It is a date that means nothing to most Americans, but this July 20 there will be commemorated in Germany, especially by the nation’s remaining Catholics, the sixtieth anniversary of an act that possibly could not have been committed by anyone except the man who performed it. That he could do it, when others could not, made it for him a duty he was bound to try to fulfill, a mission he had to accomplish, or die trying. At least that is how he viewed it. If he failed in his mission, as he did, his effort still has made him in the eyes of his countrymen today a Catholic and national hero.
That few others were in a position to attempt the act of July 20, 1944, is not all that made him the man for it. In the life of any man there is likely to be a moment towards which all that he is, everything he has done, his entire being, has brought him. It is the culminating moment of his life — even if it is let pass unrecognized for what it was. Everything about our man, his birth and upbringing, his education, love of literature and music, military training, temperament and, not least, religious faith brought him to July 20, 1944, as perhaps no one else in Germany just then could have been. Further, all that background — everything he was and had done — also fused in him to form a fearless resolve that enabled him to set aside any thought of the consequences for himself if he failed. In a word, he understood that the culminating moment of his life was at hand, and he was determined not to miss it.
We have referred to his religious faith, to his being Catholic. It needs to be said that there arose from his faith a vision of what Germany, his Fatherland, should be. Though it will differ in details from place to place, the vision was one that Christian men everywhere, in every country, ought to have for their homeland: that of a commonweal whose life is that of the Faith lived. Our hero saw that the Germany of his day was being led, not towards, but radically away from any possible realization of the vision.
In a West that has become far less Christian than it already was by 1944, and is instead nearly totally under the sway of a liberalism born of the Revolution that began to unfold in 1789, where is realization of the vision promised today? There is no place left where virtue is safe. Compliance with evil is compulsory everywhere, even if much of the evil has become so “banal,” in Hannah Arendt’s phrase, that it often goes as unrecognized as the culminating moment in unreflective men’s lives. Anti-Semitism, after all, is not the only evil that exists.
In our part of the formerly Christian West, the United States, we have never had a Kristallnacht , but a landlord will be compelled to furnish a home to a couple obviously living in sin, a teacher to instruct 11-years-olds in the techniques of contraception, an anesthesiologist to attend a woman having a tubal ligation, an employer to provide a job to someone clearly living what used quaintly to be called an “alternative lifestyle.” So much else could be cited. How much would be seen by very many for the evil it is? In those who still do see, who still are sensitive to the promptings of a well-formed conscience, July 20, 1944 ought to find resonance.
The man who performed the act of that day, the one of whom we have been speaking, was Claus Philip Schenk Graf (Count) von Stauffenberg. He was the brilliant and handsome scion of a wealthy noble family, a husband, father and, at age 36, a colonel in the German army, the Wehrmacht . His future should have been limitless, but he did not flinch in the face of the consequence he had known would be inevitable following failure: summary death, as noble as it could be in the circumstances (before an improvised firing squad in a War Ministry courtyard in the glare of a military vehicle’s headlights).
What he had tried to do was kill Adolf Hitler.
In due course we shall speak more of Stauffenberg and what he attempted sixty years ago, but there is much to talk about in advance of that, including some of the other many Germans who together constituted a veritable Catholic Resistance to Hitler and Nazi rule. Of them, one in particular, a bishop, will be of special interest if only because the public protests against the Nazis for which he is best known are very relevant to our day. However, before we speak of him and the others, there is something that needs to be grasped, and grasped in terms of Church teaching and Christian history. It is this: Hitler being to most minds today the very personification of evil, some readers may believe that it would be, or even that it ought to have been, easy (if not obligatory) for conscientious Catholics to oppose him, but it generally was not.
Why not? For much the same reason that even most serious Catholics remaining in ex-Christendom today, however revolted they may be by the actions of their governments, would not dream of revolting against those governments. Apart from all prudential questions, there is the teaching notably voiced by St. Thomas Aquinas when he tells us that in this world we owe our highest obligation, after our parents, to our country, our patria , because it is our parents and country together which form us. Thus must every good Catholic also be a patriot. Leaving it aside, therefore, that anyone who opposed the Nazi regime could face terrible consequences, it has to be understood that all of the German Catholics of whom we speak loved their country. Did they not distinguish between the country, their Fatherland, and its government of the day?
