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Martin Bormann’s tale of redemption


Even among Nazi true believers, Martin Bormann was a fanatic. As head of the party and Hitler’s most trusted deputy, Bormann was passionate about Nazi racial theory. The final solution was carried out under his authority.

His views on other “lives unworthy of life” were outlined in a 1943 memorandum:

The Slavs are to work for us. In so far as we don’t need them, they may die. Therefore compulsory vaccination and German health services are superfluous. … They may use contraceptives or practice abortion, the more the better. … As for food they won’t get any more than is necessary. We are the masters, we come first.

Inside Germany Bormann pressed the Kirchenkampf, the struggle against Christianity, faster than even the Führer desired (Hitler wanted it postponed until after the war). In June 1941, Bormann wrote the Gestapo: “The influence of the church must be completely eliminated.” Scores of priests and religious perished as a result.

Survivors say it is pointless to speak of justice where the Nazis are concerned. No retribution could approach the enormity of their crimes, an insight that seems especially apt in Bormann’s case.

Redemption, however, is a different matter, because redemption thrives precisely where it seems most inconceivable. Martin Bormann fils -- the 69-year-old son and namesake of Hitler’s most vicious deputy -- offers remarkable proof of the point. His story is told in the Aug. 26 issue of Die Furche, a superb newspaper published in Austria.

The eldest of Bormann’s 10 children, Martin was sent to live with a family in Austria after the collapse of the Third Reich. He was 16 when his father was sentenced to death in absentia at Nuremberg, Germany, on Oct. 1, 1946.

(The elder Bormann’s fate was never established. Bormann believes his father died in Hitler’s bunker, though some rumors placed him in Argentina after the war.)

His foster family re-introduced Bormann to Christianity. “It was inconceivable to me that the man I knew as a loving father could be involved in these terrible things,” Bormann said. “I could not have borne it, had I not also heard at this time the message of the forgiveness and mercy of God.”

Bormann was baptized as an infant at the request of his mother, Gerda, who came from a Lutheran background. His godfather was none other than Adolf Hitler; his godmother was Ilse Hess, wife of Rudolph Hess. It is difficult to imagine a greater blasphemy than the day when the Bormanns, the Hesses and Hitler gathered around the baptismal font, promising to offer Martin the example of their lives.

Bormann was officially received into the Catholic church in 1947. In 1951 he enrolled at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, to study theology. He probably knew Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, who was teaching in Innsbruck at the time.

In a staggering irony, Bormann -- son of the man who meant to crush Christianity forever -- was ordained a Catholic priest in the Missionary Order of the Heart of Jesus in 1958.

Bormann spent many years in the Congo serving Catholic missions. After a severe accident, he received papal dispensation from his priestly vows. Bormann returned to Austria where he worked until his retirement as a religious educator.

By itself, the fact that Martin Bormann’s son became a Catholic priest and devoted part of his career to a racial group the Nazis destined for subjugation is incredible. But the story does not end there.

Since 1987, Bormann has been a key figure in a group called “Children of Perpetrators -- Children of Victims” organized by Professor Dan Bar-On of Ben Gurion University in Israel. A physician, Bar-On treated children traumatized by their parents’ inability to speak about their Holocaust experiences. Bar-On wondered if the children of perpetrators had similar difficulties. The research led to the 1989 book Legacy Of Silence: Encounters With The Children Of The Third Reich (Harvard Press).

It also led to Bormann, and the idea of founding a group to bring children on both sides into conversation, to see if the second generation could begin to heal the wounds suffered and inflicted by the first. A core group of children of survivors and children of perpetrators has met ever since.

In 1993, Bormann and Bar-On traveled to Israel, where Bormann met with children of survivors. He is the only child of a high-ranking Nazi ever to go to Israel to express his sorrow.

His role in Bar-On’s group has steadily expanded. Last summer in Hamburg, Germany, Bormann helped lead an encounter that brought together children from both sides in Northern Ireland, South Africa and Jerusalem.

“It works by first telling one’s story, how one has been wounded,” Bormann said. “You come to know yourself, then you can know the other, and forgiveness and reconciliation can grow.”

Of his father, Bormann says he cannot take away one iota of his guilt. Yet neither will he pass judgment. “Condemn him? That’s for God,” he said.

Bormann, officially retired, said he plans to help “Children of Perpetrators -- Children of Victims” as long as he’s able. “The work of reconciliation must go on,” he said simply.

In 1945, the idea that the name Martin Bormann could ever be linked with reconciliation would have seemed obscene. Bormann’s improbable life story is a reminder that just as this fallen world confronts believers with the problem of evil, cynics face an equally knotty problem of good.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR opinion editor. He may be reached at jallen@natcath.org. Readers interested in the full text of the Martin Bormann interview in Die Furche (in German) may find the paper on-line at www.kleine.co.at/furche

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 1999