The book tells the story of Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen, the bishop, who was a thorn in the side of the Nazis during their reign in Germany. Register file photo

The bishop who stood up to Hitler explored in new book

By  Charles Lewis, Catholic Register Special
  • January 8, 2017

Adolph Hitler rose to power in January 1933. Later that year, Fr. Clemens August Graf von Galen was appointed bishop of Münster.

There was no immediate connection between the two events. But soon Hitler and the Nazis came to recognize a powerful adversary as von Galen decided silence was not an option.

When Hitler declared that Germany would remain a Christian nation, Catholic bishops were optimistic that the Nazis would leave the Church alone, much as previous rulers had done for 1,000 years. They hoped Catholic education would provide a bulwark to prevent a secular Germany from descending into paganism.

Within a year that hope began to develop cracks. Concentration camps were opened and Jews became pariahs. Political opponents were deemed “anti-socials” and mistreated. In time, the religious houses of priests and nuns were harassed and even expropriated by the state.

Some good people realized action was needed. One of those was Bishop von Galen, whose cause for canonization has already seen him bestowed with the holy title of “blessed.”

His story is told in what will surely stand as his definitive English biography: The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis.

The author, Fr. Dan Utrecht, a priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Toronto, became aware of von Galen’s legacy through a German friend in the late 1980s. In 2005 he attended World Youth Day in Germany, where he took pilgrims to von Galen’s favourite Marian shrine. There he began in earnest to research and write the bishop’s story. It was his first attempt to write a book.

The bishop challenged the regime’s racial theories, its corruption of Catholic education, its abusive treatment of priests and nuns. And finally, in his most daring gambit, he attacked the state’s program of euthanasia.

He said at the time: “Do you, do I, have the right to live only as long as we are productive? Nobody would be safe anymore. Who could trust his physician? It is inconceivable what depraved conduct, what suspicion could enter family life if this terrible doctrine is tolerated, adopted, carried out.”

That was just one topic explored in an interview with Utrecht at his Holy Family parish in Toronto.

Q: What initially attracted you to Blessed von Galen?

A: It was his heroism and his rhetoric. His strongest sermons against the Nazis in the early 1940s were made into a pamphlet in 1991. I thought this is really strong and courageous stuff to be saying in the middle of the war. He attacked the Gestapo directly for emptying religious houses for state use. He fought on behalf of crippled persons and the handicapped and their right to life.

I then got more interested when I met one of von Galen’s nephews in Germany and found out about the cause for canonization. So I kept getting more fascinated and finding new material.

Q: What was it about your trip to Germany for World Youth Day in 2005 that made you finally decide to write his biography?

A: Our group spent close to a week in this little village outside of Münster. We went to a Marian shrine called Our Lady of Telgte. It’s a medieval image of a sorrowful Madonna, a pieta. It’s where von Galen went often to get solace and strength during difficult times. There was a display there about von Galen and I told the group about his life. People in the group said: “This is amazing. Why don’t we know more?”

Q: What was it about von Galen that made him speak out when many others wouldn’t?

A: I’ll start with what Pope Benedict said after von Galen’s beatification: It was his simple Catholic piety. His father always discussed with the von Galen children the philosophical and moral theological foundations of a just state. He also studied the writings of a great uncle, Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, who was instrumental in bringing Catholic social teaching into existence and applying it into the modern world. It all meant that when he saw injustice he became angry and that motivated him to act.

Q: Once the Nazis came into power, the Jews were one of the first groups to be demonized. In fact you write about a lesson plan sent to Münster schools in connection with All Souls Day. It included such teaching points as: “The people of Israel through the ages and their demoralizing effect on host peoples.” What was his reaction to that?

A: It was a complete anti-Jewish lesson. He complained to the ministry of education for trying to influence what was being taught in the Catholic schools. This has nothing to do with Catholicism, he said. He also condemned Nazi attacks of the place of the Jews in history. He said Catholic religious lessons should always show the place of the Old Testament and the place of the Jews in God’s plan.

Q: Why did the Nazis hate the Catholic Church and orthodox Christianity?

A: The fact that Christ was a Jew. And the Nazis had an ideology that went back to Nietzsche: Christianity was a form of weakness. For the Nazis it was might makes right. But Christianity teaches humility and love of everyone no matter whom they are. And for the Nazis, that had to go.

Q: What do you think would have happened to the Catholic Church if Germany had won the war?

A: There was already talk of after the war expropriating the Church’s property as enemies of the state. Blessed von Galen saw early on they were getting rid of the religious orders. He also saw it was becoming more difficult for priests to enter Catholic schools to give religious lessons and teacher training was already including an anti-Christian ideology. It seemed to him eventually all the Catholic schools would be closed. Even the Christian message was also being distorted using Christian terminology. “Faith” now meant faith in the Führer or in the German race. “God” meant this development of the divine only in the German people and ethics and morals were not absolute but only for a particular master race. If they had won the war there would have been an entirely wicked secular society.

Q: We are not living in Germany in the 1930s but what are the similar dangers you see today in Canadian society?

A: There’s a widespread ideology around us now that you have to think in a certain way if you’re going to be respected. And God has to be left out of any discussion of morality. And that also leads to a form of “might makes right.” We see today the strong oppress the weak in abortion and in euthanasia. And there are attacks on denominational schools.

Q: Is it an exaggeration to say we now see elements of Nazism in Canada?

A: When you say today that what’s going on is similar to what the Nazis were doing it rules you out of any debate. But this is similar to what the Nazis were doing. We see a secular bureaucracy imposing things on people (such as euthanasia, the removal of physician conscience rights and even the words “mother” and “father” in Ontario) without a debate or vote. That secular ideology is spread through the mass media and now there’s a disdain for anyone who doesn’t buy into that ideology. And that’s what happened in Germany under the Nazis.

The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis, by Fr. Dan Utrecht, 450 pages, hardcover, $29.95, published by TAN Books.

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and frequent contributor to The Catholic Register.)

bishop hitler explored webFr. Dan Utrecht is the author of ‘The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis,’ which explores the heroism of Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen. (Photo by Evan Boudreau)

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