The temptation is to answer with another question — How many Americans distinguish between their country and the government? — and leave it at that. The governments of all modern states work hard to confuse themselves with the patria itself. Thereby will opposition to the government become unpatriotic. Insofar as we have known only one form of government in our history as an independent nation, Americans probably are more apt to fall into this confusion than are peoples with a longer history, peoples who have lived under more than one form of government, like the Germans. In other words, the answer to our question is, yes, the Catholic Germans of whom we speak, if not all of their countrymen, did make the distinction. Yet on this point we must remember that for six of the twelve years that the Nazis ruled, the six years during which the evil of the regime became clearest, Germany was a nation at war. Moreover it was a war being waged against two clear enemies of the Faith and European civilization: liberalism, and liberalism’s own most extreme expression, Communism, so that millions of non-German volunteers felt impelled to join in the fight, from Catholic Frenchmen and Spaniards, to Lutheran Norwegians, to Orthodox Russians. There were even Mohammedans from Croatia, thousands of them, who were sufficiently European in spirit that they volunteered to fight against the Anglo-Saxons and Reds.
We today may see Hitler as nothing but evil, but to Germans he was also the head of state. To act against a head of state in time of war will be viewed by most men, in any land at any time, as treason. Stauffenberg and others of whom we speak saw as do we today: that Hitler was evil, that he was leading the country into a moral abyss, but they had this other thing in them, their love of their country. It caused many to hold back, to delay making a decision. Stauffenberg himself had been fighting in the war, fighting to defend Germany, and had been grievously wounded doing it. (He lost an arm, an eye, and two fingers of his remaining hand.) What all of them saw as Christians, and what they felt as patriots, put many of them in a condition grimly described by the title of a book about some of them: Tormented Loyalty.
Which seriously Catholic American will not feel something of their condition? This is to speak only of the seriously Catholic. Throughout our history as a liberal republic, not a Christian one, most ordinary Catholics in the United States have tended to put their Americanism before their Faith. This to the degree they have always spoken of themselves as American Catholics, never as Catholic Americans. In other words, and especially considering how much evil we tolerate today, how many among us would be morally free to condemn the majority of Catholics in Germany who never actively opposed Hitler, or to criticize the ones who finally did for being slow to do so?
The torment of the best of them was only exacerbated by the fact that the Church’s teaching on certain questions has never been definitive. For instance, we have St. Paul’s famous injunction in Holy Scripture: “Servants, obey in all things your masters.”Numerous are the Catholic commentators who have taken the injunction to mean that men are always to be obedient to whichever rulers are placed over them, the rulers — even the bad ones — having been put there according to the will of God.
Yet other commentators have held that when rulers go beyond being merely bad — when they become tyrannical, for instance — subjects have a right to resist and even to rebel. The question then becomes: Has such a point been reached by this particular ruler? Deciding it can be an agony.
The present writer has a personal memory of hearing seriously Catholic Frenchmen, the first serious Catholics I had ever met, debate the morality of tyrannicide. This was in the early Sixties and these were Catholics appalled by General Charles DeGaulleintention to abandon French Algeria, and thus the historical mission to which France had set herself as early as the First Crusade: to rescue formerly Christian Levantine and North African lands conquered by the Mohammedans. One such man — I never had the honor of meeting him — was a young army captain named Bastien-Thierry. As Stauffenberg tried to kill Hitler, he would finally try to assassinate DeGaulle and, like the German, died before a firing squad when he failed. Catholic France, what was left of her, wept.
What I wish to say is that I have probably never heard any question debated more intensely than this one of revolt against a ruler by those Frenchmen. Doubtless it has been like this with Christian men throughout the centuries whenever misrule seems to many to have become so extreme that the question of rebellion could arise. In our own history, it must have been the case in 1776, when a third of Americans decided not to revolt but remain loyal to King George (and another third made no decision but sat on the fence). The debate would have been still more intense in 1861, when fence-sitting was impossible, and not simply the debate between individuals, but in countless instances within men: “Shall I break with the family and fight against my brothers?” The point is that to the Christian conscience it is not and cannot be easy to revolt against established political authority.
