Clemens August Graf von Galen

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The Blessed
Clemens August Graf von Galen
Bishop of Münster
Cardinal von Galen
Church Roman Catholic Church
Diocese Diocese of Münster
Appointed 5 September 1933
Term ended 22 March 1946
Predecessor Johannes Poggenburg
Successor Michael Keller
Ordination 28 May 1904
by Hermann Dingelstadt
Consecration 28 October 1933
by Karl Joseph Schulte
Created Cardinal 21 February 1946
by Pope Pius XII
Personal details
Born (1878-03-16)16 March 1878
Dinklage Castle, Dinklage, Grand Duchy of Oldenburg, German Confederation
Died 22 March 1946(1946-03-22) (aged 68)
Münster, Province of Westphalia, Allied-occupied Germany
Buried Münster Cathedral
Motto Nec laudibus, nec timore
Coat of arms
Feast day 22 March
Beatified 9 October 2005
Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City
by Pope Benedict XVI

The Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen (16 March 1878 – 22 March 1946) was a German count, Bishop of Münster, and cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. During World War II, von Galen led Catholic protest against Nazi euthanasia and denounced Gestapo lawlessness and the persecution of the church. He was appointed a Cardinal by Pope Pius XII in 1946. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

Born into the German aristocracy, von Galen received part of his education in Austria from the Jesuits at the Stella Matutina School in the town of Feldkirch, on the Austrian border with Switzerland and Liechtenstein. After his ordination he worked in Berlin at Saint Matthias. He intensely disliked the liberal values of the Weimar Republic and opposed individualism, socialism, and democracy. After serving in Berlin parishes from 1906 to 1929, he became the pastor of Münster's St. Lamberti Church, where he was noted for his political conservatism. A staunch German nationalist and patriot, he considered the Treaty of Versailles unjust and viewed Bolshevism as a threat to Germany and the Church. He espoused the stab-in-the-back theory: that the German military was defeated in 1918 only because it had been undermined by defeatist elements on the home front. He expressed his opposition to modernity in his book Die Pest des Laizismus und ihre Erscheinungsformen (The Plague of Laicism and its Forms of Expression) (1932).[1]

While supporting the aims of the National Socialist government associated with German nationalism, von Galen began to criticize Hitler's movement in 1934. He condemned the Nazi worship of race in a pastoral letter on 29 January 1934. He assumed responsibility for the publication of a collection of essays that criticized the Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg and defended the teachings of the Catholic Church. He was an outspoken critic of certain Nazi policies and helped draft Pope Pius XI's 1937 anti-Nazi encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (With Burning Concern). In 1941 he delivered three sermons in which denounced the arrest of Jesuits, the confiscation of church property, attacks on the Church, and in the third, the euthanising of invalids.[2] The sermons were illegally circulated in print, inspiring some German Resistance groups, including the White Rose.

Early years[edit]

Von Galen was one of thirteen children born to an old aristocratic family in Burg Dinklage.

Von Galen belonged to one of the oldest and most distinguished noble families of Westphalia,[3] and was born in the Catholic southern part of the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg (Oldenburger Münsterland, about 50 miles east of the German border with the Netherlands), on the Burg Dinklage, now in the state of Lower Saxony. The von Galen name had a presence in the region since 1667, when Christoph Bernhard von Galen was named the first bishop of Münster after suppressing the Anabaptists, "leaving the bodies of the heretics to rot in cages lining the city's gates."[4] Clemens August was the eleventh of thirteen children, the son of Count Ferdinand Heribert von Galen, a member of the Imperial German parliament (the Reichstag) for the Catholic Centre Party, and Elisabeth von Spee.[5]

Until 1890, Clemens August and his brother Franz were tutored at home. At a time when the Jesuits were still not permitted in Münster, he received his main schooling at a Jesuit School, Stella Matutina in the Vorarlberg, Austria, where only Latin was spoken. He was not an easy student to teach, and his Jesuit superior wrote to his parents: "Infallibility is the main problem with Clemens, who under no circumstance will admit that he may be wrong. It is always his teachers and educators who are wrong.[6]

Clemens August (third from left) at age six.

