Arts

Newry author recounts shocking story of priest who defied Nazis in Second World War

Newry-born writer David Rice has retold the fascinating story about a Catholic priest killed for refusing to serve in the German army. He tells Joanne Sweeney how his new novel explores the story of an unsung hero of the Second World War

Fr Franz Reinisch's story of standing firm against Hitler's regime is told in David Rice's novel I Will Not Serve: The Priest Who Said No To Hitler

THE story of a Catholic priest executed by the Nazis for his refusal to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler when drafted into in the German army is the subject of Co Down man David Rice's latest novel.

More than 17,000 Catholic priests were called up to serve in the German armed forces during the Second World War; Fr Franz Reinisch was, according to Newry-born writer Rice, the only one who refused. Criminalised for his decision of conscience, Fr Reinisch was beheaded at age 39 in August 1942.

A campaign for the beatification of the Austrian priest started in 2013, despite his once having been threatened with excommunication by the Church.

Fr Reinisch's story captured Rice's imagination more than 40 years ago when he read about him in passing.

"I saw a mention of this when I was reading a small German magazine and what really hit me so hard was that he was guillotined,” says Rice of the execution in Berlin.

“I just kept coming back to it over and over again and about 20 years ago I took this notion to find out more about it. I began to get in contact with religious orders but nobody knew anything about the priest. As I have a degree in German and had studied there before, I asked a few friends in Germany. Eventually I got a letter from a friend with a photocopy asking me ‘Could this be your man?’ and as soon as I saw it, I knew it was him."

Rice flew to Germany and stayed with the priest's religious order, the Pallottines of Schoenstatt, near the city of Koblenz, for a week; they gave him access to the priest's private documents. Rice spent "years, on and off" translating the papers and then writing I Will Not Serve: The Priest Who Said No To Hitler, his ninth book.

The religious life is familiar to Rice as he was 18 when he left the family home at Drumalane Road in Newry to become a Dominican priest. The priesthood turned not to be for him and he later became a syndicated columnist and editor in the United States before come home to head the Rathmines/DIT School of Journalism in Dublin in the 1980s.

He was in Beijing during the massacre of Tiananmen Square and later returned to secretly interview 400 young people who had been there, leading him to write two of his books, Dragon's Blood: Conversations with the Young Chinese (HarperCollins) and the novel Song of Tiananmen Square (Brandon/Mt Eagle).

His best-selling book to date, Shattered Vows, was the subject of a Channel 4 documentary, Priests of Passion, which he also presented.

David Rice's latest novel is I Will Not Serve: The Priest Who Said No To Hitler

Perhaps it takes a priest to fully understand the mind of another priest and Rice brought his own experience to his writing.

"I know how a priest feels and thinks," Rice says. "For example, Franz drank a lot to deal with his angst and his arguments with friends and brethren over whether you should serve in the German army or not. I think what really hit me hard was the way he was guillotined. The final scene is so horrifying; the executioner was dressed in the traditional way, in top hat and tails with white waistcoat and white gloves.

"What I can’t get over is that even at the end, he was handed a piece of paper to sign and he could have walked out. But he said no and then it was, executioner do your duty and bang, that was it all over.

"Franz had many sleepless nights as it gradually dawned on him that he might die for what he believed to be the right thing to do. There’s the terrifying scene [in the novel] before his death where he thinks he’s going to be shot but the lawyer tells that he won’t be shot but beheaded instead. He rushes to the window and starts vomiting with the thought of it and is told, ‘Shooting is for soldiers, you are a criminal and are to be beheaded’”.

Fr Franz Reinisch looked the part of the hero, as Rice puts it: "He was a very tall, 6ft 5 and stunningly good-looking man. In his younger days he was admired by many women. He was in a relationship with a lovely Protestant girl in Austria and she supported him as a friend even when he went to be ordained."

Rice is currently working on two further books, including a novel called Corduroy Boy, inspired by his childhood adventures growing up in Newry.

:: I Will Not Serve: The Priest Who Said No To Hitler (Red Stag Mentor Books) by David Rice is available in bookshops at £14.75 and online from £11.75.

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