It was not easy for our Catholic Germans. As we shall see presently, the one bishop who publicly urged resistance to the regime went no further than that. He never called for rebellion. Further, the resistance of which he spoke was more an inner sort, a resistance of the spirit, than anything that would necessarily produce overt acts. The course he urged became a solution for many Germans who hated what the Nazis were doing to their country but did not feel free, whether out of prudence or conviction, to oppose them actively.
Before we go further, however, there is a matter to address. There are Traditional Catholics who rightly understand that much that commonly is said of Germany in the years 1933-45 has the Zionist enterprise behind the saying, but they have let their understanding obscure the reality of the Nazi regime’s evil. Some wind up denying it; they become “revisionists.” Revisionism is far from wrong in some of its particulars, but the regime was evil, and on many scores. One that is completely irrelevant to this article is the whole question of the so-called Holocaust. We are not going to get into it. What interests us is the regime’s attitude toward the Faith and its teachings.
On this score there is a newly-published book that can be helpful: The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity , by Richard Steigmann-Gall (Cambridge University Press, 2003). Until the present writer read this book, he was not aware of the extent to which German liberal Protestant churches supported the regime; that, indeed, numerous top Nazis were not simply active in these churches but were lay leaders of them. On the other hand, “Catholicism was always viewed with hostility by the Nazi leadership.”
In what ways was the hostility manifested? Though the attitude of the Nazis toward the Faith interests us, it will not do to turn this article into a catalogue of specific actions taken against the Church. For a history of them a couple of books that can be consulted are Lewy’s The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (London, 1964) and Conway’s The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-1945 (London, 1968). From these books it can be learned, for instance, that whoever else perished in the regime’s concentration camps and by whatever means, 2,771 priests were imprisoned in Dachau alone, and at least 1,000 of them died there. In all, about 4,000 priests died in the different camps, numerous of them victims of the kind of hideous medical experiments that made the name of Joseph Mengele infamous. Priests incarcerated in the camps came from throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, but the majority were Poles. This is not to speak of the hundreds of German priests who were arrested in the Nazi years, before and during the war, and interned in camps or sent to the Eastern Front when they were not summarily executed after being declared guilty of “political sabotage” by a Party court. Other charges typically brought against them included sexual misconduct, charges which are easy to trump up (and for many to believe) about a priest, and illegal economic activities. The Nazis did not scruple to violate the Sacraments, as when Gestapo agents were sent into confessionals to lead priests into offering counsel that could be interpreted as disloyal to the state.
If the Nazis were so contemptuous of sacred law, it can hardly be surprising that they would ignore civil law when it suited them. As an example of this we cite their expropriation of religious houses in Munster when Allied bombing destroyed various Party facilities around the city. It was a matter of indifference to them that the priests and nuns they were expelling from the houses had no place to go, that they were being thrown literally into the street.
We cite this seizure of religious properties as an example of Nazi lawlessness because the Bishop of Munster was the very prelate of whom we earlier said we would speak. He was Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen.
Look at a photograph of him. You can see instantly why a British official who had to deal with him after the Allied victory called him “oak-bottomed.” Nothing could move this prelate from what was right when he knew it was on his side. You can read that in his face. You have to believe he would not hesitate, as he did not, to go immediately to one of the religious houses, a Jesuit one, to tell the Gestapo thugs, to their faces, that what they were doing was wrong, and then that he would go into his pulpit the next Sunday and thunder this (emphasis added):
It is true we Christians must not start revolutions. We must continue to do our duty conscientiously in obedience to the Divine Will and out of love for our people and country. Our soldiers will continue to fight and die for their Fatherland and not for those men who, by their hateful deeds against our beloved religious, break our hearts and bring down shame on the German name before God and man. We shall continue our fight against the external enemy, but we cannot fight with weapons against the enemy within our own gates , who strikes and tortures us. The only way we can hit back is by strong, prolonged and stubborn endurance. Steel yourselves and hold fast!
