The Lion of Münster

Seventy-five years ago today, Bishop of Münster Clemens August Graf von Galen, condemned from his Cathedral’s pulpit the Nazi euthanasia program: “If you establish and apply the principle that you can ‘kill’ unproductive human beings, then woe betide us all when we become old and frail!. . . . Do you, do I have the right to live only as long as we are productive?. . . .Nobody would be safe anymore. Who could trust his physician? It is inconceivable what depraved conduct, what suspicion could enter family life if this terrible doctrine is tolerated, adopted, carried out.”

Having witnessed the rise of Nazism and its brutal tactics, von Galen went on the offensive shortly after Hitler became chancellor. In his 1934 Lenten pastoral letter, he warned his flock about godless Nazi ideology. Two years later, he noted anti-Christian persecution: “There are in Germany new graves which contain the ashes of those upon whom the German people look as martyrs.”

An outspoken defender of Catholic liberty, he supported petitions demanding the right of children to be educated in Catholic institutions. He also assembled a group of Catholic scientists to refute the anti-Christian and anti-Semitic racial doctrines formulated in Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg’s book, The Myth of the Twentieth Century.

Pius XI summoned von Galen to Rome in 1937 to assist him and Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (later Pius XII) in writing the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, which condemned Nazism’s “myth of race and blood.”

Bishop von Galen, however, is best remembered for battling the regime’s efforts to eliminate the “unfit.” The German medical profession largely embraced National Socialism – for them, Nazi racism was “applied biology” – and provided the ideas and techniques that led to unparalleled slaughter.

Cardinal von Galen

Hitler himself strongly supported euthanasia. As early as 1935, he told Gerhard Wagner, head of the Nationalist Socialist Physician’s League, that “large-scale euthanasia would have to wait until wartime because it would be easier to administer.”

Six euthanasia centers opened in the war’s early years as Charitable Foundations for Institutional Care. As the name suggests, killing was rationalized as a compassionate act.

Von Galen immediately condemned these “centers” in a series of sermons. On Sunday, July 13, 1941, he warned that no one was safe from being “locked up in the cellars and concentration camps of the Gestapo. . . .The right to life, to inviolability, to freedom is an indispensable part of and moral order of society. . . .We demand justice!”

One week later, he condemned the Gestapo’s recent closings of religious houses, schools, convents, monasteries, abbeys, and the confiscation of properties:

Remain firm! We see and experience clearly what lies behind the new doctrines which have for years been forced on us, for the sake of which religion has been banned from the schools, our organizations have been suppressed and now Catholic kindergartens are about to be abolished – there is a deep-seated hatred of Christianity, which they are determined to destroy.

Shortly after, von Galen delivered the coup de grâce. Article 31 of the German Penal Code provided that “anyone who has knowledge of an intention to commit a crime against the life of any person and fails to inform the authorities or the person whose life is threatened in due time. . .commits a punishable offence.” Von Galen went to authorities to report that patients “classified as unproductive” at a local hospital were being transferred to a mental hospital where “they are to be killed with intent.”

His complaint fell on deaf ears, so von Galen bravely took his complaint public:

We must expect, therefore, that the poor defenseless patients are, sooner or later, going to be killed. Why? Not because they have committed any offense. . . .but because in the judgment of some official body, on the decision of some committee, they have become “unworthy to live,” because they are classed as “unproductive members of the national community.”

And he called on the faithful to speak out “lest we become infected with their godless ways of thinking and acting, lest we become partakers in their guilt.”

The sermon went “viral.” Underground anti-Nazi forces circulated it throughout the Reich and British planes dropped copies on German cities. Many Nazi officials demanded the bishop be charged with treason and hanged. Dr. Joseph Goebbels disagreed. He cautioned that von Galen’s exposé of euthanasia had turned many Germans against the regime and it would be “nearly impossible” for the Nazi Party to maintain its popularity if von Galen was punished.

St. John Paul II prays at Cd. von Galen's grave
St. John Paul II prays at Cdl. von Galen’s grave

Hitler agreed. He ordered that euthanasia be halted and attacks on Church property cease. It was clear, however, that after Germany won the war he would “extract retribution” from von Galen and commence “a new euthanasia program.”

Pius XII wrote a letter in 1941 to another German bishop, “The bishops who with such courage and at the same time in such irreproachable form stand up for the causes of God and the Holy Church, as did Bishop von Galen, will always find our support.”

In the first consistory of his pontificate, Pius XII made von Galen a cardinal for “his fearless resistance against National Socialism.” At the event, Germans in St. Peter’s Square cheered, calling him the “Lion of Münster.”

One month later, von Galen died.

The president of German association of Jewish communities commented: “Cardinal von Galen was one of the few upright and conscientious men who fought against racism in a most difficult time. We shall always honor the memory of the deceased bishop.”

Forty years later, Pope St. John Paul visited Münster Cathedral to pray at his tomb.

Von Galen’s episcopal motto was, Nec Laudibus, Nec Timore – “Unconcerned about praise, or fear.” If today’s Church needs a role model, it has a splendid example in Cardinal von Galen’s unwavering public defense of Christian liberties and truths, in the very face of the most murderous regime in modern times.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.