Challenge Grant: Our Boosters will match donations up to $45,000. We have $36,784 to go. Please donate!
Click here to advertise on CatholicCulture.org

The Bishop vs. the Nazis: Bl. Clemens von Galen in World War II Germany

by Joanna Bogle

Featured eBook

    Document Information

  • Description:
    This article by Joanna Bogle recounts the heroic actions of Blessed Clemens von Galen, a German bishop during World War II, who was instrumental in uncovering the Nazis' then-secret practice of euthanasia.
  • Larger Work:
    This Rock
  • Pages: 18 – 23
  • Publisher & Date:
    Catholic Answers, Inc., El Cajon, CA, February 2008

It is an intriguing fact that, during a modern regime which has come to be regarded as the very epitome of evil — so much so that the mere mention of the political party's name conjures up images of death and horror — the most vocal and consistent opposition came not from youthful activists or from humanitarian crusaders but from a prince-bishop. Saints and heroes so often come from unexpected places.

This leading opponent of Nazism in Germany was a man steeped in history, whose worldview had been shaped in the Europe of the late 19th century. He was brought up in an ancient castle bereft of any modern comforts and soaked in an atmosphere of tradition, local loyalties, deep religious faith, and commitment to social and charitable duties.

Count Clemens August von Galen, Bishop of Munster in the Rhineland, came from one of Germany's most well-known aristocratic families. His opposition to the Nazi regime, and in particular his stance against its horrific euthanasia program, made him into an emblematic hero. He was known in his lifetime as the "Lion of Munster." Recently beatified by the Church, he is a figure whose life and message deserve to be better known, especially as the Second World War recedes into history.

"Neither Praise nor Fear"

Born in March 1878, Clemens August was the 11th of 13 children. He grew up in the castle of Dinklage, and in later life loved to recall his childhood and the pattern of its days. It was an old-fashioned, structured life: Each day began with early morning Mass, and it was a family rule that any child who turned up late got no butter on his bread at breakfast — and anyone who failed to turn up for Mass got no breakfast at all. But it was also a carefree existence, with the children encouraged to play freely out of doors and to enjoy country pursuits. It was a warm and affectionate family, all the children remaining close throughout their lives.

The von Galens were one of the leading noble families of Westphalia, and Count Heribert, the father of Clemens August, was a member of Germany's Imperial Parliament. The tradition of the family was both staunchly Catholic and staunchly patriotic. It was also suffused with a sense of duty: Countess Elisabeth worked hard at charitable projects among local people and involved her children as a matter of course. Shared bonds with local people included a deep love of the area's festivals and Catholic customs, old hymns, and popular prayers. Later in life, Clemens August was always moved when certain hymns were sung; he explained that these reminded him of his parents and of being taught the faith in a way that was both loving and inspirational.

From such a family, it was natural that vocations to the priesthood would be born. After a period at boarding school and at university, Clemens August announced his decision, trained as a priest, and was ordained in 1904.

His new life took him into a very different part of Germany — the industrialized and modern city of Berlin, where he worked as a curate in a working-class area. The harsh years of World War I and Germany's eventual defeat saw him working as a pastor among people who were both poor and hungry. His own way of life, which he would continue as bishop, was based on hard work and personal austerity. The discipline instilled in childhood had become a habit.

Called back to the diocese of Munster in 1929, he was consecrated as its bishop in 1933. As his motto, he chose Nec laudimus nec timere, indicating that he would be influenced by "neither praise nor fear." He was called to put these ideas into practice almost straight away.

Hammer on Anvil

When the new National Socialist government started to confiscate Church property, turning religious orders out of their houses and arresting priests, Bishop von Galen denounced this from the pulpit. When the Nazis published material accusing the Church of being anti-science and anti-human progress, he replied with vigorous pamphlets of his own setting out the Church's record.

From the early 1930s onwards, it was Nazi policy to make things difficult for the Church in ways that were simple but effective: Using crowd control as an excuse, processions would be banned or re-routed at the last minute, and outdoor events subjected to sudden new rules and regulations. The bishop could not be certain that celebrations for a village confirmation would be able to go ahead in traditional style. People became used to the idea that popular celebrations, now deemed old-fashioned, must take second place to the new vision of community activities.