The Bishop was far from done. He continued:
I repeat, steel yourselves and hold fast! At this moment we are not a hammer, but an anvil. Others, chiefly intruders and apostates, hammer at us; they are striving violently to wrench us, our nation and our youth from our belief in God. We are the anvil, I say, and not the hammer, but what happens in the forge? Go and ask the blacksmith and see what he says. Whatever is beaten out on the anvil receives its shape from the anvil as well as the hammer. The anvil cannot and need not strike back. It need only be hard and firm. If it is tough enough it invariably outlives the hammer. No matter how vehemently the hammer falls, the anvil remains standing in quiet strength, and for a long time will play its part in helping to shape what is being molded . . .
Make your home, make your love and loyalty as parents, make your exemplary Christian life the stalwart, hard, fast and unyielding anvil that will support the pressure of the hostile blows and tempers the strength still frail into a weapon of God’s will, at no time departing from His service.
Nearly every one of you is being forged at this time85 We must persevere in loyal service to our nation but we must always be prepared to show courage and sacrifice when it comes to obeying God before man. God communicates with us through conscience that is molded by faith and you must always courageously obey that inner voice. Remember the example of the Prussian Minister of Justice in bygone days. Frederick the Great ordered him to annul a lawful verdict of the courts to gratify the King’s whim, but the minister returned this splendid answer: ‘My head is at Your Majesty’s disposal, but not my conscience. I am ready to die for the King and will obey him even unto death; my life is his but my conscience belongs to God.’ Are suchlike chivalrous men extinct? Do Prussian servants of his same mettle no longer exist? Are burghers and peasants, craftsmen and laborers no longer possessed of the same outlook and nobility of thought? That I cannot and will not believe. And so I say again: Harden yourselves and yield not an inch. Stand firm like the anvil. Obedience to God and conscience may well cost us life, liberty and home; but let us die rather than commit sin. May God’s grace, without which we can do nothing, grant us and sustain in us this adamant resolution.
Lest it be thought Bishop von Galen limited himself to abstract talk of “hammer” and “anvil,” he could not be more concrete than when he declared in this sermon that the motive of Germany’s Nazi rulers for their actions “springs from a deep-rooted hatred of Christianity which they intend to uproot.” Listen also to what he had to say about the education of Germany’s youth under the Nazis (and understand that homeschooling did not exist as an option, as it may not always in the U.S.):
What sort of books do they read? Christian parents! Do but examine these books, especially the history texts used in the secondary schools. You will be appalled at the disregard for historical truth, at the attempt to inculcate simple children with distrust for Christianity and the Church and indeed with hatred of the teaching of Christ. In the privileged State schools, that is the Hitler schools, the new training colleges for future teachers, all Christian influence — in fact every kind of religious activity — is disallowed on principle . . . Christian parents! You must look to these things, otherwise you are neglecting your religious duties and you will not be able to satisfy the exigencies of your own conscience and of Him Who entrusted you with children that you might set them on the path to Heaven.
Bishop Count von Galen had said Christians “must not start revolutions,” but as we shall see later there were Catholic Germans asking themselves, even as he spoke, how they could satisfy the exigencies of their conscience and not revolt. What we want to know right now is who this man was, this bishop who clearly understood the nature of the evil against which he railed, who knew in fact that at that very moment there had to be agents of the regime in his cathedral taking down every word he spoke, that he was under constant surveillance, his phone tapped, his every movement spied on — in a word, that he could be arrested at any time — and yet could find it in himself to speak as he did, even if it was but to urge no more than resistance, when so many said nothing. After all, merely to resist can never be “merely” when the state requires that its citizens satisfy no demands, no exigencies, except those on which it insists.
He was born a member of the Westphalian aristocracy on March 16, 1878. He was extremely fortunate in his parents. As a grown man he would recall that when a child “I never saw a bad example or an occasion of sin in my beloved home, but rather only unshakably strong belief.” His father, Count Ferdinand von Galen, was a member of the Prussian Parliament and a nephew of Bishop Wilhelm von Ketteler, that giant among 19th-century apostles of the Church’s social doctrine.
