Click for live image
Nikolaus Gross, layman, father of seven children, union activist,
newspaper editor, and martyr, was born on 30 September 1898 of
a colliery blacksmith in Niederwenigern, near the city of Essen,
and attended the local Catholic school from 1905-12. He then worked
initially in a plate rolling mill, then as a grinder and later
as a face-worker in a coal mine. He worked underground for five
In his limited spare time, he continued his higher education.
In 1917, he joined the Christian Miners' Trade Union. In 1918
he joined the Centre Party (the Catholic political party). In
1919 he joined the St Anthony's Miners Association (Antonius Knappenverein
KAB) in Niederwenigern. It was the major Catholic union for the
Catholic miners and a major Catholic voice. At the age of 22 he
became secretary for young people in the union. A year later he
became assistant editor of the union newspaper Bergknappe ("The
Miner"). His work with the union took him around Germany
until he finally settled in Bottrop in the Ruhr Valley, in what
is now the Diocese of Essen.
In the meantime, he married Elizabeth Koch from Niederwenigern.
They had seven children in the course of their happy marriage.
He loved his family above everything and was an exemplary father
in his responsibility for their education and upbringing in the
faith. Gross did not withdraw into the shell of family life. He
remained attuned to the great social problems, precisely in his
responsibility for his family. Work and social obligations were
the place in which he realized his Christian mission. In his doctrine
of faith written in 1943 he wrote: "The majority of great
achievements come into being through the daily performance of
one's duties in the little things of everyday routine. Our special
love here is always for the poor and the sick".
At the beginning of 1927, he became assistant editor of the Westdeutsche
Arbeiterzeitung (West German Workers' Newspaper), the organ of
the St Anthony's Miners' Association (KAB) and soon became its
editor-in-chief. Here he was able to give Catholic workers guidance
on social and labour questions. In the course of time, it became
clear to him that the political challenges contained a moral claim
and that the social problems cannot be solved without spiritual
The editor became a messenger who bore witness to his faith here
too. When he moved in this capacity to the Ketteler House in Cologne,
in 1929, he already had a clear opinion about approaching Nazism.
Starting out from Bishop Ketteler's main idea that a reform of
the conditions in society can only be achieved by a reform in
attitude, he saw in the Nazis' success in society: "political
immaturity" and "a lack of discernment". Already
at that time he called the Nazis "mortal enemies of the present
state". As editor of the organ of the KAB, on 14 September
1930, he wrote: "As Catholic workers we reject Nazism not
only for political and economic reasons, but decisively also,
resolutely and clearly, on account of our religious and cultural
Already a few months after Hitler's seizure of power, the leader
of the German Labour Front, Robert Ley, called the KAB's Westdeutsche
Arbeiterzeitung "hostile to the state". In the following
period, Gross attempted to save the newspaper from destruction
without making concessions on its content. From then on he knew
how to write between the lines. In November 1938 came the final
ban on the workers' newspaper which, in the meantime, had been
renamed Kettelerwacht (Ketteler's Watch).
Gross, who had to work very hard for his education was no great
orator. But he spoke convincingly, warm-heartedly and with power
of persuasion. The fact that Nikolaus Gross joined the resistance
in Germany resulted from his Catholic religious conviction. For
him the key was "that one must obey God more than men".
"If something is demanded of us that goes against God or
the Faith, then not only may we, but we must, refuse obedience
(towards men)" Thus wrote Nikolaus Gross in 1943 in his doctrine
of faith. It was becoming ever clearer to him that Germany had
reached this state under the Hitler regime.
Gross set down his joint thoughts in two writings which later
fell into the hands of the Gestapo: The Great Tasks and Is Germany
Lost? They were to contribute towards his execution.
In 1940, Gross had to endure interrogations and house searches.
After the ban on the association's newspaper, he published a series
of small pamphlets which were intended to help strengthen the
critical force of faith and Gospel values among workers. We find
an answer for the reasons which motivated someone like Nikolaus
Gross in the memoirs of the well-known, workers' chaplain, Msgr
Caspar Schulte of Paderborn. There we read: "In my many conversations,
especially with Nikolaus Gross and the association's head, Otto
Müller, I got to know and admire these men's moral greatness.
They did not stumble into death. They went their way also prepared
to bear a painful death for the sake of freedom. I said to Nikolaus
Gross on the day before the assassination attempt on Hitler of
20 July 1944: "Mr. Gross, remember that you have seven children.
I have no family for which I am responsible. It's a matter of
your life'. To which Gross made a really great statement to me:
"If we do not risk our life today, how do we then want one
day to justify ourselves before God and our people?'". In
1943, Gross wrote in a booklet, what was almost a prophecy: "Sometimes,
my heart becomes heavy and the task appears insoluble if I measure
my own human imperfection and inadequacy against the greatness
of the obligation and the weight of the responsibility. If a generation
must pay the highest price, death, for its short life, we look
for the answer in ourselves in vain. We find it only in Him in
whose hand we are safe in life and in death. We never know what
problems are waiting to test the power and strength of our souls....
Man's ways lie in obscurity. But even darkness is not without
light. Hope and faith, which always hasten ahead of us, already
have a presentiment of the breaking of a new dawn. If we know
that the best thing in us, the soul, is immortal, then we also
know that we shall meet each other again". What a testimony
to a sense of responsibility, feeling for reality and assurance
of faith! For Gross, trust in God was the foundation on which
he did not falter. During the years of the war he formed a network
of resistance to the Nazi's and he was often the currier between
the centres of resistance. He was well informed of the plot to
assassinate Hitler even though he took no part in its preparation
After the abortive assassination attempt on 20 July 1944, events
came thick and fast. Gross, who was not himself involved in the
preparation and execution of the plot, was arrested towards noon
at his home on 12 August 1944 and taken first to the prison in
Ravensbrück and then to the penitentiary in Berlin-Tegel.
His wife, Elisabeth, came to Berlin twice to visit him. She reported
clear signs of torture on his hand and arms. His letters from
the prison and the witness of the chaplain, Fr Peter Buchholz,
give impressive evidence that constant prayer was the source of
strength in his difficult and, in the end, hopeless position.
In every letter he never failed to request constant prayer from
his wife and his children, just as he himself also prayed for
his family each day.
On 15 January 1945, the death sentence was pronounced by the
chairman of People's Court, Roland Freisler. His final remark
in the court record and the real reason for the sentence: "He
swam along in treason and consequently had to drown in it!".
He was hanged in Berlin-Plotzensee on 23 January 1945. The Nazis
did not make any martyrs. They did not allow the hanged man to
have a grave. For the followers of falsehood and hatred there
was only brutal destruction.
But the testimony to truth and faith is not to be obliterated!
It lives on in those who have gone before us as a shining example.
The prison chaplain, Fr Peter Buchholz, who blessed the condemned
man on his final walk, reported afterwards: "Gross bowed
his head silently during the blessing. His face already seemed
illuminated by the glory into which he was getting ready to enter".
The rulers of that time refused to give him a Christian burial.
His corpse was cremated and his ashes scattered across a sewage