Because Prussia did not recognize the Stella Matutina academy, Clemens returned home in 1894 to attend a public school in Vechta and by 1896 both Clemens and Franz had passed the examinations that qualified them to attend a university. Upon graduation, his fellow students wrote in his yearbook: "Clemens doesn't make love or go drinking, he does not like worldly deceit." In 1896 he went to study at the Catholic University of Freiburg, which had been established in 1886 by the Dominicans, where he encountered the writings of Thomas Aquinas. In 1897 he began to study a variety of topics, including literature, history, and philosophy. One of his teachers was history professor and noted biblical archaeologist Johann Peter Kirsch. Following their first winter semester at Freiburg, Clemens and Fritz visited Rome for three months. At the end of the visit he told Fritz that he had decided to become a priest though he was unsure whether to become a contemplative Benedictine or a Jesuit.[7] In 1899 he met Pope Leo XIII in a private audience. He studied at the Theological Faculty and Convent in Innsbruck, founded in 1669 by the Jesuits, where scholastic philosophy was emphasized, and new concepts and ideas avoided. In 1903 von Galen left Innsbruck to enter the seminary in Münster, and he was ordained a priest on 28 May 1904 by Bishop Hermann Dingelstadt.[8] At first he worked for a family member, the Auxiliary Bishop of Münster, as Chaplain.[9] Soon he moved to Berlin, where he worked as parish priest at St. Matthias.[10]

Berlin (1906–1929)[edit]

Von Galen arrived in Berlin on 23 April 1906 and stayed until 16 April 1929. Germany's capital contained districts of Protestant elites, a Catholic community composed of primarily working-class people and a Jewish community of both middle-class and poorer immigrants. It was a booming commercial and cultural metropolis at the time he arrived—its population increased from 900,000 in 1871 to slightly less than 4 million by 1920. Religion did not bring the community together—"religion and fears of a loss of religious belief came to be a major source of internal division."[11] For the working class, Catholicism and Social Democracy competed for allegiance. In this atmosphere, von Galen sought to be an energetic and idealistic leader of his parish. He made visits to the sick and poor, became president of the Catholic Young Men's Association, gave religious instruction in the schools, and for his efforts he was named Papa Galen by the parishioners he served. A commanding presence (6 feet 7 inches (2.01 m) tall)—his rooms were furnished simply, he wore unpretentious clothing, and he spoke plainly—he did not like the theatre, secular music (except for military marches), or literature. His only reported vice, which he refused to give up, was smoking his pipes.[12]

Clemens August von Galen in 1899 after a hunt.

During the First World War, von Galen volunteered for military service in order to demonstrate his loyalty to the Kaiser. As parish priest, he encouraged his parishioners to serve their country willingly. In August 1917 he visited the front lines in France and found the optimistic morale of the troops uplifting. "Feelings of German nationalism, apparently, could triumph over concern for the violations of the sanctity of human life in war."[13] In 1916 and 1917 he welcomed reports that the German military had a plan to colonize Eastern Europe, stating that German Catholics should be moved into the area, especially Lithuania, with the goal not of expelling the Lithuanians, but educating them to think and feel as Germans.[13] Following the German surrender in November 1918, von Galen, still in Berlin, dreaded the loss of the monarchy and feared the lower classes would embrace radicalism and anarchy. To deal with immediate problems of hunger and poverty he worked to create soup kitchens, aid societies, and clothing drives. He was suspicious of the new Weimar democracy and believed that "the revolutionary ideas of 1918 had caused considerable damage to Catholic Christianity."[14] Throughout the Weimar years he remained on the right of German politics. He often criticized the Catholic Centre Party for being too left-wing. He believed the stab-in-the-back theory explained the German Army's defeat in 1918—that Germany had been destroyed by defeatist elements on the home front. He deplored the disappearance of the monarchy.[15]

Von Galen openly supported the Protestant Paul von Hindenburg against the Catholic candidate Wilhelm Marx in the presidential elections of 1925. He was known to be a German patriot and a fierce anti-Communist who favoured the battle on the Eastern Front against Joseph Stalin's regime in the Soviet Union. His views on Communism were largely formed as a consequence of the Stalinization and relentless persecution of Christians within the Soviet Union since 1918, during which virtually all Catholic bishops were either killed or forced underground.


