August von Galen, eleventh of thirteen children and the son of Count Ferdinand Heribert von Galen and Elisabeth von Spee, was born in Dinklage Castle in Germany, on 16th March 1878. His father was a member of the Catholic Centre Party (BVP) and a member of the Reichstag. He was a member of one of Germany's oldest families. The family also had a tradition of sending its sons into the Church. (1)
Galen was educated by Jesuits before going on to study philosophy in Switzerland, where he decided to become a priest. He studied theology in both Innsbruck and Münster before being ordained a priest in Münster Cathedral on 28th May 1904. He then went on to serve in several parishes in Berlin. (2)
During the First World War, von Galen volunteered for military service in order to demonstrate his loyalty to the Kaiser Wilhelm II. 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." (3)
In 1917 he made statements urging the military to colonize Eastern Europe with German Catholics. Following the German surrender in November 1918, von Galen, warned of the dangers of establishing a republic, fearing that the masses would embrace left-wing ideas. A strong opponent of the Russian Revolution he believed that "the revolutionary ideas of 1918 had caused considerable damage to Catholic Christianity." (4)
August von Galen was highly critical of the Catholic Centre Party (BVP) during the 1920s considering it too left-wing. Von Galen openly supported the Protestant Paul von Hindenburg against the Catholic candidate Wilhelm Marx in the presidential elections of 1925. He supported Adolf Hitler and criticised those religious figures who were quick to attack the new government. 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". (5)
Michael von Faulhaber, the Archbishop of Munich, was another who supported Hitler. After visiting Pope Pius XI he made the following statement: "After my recent experience in Rome in the highest circles, which I cannot reveal here, I must say that I found, despite everything, a greater tolerance with regard to the new government... Let us meditate on the words of the Holy Father, who in a consistory, without mentioning his name, indicated before the whole world in Adolf Hitler the statesmen who first, after the Pope himself, has raised his voice against Bolshevism." (6)
On 24th April, 1933, it was reported "that Cardinal Faulhaber had issued an order to the clergy to support the new regime in which he (Faulhaber) had confidence". In the first few months of the new government no Church leaders spoke against the persecution of the Jews. The Concordat between the Nazis and the Catholic Church was signed in July 1933. It gave them the right to hold Catholic services and provided protection for its other organisations such as schools, youth groups and newspapers. However, there was a clause in the agreement that said "Catholic clerics who hold an ecclesiastical office in Germany or who exercise pastoral or educational functions must be a German citizen." The reason for this is that with the rapid rise in anti-semitism in Germany, some Jews had joined the Catholic Church for protection. (7)
Von Galen was appointed Bishop of Münster in September 1933. It was not long before he began complaining to Hitler about violations of the Concordat. This included a rejection of the proposed changes to the school curriculum. (8) By the beginning of 1934 von Galen had already delivered sermons condemning both Nazi racial policies and their behaviour towards the Catholic Church. (9)
Bishop von Galen also attacked the writings of Alfred Rosenberg. In his book, The Myth of the Twentieth Century, Rosenberg had claimed that Catholicism was the "creation of Jewish clericalism". Von Galen responded by claiming that Rosenberg's book illustrated that "there are heathens again in Germany." Joseph Goebbels and his Ministry of Propaganda, tried to influence the debate by "releasing a flood of accusations against Catholic organizations for financial corruption." (10)
Despite this he retained his nationalistic views and in 1936 he blessed the troops before they marched into the Rhineland. In 1937 Bishop August von Galen, Michael von Faulhaber, the Archbishop of Munich and Konrad von Preysing, Bishop of Eichstätt, helped draft the Pope's anti-Nazi encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (With Burning Concern). The encyclical addressed the problems being experienced by German Catholics and detailed the Pope's grave concerns about the way the Nazi government had ignored the terms of the Concordat of 1933. (11)
Bishop von Galen welcomed Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 that heralded the war against the Soviet Union. However, soon afterwards he received confirmation from Kurt Gerstein of the Nazi government's euthanasia program directed at the mentally ill. (12) Pope Pius XI had already issued a statement that: "The direct killing of an innocent person because of mental or physical defects is not allowed". (13)
On 3rd August, 1941, August von Galen spoke out in a sermon against the Nazi practice of euthanasia: "If the principle that man is entitled to kill his unproductive fellow man is established and applied, then woe to all of us when we become aged and infirm! Then no man will be safe: some committee or other will be able to put him on the list of 'unproductive' persons, who in their judgment have become 'unworthy to live'. And there will be no police to protect him, no court to avenge his murder and bring his murderers to justice. Who could then have any confidence in a doctor? He might report a patient as unproductive and then be given instructions to kill him! It does not bear thinking of, the moral depravity, the universal mistrust, which will spread even in the bosom of the family, if this terrible doctrine is tolerated, accepted and put into practice. Woe to mankind! Woe to our German people, if the divine commandment 'Thou shalt not kill', which the Lord proclaimed on Sinai amid thunder and lightning, which God our Creator wrote into man's conscience from the beginning, if this commandment is not merely violated but the violation is tolerated and remains unpunished!" (14)