Bishop von Galen's approach was to hold firm to every local tradition and to circumvent every attempt to abandon old ways or cancel long-held celebrations. This approach did not make him popular with the government. He referred openly to the Nazis as pagan and urged people not to allow great Catholic traditions to be usurped in the name of progress.

When war broke out in 1939, it was difficult for a patriotic German to show the way ahead. Because of his opposition to the Nazis, Bishop von Galen became a popular figure in the British press, and his stance was frequently mentioned there with warm approval — a fact that infuriated the Nazis more. But he continued to denounce the regime, listing each new restriction on Christian life: "Religion has been banned from the schools, our organizations have been suppressed, and now the Catholic kindergartens are about to be closed," he said from the pulpit in July 1941, urging Catholics to remain firm in their loyalty to the Church and likening them to an anvil on which a blacksmith was striking a heavy hammer.

Animals Past Their Usefulness

When the Nazi euthanasia program began, it was semi-secret. People began to suspect that something was happening: Those with handicapped relatives were informed of sudden deaths with no explanation, and there were whispers of evil things taking place. It was Bishop von Galen who revealed the truth. Having collected evidence from many sources, he announced in a sermon that defenseless human beings were being rounded up and killed "because in the judgment of some official body, on the decision of some committee, they are judged as 'unworthy to live'; they are judged as 'unproductive members of the national community'" (sermon at St. Lambert's Church, August 3, 1941).

His sermon caused a sensation. What had been happening in the dark was now thrown into the spotlight. People knew that the bishop was speaking the truth, for it was corroborated by what had been learned by people with relatives in hospitals and asylums. Duplicated secretly, the sermon found its way across Germany with great speed despite official censorship. It was reported in the foreign press, reprinted in secret newsletters, hand-copied, and passed around by word of mouth.

The first sermon denouncing the euthanasia program was followed by two more, which went into greater detail, citing specific cases. One example given by the bishop was a man suffering from mental problems and living in an institution but regularly visited by his family including his soldier son. The revelation that this man had been taken off and killed in an official euthanasia program hit home as a terrible example of the reality of what was happening.

Bishop von Galen pointed out that no one would be safe: men wounded in war, the gravely ill, the vulnerable. Human beings were being treated as if they were animals that had passed their usefulness: Were these people to be treated "like a cow that no longer gives milk, or like an old lame horse"?

No! We are concerned with men and women, our fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters! Poor human beings, ill human beings, they are unproductive if you will. But does that mean they have lost the right to live? Have you, have I, the right to live only so long as we are productive, so long as we are regarded by others as productive? (August 3, 1941)

He went on to spell out the implications of what was going on. No patient could trust a doctor, the courts and the police were to be implicated in murder, and the whole concept of justice perverted. He thundered, in powerful language "Woe to mankind — woe to our German people — if the Divine Commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' which God our Creator wrote into man's conscience from the beginning, if this Commandment is not merely violated but this violation is tolerated and remains unpunished!"

Blunt, forthright language — backed by facts — meant that the bishop was a formidable opponent for the Nazis. It is a measure of his status that the euthanasia program was halted for a considerable period in Westphalia, and many lives saved. It was not easy for the Nazis to know what to do: To arrest the bishop would be to plunge the whole of that area, which had the closest of links with his family, going back through history, into passionate and probably open rebellion.

Cardinal of a Ruined Land

The huge and unrelenting Allied air raids made it easier for the government to quell von Galen's influence. Munster was reduced to ruins, its cathedral destroyed, the bishop himself made homeless and forced into temporary shelter on the outskirts along with many other refugees. As the chaos created by the homeless crowds increased and people's energies were channeled into ensuring their own survival and worrying about sons and husbands fighting in Russia and elsewhere, it was possible to keep the bishop under a form of house arrest without incurring any active opposition. He was watched and checked at every move: Since travel was becoming increasingly difficult, there was in any case no possibility of his reaching Berlin or any other major city, and he had no access to the mass media or means of addressing public gatherings.

The invading Allied armies finally reached Munster. Seeking a public figure untainted by the Nazi regime with whom they could establish formal contact, they turned to the bishop. They found that his passionate anti-Nazism did not mean that he had ceased to care about his country, and although courteous to the incoming troops, he made clear that he did not relish having foreign rulers in charge of Germany.