He became the pastor of Münster's St. Lambert's Church where he initially upset some parishioners with his political conservatism. At a meeting in Münster of the Association of Catholic Academicians in June 1933, von Galen spoke against those scholars who had criticised the Nazi government and called for "a just and objective evaluation of [Hitler's] new political movement".[16] Von Galen was elected bishop of Münster in 1933, although he was not the popular candidate to succeed Münster's bishop, Johannes Poggenburg, and was selected only after other candidates declined to be nominated and despite a protest from the Papal Nuncio Cesare Orsenigo who reported that von Galen was bossy and paternalistic in his public utterances.[17]

Von Galen was named bishop by Pius XI on 5 September 1933. On 28 October, he was consecrated as bishop in Münster's cathedral by Cardinal Karl Joseph Schulte.[8] Storm troopers attended, standing in formation with swastika flags. As bishop von Galen campaigned against the totalitarian approach of the Nazi Party in national education, appealing to parents to insist on Catholic teaching in schools. Citing the recently agreed-upon Reichskonkordat's assurance that the Church had the right to determine its own religious instruction, he successfully forced the National Socialists to permit continued Catholic instruction in Catholic schools. It was one of the first instances where the Reichskonkordat was used by the Church against the government, which was one of the intentions of Pope Pius XI.[18] In 1933, when the Nazi school superintendent of Münster issued a decree that religious instruction be combined with discussion of the "demoralising power" of the "people of Israel", von Galen refused, writing that such interference in curriculum was a breach of the Concordat and that he feared children would be confused as to their "obligation to act with charity to all men" and as to the historical mission of the people of Israel.[19] Often von Galen protested violations of the Concordat to Hitler directly. In 1936, when the Nazis removed crucifixes from schools, von Galen's protest led to public demonstration. Together with Munich's Cardinal Faulhaber and Berlin's Bishop Preysing, helped draft Pope Pius XI's 1937 anti-Nazi encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (With Burning Concern).[20][21]

In 1934, Bishop von Galen began to attack the racial ideologies of the Nazi regime, partly poking fun at it, partly critiquing its ideological basis as presented by the Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg. He declared it unacceptable to argue that Jewish authorship of the Old Testament diminished its authority or that morality and virtue were in any way derived from the perceived usefulness of a particular race.[22] In January 1934, he criticised Nazi racial policy in a sermon and, in subsequent homilies, equated unquestioning loyalty to the Reich with "slavery". He spoke against Hitler's theory of the purity of German blood.[21] Von Galen derided the neo-pagan theories of Rosenberg in The Myth of the Twentieth Century as perhaps no more than "an occasion for laughter in the educated world", but warned that Rosenberg's "immense importance lies in the acceptance of his basic notions as the authentic philosophy of National Socialism and in his almost unlimited power in the field of German education. Herr Rosenberg must be taken seriously if the German situation is to be understood."[23]

In retaliation, two senior SS officers visited von Galen to pressure him endorse Rosenberg's doctrines publicly, threatening the confiscation of Church property and an anti-Catholic propaganda campaign. One of them was future SS General Jurgen Stroop, later recalled, "Bishop von Galen was a great gentleman, a true aristocrat, a Renaissance prince of the Church. He welcomed us politely but with reserve."[24] Bishop von Galen began by commending Stroop's mother for her devout Catholicism, then categorically refused to accept or praise Rosenberg's doctrines of euthanising or forcibly sterilizing the disabled. He denounced the Nazis for trying to introduce Germanic neo-paganism into his diocese. He scoffed at marriage ceremonies and funerals conducted before altars dedicated to Wotan, surprising Stroop, who had attended such a ceremony only days before. Von Galen closed by assuring the officers that the Church would remain loyal to the State in all lawful matters. He expressed his deep love for Germany and reminded them that he had been the first bishop to publicly acknowledge the new regime.[25] In Stroop's view, von Galen's German patriotism "was tainted by Papist ideals, which have been harmful to Germany for centuries. Besides, the Archbishop's orders came from outside the Fatherland, a fact which disturbed us. We all know that despite its diverse factions, the Catholic Church is a world community, which sticks together when the chips are down."[26]