If the von Galen home was ideal for the early formation of a future bishop, let it be observed that the years of Clemens’ boyhood also corresponded to years of the Kulturkampf . That had been launched in 1871 and continued until its official end in 1887. It is too simplistic to label the Kulturkampf , as some writers do, as anti-Catholic. It was that, but the label makes it sound as if it amounted to no more than a campaign that could have been mounted by, say, the Ku Klux Klan at the height of its power and influence in the U.S. in the 1920s. In fact it involved a series of laws engineered by the Second Reich’s Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, laws designed to bring the Catholic Church in Germany under the authority of the imperial government, to make of her the same thing that the Lutheran Church in Germany was in that day: a virtual appendage of the state. The laws were far-reaching. One of them, the Kanzelparagraf (a real Catch-22) made it a criminal offense for a priest to criticize from the pulpit any of the other provisions of the Kulturkampf or the administration thereof.
What must be emphasized here, again, is that the Kulturkampf did not represent a simple spasm of anti-Catholic bigotry such as used to occur in our country in days when Catholics still led lives that distinguished them from the Protestant majority. Rather, Bismarck launched his drive for control of the Church in Germany in reaction specifically to the First Vatican Council’s dogmatic definition of papal infallibility. That definition ended for good the notion we best know in its French form, Gallicanism, that bishops in their dioceses were not subject to papal governance. As Bismarck saw it (quite correctly), a local church indisputably governed by Rome was a church less likely to be controllable by the state, the power of the state extending no further than the nation’s frontiers. There is always a danger, from the point of view of the modern state, such as Bismarck’s Germany, that the Church may be a body to which citizens will feel allegiance in addition to that which they owe the state, or even prior to it. This danger was as intolerable to Bismarck as it is to U.S. Federal authorities today that the Alabama State Supreme Court might look to the Ten Commandments, instead of the Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, as the basis of its decisions. (Of U.S. Catholics in particular, former President Harry Truman would say in 1959, that they “have a loyalty to a church hierarchy that I don’t believe in85. You don’t want to have anyone in control of the government of the United States who has another loyalty, religious or otherwise.” Truman was worried about the emergence of John F. Kennedy as a contender for the presidency. Clearly, good Mason that he was, he did not believe the U.S. bishops, let alone Kennedy, were sincere in their profession of Americanism.)
In Germany, the danger was less likely to arise if the Catholic Church within the nation — or at least a Catholic Church — were to dissent from the Council’s dogmatic definition. Thus it was that there came into being at this time, with Bismarck’s blessing, the schismatic sect commonly called the Old Catholic Church, which made the rejection of papal infallibility its doctrinal foundation. It is still around, and still doing mischief.
In any event, it was in the atmosphere of the Kulturkampf and its aftermath that Clemens von Galen grew up. He had seen the German state try to bring the Church into subservience decades before the Nazis came to power. His determination to do his part in preventing a recurrence went a long way to making him, as he came to be called, “the Lion of Munster.”
But that was not his only concern, nor even his primary one. He was always first of all a pastor, the spiritual shepherd of the Catholic people of Munster. One of the most striking things about him in this regard is that a man of his aristocratic background and intellectual attainments would faithfully keep, and promote, the simplest devotions — the rosary, the stations of the cross, the Sacred Heart, love of Our Lord Present in the Eucharist. Such devotions, it will be thought by the very sophisticated, were more typically those of a peasant, when peasants still existed, not a man with the titles of Bishop and Count before his name.
They might be correct, but are wrong to regard such devotions with disdain, if they do, or to look upon the devotees with condescension. Read a couple of biographies of Bishop von Galen and you will conclude that it was precisely his practice of his devotions that made him “oak-bottomed”; that it was in a simple and very uncomplicated faith that he found the inner strength to speak out against the Nazis, and then to confront Germany’s Allied military rulers when they looked the other way as vengeance-seeking liberated inmates of concentration camps pillaged and raped. Do not read the newest biography, Bishop von Galen: German Catholicism and National Socialism , by Beth A. Griech-Polelle. Therein the great prelate is vilified. Why? Because he never protested against the Nazi treatment of Jews except ones who had converted to the Faith!
