Prisoner Number 2491
The Inspiring Story of the First Nazi Martyr
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in London when he heard of Paul Schneider’s death. He gathered his nieces and nephews to tell them.
“Children, you must never forget the name of Paul Schneider. He is our first martyr.”
Schneider, like Martin Niemöller and Bonhoeffer himself, were members of the Confessing Church, pastors who would not bow the knee to Nazism, but confessed allegiance to Christ at any cost.
And Schneider was the first of them to seal his gospel witness with his blood.
To Rebuild a Heartbroken Humanity
At the end of World War I, Paul Schneider returned from the western front to a Germany in ruins. It changed the trajectory of his life. He had entered the army with plans to become a doctor. Now he was confronted with a brokenness that went beyond a doctor’s skill to heal. He recorded,
My discharge to the home front . . . found me determined to devote myself to the study of theology because here alone was power to rebuild a heartbroken nation and a heartbroken humanity.
As he prepared to graduate from divinity school, however, Schneider underwent a spiritual crisis. The demythologized gospel he had embraced did not leave him anything truly comforting to proclaim before a hurting people. He postponed his licensing exam and traveled to Berlin. There, in a city mission, Schneider encountered believers whose ministry was marked by the spiritual reality he desired.
Here there are people who claim that they not only know Jesus and seek to follow his teaching, but possess him as the living power of their lives. . . . Here I must say to myself, “You are not yet such a child of God.”
Through the witness of these evangelical believers, Schneider was confronted with his own need for new life. He pled,
May I step before the congregation tomorrow with the message of advent and the joy of advent? . . . Oh God in heaven, give me the gift of faith. . . . I have to put a question mark behind everything that I do. You, God, can pour out your Spirit of love on me so the question mark would turn into a joyous “Yes and Amen.”
God heard his prayer. His future wife confided in her diary, “Eternal life entered his soul, and he was filled with great joy.” Paul Schneider possessed Jesus Christ as the living power of his life.
Radiant Man of Truth
Enlivened by this experience of redemption, Schneider’s characteristic zeal was conscripted into the service of the full gospel. A friend described him as “a man of radiant warm-heartedness and a man of ultimate-truthfulness.” This vital blend was immediately apparent in his preaching. He no longer gave question marks empty of comfort or conviction; instead his sermons now resounded with calls to confess the biblical Christ and promises to salve suffering hearts. Preaching the glory of Christ in calming the storm, Schneider declared,
But now you are challenged to confess and bear witness dear evangelical church. . . . We are anxious and we are afraid. . . . We do not see how the poor, unprotected little boat of the church can be preserved among the powers and the forces of the world. But then we must remember; in this boat the Lord is with us and . . . soon he will be up!
Comforting Staff, Sweet Burden
Ordained in 1926, Schneider took over his father’s church in Hochelheim. With this income, he could bring home his “Gretel,” Margaret Dietrich. Paul and Margaret became a remarkable support for one another — “both a comforting staff and a sweet burden” — she wrote. In 1935, while he was detained by the Gestapo, she encouraged him,
I am satisfied with the decision you have made. I know well enough how something bothers you when you can’t do it wholeheartedly. You know that on the outside I can hold my own, but there are also tears I have not cried. May God give us both strength to walk in his ways.
Later, in 1937, he exhorted her from the concentration camp at Buchenwald,
I foresee a time when every sincere Christian will be compelled to openly confess and freely declare their faith. It will soon be your turn on account of our [six] children. . . . God will give you strength, my love, to do the right thing.
Witness of Pastor Schneider
The road to Buchenwald wound through several years of intensifying conflict with the Gestapo. They labeled his preaching of biblical truth “psychologically deviant” and recommended, “This man belongs in the concentration camps.” Of his two years in Buchenwald, Prisoner #2491 spent eighteen months in solitary confinement because he continued holding devotions in the barracks.
He confided to a camp orderly, “There is no spot on me that has not been beaten black and blue.” They sicced dogs on him, they beat him with bull whips, they fed him a regular diet of the cardiac depressant strophanthin, which eventually — with a huge dose — killed him. They gave Margarete 24 hours to collect the body, nailing his coffin shut so that she could not see what he had suffered.
Despite heavy observance by Nazi officials, Schneider’s funeral attracted hundreds of Confessing Church pastors and served as a rallying point for their boldness in proclamation. Four pillars of Schneider’s confession can likewise encourage us in our own Christian witness.
1. Take Strength in the Sovereignty of God
Drawing from Scripture, from Calvin’s theological writings, and from the Heidelberg Catechism, confidence in the sovereignty of God sustained this suffering pastor in the sacrifice of praise. Rather than put his hope in avoiding suffering, Schneider wrote, “Certainly we still live in this world, and with this suffering people, and also share its sufferings.” He continued, “But we have a commission and a calling from another world and our citizenship is there. And we know that in spite of everything, this world will one day be victorious. Therefore, we will be cheerful in tribulation.”
2. Navigate by the North Star of Scripture
Gretel wrote to Paul in prison to ask, “What do you do all day?” His reply was a window into his endurance in the truth: “I am a pupil in the school of God’s Word.” This prioritization of the biblical text marked his entire ministry. Viewed against the blitzkrieg of social, economic, and political changes contemporary with his pastorate, it is remarkable that every one of Schneider’s existing sermons is an exposition of the biblical text. Helmet Golwitzer calls this commitment to exegesis the “liberating effect of text sermons.”
The biblical text should not merely be a motto placed at the head of the sermon . . . but should be in concrete control of the preacher. The preacher’s subordination to this text frees him from all other authorities; from ecclesiastical authorities — that was the liberating experience of the Reformation, and from political authorities — that was the liberating experience at the time of Hitler’s dictatorship.
3. Draw Greater Strength from Deeper Joy
The Nazis deployed a program called Strength through Joy. This was an attempt to shear away the “weakness” bred by “fear of death and a bad conscience” inherent within a Judeo-Christian worldview. In its place, Nazism announced “a joyous message that liberated men from those things that burdened their life.”
Schneider reclaimed this idea of strength through joy, arguing that a superior strength was available to Christian believers because they could access a superior joy: “We know a joy that rests on the deepest foundation and has given hundreds of thousands of believing Christians the power to sacrifice their lives. . . . Our faith brings a greater joy and therefore a greater strength.” The Confessing Church was armed to out-rejoice — and therefore to overcome — the very ones who were killing them.
4. Settle on the Seriousness of Eternity
The conviction that exerted a formative impact on her husband’s ministry, Margarete remembered, was “his recognition that each individual can be lost for eternity.” The light of eternity provided a much-needed perspective before the Nazi demand that all Germans surrender their heavenly citizenship for a place in “the single, eternal life of this world.” Armed with an eternal perspective, Schneider refused to allow godless men, however powerful in his present moment, to define what the real church was, who the real Christ was, or how true love and unity behaved.
This weight of eternal lostness extended to the horror of the concentration camp. It sounded over the parade grounds, morning after morning, from a small window in solitary confinement. It was recorded by an inmate who found Margarete after the war in order to tell her what she needed to know, and would have already known, about her husband:
Every morning Schneider’s voice was heard ringing out loudly and clearly from the solitary confinement building, almost across the whole square, when tens of thousands had lined up for roll call: “Our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world to save us from our sins. If we have faith in him, we are put right with God. We need not fear what man may do to us because we, through Christ, belong to the kingdom of God. . . . Our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, has promised that we, by faith in him, may participate in his resurrection. He said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes in me shall never die.’ Accept the Lord Jesus as your Savior, and God will receive you as his child.”