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by Fr Thomas McGovern

Preparations are under way to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy, which brought about the historic liberation of Europe from the Nazi regime. As this great event is remembered it is appropriate to recall the heroic resistance offered by the Church to the persecution carried out in the name of National Socialism.

From the beginning the Catholic Church was one of the main targets of Hitler's policy of annihilation; the totalitarian aims of National Socialism would not tolerate any opposition or allow any other organisation compete for the loyalty of the German people.

The Gestapo were active everywhere, even to the extent of intruding into confessionals to trap priests into making unguarded statements. Priests were kept under active surveillance. As a consequence hundreds of clergy were arraigned before Nazi courts of summary jurisdiction and condemned to death or internment in concentration camps. [1]

In Dachau alone, no fewer than 2,771 priests were imprisoned, of whom at least 1,000 died from hunger, disease or illtreatment. Acts of brutality, torture and murder were commonplace in these camps, yet they were the context of daily acts of heroism, as in the case of Maximillian Kolbe in Auschwitz, or the secret and daring ordination in Dachau of Karl Leisner, the young seminarian from Munich. [2]

The majority of the priests interned in Dachau were of Polish origin; however, apart from German nationals, there were large numbers of French, Czechs, and Austrians. Dachau was host to priests from all over Nazi occupied Europe. Seminarians from these same countries were drafted in as part of forced labour gangs in Germany.

No less than 4,000 priests were put to death during these years, either as 'political saboteurs', or, after incarceration in concentration camps, by hanging, starvation, mishandling, lack of medical aid, or as victims of medical experiments including euthanasia. It is a story of courageous and heroic resistance against the overwhelming power of a police state. [3]

In this context also the memory of a great German ecclesiastic deserves to be recalled for his heroism at another level. Count Clement August von Galen was bishop of Münster, the ecclesiastical capital of the strongly Catholic region of Westphalia and the Lower Rhine in Northwest Germany. He took a consistently courageous stand against the policies of Hitler and the Gestapo, and was unrelenting in his criticism of them. His immense prestige at home and abroad was what ultimately saved him from the extermination that many of his own priests suffered.

At that time one of the directors of propaganda in the British War Office was Brig. General R. L. Sedgwick, a convert to Catholicism. He recalls that the bishop's sermons provided the War Office with the most powerful anti-Hitler propaganda. [4] During the war the BBC sent out transmissions specifically targetting the forty million German speaking Catholics. Day after day the radio broadcasts from London drove home the point of Hitler's hatred for Catholicism. The bishop's sermons, he says, were like manna from heaven in the propaganda war against the Nazis. The BBC transmissions, drawing on these sermons, also endeavoured to show that National Socialism constituted a grave threat to the family and the religious ideals which it enshrined.

Family Background

Clement August von Galen was born in 1878 in Oldenburg in Westphalia, in the castle which had been the seat of the family for three centuries. The von Galens had a long tradition of deep loyalty and of practical service to the Church. Following studies at the seminaries of Innsbruck and Münster, he was ordained to the priesthood in Münster cathedral in 1904. Little did he realize that thirty years later he would become the acknowledged leader of Catholic Germany as a consequence of his courageous sermons from the pulpit of this same cathedral.

1933 was the key year in the growth of National Socialism. In January Hitler became chancellor of Germany. In February the Nazis took over the key positions in government and began to dominate the whole country. On February 28, after the burning of the Reichstag, Hitler, under the plea of preventing communist terrorist activities, persuaded President Hindenburg to issue a decree effectively taking away the basic freedoms of every German citizen. This led to the passage of the Enabling Bill which abolished parliament and gave the cabinet total legislative power.

On March 23 Hitler gave a policy statement in which he promised, among other things, to work for peaceful relations between Church and State. Five days afterwards the German bishops, in a joint statement, said that though they maintained a negative attitude to Nazism in the past, in view of the public guarantee of Hitler in the Reichstag a few days earlier to respect Catholic doctrine and the rights of the Church, they now believed that the previous general warnings and prohibitions were no longer necessary.