By late 1935, von Galen was urging a joint pastoral letter from the German bishops protesting an "underground war" against the church.[19] By early 1937, the church hierarchy in Germany, which had initially attempted to co-operate with the Nazi regime, had become highly disillusioned. In March, Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (With Burning Concern), accusing the Nazi government of violating the 1933 Concordat and of sowing the "tares of suspicion, discord, hatred, calumny, of secret and open fundamental hostility to Christ and His Church".[27] Galen was part of the five-member commission that prepared the papal encyclical. The Nazis responded with an intensification of their campaign against the Catholic Church.[28] There were mass arrests of clergy and church publishing houses were expropriated.[29]

Von Galen welcomed the 1941 German war against the USSR as a positive development[30] Many German resisters had rallied to the cause of Germany when Hitler invaded Poland, Bishop von Galen among them, offering a patriotic benediction.[31]


Coat of Arms of Cardinal von Galen.

While the Nazi extermination of the Jews took place primarily on Polish territory, the murder of invalids became public knowledge because it took place on German soil and iterfered directly in Catholic and Protestant welfare institutions. Church leaders who opposed it–chiefly Bishop von Galen and Dr. Theophil Wurm, the Protestant Bishop of Württemberg–were able to rouse widespread public opposition.[32] The regime initiated its euthanasia program in 1939.[33] It targeted the senile, the mentally handicapped and mentally ill, epileptics, cripples, children with Down's Syndrome and people with similar afflictions.[34] The programme systematically murdered more than 70,000 people between September 1939 and August 1941.[33] After 1941 the killing continued unofficially, with the total number of deaths estimated at 200,000.[35]

In 1941, with the Wehrmacht still marching on Moscow, Galen, despite his long-time nationalist sympathies, denounced the lawlessness of the Gestapo, the confiscations of church properties, and the Nazi euthanasia programme.[36] He attacked the Gestapo for converting church properties to their own purposes - including use as cinemas and brothels.[37] He protested the mistreatment of Catholics in Germany: the arrests and imprisonment without legal process, the suppression of the monasteries, the expulsion of religious orders. But his sermons went further than defending the church, he spoke of a moral danger to Germany from the regime's violations of basic human rights: "the right to life, to inviolability, and to freedom is an indispensable part of any moral social order", he said - and any government that punishes without court proceedings "undermines its own authority and respect for its sovereignty within the conscience of its citizens".[38] Galen said that it was the duty of Christians to resist the taking of human life, even if it meant losing their own lives.[39]

Hitler's order for the "Aktion T4" Euthanasia Programme was dated 1 September 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland. As word of the programme spread, protest grew, until finally, Bishop von Galen delivered his famous August 1941 sermons denouncing the programme as "murder".[38] On 3 August 1941, in one of his series of denunciations, von Galen declared:[40]

"Thou shalt not kill." God engraved this commandment on the souls of men long before any penal code... God has engraved these commandments in our hearts... They are the unchangeable and fundamental truths of our social life... Where in Germany and where, here, is obedience to the precepts of God? [...] 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.

1941 sermons[edit]

His three powerful sermons of July and August 1941 earned him the nickname of the "Lion of Münster". The sermons were printed and distributed illegally.[37] Hitler wanted to have von Galen removed, but Goebbels told him this would result in the loss of the loyalty of Westphalia.[37] The sermons protested against Nazi policies on euthanasia, Gestapo terror, forced sterilization and concentration camps.[41] His attacks on the Nazis were so severe that Nazi official Walter Tiessler proposed in a letter to Martin Bormann that the Bishop be executed.[41]

On 13 July 1941, von Galen attacked the regime for its Gestapo tactics of terror, including disappearances without trial, the closure of Catholic institutions without any stated justifications, and the resultant fear imposed on all Germans. The Gestapo, he argued, reduced even the most decent and loyal citizens to fear of ending up in a cellar prison or a concentration camp. As the country was at war, von Galen rejected the notion that his speech undermined German solidarity or unity. Quoting Pope Pius XII's Opus Justitiae Pax and Justitia fundamentum Regnorum, von Galen noted that "Peace is the work of Justice and Justice, the basis for dominion," then attacked the Third Reich for undermining justice, the belief in justice and for reducing the German people to a state of permanent fear, even cowardice. He concluded: "As a German, as a decent citizen I demand Justice".[42]

