THE LION OF MÜNSTER
The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis
By Father Daniel Utrecht
Tan Books, 2016
404 pages, $29.95
To order: tanbooks.com
In Germany, in 1933, two men came to power: One raised evil to new heights, and the other raised the defense of decency and truth to a level few dared to match in those deadly times.
The first man, of course, was Adolf Hitler, whose vision was a new society of supermen devoid of any deviance — in race, health or thought. He envisioned a nation built on Aryan purity and a world colonized by a ruthless breed of fanatics who would subjugate inhabitants of conquered lands without pity.
The other man was Clemens August Graf von Galen, a towering giant of a man who later in 1933 was named bishop of Münster. Under the Nazis, he battled racial bias, the Nazi corruption of Church teaching and most notably the state-sanctioned program of euthanasia to kill off so-called “useless eaters” and burdens on the state.
Father Daniel Utrecht, an American priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Toronto, as well as teacher at St. Philip’s Seminary, has captured Bishop von Galen’s life beautifully in the newly released The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis.
It is a brilliant, exciting tribute to a man of extraordinary courage whose faith acted as a beacon when Germany’s moral compass had spun out of control.
Bishop von Galen — now Blessed von Galen, as his cause for sainthood is well under way — was born in Lower Saxony in 1878, in northwest Germany, to a family of noble background. They were staunchly Catholic, which in itself was a liability in a Protestant Prussian-dominated country.
He came of age at the tail end of a wave of anti-Catholicism, triggered by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s “Kulturkampf” (or culture war), intended to lessen the influence of the Roman Church. Religious houses were closed, and priests who spoke out ended up in prison — not unlike what happened when the Nazis were securely in power.
As Father Utrecht’s book makes clear, there was some hope early on that the regime would temper its rhetoric and respect religion, while standing as a bulwark against godless communism. That hope was seriously misguided.
Bishop von Galen and others realized what the Nazis had in mind was not mere rhetoric.
The new state turned out to be no friend of the Church and would do all it could to corrupt the minds of Catholic children.
Bishop von Galen was alerted to a lesson plan for All Souls’ Day that was nothing more than the promotion of hatred against Jews. It told impressionable young students how Jews had destroyed German literature, warned them of the dangers of race mixing and about the myriad Jewish financers who funded war.
Bishop von Galen wrote the education authorities in protest: This anti-Jewish propaganda, mixed with teaching of the faith, would distort the true “mission of the Israelites in the history of salvation in pre-Christian times and about the duty of love of neighbor.”
For men and women like Bishop von Galen, devout Christians who believed in the truth of Christ without compromise, the 1930s and ’40s were an inferno. They knew that they were becoming an ever-smaller, irrelevant minority — mistrusted by neighbors and the state. Even clinging to basic human decency was to enter a most frightening place, especially if one decided to speak out or write about such views.
Even a Nazi-influenced “Christian” church was formed that eradicated the Old Testament and portrayed Christ as an anti-Semitic warrior.
Those like Bishop von Galen who dared to speak out were few. There was “The White Rose,” young students from Munich led by the brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl. There was the Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Jesuit priest Alfred Delp, who both attacked the regime and worked against it. And there is the lesser-known Catholic Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian who refused to put on the military uniform of a totalitarian state that had taken over his country. All were executed for their resistance.
Bishop von Galen, though, was too powerful and too popular to get rid of. Once the Nazis had won the war, he would have been exiled, imprisoned or executed. Of that there is little doubt.
The peak of the bishop’s protest took place when the Nazi euthanasia program was formally unveiled.
Father Utrecht’s book explains: “In October 1939, Hitler ordered that ‘incurably ill persons whose situation has become critical should be given a merciful death.’ A law entitled ‘An Act to End Suffering and Worthless Life’ was the gateway to murder — by poison gas, by shooting, or by deliberate starvation — of 230,000 people.”
In 1941, from the pulpit, Bishop von Galen said hundreds of Germans, “unfortunate sick,” died not for any concrete reason, but because, “according to the opinion of some commission, they have become ‘unworthy of life’; because according to this opinion they belong to the category of ‘unproductive’ fellow countrymen.’”
He said: “Who will then be able to trust his doctor? Perhaps he will report the patient as ‘unproductive’ and receive the order to kill him. It is unthinkable what degeneration of morals, what universal mistrust will find its way even into the family, if this frightening doctrine is tolerated, taken up, and followed. Woe to humanity …”
In 1946, less than one year after the Nazi regime collapsed, Bishop von Galen was seen as a hero. His reputation preceded him with the Allies, and that same year Pope Pius XII made him a cardinal.
Then he died suddenly, too soon to enjoy a new world and a chance to help Germany rebuild.
But his legacy is important. In 2016, Canada made euthanasia legal, joining several American states and European nations in promoting physician-assisted death. Canada is now looking into extending those rights to teenagers and the mentally ill, which would match the runaway euthanasia programs in Holland and Belgium.
The promoters of death no longer wear armbands or sport heavy boots, but the same forces of evil that mock lives that are less than perfect still foul the air.
Such ideology needs to be battled by a new generation of men and women, who would be wise to look to the life of Bishop von Galen.
writes from Toronto.
For seven years he reported on religion and ethics
for Canada’s National Post newspaper.