Canonization was once a fairly obscure in-house Romish ritual for naming saints. But during the long reign of John Paul II, it somehow became a matter of international significance—often among people with no public connection to the Church. The 1998 canonization of the convert Edith Stein, for instance, had political repercussions among those who insisted the pope was stealing the memory of a Jewish Holocaust victim. Closer to the Vatican was the clamorous opposition to the beatification of Pius IX, who by a misreading of Matthew 15 was alleged to have called Jews “dogs,” and the more indignant outbursts, even by Israeli politicians, over the projected beatification of Pius XII, allegedly silent during World War II.
More of the same began on October 9, when Benedict XVI beatified one of his own countrymen, Clemens August von Galen, who in 1933 was appointed bishop of Münster, the capital of Westphalia—the first new member of the German hierarchy after the rise of Hitler. Not coincidentally, a distant cousin of von Galen, Bishop Konrad von Preysing, would be appointed two years later to Berlin, the capital of the Reich. The two were the youngest bishops and only non-cardinals invited to Rome in 1937 to participate in drafting the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge condemning German racist dogma.
Von Galen was known in his time for attacking in 1934 the bible of Nazi racism, Alfred Rosenberg's The Myth of the Twentieth Century. In the following year, the bishop vigorously objected to the Nazi provincial governor about the planned appearance of Rosenberg at a party rally in Münster: “The overwhelmingly Christian population of Westphalia would regard this as a downright provocation showing contempt for their most cherished convictions.” At the rally Rosenberg personally attacked the bishop. The next day twenty thousand citizens accompanied von Galen in a religious procession, followed by a fiery address in which he declared that he would never succumb to the demands of racists. This was the first public expression of his episcopal motto: Nec laudibus nec timore (“Neither for praise nor out of fear”), and the genesis of his reputation as “the lion of Münster.”
During the war, von Galen became internationally celebrated when he delivered a series of sermons repeatedly attacking the Gestapo by name and condemned the Nazi “euthanasia” program for so-called incurables. Read at all Church services in Westphalia, leafleted by the British air force over every major German city, and broadcast by the BBC in five languages, the sermons ultimately reached an estimated forty million people. Henri de Lubac—a Jesuit member of the French resistance who published this “anvil sermon” of von Galen's in the underground Témoignage Chrétien—observed at the time: “If there is one case where the duty to oppose injustice must be fulfilled, it is certainly the extreme anti-Semitic measures imposed by Hitlerism.”
In the anvil sermon—with its refrain of “Become hard! Remain firm!”—the bishop declared:
At this moment we are the anvil rather than the hammer. Other men, strangers, renegades, are hammering us. . . . The anvil cannot and need not strike back: it must only be firm, only hard! . . . However hard the hammer strikes, the anvil stands firmly and silently in place and will long continue to shape the objects forged upon it. If it is sufficiently tough and firm and hard the anvil will last longer than the hammer. The anvil represents those who are unjustly imprisoned, those who are driven out and banished for no fault of their own.
The Gauleiter of nearby Holland attributed to von Galen's sermons the Dutch bishops' opposition to the deportation of Jews. The White Rose student group—whose five leaders, with their professor, would be executed by the Nazis—was also inspired by the copies of von Galen's words in the leaflets dropped by the British, and they reprinted thousands of their own, along with others decrying the anti-Semitism of the regime. Helmuth von Moltke, the guiding spirit of the Kreisau Circle, wrote his wife Freya that she should “read the sermons aloud because that brings out their great drive.” The Jewish survivor, Victor Klemperer, noted in his diary on November 2, 1941: “Headmaster Voss . . . told us that the Bishop of Münster, Count Galen, had preached publicly against the Gestapo and the killings of the mentally infirm. The bishop had not been arrested on the grounds that ‘one does not want to make any martyrs,' in truth, because they had ‘not dared to.'”
It was in the sermon on euthanasia that von Galen spoke of how he had written to officials of the government complaining of the fate of “incurables.” From the pulpit of his cathedral church, he told his diocesans:
I have received no information. . . . I was protesting in the strongest terms. It had no effect. These unfortunate patients are to die . . . because in the judgment of some official body, on the decision of some committee, they have become “unworthy to live,” because they are classed as “unproductive members of the national community.” . . . If the principle is established that one is entitled to kill his unproductive fellow-man, then woe betide all of us when we become aged and infirm! If it is legitimate to kill unproductive members of the community, woe betide the disabled who have sacrificed their health or their limbs in the productive process! If unproductive men and women can be disposed of by violent means, woe betide our brave soldiers who return home with major disabilities, as cripples, as invalids!