In a second sermon on 20 July 1941, von Galen said that all written protests against Nazi hostilities had proved to be useless. The confiscation of religious institutions continued unabated. Members of religious orders were still being deported or jailed. He asked his listeners to be patient and to endure, and that the German people were being destroyed not by the Allied bombing from the outside, but from negative forces within.[43]

On 3 August 1941, von Galen's third sermon described the continued desecration of Catholic churches, the closing of convents and monasteries, and the deportation of mentally ill people to undisclosed destinations, while a notice was sent to family members stating that the person in question had died. This is murder, he exclaimed, unlawful by divine and German law, a rejection of the laws of God. He said he had forwarded his evidence to the State Attorney. "These are people, our brothers and sisters; maybe their life is unproductive, but productivity is not a justification for killing." If that were indeed a justification for execution, he reasoned, everybody would have to be afraid to even go to a doctor for fear of what might be discovered. The social fabric would be affected. Von Galen then remarked that a regime which can do away with the Fifth Commandment (thou shalt not kill) can destroy the other commandments as well.[44] Von Galen's raised the question whether permanently injured German soldiers would fall under the programme as well.

Thousands of copies of the sermons were circulated throughout Germany.[38] The resulting local protests in Germany broke the secrecy that had surrounded the euthanasia programme known as Aktion T4.[45] The local Nazi Gauleiter was furious and demanded the von Galen's immediate arrest. Joseph Goebbels, Bormann, and others, preferred to wait until the end of hostilities to avoid undermining German morale in a heavily Catholic area.[46] A year later, the euthanasia programme was still active, but the regime was conducting it in greater secrecy.

According to Robert Jay Lifton, "[t]his powerful, populist sermon was immediately reproduced and distributed throughout Germany — indeed, it was dropped among German troops by British Royal Air Force flyers. Galen's sermon probably had a greater impact than any other one statement in consolidating anti-'euthanasia' sentiment."[47] Howard K. Smith called von Galen "heroic", writing that the movement he represented was so widespread that the Nazi government could not arrest the bishop.[48] Ian Kershaw called von Galen's 1941 "open attack" on the government's euthanasia programme a "vigorous denunciation of Nazi inhumanity and barbarism".[49] According to Anton Gill, "Galen used his condemnation of this appalling policy to draw wider conclusions about the nature of the Nazi state.[34]

The sermons inspired various people in the German Resistance. The Lübeck martyrs distributed the sermons.[50] The sermons, influenced the Scholl siblings in founding the White Rose pacifist student resistance group.[51] One of von Galen's 1941 sermons was the group's first pamphlet.[52] Generalmajor Hans Oster, a devout Lutheran and leading member of the German Resistance, once said of von Galen:[53]

He's a man of courage and conviction. And what resolution in his sermons! There should be a handful of such people in all our churches, and at least two handfuls in the Wehrmacht. If there were, Germany would look quite different!

Von Galen suffered virtual house arrest from 1941 until the end of the war. Documents suggest the Nazis intended to hang von Galen at the end of the war.[36] In a Table Talk from 1942, Hitler said: "The fact that I remain silent in public over Church affairs is not in the least misunderstood by the sly foxes of the Catholic Church, and I am quite sure that a man like Bishop von Galen knows full well that after the war I shall extract retribution to the last farthing".[54]

In his history of the German Resistance, Theodore S. Hamerow characterised the resistance approach of von Galen as "trying to influence the Third Reich from within". While some clergymen refused ever to feign support for the regime, in the Church's conflict with the State over ecclesiastical autonomy, the Catholic hierarchy adopted a strategy of "seeming acceptance of the Third Reich", by couching their criticisms as motivated merely by a desire to "point out mistakes that that some of its overzealous followers committed" in order to strengthen the government.[55] Thus when von Galen of Münster delivered his famous 1941 denunciations of Nazi euthanasia and the lawlessness of the Gestapo, he also said that the church had never sought the "overthrow" of the regime.[56]

Post-war positions[edit]

