Remembering… Fr Laurentius Siemer, O.P. (1888-1956)

Remembering… Fr Laurentius Siemer, O.P. (1888-1956)

By Br Gabriel Theis, O.P.Br Gabriel remembers the ambiguous life of Laurentius Siemer OP, provincial of the German Dominicans under the Nazi regime.

Fr Laurentius Siemer died in 1956 after serving as provincial for the German province between 1932 and 1946. Thus, his life can also be seen as a mirror for the attitude of the German Dominicans under the Nazi Regime.

Born in 1888 to a working-class family, Fr Laurentius grew up in North-Western Germany. After joining the Order of Preachers in 1908, he studied philosophy and theology in Düsseldorf before being ordained to the priesthood in 1914. During the First World War, he served as a paramedic in Düsseldorf. He then pursued further studies to become a teacher and later headmaster at the Dominican school in Vechta (Lower Saxony), which the Order founded in the early 20th century to recruit young Dominicans.

After a long provincial chapter with seven ballots, Fr Laurentius was elected prior provincial of the German province in 1932. He was seemingly a very self-confident and decisive, but also sometimes a disputatious brother and superior which led to conflicts under his rule. One of his first decisions was to expand the buildings of the new Dominican Studium Convent in Walberberg (near Bonn). At the inauguration in 1933, Siemer declared in a maybe typical Dominican streak of humility: “In this house, we will surpass the Benedictines in the liturgy, the Jesuits in science and the Franciscans in poverty!” At this time, the German province – which was had been re-founded only in 1895 – underwent a time of unusual flourishing: Between 1919 (180 religious) and 1933 (385 religious), the number of brothers more than doubled.

1933 also marked the beginning of Nazi rule in Germany. As provincial during the entirety of this difficult time, Fr Laurentius became both an important and ambiguous figure. He always was a strong opponent of Nazi ideology and wanted to secure an independent position for the Order; but as means to that end, he was also willing to appease the new secular rulers. Nevertheless, he acted quickly when a brother in Berlin joined the Nazi party in 1933 by assigning him to a convent in Switzerland in just three days’ time.

One of the methods of intimidation of the Nazis against religious orders was the fabrication of currency offences: Since the orders had to send money either to Rome (as contributions) or to their missions (as aid for the local churches), it was quite easy to ‘prove’ criminal acts in this area. In April 1935, Fr Laurentius and two other brothers were arrested on these grounds; while the provincial managed to get his conviction overturned, the two brothers did not survive their time in prison: Fr Titus Horten died from the consequences of his harsh treatment (and is now considered venerable by the Church, with a beatification process pending), Fr Thomas Stuhlweißenburg, who became mentally ill in prison, hanged himself in his cell.

After his release from prison, Fr Laurentius became even more convinced in opposing the regime; he was very upset to learn that there were still brothers in the province who did not see the Nazis for what they were, but also inspired resistance against himself by his harsh treatment of his adversaries. His strong self-confidence helped him, however, in his dangerous work in the German resistance against Hitler, which drew up plans for a post-war Germany (which was considered high treason by the Nazis). His connection with the group that planned and executed the assassination attempt on Hitler on the 20th July 1944 led to his persecution by the Gestapo; he managed to flee and survived the end of the war in hiding.

After 1945, he worked with other brothers for a political renewal of Germany; these efforts led to the establishment of the Christian-Democratic Union, a party which was supposed to secure the rebuilding of Germany in a Christian spirit and principled by Catholic social teaching, and currently serves in the government coalition in Germany.

A reaction of Fr Laurentius Siemer to the seizure of power by the Nazis in early 1933 might capture his character:

“How can someone require to be left alone in his parlour, while the house is burning? I ask you all again, to see that the house is burning! The mission of the Dominicans to lead immortal souls into heaven consists in these times primarily to stand up relentlessly for justice and truth – even if this is nowadays a first-rank heroic deed, and might have dangerous consequences.”

Born in a Catholic family in North Western Germany, Br Gabriel first encountered religious life in Jerusalem (Israel), where he spent a year as a volunteer after Secondary School. He went on to study Theology and Philosophy at the University of Vienna. There he also met the Dominicans for the first time. After three years of studies, he joined the Order in 2015 and made simple vows in March 2017. After finishing his theological studies in May 2019, he is now spending a year at Blackfriars Oxford to begin his doctorate. Outside theology, Br Gabriel is interested in classical music, cinema and the arts.