The way was now prepared for the signing of the much desired concordat between Germany and the Vatican, with the prospect of substantially improved conditions for the Church. It was ratified on 10 September 1933, but it was no defence against the Nazi determination to wipe out all Catholic influence outside the sacristy - in the schools, in the press, in youth and professional organisations.

The Catholic episcopate was not alone in failing to perceive the totalitarian goals of the Nazi movement. The Protestant churches, most of the intellectuals, and many people abroad showed the same political naivety. [5] Hitler resented the influence of the Church, in particular its strong bonding with German Catholic youth. He would use the Church as long as it furthered his own political ends, but, as history was to demonstrate, he hadn't the slightest scruple in using terror, suppression, murder and liquidation where the aims of the Church clashed in any way with his own. He hated and despised the Christian faith and his long term plan was to bring about its extinction.

On 2 September of this fateful year of 1933, Clement August von Galen's nomination as bishop of Münster was announced. His appointment was well received by clergy and laity alike. It was already clear that a comprehensive attack on the faith was inevitable, and there was an intuitive awareness among the faithful of Münster that a man of von Galen's courage and fearlessness was needed to stand firm against the assault of National Socialism.

Bishop of Münster

Von Galen paid close attention to the literature of National Socialism, and in his first Lenten Pastoral (January 1934) he opposed the fundamental doctrine of the new politics, the worship of the race.

A few weeks later he sat down to write his Easter Pastoral; he was now much more certain of where National Socialism was leading - the systematic destruction of the faith in Germany. Consequently he saw that it was absolutely necessary to speak very clearly, and to use all the authority and resources of his episcopal office to open people's minds to what was happening. The Pastoral was read in a solemn manner, in the presence of the bishop wearing his mitre, with crozier in hand. It was listened to by a crowded congregation in expectant silence. The pastoral was unambiguous: 'Hell itself is let loose with its deceit', the bishop warned, 'which may even mislead good men'.

The Struggle against National Socialism

At the end of May 1935 von Galen wrote to the governor of Westphalia protesting against a proposed rally in Münster at which Rosenberg, the chief Nazi ideologue, was scheduled to speak. 'The overwhelming Christian population of Westphalia', he said, 'could regard the appearance of Rosenberg only as an outright provocation, designed to pour contempt on their holiest and most cherished religious convictions'. [6]

On July 7 the massive rally was held in Münster's main square, in front of the bishop's palace. Von Galen was denounced as a reactionary and as a leader of a political brand of Catholicism which refused to recognise that times had changed. [7]

Catholic Münster replied the next day with a huge procession. Von Galen addressed the crowds and told them that he would never yield to the enemies of Christianity and the persecutors of the Church. When the day for the big procession of 1936 arrived, the police, mindful of the huge crowds von Galen had drawn the previous year, roped off the cathedral square to prevent large numbers of people from assembling. Von Galen went to the pulpit of the cathedral and thundered his indignation: 'Can the shepherd be severed from his flock? Can the police divide Catholics from their own bishop by ropes and chains?' (there were loud shouts of no! from the crowd at this) 'They can't be divided... Sorrowful times, my dear people of Münster are at hand but I know that steadfastness will prevail'.

Campaign against the Church

It was in 1936/37 that the ideological campaign against the Church reached its peak before German efforts began to be concentrated primarily on the Nazi military objectives. The cult of Hitler as the future saviour became for many a substitute for Christian faith. An ersatz theology was built up on Nazi theories of race and soil, and a new pagan liturgy was created to substitute 'outdated' Christian ceremonies.

The campaign of vilification of the clergy was intensified in the Nazi press. Readers were fed with sensational allegations of sexual immorality among priests and members of religious orders. 'Immorality trials' were staged in courts and, by ingenious spacing, were made to appear as an unbroken series of clerical offences.

