One factor that made Fritz Graebe’s life so remarkable is that by 1941, he was already forty-one years old, a husband and father, and a successful construction engineer. In other words, he had what we often call “The American Dream.” He had worked hard to obtain material wealth and comfort. By most standards, he had a lot to lose. Douglas Huneke wondered why Graebe risked his life and the well-being of his family when most others wouldn’t. His childhood reveals many clues.
Graebe grew up in a world of distinct right and wrong, but that sense of righteousness was always tempered by an equally strong sense of charity, a willingness to understand and appreciate the position of the other person.
He grew up with a brother, Erich, who was born with a crippling spinal deformity. Children ridiculed him, sometimes in front of their mother, Frau Graebe. They messed with the wrong mom. She scolded the boys for their thoughtlessness, then would soften her tone and ask the boys how they would feel if they were treated this way about a problem they couldn’t fix. The teasing ended.
Frau often asked Fritz to envision himself in the shoes of those less fortunate, so much so that Graebe said it was normal for him to empathize with those less fortunate than him. That is, he developed the virtue of empathy as he saw his mother live out easy-to-understand acts of courage.
Graebe developed a debilitating stutter while in college, a problem he’d never before experienced. It embarrassed him so much that he stopped going to classes, but he eventually decided that things had to change. He bought a self-help book and practiced reading aloud in front of a mirror. He did this for almost four years. His stuttering helped him feel empathy for others.
Graebe also admired courage in others.
The voting procedure in Grafrath on November 12, 1933, was not like voting before. Though there were the usual curtained booths, no one was using them. Instead, the line of voters filed before a simple open desk. Standing behind the desk was a neighbor, Reinhard Bertram, who locals called “little Hitler” because he wielded a good deal of power. The voting setup was a clear message: People were free to vote in a booth, but such an action would be interpreted as opposition to the Party. Most everyone stayed in the line and awaited their opportunity to draw a highly coerced X on the paper in Bertram’s sight.
But one man, Adolf Stocker, a highly respected and courageous community member, mustered the boldness to vote behind the curtain. “He strode to one of the booths, nodded to the awe-struck crowd, took off his hat, entered the polling booth, ceremoniously closed the curtain, and cast his vote.”
The polling stations closed at 6:00 p.m. By 8:00 the results were in.
Fritz and Elizabeth Graebe lived nearby. They could see the crowd growing and the sky glowing brighter above the torchlights. Through a loudspeaker, someone shouted over and over, “What should we do with Stocker? What should we do with Stocker?” The crowd roared back in rhythmic response: “Aufhangen! Aufhangen! Hang him! Hang him!”
Unexpectedly the mob stopped chanting and dispersed. It was believed that Stocker’s two sons were forced to take part in this act of cowardly intimidation of a righteous man, that they were forced to climb the hill, torch in hand, and demand their father’s execution. “Can you imagine that?” Graebe cried. “Those bastards! What a tragedy for Stocker. They made his sons do something terrible like that. Can you imagine that poor man in his house knowing that his sons were outside shouting such words?”
I’m willing to bet that right now more readers have their eyes and minds glued to the “B” word than to (1) the atrocity against that Job-like man and (2) Graebe’s powerful display of righteous indignation. We are so well-trained today to strain out this kind of gnat that, during my darker days, I worry we will never get it right. Our spiritual training is setting up today’s Christians to behave like those people who marched up the hill--one unfailing lesson about courage and righteousness is that when placed on the anvil, in desperation, few remain neutral. We are either for righteousness or against it. Without tangible courage to draw from, we, like the churchgoing people of
We have been trained to be more concerned with social etiquette than with the virtue of hating sin and injustice—than with creating justice as we are able. Part of following Jesus is the ability and willingness to call evil evil. But that’s just the start: We are to despise evil and act against it. Hatred of evil is expressed neither through flowery language nor a perma-smile. Scholar Ben Witherington observes, “One could say that righteous anger is a prerequisite for ministry, for a person who has no capacity for righteous anger at the things that destroy humankind is a person who fails to be truly compassionate.”