The entire statement makes abundantly clear that the bishop was not referring to traditional Catholic doctrine that extraordinary means need not be used to sustain life, but to state-enforced executions mainly of the mentally ill as well as of “disabled persons who are no longer capable of work, of cripples, the incurably ill, and the aged and infirm.” But the sentence about “our brave soldiers” offers an insight into the nature of the German resistance. John Lukacs highlighted the point in his book The Hitler of History: “Many of the most principled opponents of Hitler were traditionalists. . . . This was as true of Stauffenberg and his circle in 1944 [which had long planned the assassination of Hitler] . . . and of untold examples of patriots and religious men and women throughout Germany and Austria.”
Nonetheless, one of Lukacs' former students has condemned von Galen as “an antidemocrat, antiliberal, antimodern man.” That student, B.A. Grieche-Polelle, nonchalantly asks while discussing the sermons: “Was martyrdom a reasonable expectation for von Galen?” Her response is chilling: “Not many high-ranking Catholic clergymen were in concentration camps.” In fact, records exist showing that Hitler was dissuaded from taking action against the bishop only because it would arouse the “entire population of Westphalia against the war.” As a consequence Hitler vowed to execute the bishop “after victory.” Nevertheless, few would question that the bishop had all the shortcomings of his background and his era—a traditionalist in religion and a loyalist in politics—as well as all the strengths of his high principles.
Born in 1878, the scion of a long line of minor nobility and major churchmen traceable back to the sixteenth-century prince-bishops of Münster, he was by birth a conservative and a patriot. As a youth he was raised in the Catholic siege-mentality prevalent during the years of Bismarck's Kulturkampf against the Church, though in von Galen's case that mentality was tempered by the heritage of his great-uncle, W.E. von Ketteler, the bishop of Mainz, a forward-looking social reformer who strongly affected Pope Leo XIII's overtures to the modern world, particularly as represented by the encyclical Rerum Novarum. (Among the “new things” Leo advocated were the rights of laborers to a living wage and to a voice in their working conditions.) The influence of von Ketteler was reflected in von Galen's two decades as a pastor in Berlin where he was referred to as “the father of the poor.” Even while a bishop, his persistence in seeing the Church as “under siege” was a factor in strengthening his resolve to oppose the regime.
Von Galen's sermons were specifically singled out by Pius XII as examples to be emulated by the German episcopate, in accord with his principle that each bishop, knowing best the conditions in his diocese during wartime, should follow his own conscience regarding acts against the regime. In the event, the three German opposition prelates, von Galen of Münster, von Preysing of Berlin, and Josef Frings of Cologne (whose theological adviser at the Second Vatican Council was the future Benedict XVI) were all made cardinals after the war, as were the French anti-fascist bishops. Von Galen died a few weeks after his elevation, certainly in part because of the toll taken by years of living under the strain of opposition to a ruthless government—which, however, had not hesitated to imprison his brother Franz in Sachsenhausen, partially as a way of further harassing the bishop.
The religious philosopher, Josef Pieper, who as a young man knew the bishop, noted that even two years after the sermons, people “feared that any day ‘something could happen to him'; and he himself was prepared for the worst.” The dating of this comment would have been close to the time when Carl Goerdeler, former mayor of Leipzig and Protestant leader of the German Resistance, visited von Galen and was delighted to find the bishop “very sympathetic” to the goals of the Resistance.
The bishop's position was in sharp contrast to that of Konrad Adenauer. Emmi Bonhoeffer whose husband, Klaus, and brother-in-law, Dietrich, were both executed, maintained that, “Adenauer had a very guilty conscience toward the Widerstand, because at the crucial moment he rebuffed Goerdeler who had tried to win him over. He presumably stuck with Talleyrand's motto: . . . ‘J'ai vécu'—‘I survived.'” Carl Goerdeler did not survive.
Grieche-Polelle, who has written the only biography of the bishop in English, a reworking of her dissertation from Rutgers, Bishop von Galen: German Catholicism and National Socialism (2002), is widely quoted as the press analyze, assess, and carp over the bishop's October beatification. Because Grieche-Polelle's skimpy volume of 170 pages of text and 28 pages of notes is so readily digestible, not to mention that its subject is so relentlessly debunked (“Saintly Bishop Exposed”), it may well have an impact on popular opinion comparable to that of the book version of Rolf Hochhuth's anti-Pius XII play The Deputy.
