On Dec. 27, 1964, Benedictine Father Odo died in his bed in Althausen, Wurttemberg, Germany. He was lucky. Twenty years earlier, his life might have ended another way.
Before 1918, Wurttemberg, with Stuttgart as its capital, was an independent kingdom. The heir to the throne was Prince Albrecht, married to a cousin of the Austrian emperor. He and his wife, devoutly Catholic, were the parents of five children: three sons and two daughters.
Their youngest son, Prince Carl Alexander, fought in the Wurttemberg army during the First World War. When peace came, and the kingdom dissolved, the prince announced that he wished to be a Benedictine monk and a priest.
His sister, Princess Maria Amelia, was engaged to Crown Prince George of Saxony, another independent state. Such engagements usually were arranged. George also wanted to be a priest. The engagement ended, and George indeed was ordained.
Prince Carl Alexander took the religious name of Odo when he professed vows as a Benedictine. In 1926, he was ordained a priest.
The decade following the war was a terrible time in Germany. The suffering and exasperation endured by so many Germans provided fertile ground for the rise of extremists such as Adolf Hitler. While Prince Carl Alexander, Father Odo, was a monk and out of politics, his former rank still gave him many contacts. He knew what was happening, and who was making things happen, in Hitler’s increasingly iron-clad regime.
He was not silent. He criticized Hitler. He organized a Catholic youth group, competing with the Hitler Youth. Hitler dealt harshly with opponents. Once, the Gestapo, the dreaded secret police, seized Father Odo and repeatedly questioned him, but he was released.
He never backed down. In 1936, the government expelled him from the country. It probably saved his life. If he had remained in Germany, he likely would have been arrested as an enemy of the regime and executed. In exile, he went to Benedictine abbeys in Italy and then in Switzerland. While he was in Switzerland, the war came with all its brutality.
Again using his status as a former prince of Wurttemberg, he organized a relief agency for refugees. It eventually operated across Europe and came to be very large. In 1940, the Swiss government advised him that it could not guarantee his safety. German agents were everywhere. The Hitler regime despised Father Odo. His life, and his work, were at risk.
He went to the United States, settling in Washington, where he organized and directed efforts for the relief of people in Europe affected by the war.
While in Washington, he tried to find ways to enable Jews to escape the Holocaust and find sanctuary outside Europe.
It also is said that he informed the FBI about matters of interest to American security. For example, the recent book “17 Carnations” (Grand Central Publishing, $28) by Andrew Morton, about Britain’s Duke and Duchess of Windsor during the war, says that Father Odo told American authorities that the duchess had ties with high-ranking Nazi figure Joachim von Ribbentrop and was a security risk.
After the war, Father Odo returned to Wurttemberg, where he died a peaceful, natural death. Crown Prince George of Saxony, once fiancé of Prince Carl Alexander’s sister, did not die in his bed. He protested Hitler’s policy, its oppression, its godlessness and its treatment of the Jews. The war still was underway when he mysteriously drowned. Many still wonder if the Saxon priest-prince himself was a victim of the tyranny that he denounced.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.