Bishop von Galen: German Catholicism and National Socialism

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Clemens August Graf von Galen, Bishop of Munster from 1933 until his death in 1946, is renowned for his opposition to Nazism, most notably for his public preaching in 1941 against Hitler's euthanasia project to rid the country of sick, elderly, mentally retarded, and disabled Germans. This provocative and revisionist biographical study of von Galen views him from a different perspective: as a complex figure who moved between dissent and complicity during the Nazi regime, opposing certain elements of National Socialism while choosing to remain silent on issues concerning discrimination, deportation, and the murder of Jews.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
These books attempt to document similar topics but in very different ways. At first glance, Becker's would seem the more narrowly focused, dealing as it does only with art work in Chicago public schools. (Becker is vice president of the Chicago Conservation Center.) In truth, it is the more interesting, informative, and generally appealing: what city or town in America does not have at least one federally funded mural that came into being as a result of the New Deal Project (or the earlier, less familiar Progressive Era movement)? Chicago has always had the greatest concentration of this type of art, and this text is the first comprehensive catalog of existing work. Owing to neglect, vandalism, and changing tastes, many were badly damaged and went largely unnoticed until 1994, when the largest mural preservation program of its kind was inaugurated in Chicago. This book provides information on the project, as well as biographical information on the artists, a checklist of all the murals, more than 250 color photographs, and a separate listing of schools with murals (plus addresses). There is an excellent glossary and noteworthy essays by historians, curators, and conservators who worked on the project. All in all, this is a very useful tool for any art collection. The same cannot be said for Hemingway's effort to write, from a Marxist perspective, "a history of the Communist movement in the U.S. as it bore on the visual arts." Instead, Hemingway (University Coll., London) provides an overwhelming amount of detail on the squabblings of leftist factions and covers the role of the federal government in subsidizing their artists. The almost 200 politically charged illustrations reproduce paintings, prints, murals, drawings, periodical covers, cartoons, and a few sculptures, but comments on the works range from only a couple of words to ten lines. The index is excellent and the research is apparent, but the book will appeal only to those with a great appetite for the minutiae of leftist infighting.-Margarete Gross, Chicago P.L. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300092233
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt



Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09223-7

Chapter One

Von Galen's Early Life

You must all obey the governing authorities. Since all government comes from God, the civil authorities were appointed by God, and so anyone who resists authority is rebelling against God's decision, and such an act is bound to be punished.... The State is there to serve God for your benefit.... The authorities are there to serve God.... You must obey. -ROMANS 13:1-5

In May 1941 Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen was performing confirmations in Oldenburg. As he and his private chaplain approached the Castle Dinklage in their car, von Galen became very animated. Pointing to a window in the castle, he remarked, "That was the bedroom of my dear parents; there I was born on the 16th March 1878."

Clemens August was the eleventh of thirteen children. His parents, known for their deep piety, were Count Ferdinand Heribert von Galen and Countess Elisabeth, nee von Spee. The von Galen name had long been associated with the Oldenburg-Munsterland region; the von Galens had been there since 1667, when Christoph Bernhard von Galen was named the first bishop of Munster after putting down the Anabaptists, leaving the bodies of the "heretics" to rot in cages lining the city's gates.

"Clau," as the young count was affectionately called, led a lifestyle marked by spartan simplicity and rigorous Catholicism that was going to continue throughout his life. Castle Dinklage had no running water, no heat in the majority of its rooms, and no indoor bathrooms. The family lived, so to speak, close to nature. The family also made the practice of religion a daily presence in their lives. Years later, when von Galen wrote to his father saying how much he appreciated the Catholic values instilled in him as a child, he reflected, "As a child I never saw a bad example or an occasion of sin in my beloved home, but rather only unshakably strong belief, true Catholic life and inner love of the Church."

Each morning the von Galen family and their servants were required by Ferdinand Heribert to attend chapel. Any child who missed mass received no breakfast. Arriving late to mass meant no butter on the morning bread. Every evening ended with von Galen's father reciting the rosary and saying a long evening prayer. Ferdinand, who encouraged his sons to play with the other children of the region, go horseback riding, and hunt, also played a significant role in influencing his sons' ideas concerning religion and its relationship to the state.

To more fully understand von Galen's attitude toward Hitler's regime, it is helpful to explore his conception of the ideal German state, the ideal German citizen, and the church's relationship to both state and citizen, all of which were heavily influenced by his father's beliefs.