Grieche-Polelle sets the tone at the beginning of Bishop von Galen, where a religious commonplace instilled in the young von Galen by his family and teachers, “human authority is a reflection of divine rule,” is followed by this ominous non sequitur: “Thus the religious Führerprinzip coincided with the Nazis' secular Führerprinzip.” The opinion startles not so much by its anachronism—exploiting a term Goebbels introduced into the Nazi lexicon decades later—but by its equation of a pious truism with a fascist slogan. The term was highlighted by the controversy over Martin Heidegger during the 1980s, where the “principle” was crucial to the embrace of Nazism in his rectorial address—with staged outbursts of Sieg Heil!—and also as leitmotif of his entire philosophical enterprise. Grieche-Polelle's dissertation is the first work to relate the careers of the caitiff philosopher and the courageous prelate.
Chronological gaffe is again joined to non sequitur when Grieche-Polelle portentously notes that “by 1934 visitors entering Münster were greeted by a sign, ‘Trespassing of this community by Jews is unwanted.'” Apart from the sheer gratuitousness, the accusation ignores the fact that von Galen had become bishop only late in 1933.
This eclipse of chronology continues when the author complains that the papal encyclical on Nazism, Mit brennender Sorge—which had to be smuggled into Germany—“did not endorse Catholic participation in an open rebellion against the government.” The reader cannot but wonder: participation in what “open rebellion” in 1937? A more recent time-warping chronicler, Peter Godwin in Hitler and the Vatican (2004), cites Grieche-Polelle as source of the criticism that the bishop denounced “in well-publicized sermons abuses by the Gestapo and the judicial murder of ‘euthanasia' with no reference to the Holocaust.” But the sermons were delivered within six weeks of the German invasion of Russia, and no observer in that short time had the least idea of mass exterminations, much less of holocausts.
The book's narrative bias is worse even than its mathematical blunders. Concerning the confrontation with Rosenberg, Grieche-Polelle remarks: “Although the bishop's words were strong, he was not risking very much in that the neopagan ideology of Rosenberg was never officially incorporated into the platform of National Socialism; therefore attacks against his writings were technically not attacks against the Nazi state.” Comparably picayune is her comment on the anvil sermon: “Although the speech does carry a strong denunciation of some of the immoral practices of the state, it did not attack Hitler or the nation specifically. Instead it focused on the action of the Gestapo.” The clinching instance of petty niggling concerns the peroration to the bishop's first sermon: “Therefore as a German, an honorable citizen, a representative of the Christian religion, a Catholic Bishop, I exclaim: ‘We demand Justice!'” Grieche-Polelle's gloss: “It is interesting that he emphasized his Germanness first and his Christianity second.”
“Germanness” is not something Grieche-Polelle herself emphasizes, as she consistently mistranslates crucial passages. The bishop received an anonymous letter about crimes in the East from a man who described himself as “of German blood who had fought for the Fatherland in the Great War.” Grieche-Polelle comments: “Then he asked the pivotal question, ‘Will you stand up and be our helper?' . . . He did not stand up.” In point of fact, the letter, which bespeaks both earnestness and pathos, is replete with expressions of respect regarding the bishop—which makes its “pivotal question” so jarring that the reader instinctively thinks this man would not ask that question. Nor did he. The question, “Ob uns ein Helfer ersteht?” is a plaintive outburst, “Will anyone arise to help us?” The distraught man concluded by saying it was a “crazy” (irre) hope that motivated his anonymous letter.
In a comparably glaring but more intrinsically significant distortion, Grieche-Polelle alters a statement of Pius XII to the German hierarchy so that it means the opposite of what the pope actually said. “Although bishops such as von Galen who championed the cause of God and the Holy Church would always have his support,” she writes, the pope “nevertheless ‘require[s] you and your colleagues not to protest.'” This is referenced correctly to the second volume of Actes et documents du Saint Siège relatifs à la seconde guerre mondiale, but in that volume the actual remarks state: “But that the bishops, who have so courageously and flawlessly like Bishop von Galen championed the cause of God and Holy Church, will always enjoy Our support—that is something about which We need not give you and your colleagues assurance.” There is absolutely no way this can be translated as “requiring you and your colleagues not to protest.”