As the months went by, he spoke out — at a time when it was very difficult for any German to do so — about the horrific plight of Germans forcibly expelled from their homes in eastern parts of the country which were now being handed over to a new, Soviet-dominated Poland. Huge numbers of young girls from these families were raped, children became separated from their parents in the chaos of the forced exodus, and death from starvation, brutality, and disease took a heavy toll as the pitiful refugees struggled westward. On arrival in the devastated ruins of towns in the western parts of defeated Germany, the survivors found only continued suffering. Meanwhile, huge numbers of German prisoners-of-war were held in Soviet camps, most of whom would not be released for over a decade.

In this time of Germany's suffering as a defeated, pariah nation, Pope Pius XII made von Galen a cardinal. It was both a tribute to his wartime role and a sign that his country still had a place among the nations of the world. The journey in 1946 to Rome for the ceremony was achieved with great difficulty at that time, normal transportation in or out of the country was impossible for most Germans — and the new cardinal, whose health had become fragile following wartime austerities, returned home ill. He did not live to see his country's return to any sort of normality or prosperity. When he died, on March 22, 1946, his devastated city of Munster had only just celebrated his creation as a cardinal. He was buried in the ruins of his cathedral, where many of his ancestors had been buried over the centuries.

A Voice for the Other Germany

In 1956 von Galen's cause for canonization was opened, and over the ensuing years more and more evidence came to light of his personal gifts: his courage, his kindness, his austere way of life (especially during the war, when he insisted on giving to others any small treat that might come his way), his insistence on a structured rule of life, including regular prayer. His grave in the now-restored Cathedral of Munster was always well-visited, and candles and petitions for prayer were placed there.

In October 2005, Cardinal von Galen was formally declared blessed by the Church, the first step towards full canonization. But by now something else had occurred. History had rolled on. More than half a century after the Second World War, the Church now had a German Pope, Benedict XVI, a Bavarian. As a boy in an anti-Nazi family, the pope knew of Bishop von Galen and regarded him as a hero and a voice for the "other Germany" of non-Nazis who longed for National Socialism to be consigned to history.

St. Peter's in Rome was packed for the beatification ceremony, and it was a moving moment when Pope Benedict addressed the gathering as the ceremonies ended. The pope's style is thoughtful, dignified, and paternal: In speaking of Bishop von Galen, he noted the way in which this man of God had given witness to the truth in a grim and tragic time.

I was privileged to be at the ceremony and, through friendships with people in the current German pro-life and pro-family apostolate, to know something of the role that Bl. Clemens August von Galen has in the Church in Germany today. There is an awareness that the message of his sermons resonates down the decades, and that his solid resistance to the killing of the mentally ill is something that stands as an example to all bishops and to all Christians in public life.

Cardinal von Galen is, of course, a figure of whom German Catholics feel they can be proud, from an era of their history of which they are all terribly ashamed, so this is of importance to them. But the message of his life is larger than that. All Catholics need to know that there was a bishop who was staunchly anti-Nazi. They need to know about his opposition and the way he stood firm and spoke out when others remained silent. It is important that we remind people of this when we hear about the Church's "failure" to respond adequately to the Nazi's evil actions.

And there is more: What about today, when legalized euthanasia is again firmly on the agenda, and when pagan ideology is regarded as the norm and Christianity marginalized as something old-fashioned and opposed to national community life? Where do we all stand? What approach should we take? In this hero-bishop from a different era, we can hear a message and a warning, a call to honor the faith we share with him, and a pattern to follow. Born in a castle, dying in a bombed-out city with his country devastated around him and its moral reputation in ruins too, Bishop von Galen held fast to what was right, and his message lives on while that of the pagan culture he opposed has been revealed for the evil it always was. We must ask him to pray for us.