Priests were pilloried as idlers and criminal offenders. The bishop of Münster was a particular target of this invective. Groups of thugs, organised by the Gestapo, threw stones at the windows of his residence at night, singing obscene songs specially composed to ridicule von Galen, to the accompaniment of the noise of breaking glass. The degree of surveillance imposed on Catholic bishops, both over their private lives as well as their official activities, was unprecedented even by Nazi standards, especially during the war years. [8]

The Nazis gradually and effectively destroyed the independence of the Catholic daily press by a series of draconian laws. From April 1935 articles with a religious content had been banned. The Catholic weeklies were still published but the net began to tighten around these also. In 1936 the publication of pastoral letters was banned.

Personal Life

What were the sources of the bishop's courage and vision during these difficult years? We get some idea of this aspect of von Galen's life by a consideration of his personal piety. He had a deeply supernatural view of life, an attitude impressed on his mind from early childhood. The great truths of God's intervention in human history were constantly before his mind, reinforced by daily reading of the Scriptures. On the other hand, he had a simple piety which expressed itself in love for the Blessed Eucharist, in devotion to the Rosary, to relics and pilgrimages. He was very conscious of the effects of original sin, and consequently he not only went to confession frequently as an antidote, but lived a deep spirit of self-denial with regard to food and creature comforts. He did the Stations of the Cross every Friday afternoon. He renewed the consecration of his diocese to the Sacred Heart, a devotion which grew and matured deeply in his soul, especially during the difficult war years.

The priests of his diocese appreciated the way their chief pastor preached against the new heathenism, and how he supported them in their personal trials. The Nazi campaign against his priests was unrelenting. Apart from those sent to the front, others were taken into 'protective custody' by the Gestapo, others were expelled or prohibited from giving religious instruction, others still were sent to that hell on earth, Dachau, from which they were never to return. Wherever hatred or craft could eliminate a priest, no opportunity was lost. Von Galen protested at every crime committed against his priests, and excoriated the brutality of the Gestapo with considerable risk to his own life. During the war years he had an enormous correspondence with his priests at the front, who wrote to him at length about their experiences, the joys of their priestly work, or the burden of the Cross in their lives. They wrote to him as they would to a father, and he replied to every one of those letters personally, even though it made considerable inroads on his time. On the occasion of big feasts of the Church, he used to send them a circular letter to tell them about the joys and sorrows of their home diocese.

His Greatest Hour

On Saturday 12 July the Gestapo confiscated two Jesuit houses in Münster. As soon as the bishop heard about it, he went at once to the premises and caught the Gestapo in the very act of driving the religious from their homes. He called them thieves and robbers to their faces. He returned home in a state of profound anger and indignation at the barefaced injustice of the Gestapo. That night he wrote the sermon which drew the bishop of Münster to the attention of the world.

In his sermon he attacked the Gestapo mercilessly. No German citizen, he said, had any defence against their power; they had replaced the courts and were above the law. He continued:

'Not one of us is certain, though he be the most loyal, the most conscientious citizen, though he knows himself innocent, I say that not one of us is certain that he will not any day be dragged from his house and carried off to the cells of some concentration camp. I know full well that this may happen to me, perhaps now or on some future day. And it is because I shall then no longer be able to speak out publicly that I do so today. I openly warn them not to pursue these actions which I am firmly convinced will call down God's punishment and bring our people to misery and ruin'.

Von Galen was well aware that in saying what he said, he was not just going to be pilloried in the press; he knew he was playing with his life. It is difficult for us today to appreciate the extent of the Nazi tyranny. His fearlessness in speaking out as he did is a measure of the greatness of the man.

He said that because he was bound by his oath as bishop to uphold the moral order, he had to speak out publicly against the acts of the Gestapo. He finished off with an uncompromising warning:

'We demand Justice! If this plea is unheard and unheeded, if the rule of true justice is not brought back, our German nation will, notwithstanding the bravery of our soldiers and their splendid victories, collapse from internal corruption and uncleanness'.