Equally egregious is the author's obliviousness to factual data. According to her, “Dr. G.K.A. Bell, Anglican bishop of Chicester” (sic) met von Galen after the war in order “to form a Christian state” in Germany. This intention, the author avers, was “unaltered by the full revelations of what racist anti-Semitism had wrought” during the Hitler era. The comment about Bishop Bell and his alleged anti-Semitism points up the author's remarkable unawareness of major figures who were central to events during the wartime era. Bishop Bell was the leading ecumenist in England, a close friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a counselor of Churchill (who blocked his becoming Anglican primate), a universally admired mediator who sought to launch a peace initiative even during the war, a leader of the postwar anti-nuclear movement—and, finally, hero of Hochhuth's other wartime drama, Soldiers. The basis for the latter was his opposition to Churchill's city-busting Operation Gomorrah (specifically, in Hochhuth's play, to the bombing of Dresden, a theme for which Hochhuth was, oddly, indebted to his long-time friend the Holocaust denier, David Irving).
The source of Grieche-Polelle's disdain for both bishops is what she calls (after Claudia Koontz) “selective opposition” or “single-issue dissent.” For Grieche-Polelle, such opposition or dissent becomes the omnibus rationale for micrometrically judging the merits of antagonists of the regime during the war. But this means that in addition to stigmatizing Bishop Bell for ignoring what “racist anti-Semitism had wrought,” the bishop of Chichester must be further condemned on the grounds of “selective opposition” since—although he spoke out vigorously against the bombing of German cities—he failed to advocate destroying the death camps where Jews were being gassed.
In fact, jargon like “single-issue dissent” is the author's mask for the accusation of anti-Semitism—a depravity akin to what Andrew Napolitano has called a “favored crime,” in which merely to be accused is tantamount to being guilty, and therefore a crime whose gravity automatically exonerates the accuser of intentional distortions. Certainly it is true that von Galen, like the martyred Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was tainted by the Christian “teaching of contempt” for Jews and Judaism. Up to the 1950s this teaching was conventional Christian belief, and unfortunately neither martyrs nor bishops were untouched by the shadow side of their tradition. But clearly, for neither this martyr nor this bishop did that imply approval of the extermination of Jews—as Dietrich Bonhoeffer's prison meditations and the bishop's sermons make clear.
After the failure to assassinate Hitler, Himmler compared the future fate of Bishop von Galen to that of Count von Stauffenberg, who had been executed for his role in that aborted attempt. Grieche-Polelle haughtily observes: “Stauffenberg gave his life for his conscience. Von Galen appeared to be ready to become a martyr too, but only for what he deemed a Catholic cause.”
What goes unexplained is why opposition to the Gestapo or to the killing of “the unproductive” is a uniquely Catholic cause. But this author's own “single-issue” preoccupation seems itself to be highly selective. Von Stauffenberg's failed effort of July 20, 1944, was exactly three years after the bishop's “anvil sermon.” By that date in 1944, the death factories had taken most of their gruesome toll, which was soon to include the remnant of Hungarian Jews. Had Hitler been killed by Stauffenberg, it might have brought down the regime, but it would have had little effect on the Holocaust. What Grieche-Polelle does not seem to realize, in her zeal to indict von Galen, is that brave men and women with varying backgrounds and interests often have different motives and goals that ultimately may work toward some common larger end—even when individual efforts fail.
By her standards, the journalist William Shirer would have been right when he disdainfully said of the executed Count von Moltke: “He had the courage to talk . . . but not to do.” But Countess von Moltke later said of the assassination attempt, “It did not get rid of Hitler, and it got rid of all the people who had worked against Hitler. That's what he thought would happen, and it did.” The result was that the elite of a future government was wiped out, and politicians like Konrad Adenauer later came into power.
In an oft-cited postwar statement, picked up also by Grieche-Polelle, Adenauer called the German bishops' conduct “inexcusable.” “It would not be a bad thing if they had all been put in prison or concentration camps as a result.” But during the war, Adenauer, though certainly anti-Nazi, rejected the resistance. When he became chancellor after the war, his secretary of state was the Nazi co-author, interpreter, and implementer of the Nuremberg racist laws, Hans Globke; and Adenauer's criticism of the Reich contrasted sharply with that of President Theodor Heuss, who was passionately condemnatory.
Nor were there any national commemorations of the July 20 Putsch until 2004, because earlier governments were ambiguous about honoring people who had been condemned as traitors. Freya von Moltke, who participated in the sixtieth-anniversary event, noted of the Kreisauers: “At the peak of Hitler's triumphs [after the fall of Poland and France], that's when the Circle began. . . . Even though we had no success and even though we were weak, all of us who stood against Hitler kept European humanity alive in Germany.”