Notions of State and Citizenship

When von Galen began to think about the role that morality could play in politics, he could draw on a long family tradition. Ferdinand had been deeply influenced by his uncle, Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, the "working bishop" of Mainz, and Ferdinand transmitted his ideas to his son. Ketteler (1811-1877), with whom Ferdinand had lived for a time, became one of the most influential Catholic authors on questions of German national identity. As bishop of Mainz, Ketteler used his position to address the dominant social questions of the day. He argued that the church must aid the working class in the fight against unchecked capitalism. Because of this, he established unions and cooperatives for workers; he promoted legislation against child labor and for factory inspection. Seeking an alternative to liberalism and socialism, Ketteler tried to shift the church's focus from charity to social engagement. He promoted the freedom and rights of Catholics in particular and a "program for all believing Christians ... in Germany." Ketteler, like Johann Fichte and Friedrich Jahn, believed that the newly unified German state should be grounded in Christian principles. His conception of the ideal state harked back to medieval times, when Germany ruled the Holy Roman Empire (and when no Protestants existed in Germany). In a pamphlet in 1866, Ketteler reiterated his idea that freedom of conscience came only through a society organized into feudal estates. He favored a paternalistic, quasi-medieval universalism, but he argued that in order for Catholics to attain more power in Germany, they had to embrace the national and military objectives of Wilhelmine society. He acknowledged that German society was dominated by Protestants and stated that behaving in an intolerant fashion toward them would only impede Catholic integration into the national community. He expressed the sentiment that Catholics could be just as loyal as Protestants: "We too are German in word and deed, we are true to Kaiser and Reich, we think and feel German.... We do not have to betray our religion in order to be patriots." Underlying this notion that Catholics and Protestants were equals in German citizenship was the idea that others, such as Jews and liberals, were not equal in status. "The German Catholic vision of a Christian state could be conceived as marginalizing Jews or Social Democrats but not Wurttemberg Pietists or Silesian Lutherans." In Ketteler's conception of the state, Christians would rule together against the forces of liberalism, socialism, capitalism, and, behind these forces of modernism, the Jews.

Ketteler's program of "social Catholicism" had been embraced by von Galen's father, Ferdinand. The elder von Galen attempted to translate the sociopolitical ideas of Ketteler into practical legislation while serving in the Prussian Parliament. He passed on his ideas of the "Christian social" program to his son Clemens August. Part of this ideological inheritance included the belief that Germany must be, above all, a Christian state.

So how did Clemens August envision his society? The best indication is his 1932 writing, Die Pest des Laizismus and ihre Erscheinungsformen, which was based on many of the ideas contained in Pope Pius XI's 1925 encyclical Konigtum Christi. Von Galen denounced the secularization of a society that had divorced itself from God and the Commandments. He lamented the unraveling of religion and life and, like Ketteler, recalled medieval times when religion and life were intertwined. In von Galen's opinion, the modern world was fighting an epidemic in which public life was being corrupted by original sin and a love of materialism. He cited 1 John 2:16: "What does the world offer? Only gratification of corrupt nature, gratification of the eyes; the empty pomp of living; these things take their being from the world, and not from the Father." He ended with the warning that Catholics must be vigilant and not yield to secularization, or else the very foundation of Christianity would be destroyed.'

Von Galen feared the loss of Catholic Christian values in an increasingly modern world. He was against liberalism, individualism, socialism, and democracy. He thought these "isms" were destroying belief in the Christian God. He wanted hierarchy, ritual, and a foundation firmly rooted in Catholic Christianity. Unfortunately, as we shall see, the Nazis seemed to offer a version of this. Von Galen relied on the teachings of his father and his father's uncle as well as the education he received at various Jesuit institutions, all of which reinforced the notion that Catholics could survive best if they were obedient to the state. Reinforcing this reliance on obedience was the belief that "every human authority is a reflection of divine rule and is a participation in the eternal authority of God." 10 Thus the religious Fuhrerprinzip coincided with the Nazis' secular Fuhrerprinzip. Von Galen remembered that, from his earliest days, his father was concerned with the structure of the modern world. From Ferdinand, "Clau" learned that owing to original sin there was no such thing as a "Paradise on earth." Living such a strict life with no "amenities" such as heat would certainly have highlighted that view.

Denying the modern, liberal world, Ferdinand pursued a "Christian social" program, which included legislation to restrict work for women and children and improve working conditions for factory workers. In the early days of his marriage, he visited the poor, bringing relief, until he realized that his presence made the recipients of his aid uncomfortable. After that, he passed his visitation duties to his wife, Elisabeth. She and her daughters made and delivered clothing for the needy.