Von Galen's secretary, who was present at St Lambert's for the sermon, recalls the scene. The bishop prayed for several minutes before he mounted the steps of the pulpit. There was a quiver in the first few sentences; after that he spoke with a great strength and serenity. The tall pastoral figure left an impression of great dignity with his commanding presence. His voice had the sound of thunder as the challenging words fell on the expectant congregation, some trembling, some gazing at him with tears in their eyes. Protest, indignation, fiery enthusiasm followed each other in successive waves. The calm, the self-assurance, and latent power which characterized his delivery that morning in St Lambert's, and which was undoubtedly a gift of God in those unnerving circumstances - all this accompanied him during the rest of his struggle against the Nazi regime.

Battle against Euthanasia

However, around that same time, the end of July 1941, the chaplain at the mental asylum in Marienthal, in the diocese of Münster, called on the bishop to brief him about another sinister development in the Nazi litany of crimes. It had been decided to remove a number of the insane patients to kill them off because they were 'unproductive'. This was what triggered off von Galen's historic sermon, in which he attacked the Nazi practice of euthanasia and condemned the 'mercy killings' taking place in his own diocese.

As early as 1935 Hitler had surreptitiously begun to implement this aspect of his eugenics policy. In September 1939 he issued a secret order that all persons with incurable diseases be killed. From the beginning of 1940 regular transport buses brought the unsuspecting patients to particular medical centres where they were speedily put to death, mostly by gas poisoning but sometimes by the injection of drugs. [9] From this time on the Catholic authorities protested to the government at the growing evidence of euthanasia. They were ignored but the matter came to a head with von Galen's intervention on 3 August 1941. [10]

Now again at St Lambert's, he condemned this ghastly doctrine which tried 'to justify the murder of blameless men', and which sought 'to give legal sanction to the forceable killing of invalids, cripples, the incurable and the incapacitated'. He had ascertained at the Ministry of Health that no attempt was made to hide the fact that a great number of insane people had already been deliberately killed and that the process would continue. He called the perpetrators of these crimes murderers and demanded protection for the innocent. 'If', he said, 'the principle is established that unproductive human beings may be killed, then God help all those invalids who, in order to produce wealth, have given their all and sacrificed their strength of body. If all unproductive people may thus be violently eliminated, then woe betide our brave soldiers who return home wounded, maimed or sick. Once admit the right to kill unproductive persons, then none of us can be sure of his life. A curse on men and on the German people if we break the holy commandment 'Thou shalt not kill'... Woe to us German people if we not only licence this heinous offence but allow it to be committed with impunity'.

The impact of his sermon reached far beyond the crowded congregation that flocked to hear him. Copies were made by the thousand and distributed throughout the country; they were smuggled to soldiers at the front where his references to the threat of death hanging over invalids and seriously wounded soldiers spread like wildfire.

Von Galen's words had a powerful effect. By the end of August the programme for euthanasia had been suspended, but not before 100,000 people had been killed in this manner.

Copies of these 1941 sermons spread all over Germany; hundreds of thousands were printed in response to requests from many cities. These and other sermons were so important to the Allies that they were printed by the million and dropped by the RAF as anti-Nazi propaganda all over Germany and the occupied territories. The Nazi party staged a campaign against von Galen up and down the country because of the extraordinary influence he wielded. The Gestapo tried various ruses to get him out of the country so that he could be arrested at the frontier and thus neutralized. Official German documents discovered after the war contained records of discussions among Nazi leaders about how to get rid of him. In Berlin his sermons were regarded as 'the strongest attack against the German political leadership for decades'. [11] Hitler hated him but feared to put him in prison. Instead he planned to kill him when Germany was victorious.