It was reported that one woman who had attended the sermon hurried home to guard her elderly mother in case the Gestapo took her away to be murdered. Other people refused to undergo x-rays because they feared it was connected to the euthanasia programme. Details of the sermon were sent out of the country. The BBC made broadcasts concerning it and the RAF dropped copies of it over Germany. (15)
Brishop Galen also attacked the Gestapo habit of seizing Church buildings and converting them to their own uses - which included cinemas and even brothels. The contents of these sermons were printed and distributed throughout the country. Adolf Hitler wanted Galen arrested but Joseph Goebbels warned against this as Galen was a popular religious leader. (16)
Hitler accepted that it was not a good idea to make martyrs of well-known Church leaders. However, people who were caught with copies of the sermon, or who discussed it with colleagues, were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Richard Grunberger, the author of A Social History of the Third Reich (1971) has pointed out: "the regime took no action against Galen, but significantly, executed three Catholic priests at Lübeck who had distributed the text of Galen's sermon among soldiers." (17)
Bishop August von Galen did not give anymore sermons against the Nazi government. In September 1941, he stated publicly that "We Christians do not make revolution". (18) Hitler did not bring a halt to the programme. Instead he changed his strategy. "Thenceforth, patients would be killed by starvation and lethal medication in a larger number of extermination centres located within several asylums. This would be easier to conceal than the sudden removal and simultaneous disappearance of big groups of people." (19)
Although he had decided not to play any part in the resistance to Hitler his sermons did inspire others. A copy arrived at the home of Robert Scholl. (20) Two of his children, Hans Scholl and Sophie Scholl, organized the White Rose group. They joined forces with Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf and Jugen Wittenstein and began distributing anti-nazi leaflets in Munich. They were caught and executed in April 1943. (21)
On 20th July, 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to kill Hitler. Over the next few weeks following the July Plot several people including Wilhelm Canaris, Carl Goerdeler, Julius Leber, Ulrich Hassell, Hans Oster, Peter von Wartenburg, Henning von Tresckow, Ludwig Beck, Erwin von Witzleben and Erich Fromm were either executed or committed suicide.
Bishop August von Galen was suspected of being involved in some way with this attempt to overthrow the Nazi government and he was arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. He was released early in 1945 and returned to Münster. In March he drove out to meet the Allies and surrendered the city. (22) Joseph Goebbels recorded in his diary: "Bishop Galen of Münster has been interviewed by American journalists. Unexpectedly he attacked our Anglo-American enemies and their air terror. He is also afraid of the increasing Bolshevisation of Germany. Mr Bishop ought to have thought of this earlier. When we were giving warnings against Bolshevisation he was always on the other side. He is a chameleon, or rather a Westphalian blockhead who always says the opposite of what public opinion thinks." (23)
On 13th April 1945, he criticised the behaviour of the occupying troops. He claimed that members of Red Army had raped German women and that soldiers in the British Army and the United States Army had stolen property belonging to the German population. He also accused the authorities of being indifferent to the suffering of the German people. (24)
Cardinal August von Galen died on 22nd March, 1946.
If the principle that man is entitled to kill his unproductive fellow man is established and applied, then woe to all of us when we become aged and infirm! Then no man will be safe: some committee or other will be able to put him on the list of `unproductive' persons, who in their judgment have become `unworthy to live'. And there will be no police to protect him, no court to avenge his murder and bring his murderers to justice. Who could then have any confidence in a doctor? He might report a patient as unproductive and then be given instructions to kill him! It does not bear thinking of, the moral depravity, the universal mistrust, which will spread even in the bosom of the family, if this terrible doctrine is tolerated, accepted and put into practice. Woe to mankind! Woe to our German people, if the divine commandment 'Thou shalt not kill', which the Lord proclaimed on Sinai amid thunder and lightning, which God our Creator wrote into man's conscience from the beginning, if this commandment is not merely violated but the violation is tolerated and remains unpunished!
I am conscious that as a bishop, a promulgator and defender of the legal and moral order willed by God and granting to each individual rights and freedoms to which, by God's will, all human claims must give way, I am called upon courageously to assert the authority of the law and to denounce the condemnation of innocent men, who are without any defence, as an injustice crying out to heaven. My Christians! The imprisonment of many blameless persons without any opportunity for defence or any judgment of a court compels me today to publicly recall an old and unshakeable truth: 'Justitia est fundamentum regnorum', justice is the only solid foundation of any state.
The right to life, to inviolability, to freedom is an indispensable part of the moral order of society. It is true that the state is entitled to restrict these rights as a penal measure against its citizens, but the state is only entitled to do so against those who have broken the law and whose guilt has been established in an impartial judicial process. A state which transgresses this boundary laid down by God and permits or causes innocent persons to be punished is undermining its own authority and the respect for its sovereignty in the conscience of its citizens.
Bishop Galen of Münster has been interviewed by American journalists. Unexpectedly he attacked our Anglo-American enemies and their air terror. He is also afraid of the increasing Bolshevisation of Germany. Mr Bishop ought to have thought of this earlier. When we were giving warnings against Bolshevisation he was always on the other side. He is a chameleon, or rather a Westphalian blockhead who always says the opposite of what public opinion thinks.