Elisabeth also played a central role in the young Clau's religious development. It was her obligation to instruct her children in their catechism and to prepare them for their first confession. She, like Ferdinand, tried to show the children that religious beliefs could be incorporated into daily living. She visited the poor and the ill, she made clothing for the less fortunate, and she heard petitions daily from the suffering of the community. Most of their petitions for aid were answered. For Clemens August, his mother's religious instruction never ended. She and he corresponded until her death in 1920.

Both Elisabeth and Ferdinand tried to instill in all of their children a sense of duty, self-discipline, punctuality, order, and diligence. Punishments were rare, but a severe reproof from Count Ferdinand was enough. No entreaties on the children's part were accepted. They had been taught that the family was a microcosm of God's universe and that to maintain the proper order of things meant to obey and honor their parents the same way they would be expected to obey and honor God. At the same time, throughout their upbringing, the von Galen children were taught to maintain their own convictions and inner strength. Unquestioning submission, particularly when it violated one's conscience, was not a von Galen characteristic. As an adult, Clemens August remembered the painful surprise in his parents' home when Pope Leo XIII, in 1885, bestowed the Order of Christ on Otto von Bismarck. This event was especially shocking because average German Catholics, along with many of their spiritual leaders, believed that Bismarck had been the instigator of the Kulturkampf. After that incident, the children were told that although obedience was a principle of order, no one should comply with false instructions. One's conscience set the boundaries.

Despite the rigors of living in a stern, spartan atmosphere, von Galen remembered his childhood quite fondly. Years later, when reminiscing, he continually remarked about how ideal his parents' home had been.


Until 1890 Clemens August and his brother Franz (nicknamed "Strick") were tutored together at home. After making their first communion in Oldenburg, the two brothers were sent to a Jesuit Latin School, Stella Matutina, in Feldkirch in the Vorarlberg. Not much has been reported about the Jesuits at this school, but the lasting impact of the Kulturkampf in Prussian territory is evident, for Jesuits were not permitted in Munster at this time. Anti-Jesuit legislation made it necessary for the boys to leave their family and their state in order to receive a Jesuit education.

Likewise, in 1894, because of state regulations, the two boys returned home to attend a public school in Vechta, approximately ten kilometers outside of Oldenburg. The Stella Matutina academy was not recognized by the Prussian government because it was a Jesuit school. Two years after their return to the Oldenburg region, both von Galen boys passed the examinations that qualified them to attend a university.

By 1896 Clau and Strick went to Switzerland to study at the Catholic University of Freiburg, which had been established in 1886 by the order of the Dominicans. At the time of its founding, it was known for its young professors and its militant Catholicism. But by 1896, as the Kulturkampf was winding down, the faculty preferred to assume a more defensive position of simply holding firmly to their faith. This defensive posture held its lessons for von Galen under the Nazi regime.

At Freiburg von Galen was exposed to the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas. The teachings of the university served to reinforce the earlier education he had received from his father, namely, that all power comes from God and that no society deriving its power from human authority alone can be tolerated.

Following the first winter semester at Freiburg, Clemens August and Franz went on an extended visit to Rome. An elder brother, Friedrich, guided his siblings around the city for three months. At the end of this visit, Clemens August confided to Franz that he had decided to become a priest. The only remaining question in his mind was whether to become a Benedictine, leading the life of a contemplative priest, or a Jesuit, playing a more active role in society.

After completing a year of studies at Freiburg, Clemens August acted on his earlier decision and transferred to the Theological Faculty and Convent at Innsbruck. The school at Innsbruck was founded in 1669 by the Jesuits. Its program stressed support and understanding of different nations and various cultures. The rule of the university commanded community life, understanding, and tolerance. All levels of society were present at the school, from conservative aristocrats to middle- and lower-level scholarship students. Students were told that they would and must learn from one another because that was the only way to understand current social problems."

At Innsbruck von Galen stood out among his peers-and not only because he had grown to the imperious height of six feet seven inches. His constant striving to fulfill Christian ideals inspired people and led him to become a mediator between the college teachers and the student body. As for studies, von Galen was not interested and did not excel in areas of abstract theories. Referring to his studies, he once remarked, "Thank God that I will never become a professor!" Instead, von Galen preferred to focus on practical things such as church-state relations: the state and the family, the state and science, the state and education. As his studies in social problems, moral theology, and sociology progressed, he reinforced his earlier training from his father and from his Stella Matutina days, resolving that "nothing but a society resting on God can produce tolerable social conditions: there can be no Paradise on earth."

Von Galen's concern for the dangers Catholics faced when trying to live out their ideals in everyday public life appeared in an article he wrote for the school newsletter.


Excerpted from BISHOP von GALEN by BETH A. GRIECH-POLELLE Copyright © 2002 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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