It was a great consolation for the bishop to know that by his words he had given courage and heart to those of his countrymen who repudiated everything Hitler stood for. Towards the end of August he received a letter from the bishop of Innsbruck, telling him that the Holy Father had read his recent homilies aloud to his closest associates in the Vatican, expressing the strongest possible approval of them. Shortly afterwards he received a letter of warm congratulation from Pius XII: 'They (the sermons) have caused us also consolation and satisfaction such as we have not felt for a long time on the path of sorrows which we have followed with the Catholics of Germany'. [12]

Piety and Spiritual Life

Von Galen did not suddenly develop the virtues of courage and daring to an heroic degree in the summer of 1941. Only a few months after his appointment in 1933, he was already being praised as a fearless fighter against National Socialism. His episcopal motto Nec laudibus nec timore (not to be influenced either by the praise or fear of men) was a very appropriate one. He possessed strong, natural leadership qualities from his youth, and this, together with a capacity for fearlessness in any situation, gave that dimension of power and energy to his personality which grew with experience of the episcopal office. He had a positive sense of superiority in relation to his opponents which was based on the conviction of doing God's will. It was not a haughty superiority which is often associated with people of his aristocratic background; it was rather a dignity that sprang from strength of character fortified by the grace of God.

There was a combative side to the bishop's make-up, a certain harshness and rigidity of character, but it was tempered by an unusual depth of tenderness. The pain and misfortune of others often brought tears to his eyes. He could be deeply moved by witnessing the religious devotion of others, or by expressions of appreciation and gratitude; at times he could cry like a child.

Not only had he great prestige abroad and among Catholics in Germany; among the German bishops themselves he was regarded as the most important Church leader of their country.

Destruction of the Cathedral

In October 1943 his cathedral was destroyed by Allied bombing. After a relatively quiet period of a year the bombardment of the city began again in September 1944. Because of the damage to Münster the bishop and the diocesan administration had to move out to Sendenhorst, a small town about 20km to the south east of the city. As the weeks wore on and the Allies advanced, the bombardment of the towns became more and more intense. Von Galen was saddened by the constant flow of bad news, of destruction and death.

On Easter Sunday, 31 March 1945, American tanks rolled into Sendenhorst. On 12 April von Galen went to Münster for the first time since it had been occupied by the Americans. His purpose was to make a public protest against the excesses of the Russian and Polish workers. These were the thousands from the forced labour camps who had been released by the Allies after the retreat by the Germans. They had been very badly treated and now, unrestricted by the military, were taking their revenge on their former persecutors, by plundering, torturing and murdering the inhabitants.

He had a mountain of correspondence to deal with from all parts of Germany. There were queues waiting for him at all hours of the day, with all the anxieties of a people devastated by the war and its terrible consequences. Reporters came from all parts of the world trying to get interviews with the bishop who had defied the Nazi regime, and who had lived to tell the tale.


The Sunday before Christmas it was announced on radio that Pius XII was going to create thirty new cardinals, among them von Galen. He would be the first bishop of Münster ever to wear the purple. The announcement was greeted with enthusiasm all over Germany. [13]
That he had earned it was the unanimous verdict of the Catholic world. After his famous 1941 sermons, letters arrived by the hundred at the episcopal palace to thank the bishop of Münster for his courageous stand. Now five years later, letters of congratulation poured in by the thousand, rejoicing in the honour conferred on von Galen. They were from people in every stratum of society and every walk of life - academics, soldiers, non-Catholics, non-believers, government representatives, etc.


On Wednesday 20 February the new cardinals went to the Sistine Chapel for the conferring of the biretta and the cappa magna. There was an unforgettable moment during this ceremony when the British and American cardinals went up to their German counterparts to congratulate them. Cardinal Spellman, aware that the German mark was worthless in Rome, paid for the expenses of the impoverished German cardinals in the Eternal City and, with typical magnanimity, arranged for an American air force plane to take them back to Frankfurt.

On the Thursday morning the cardinals received the red hat from Pius XII in St Peter's in the public consistory. The new cardinals processed from the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, where they had taken the oath always to defend the rights of Holy Church, to the main altar, where the Holy Father was already enthroned. Each national group in the huge congregation greeted their cardinal with applause. When the towering figure of von Galen slowly mounted the steps to the papal throne there was a veritable explosion of applause from the whole congregation; un applauso trionfale, the newspapers described it. The Holy Father imposed the red hat, and, as he leaned forward to embrace von Galen, whispered, 'God bless you, God bless Germany'. When he turned to face the vast crowd he was greeted with a storm of applause, led by the other cardinals, which lasted several minutes. The crowd in St Peter's that morning were conscious they were witnessing a unique event, the recognition of moral courage on a par with that of the Roman martyrs of the nascent Church.