But the issue of assassination itself had been controversial from the very beginning. Von Moltke himself—a student of the American Federalist Papers—opposed it as a besmirching of the ideal republic he envisioned. His main opponent in the Kreisau group, Adam von Trott zu Solz, who through contacts in England had tried to persuade the British to moderate their terms for peace, also proved to be wrong in his insistence that Hitler be assassinated, as did Dietrich Bonhoeffer after much reflection and, at a later date, the Jesuit Alfred Delp. All were executed. Bishop von Preysing of Berlin, also an active Kreisauer, was tireless but ineffectual in trying to persuade the German bishops' conference to make a stronger statement about the abuses of the regime, but it seems unlikely that he opposed the assassination—even though the Vatican's concordat with Germany explicitly forbade political interference by the Church.
And yet the Church was involved since the issues were of life and death. Von Galen had already interfered vigorously and was favorable to the goals of the resistance. Von Preysing was joined by Bishop Johannes Dietz of Fulda and Augustinus Rösch, the Jesuit provincial of Bavaria (who after the assassination attempt managed to evade the Gestapo for six months and ultimately survive), with Cardinal von Faulhaber on the periphery making plans for the role of the Church in the new state. Given the membership of high churchmen, it is not surprising that Pius XII, on being informed of the intended coup, agreed as he had done in 1939 to act as mediator with the Allies if the assassination were successful. It was with a view to the aftermath of the coup—and not the fiction of Pius' obsession with Germany—that led him to oppose publicly the Allied insistence on unconditional surrender.
There is no doubt that the moral issue of tyrannicide was much debated by the Kreisauers, and that the definitive work defending its legitimacy—De Rege et Regis Institutione by the seventeenth-century Jesuit, Juan de Mariana—was introduced into that debate. All this was known, probably through torture, to the infamous hanging judge, Roland Freisler, whose rant, at the trial of Father Delp, von Moltke mocked in a letter to his wife: “the storm of abuse that came down on the Catholic clergy and the Jesuits: assents to tyrannicide—Mariana; illegitimate children, anti-German attitudes, etc., etc. All this with bellowing of middling quality.” Given the oblique participation of the pope, it is not surprising that the morality of tyrannicide remains in contemporary theology an open question, whereas up until the twentieth century the consensus (contra Thomas Aquinas and Francisco Suarez) was that it was not allowable under any conditions—or when allowed, under rigidly limited circumstances, it required a mandate from legitimate authority. The growth of democracy altered that last precondition.
Additionally, there were political differences among the conspirators, including as major participants the military and the diplomatic services whose members shared the prejudices of their professions. Many of them had little interest in von Moltke's future republic—their code name for the conspiracy was Walküre, not Rienzi—but were fearful about Germany's defeat and the likelihood of subsequent revolutionary havoc. Carl Goerdeler, who had tendered the invitation to Adenauer, wrote a summary constitution of a renewed monarchic Germany, while a fellow conspirator and close friend of Stauffenberg, Julius Leber, was planning for a leftist socialist society.
It is now immaterial who was right and who was wrong. The lasting truth of significance is that all of these figures and hundreds others lived out von Galen's motto: “Neither for praise nor out of fear.” To denigrate them now because they had different approaches, opportunities, and goals when attacking an evil regime is truly to exercise “selective opposition” and arrogantly to impose a “single issue” as the standard of heroism for people living under circumstances inconceivable to us today.
In her biography, Grieche-Polelle, referring with disdain to the now beatified Clemens August von Galen, writes of “the legend of the grand resister”—presumably with the grand inquisitor waiting in the wings. But few would tout the bishop as a grand hero; rather they would see him as he saw himself: as a man simply doing his duty in opposing a depraved system. That Hitler was defeated, and thus could not make a martyr of von Galen, does not erase the bishop's bravery. Appropriate here are the words of Emmi Bonhoeffer: “I wouldn't go so far as to accept the notion that men can make progress only by martyrdom. In any case, walking the straight and narrow does not come cheaply, and it is always worthwhile knowing the sacrifices it will cost. The sacrifices could be worthwhile just for that.”
Justus George Lawler is author of Popes and Politics: Reform, Resentment, and the Holocaust and Celestial Pantomime: Poetic Structures of Transcendence.