's Catholic episcopate.9 Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, Germany's Catholic fraternities openly opposed Germany's more established nationalist fraternities.10 Unlike their nationalist counterparts during this period, Germany's Catholic fraternities prohibited their members from participating in mensur fencing, a ritualized duel that the Catholic episcopate had banned on religious grounds.

The CV, the KV, and Unitas fraternities allowed as members only practicing Catholics. As reported in fraternity newspapers and other fraternity accounts, members were expected to attend Mass regularly; the sacraments of confession and communion were integrated into fraternity functions. …

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