For goodness sake! He was a bishop of the Catholic Church. For whom was he always first to be concerned if not members of the Church? Was he derelict in his duty because he never protested against the round-up of public homosexuals, Freemasons, gypsies, Social Democrats and everybody else the Gestapo arrested because of who or what they were? How preposterous! We said the so-called Holocaust would not interest us, but it has to be remarked that the viewpoint expressed by Griech-Polelle simply did not exist before the postwar development of a veritable industry made it mandatory to see Hitler as evil because he was anti-Semitic. Before then no one would have found a Catholic bishop condemnable for not being preoccupied with the welfare of others besides Catholics. Bishop von Galen had priests being arrested by the Gestapo and sent into the regime’s camps or to the Eastern Front; the faithful of his diocese were being killed and made homeless because of the Allied strategic bombing policy of targeting civilian population centers; the leadership of the government in power “always viewed Catholicism with hostility” and were proving it in a myriad of ways. Amid all that, he would have been truly condemnable only if the welfare of Catholics and safeguard of the Faith had not always been his first and foremost concern. That is what reasonable men would once have thought — before there was a Holocaust industry to make us think otherwise. Besides, as we are about to see, there was an entire class of human beings (not simply Catholics) whose defense became his finest hour and would cause his name to be far more widely honored than it is today, except that today members of this very same class will be routinely exterminated — even more routinely than in Nazi Germany — but before they are born. (Tomorrow, we are being promised, they simply will not come into existence, thanks to “advances” in genetic engineering.) To honor Bishop von Galen today as we ought would be to condemn the evil of our own doings.
The class we are talking about consisted of persons who were born seriously disabled or mentally retarded, and also men and women suffering from incurable diseases. In September, 1939, under cover of the war just then breaking out in Europe — the war that would become World War II — Adolf Hitler signed a decree that such persons who were being cared for in hospitals, asylums and other public facilities were to be euthanized. This on the grounds that their condition made them “unproductive.”
Though the point does not bear directly on this account of German Catholic opposition to the Nazis, it ought to be observed that there are those today who do not deny something like the so-called Holocaust took place, but contend it was begun without Hitler’s knowledge, that it was initiated as well as carried out by Heinrich Himmler and his SS. They base their contention on the fact that no document ordering the killing of Jews or anybody else in the concentration camps and bearing Hitler’s signature has ever been found. It is true. None has. However, the decree of September, 1939, was signed by him, as were other similar orders, and that is sufficient evil to make the Christian conscience recoil.
It is no less the case even if it can be argued, as it sometimes is, that in the early 20th century many others besides Hitler and the Nazis advocated the eugenics they practiced, including America’s own much-revered secular saint, Margaret Sanger. In other words, there was nothing really singular about the Nazis. It is somehow supposed to mitigate their guilt that in seeking to safeguard the purity of the racial gene pool not simply from the effects of miscegenation but also the imperfections born of nature when the congenitally handicapped reproduce themselves, they sought no more than was advocated by many leading figures of the day outside Germany; no more, indeed, than is now being sought by biomedical researchers looking by genetic means impossible even to imagine in the 1930s to produce human beings free of imperfection; or, as far as that goes, any couple who abort a baby because amniocentesis or a sonogram reveals he will not be the child of their dreams.
To be sure, the killing of the disabled and retarded that goes on today is done when the victims are still in the womb, and done never for a reason as crass as that a handicapped individual may be “unproductive,” much less that it will be simply inconvenient having him around. Rather, the killing today is dressed in the lineaments of compassion. We hear that when it is said that it would not be “fair” to let the victim go through life “burdened” by his handicap, or “Who would take care of him if something happened to his father and me?”