Notice Witherington says “things that destroy humankind.” This does not include the aggravation caused by getting cut off in traffic or having our cable television bill increase. Righteous indignation is a response to events that dehumanize, not inconvenience.
Selective standards are worthless when we ignore the Ultimate Standard (see Luke 10:27; John 13:34; I John 3:11-20; 4:7-12). These only lead to myopic living and nearly impenetrable self-righteousness. It’s widely believed that Hitler found swearing, drinking, and premarital sex offensive. He viewed himself as highly ethical and principled, and he is one of history’s most phenomenal gnat strainers. We’re told plainly what Jesus thinks of that.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. (Matthew 23:23)
Fritz Graebe hated evil. He was obstinate toward the arrogance and anti-Semitism of Nazi Party leaders. When he disputed them in public, he was dragged to a jail where he was given two books: The Bible, and Martin Luther’s Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, a polemic on the violence of the Peasants’ Revolt in southwestern
Graebe believed that in that conflict, Luther was on the wrong side and should have defended the peasants from the landlords. He shows us that the courageous are more concerned with justice than with tradition and popularity. They are willing to break with convention if that’s where truth and justice lead.
They also stand up to authority, even religious authority. Though the true church was alive, the official church had deserted Graebe, and was bent on destroying his moral foundation. We see this in a Lutheran pastor’s visit to him in jail, his only pastoral visit.
“So you’ve offended the Fuehrer! Spoken out against him,” the minister said firmly. “Herr Graebe, you should be ashamed of yourself. A man like you in jail—it is a disgrace to your family. The Third Reich needs you. It needs men of character with skills and commitment.”
Then he worked another angle upon Graebe, much like the devil in questioning Jesus in His extreme weakness after forty days in the wilderness. “Too much stubbornness can lead to trouble—perhaps even twenty or thirty years of it…you have an obligation to the Fatherland…It is your Christian duty.”
Graebe was shrewd and astute enough to spot the argument’s false pretense. But he couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t figure out how to avoid mandatory military service to a government exterminating an entire race. He also couldn’t afford another confrontation with authorities, which would certainly land him back in prison (if not in a graveyard). So he staged an accident on his way to required registration for military duty. He purposely drove over two nail-studded boards, flattening all his tires.
Nearly an hour past the deadline, when police came by and asked why he hadn’t seen the nail-studded boards, he lied and said he’d ambitiously left so early in the morning that he was too tired to see them. The police bought his false, full-of-fake-patriotism story and gave him a note that pardoned his tardiness. Graebe artfully manipulated his environment by staging a false event, feigning despair and frustrated nationalism that later allowed him to carry out his noble mission. As with every virtue, we need to point out to our children why and how such deception took place. It wasn’t for selfish means. It was in service of a higher good. If Graebe had joined the military of the ruthless regime, he would not have been able to save those Jewish lives
His subsequent lies were audacious and prevalent. He often worked himself up into outrageous performances before Nazi authority, pretending to possess far more power than he actually had. He falsified papers and provided small bribes—a cigar, a drink, a cigarette. One of his most useful fabrications was telling those who opposed him that he was under strict but secret orders from
He yelled, “I have my deadlines, and if I do not make them, I will be court-martialed, not you—me! Do not disturb my labor column—I don’t care if they are Jewish.” A lie upon a lie; he cared deeply that “they” were Jewish. They were why he risked his own life.
While on trial for a construction delay, Graebe worked himself into a carefully planned rage, turning the tables on the court and becoming their disrespectful judge.
I have worked my ass off out there and this is what you do to me!...You keep me from supervising my workers—no wonder there are such delays. It will not be because of me that the war effort is jeopardized.
Though his colleagues issued him a reprimand, they never bothered him in this way again.
Graebe pretended to be angry with people when he really wasn’t. He forced himself to display false bravado and would pace around before important meetings, getting his anger flowing and with it the need to be assertive in evil’s face. He even made sure to wear clothing that authority above him respected, including high-topped black boots. He broke rules that others would be too timid and cowardly to breach. Courageous people follow the spirit of truth, which sometimes requires them to break law’s letter and to defy unjust legislation, like Jesus and His disciples on the Sabbath, like Martin Luther King Jr. with segregation.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.
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