From Bishop Von Galen's Sermon Against Euthanasia

"Thou shalt not kill." God engraved this commandment on the souls of men long before any penal code laid down punishment for murder, long before any court prosecuted and avenged homicide. Cain, who killed his brother Abel, was a murderer long before courts or states came into existence, and plagued by his conscience he confessed, "Guilt like mine is too great to find forgiveness . . . and I shall wander over the earth, a fugitive; anyone I meet will slay me." Because of his love for us God has engraved these commandments in our hearts and has made them manifest to us. They express the need of our nature created by God. They are the unchangeable and fundamental truths of our social life grounded on reason, well pleasing to God, healthful and sacred. God, our Father, wishes by these precepts to gather us, his children, about him as a hen shelters her brood under her wings. If we are obedient to his commands, then we are protected and preserved against the destruction with which we are menaced, just as the chicks beneath the wings of the mother. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . how often have I been ready to gather thy children together, as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings; and thou didst refuse it!" Does history again repeat itself here in Germany, in our land of Westphalia, in our city of Munster? Where in Germany and where, here, is obedience to the precepts of God? The eighth commandment requires "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." How often do we see this commandment publicly and shamelessly broken? In the seventh commandment we read, "Thou shalt not steal." But who can say that property is safe when our brethren, monks and nuns, are forcibly and violently despoiled of their convents, and who now protects property if it is illegally sequestered and not given back? . . . The first three commandments have long counted for nothing in the public life of Germany and here also in Munster . . . The Sabbath is desecrated; holy days of obligation are secularized and no longer observed in the service of God. His name is made fun of, dishonored, and all too frequently blasphemed. As for the first commandment, "Thou shalt not have strange gods before me," instead of the One, True, Eternal God, men have created at the dictates of their whim, their own gods to adore: Nature, the State, the Nation, or the Race. In the words of St. Paul, for many their god is their belly, their ease, to which all is sacrificed down to conscience and honor for the gratification of the carnal senses, for wealth and ambition. Then we are not surprised that they should claim divine privileges and seek to make themselves overlords of life and death.

Delivered August 3, 1941 at the Church of St. Lambert in Munster


T4: The Nazis' Euthanasia Solution

He who is bodily and mentally not sound and deserving may not perpetuate this misfortune in the bodies of his children. — Hitler, Mein Kampf

Beginning in 1939, the National Socialist regime begin systematically killing disabled children in "specially designated pediatric clinics" via starvation and overdose. By the end of World War II, an estimated 5,000 infants and children had been murdered by the Nazis. The program, code-named T4, was extended to adults beginning in 1940. Physicians working for the T4 program examined medical files (seldom the institutionalized patients themselves) and marked for death disabled and mentally ill adults, in most cases without the knowledge or consent of family members. Those selected for extermination were rounded up, processed, and directed into a facility for a "disinfecting shower." Instead, the victims were gassed to death via carbon monoxide. Their bodies were cremated and the ashes sent to families with an official death certificate listing a fictitious cause of death.

By 1941 the program had become public knowledge, in part because of the opposition from German clergymen, including Bishop von Galen. Hitler officially halted the adult killings, but the child program continued. In 1942 the adult killings resumed in secret and continued until the end of the war, with an ever-expanding range of victims, including the elderly, hospitalized war victims, and foreign laborers. In all, an estimated 200,000 people were executed as part of the Nazi "mercy killing" agenda.

(Source: The United States National Holocaust Memorial Museum, www.ushmm.org)

Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of This Rock, is a freelance journalist, author, broadcaster, and lecturer. She is a frequent defender of Christian ideas on British television and radio. She is author most recently of The Pope Benedict Code (Gracewing 2006).

© Catholic Answers, Inc.

This item 8064 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org

Fall 2014 Campaign
Subscribe for free
Shop Amazon
Click here to advertise on CatholicCulture.org

Recent Catholic Commentary

The Church Moves On, Slowly 8 hours ago
Is Cardinal Kasper losing his grip? 12 hours ago
The Pope is not the problem October 23
Do not confuse sacramental discipline and Catholic doctrine. October 23
Ignatius Press into the Breach: Trumping the Kasper Proposal October 22

Top Catholic News

Most Important Stories of the Last 30 Days
Key synod report calls for 'gradualism' in Church response to irregular family situations CWN - October 13
As synod concludes, bishops issue message, approve document; Pope weighs in CWN - October 20
Cardinal Parolin: UN must protect innocents from Islamic State CWN - September 30
Synod of Bishops opens with Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica CWN - October 6