Home to Die

After visiting a number of German prisoner of war camps in Italy, he returned to Germany, and on the afternoon of Saturday 16th March, his 68th birthday, he arrived home in triumph to his episcopal city. Fifty thousand people had congregated around the great mountain of rubble which had once been his cathedral. He responded to all the addresses of welcome and congratulation with a simple dignity. Neither he nor the vast crowd who listened with pride and joy to his words realized that this was to be the great bishop's valedictory address. His fight, he told them, had been made possible by the unshakeable faith of the people of Münster; it was the steadfast spirit of his indomitable diocese that was the cause of his being alive that day. When he returned to his rooms after the fireworks display he didn't feel well.

The following day, Sunday 17th, he said a pontifical high Mass. His last words to the faithful of Münster were an exhortation to papal loyalty, especially to the reigning pope, Pius XII. The choir sang the Te Deum in celebration.

Unfortunately he wouldn't allow a doctor to be called until the Tuesday morning. The diagnosis was serious and the operation revealed a perforation of the appendix and intestinal paralysis. Only a miracle could save him. He died on Friday 22 March.

He lay in state for four days in the Church of St Maurice during which an unending procession filed past the catafalque. It is not difficult to imagine the sense of loss which these people felt; the only man who could stand up for their rights was now dead.

On March 28 the solemn burial took place. The same crowd which just a short week before had shouted their joy at the return of their cardinal in triumph from Rome, now stood silent and stunned in the ruined streets of Münster, as the huge coffin, drawn by four horses, passed on its way. The cardinal's last resting place was the von Galen chapel amid the ruins of his cathedral, where the remains of a former prince bishop, Christoph Bernard von Galen, had been interred in the seventeenth century. As his coffin was lowered into the ground, a mighty volume of sound rose up from the vast crowd as they sang the great Easter hymn, Wahrer Gott wir glauben Dir. It resounded through the ruins of the cathedral, as an expression of the unconquerable hope of the Catholics of Münster.

On 19 October 1956 Mgr. Keller, his successor in the see of Münster, ordered the opening of the diocesan process for the beatification of Clement August Cardinal von Galen.


1. cf Lewy, G.,
The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, London 1964, pp.170-172

2. cf Homiletic and Pastoral Review, February 1983, p.48-49

3. cf J.C. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-1945, London 1968, pp.298-299, and note 24, p. 447

4. cf Portmann, H., Cardinal von Galen, London 1957. This is a translation by R. L. Sedgwick of the original German biography entitled Kardinal von Galen, Ein Gottesmann seiner Zeit, published in 1953 in Münster; it is the main source of the biographical material used in this article

5. cf Lewy, p.98

6. cf Conway, ibid., p.21

7. Ibid, p.127

8. cf Conway, p.243

9. cf Conway, p.268

10. In August 1940 the bishops conference appealed to Rome for help. On November 28 the Holy Office published a decree which stated that the direct killing by public authority of those who had committed no crime, but who, from mental or physical incapacity were unable to benefit the state, was against divine and natural law.

11. cf Conway, p.281, note 57

12. Actes et Documents du Saint Siège relatifs à la seconde guerre mondiale, II, p.230, published by Vatican City Press 1965-1975, 9 parts, 10 vols: eds. Blet, Martini, Schneider, and Graham. This gives the full documentation related to the pontificate of Pius XII and the Second World War. The translation of the letter is from O'Carroll, M., Pius XII: Greatness Dishonoured , Dublin 1980, p.118

13. Two other German cardinals were appointed at the same consistory, Preysing of Berlin, and Frings of Cologne.

Section Contents Copyright © Fr Thomas McGovern 1997-2000

This version: 17th January 2003

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