Bishop von Galen:
A Catholic Leader Who Spoke Out

by Alex Kratofil

December 5, 2005

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Holocaust

UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2005
(course homepage, web projects index page,
Christian resistance project main page)

Before the sermons
Analysis of 1941 Sermons
Power-Action Grid /
Bibliography and Links
About the
Page Author

Introduction (back to top)

Blessed von Galen of Münster, Germany, has gained legendary status due to his outspokenness against the Nazi regimeís euthanasia and persecution of the Catholic Church. His seemingly hard-line attitude towards these policies that contradicted Christian morals has gained him international popularity. His grave is a sight of pilgrimage for Catholics (10/9/05 Vatican News Release); he acquired the nickname the "Lion of Münster" and is now one step away from sainthood. Though his renown, both during his life and posthumously, is widespread, it is debatable to what extent his outspokenness can be classified as resistance. To be able to place von Galen on the chart of resistance provided by Professor Marcuse, not only must the three defining sermons of his career be examined, but also the big points in his life, since they shape what he says at the pulpit.

Before the Sermons (back to top)

Brief History of Von Galenís Life Leading up to Three Sermons

"Clemens August Von Galen was born on the 16 of March 1878 in Dinklage Castle, Oldenburg, Germany, the 11th of 13 children born to Count Ferdinand Heribert and Elisabeth von Spee" (10/9/05 Vatican News Release). This is a good indication of his aristocratic roots, since not everyone is born in a castle. His family had a long history not only in local governance but also in the church; his own uncle was a bishop which he would serve as a chaplain under for a time.

Von Galen studied philosophy and theology at the universities in Freiburg, Innsbruck and Münster. He obtained priesthood in 1904, and began to gain appointments within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. He became a chaplain of the parish of St Matthias in Berlin-Schönberg in 1906. He was also a curate for a parish in Berlin and later became a parish priest in Berlin for a time. His time spent in Berlin was spent in service to the needy. He adopted a more traditional outlook on priesthood: helping the poor, checking on his parishioners, and giving what he could to whomever he could. He even volunteered for military service in WWI because he didnít want to ask his constituents to do something he wasnít willing to do (Griech-Polelle, 18). This attitude gained him a reputation for helping the downtrodden of society.

He was called back to Münster in 1929. Upon the death of the resident bishop in 1933 he was appointed the first German bishop during the Third Reich. While he was in Berlin, he was outspoken on a number of issues in Germany at the time. This brought him to the Vatican with the Bishop of Berlin to help write the March 1937 papal encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, or To the Bishops of Germany: The place of the Catholic Church in the German Reich (10/9/05 Vatican News Release).

Von Galen acted as bishop until his death in 1946. Due to his outspokenness during the war against National Socialism, and his previous record in the church, he was given a Cardinalship. He delivered one speech as a Cardinal before his death. Most recently, he has been deemed worthy of beatification, and now has the title of Blessed von Galen (Vatican beatification documents).

Perspective of von Galen Leading Into 1941 Sermons

It is important to note von Galenís view on things based on how he acted, in order to further understand his life, and why he delivered such heated sermons. His family was both aristocratic and had a lot of history in the church. He was born in a castle, which was one of many family estates. His family had a long tradition not only of Catholicism, but also nationalism, which was transmitted through the generations (Griech-Polelle, 9-10). These views, along with the instilment of moral values by tenure within the church, and steadfastness to not go against these values, would lead to his unapologetic view on the Nazi party. His motto upon becoming bishop was: Nec laudibus, nec timore (Neither praise nor threats will distance me from God) (10/9/05 Vatican News Release). This all would lead to his sermons in 1941, which denounce the Nazi regime.

Analysis of 1941 Sermons (back to top)

Von Galenís public responses towards the effects of the Nazi regime in the dioceses of Münster are found in his sermons issued on July 13, July 20, and August 3, 1941. Each sermon varies slightly in content, in response to what was taking place that week. He used the first week to build a basis for the rest of the sermons, however.

Von Galenís first famous sermon on July 13, 1941 is outspoken against outrages of the National Socialists against church officials. He cites at great length the lack of legality of imprisonment of clergy and their sentencing without trial. He also denounces the governmentís expulsion of monastic orders from monasteries, and the use of monasteries as locations for government administration. He cites examples of not only of church officials and laymen within the catholic faith but also touches on a protestant minister who is imprisoned, and thus says that, "I am not talking about a matter of purely Catholic concern but about a matter of Christian concern, indeed of general and human and nation concern (Griech-Polelle, 176)." While he talks at length about these things affecting Christians in his dioceses, he does not mention the Jews who have been exiled. Even though he is outraged by the things he does mention, he does not call for action from his congregation, but encourages people to demand justice in the cases he submits. It is not a call to action, but a call to look critically at the situation. He still includes a prayer at the end for the country and its struggle, and for Hitler, to mention a nationalistic tone. His tone does not change much a week later.