After the war, he protested the mistreatment of the German population by the Allied occupation forces. On 13 April 1945, he raised a protest with American military authorities against the rape of German women by Russian soldiers and the plundering of German homes, factories, and offices by American and British troops.[57][58] He charged the occupiers with indifference to the risk of famine in Germany based on "the false view that all Germans are criminals and deserve the most severe punishment, including death and extermination!"[citation needed]

In a joint interview with British officials, von Galen told the international press that "just as I fought against Nazi injustices, I will fight any injustice, no matter where it comes from".[59] He repeated these claims in a sermon on 1 July 1945, which was copied and distributed throughout occupied Germany. The British authorities ordered him to renounce it immediately, but he refused.[60] In the face of his resistance and broad popularity, they allowed him free speech without any censorship. In an interview with Swiss media, von Galen demanded punishment for Nazi criminals but humane treatment for the millions of German prisoners of war who had not committed any crimes and who were being denied contact with their relatives by the British. He criticized the British dismissal of Germans from public service without investigation and trial.[61] He forcefully condemned the expulsion of German civilians from former German provinces and territories in the east annexed by communist Poland and the Soviet Union.

When SS-General Kurt Meyer, accused of complicity in the shooting of 18 Canadian prisoners of war (POWs), was sentenced to death, von Galen pleaded for his life to be spared: "According to what has been reported to me, General Kurt Meyer was sentenced to death because his subordinates committed crimes he didn't arrange and of which he did not approve. As a proponent of Christian legal opinion, which states that you are only responsible for your own deeds, I support the plea for clemency for General Meyer and pledge for a pardon." On second review, a Canadian general, finding only "a mass of circumstantial evidence", commuted Meyer's death sentence.[62]

College of Cardinals[edit]

Unexpectedly, at Christmas 1945 it became known that Pope Pius XII would appoint three new German cardinals, one of them Bishop von Galen, who, despite numerous British obstacles and denial of air travel, arrived in Rome 5 February 1946.[63] Generous American cardinals financed his Roman stay, as German money was not in demand. He had become famous and popular, so after the pope had placed the red hat on his head with the words: 'God bless you, God bless Germany,' Saint Peter's basilica for minutes thundered in a "triumphant applause" for von Galen.[64] He interpreted it as "a sign of the love of the Pope for our poor German people.[citation needed] Before all the world he has, as a supranational and impartial observer, recognized the German people as equal in the society of nations". While in Rome, he visited the German POW camps in Taranto and told the German Wehrmacht soldiers that he would take care of their release, and that the Pope himself was working on the release of POWs. He took a large number of comforting personal messages to their worried families.[65]

After receiving the red hat from Pope Pius XII, von Galen went to see Madre Pascalina, the faithful servant of the Pope. He told her how the Pope had quoted long passages from his 1941 sermons from memory and how he thanked him for his courage. Galen told the Pope, "Yes, Holy Father, but many of my very best priests died in concentration camps, because they distributed my sermons." Pius replied that he was always aware that thousands of innocent persons would have been sent to certain death if he as pope had protested. They talked about the old days in Berlin, and von Galen declared: "for nothing in the world would I want to have missed those two hours, not even for the red hat."[66]

The tomb of Clemens August Cardinal von Galen in Münster Cathedral.

Death and beatification[edit]

Following his return from the wearisome travel to Vatican City, the new cardinal was celebrated enthusiastically in his native Westphalia and in his destroyed city of Münster, which still lay completely in ruins as a result of the air raids. He died a few days after his return from Rome in the St. Franziskus Hospital of Münster due to an appendix infection diagnosed too late. His last words were:[67] "Yes, Yes, as God wills it. May God reward you for it. May God protect the dear fatherland. Go on working for him... oh, you dear Saviour!" He was buried in the family crypt of the von Galen family in the destroyed Cathedral of Münster.

The cause for beatification was requested by his successor, Bishop Michael Keller of Münster and began under Pope Pius XII in 1956. It was concluded positively in November 2004 under Pope John Paul II. Clemens August Graf von Galen was beatified on 9 October 2005 outside St. Peter's Basilica by Pope Benedict XVI, the 47th anniversary of the death of Pope Pius (1958).