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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 321-325

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Bishop von Galen: German Catholicism and National Socialism. By Beth A. Griech-Polelle. (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2002. Pp. xi, 259. $35.00.)

Bishop of Münster from October, 1933, until his death in March, 1946, five weeks after receiving a cardinal's hat from Pope Pius XII, von Galen is celebrated as "the Lion of Münster" for his three dramatic sermons against the suppression of religious houses and the dispersal of their inhabitants, and the killing of the mentally ill, preached in 1941 at the height of Hitler's military victories. [End Page 321]

Beth A. Griech-Polelle believes that von Galen is over-rated. "I do not dispute," she writes, "that von Galen was a symbol of what was possible in the way of resistance under the Third Reich." She charges, however, that he protested only when church interests were at stake, that he never encouraged others to resist the regime, and that he did nothing to help Jews.

Many of the primary sources for Galen's career were lost in wartime bombing. The secondary literature is in German. Griech-Polelle deserves credit for having read this material, for archival research in Germany, and for having written the first scholarly study of von Galen in English. Unfortunately, her understanding of the evidence is faulty, and her interpretation of it often false.

She appears to lack familiarity with things Catholic. How else to explain the book's title: "Bishop" rather than "Cardinal"? (She mistakenly awards this title to the papal Nuncio in Berlin, Cesare Orsenigo, a bent reed from whom Pius XII withheld the customary red hat.) She mistranslates Paul's words on the Church as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:26) in order to criticize a sermon von Galen preached on this text in 1938. The public reception of von Galen in Münster's Cathedral Square on March 16, 1946, following his return from Rome, was not "his last Mass." It was not a Mass at all, simply his last public appearance. And it is untrue that Galen's "canonization process was officially closed in 1987." The process of beatification (the necessary prelude to canonization) continues.

Von Galen's protest against the killing of the mentally ill had nothing to do with church interests. Moreover, it directly contradicts the charge that "von Galen lost sight of the larger, more humane questions involved in the brutality of the Nazi regime." His protest against the suppression of religious houses was concerned not with the buildings but with people. What moved the deeply emotional von Galen was the sudden expulsion from their homes of people he revered for their decades of selfless service: nuns, religious priests and brothers—including Jesuits, "my teachers [in Innsbruck], tutors and friends, [to whom] I remain bound in love and gratitude until my last breath."

It is true that von Galen encouraged passive but not active resistance. He expressed this in a metaphor which runs like a golden thread through the second of his three sermons. "We are the anvil, not the hammer!...The object which is forged on the anvil receives its shape not alone from the hammer but also from the anvil....Become hard! Remain firm! If it is sufficiently tough and firm and hard, the anvil usually lasts longer than the hammer."

Only a person utterly unfamiliar with life under a totalitarian regime of ruthless terror could criticize a leader for failing to encourage rebellion in such circumstances. In Nazi Germany active resistance, however modest, meant immediate arrest, usually death. The Catholic Church honors martyrdom. It does not encourage it.

A newly published book by Sebastian Haffner, a young anti-Nazi jurist who emigrated to England for political reasons in 1938, shows vividly how limited were the possibilities for resistance to Hitler as early as 1933. Published in English [End Page 322] in 2002 under the title Defying Hitler, the book was written in 1939 and discovered only after Haffner's death in 1999. Anyone unconvinced of...


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