The second famous sermon by von Galen, on July 20, 1941, is very similar to the first sermon. It also denounces the seizure and use of monasteries and nunneries by the government and the lack of judicial due process for imprisoned constituents and clergy, though it adds a denunciation of the educational system in Germany, saying that it doesnít respect Christian values. In reference to history books, he says,

You will be appalled to see how their books, in complete disregard of historical truth, seek to fill inexperienced children with mistrust of Christianity and the Church, indeed with hatred of the Christian faith, (Griech-Polelle, 184)

He accurately points out the propaganda, and again he calls for passive resistance. This time he does ask his congregation to take a little more active stand, however. He recommends praying for those oppressing the Catholics, but also tells the people to teach their children Christian morals and ethics in the home, which contradicts what they where learning in school. He is effective in making the Catholic community look like the victims, although again he does not even mention Jews. He ends with a prayer for the nation and Hitler. This trend of nationalism will not last, though.

In his third sermon, on August 3, 1941, von Galen continues his previous outrage over the injustices brought upon Catholics, but his focus quickly changes to a more gruesome topic. He vehemently denounces the state-sponsored euthanasia which is taking place, saying that it goes against Christian values. He tells a story about a paralyzed WWI war hero who was taken away from the hospital and killed because he was no longer productive to society. He appeals to the emotions of his congregation in talking about the love that that man's family still had for him. He then appeals to those who had family in the military by talking about the grandson of the family who was on the front lines at the time, who may never see him again, and if he suffers severe injury, may meet the same fate (Griech-Polelle, 191-192). His sermon reaches a fever pitch, and he even says, "Rather die than sin" (Griech-Polelle, 195). But in the lines immediately following he adds, "That in prayer and sincere penitence we should beg that Godís forgiveness and mercy may descend upon us, upon our city, our country, and our beloved German people." Rather than instigate rebellion, he recommends prayer and devotion over outrage. He once again does not mention the Jews. At the end of this sermon he does not mention anything about the state or its leader. National law at this point had certainly gone against Christian law, and it only seems appropriate that he not endorse it further.

Where Does Von Galen Fit On the Chart of Resistors? (back to top)

With Power-Action gridhis sermons of outspokenness taken into account, it is possible to place von Galen on the chart of resistors. Von Galen fits into at least two categories. He sits on the line between "Aryans" and "intermediate groups"; he is of socially acceptable stock and race, but his behavior of outspokenness moves him away from the instigators. Through the outspokenness of his sermons, he is a "resistor", though by not instigating actual rebellion or other action, he cannot be said to be an "opponent/altruist". Thus as a member of the "intermediate group" of Catholics, he is a "resistor".

Conclusion (back to top)

Blessed von Galen, for all the popularity and myth surrounding him, was little more active in stopping the Holocaust than the average parishioner he preached to. He used his public platform and relative immunity from the government to make his opinions known, and to inform his parish of what was going on, but did little to instigate change, and did not even acknowledge the plight of the Jews in Germany, or even in his area. Since he only concentrated on matters of the church, and could not see beyond that, he can at best be classified as a "resistor". Is beatification appropriate considering the relatively tame behavior of the "Lion of Münster"? He was brave in his outspokenness, but the lion had more growl than bite.

Annotated Bibliography and Linkography (back to top)

  • Griech-Polelle, Beth A., Bishop Von Galen: German Catholicism and National Socialism. Yale University Press, 2002
    • Included in this selection are the three key sermons of Bishop von Galen obtained by the author from the archives of St. Lambertís Cathedral, which I use as primary sources.


About the author (back to top)

My name is Alex Kratofil, and I am a second year history major at the University of California Santa Barbara. I am originally from Apple Valley, CA. I have chosen to concentrate on Blessed von Galen, the Bishop of Münster during World War Two. My interest in him in regard to Church resistance against the Nazi regime is to get a better understanding of such a highly praised historical figure, since in history, when a story seems to be too good to be true, it usually is. To do this I place von Galen on the chart of resistance provided by Professor Marcuse.

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