Bishop von Galen would have recognized this “compassion” for the evil it is, and he would have understood, as we shall see, to what further evil it could lead. That is why he reacted as he did when, at the end of July, 1941, the chaplain of a mental asylum in Marienthal came to him and reported that patients were being removed from the facility and transported to other medical centers for apparent “mercy killing.” The Bishop was soon able to determine that was in fact the fate of the patients. That he then took the public stance he did will be no surprise when earlier actions of his are known.
Hitler had become German Chancellor in January, 1933. He assumed dictatorial power that he would never relinquish under an emergency decree issued by President Paul von Hindenburg following the Reichstag fire, which may or may not have been the work of the Nazis themselves, in February. On March 23 Hitler delivered a speech outlining the policies he would pursue as Leader of Germany, including a pledge to respect the rights of the Church. Five days later the bishops of Germany published a joint statement recalling past warnings against Nazism issued by them, but declaring that in light of the new Chancellor’s pledge these previous warnings were no longer necessary. Clemens von Galen was not a party to the statement. His nomination to the See of Munster was not announced until the following September 2. The date has some significance because eight days later, September 10, a recently-signed concordat between Germany and the Holy See, one long desired by the bishops and which was certainly politically convenient to Hitler, took effect.
For decades Hitler and the Nazis have been perceived by the popular mind not simply as evil, but as the very incarnation of it, and the line now followed by liberals within Catholicism, as well as others, has become that the concordat shows Germany’s “reactionary” bishops (all pre-Vatican II bishops supposedly were that) as either hopelessly gullible regarding Hitler or, as was more likely, really in basic agreement with him. It is a foul calumny. No other German prelate was ever as publicly outspoken as Bishop von Galen, but others, including ones senior to him in the hierarchy, registered their opposition in ways that risked the regime’s retribution. For example, both Munich’s Cardinal Archbishop Faulhaber and Berlin’s Bishop von Preysing joined their voices to that of Bishop von Galen in protest against the Nazis’ promotion of their racialist agenda with programs of selective sterilization and abortion. If they muted their criticism in comparison with the Bishop of Munster, it was not entirely by choice, much less due to cowardice. In early 1943 Pope Pius XII wrote Bishop von Galen that his 1942 radio Christmas Message to the world had been inspired by the Bishop’s anti-Nazi sermons, but with the welfare of the entire German Church in mind he wrote Bishop von Preysing at the same time. In that letter he again praised Bishop von Galen’s courageous outspokenness, but urged Bishop von Preysing himself to “exercise restraint.”
Clearly, the Pope feared what might result if the other German bishops followed the lead of their brother in Munster. Something could happen as in Holland when the Dutch bishops jointly denounced their Nazi occupiers’ treatment of Jews: It became worse. The Gestapo began rounding up Catholic ones.
As for Bishop von Galen, he took the occasion of his first Lenten Pastoral as bishop (January, 1934) to condemn Nazism not on political grounds but, in effect, as a false religion on account of its followers’ worship of race. When it came time a few weeks later to compose his Easter Pastoral, he went further. When it was solemnly read aloud in the cathedral with the Bishop standing by, wearing his mitre and with crozier in hand, the assembled faithful heard: “Hell itself is let loose with its deceit, which may mislead even good men.”
When it was announced in May, 1935, that a massive Nazi rally was to take place in Munster in July and that the main speaker would be Alfred Rosenberg, the Party’s principal ideologue, Bishop von Galen fired off a letter to the governor of Westphalia: “The overwhelmingly Christian population of Westphalia could regard the appearance of Rosenberg only as an outright provocation, designed to pour contempt on their holiest and most cherished convictions.” When the rally took place — it was staged in the cathedral square — Rosenberg denounced the Bishop as the reactionary leader of an unacceptable brand of political Catholicism.
A year later, when Munster Catholics were due to hold a rally of their own, the police cordoned off the cathedral square, making it impossible for any number to gather. The Bishop went into his pulpit: “Can the shepherd be cut off from his flock?” he demanded.
Can the police divide Catholics from their own bishop by ropes and chains? They cannot be divided . . . Sorrowful times, my dear people of Munster, are at hand but I know that steadfastness will prevail.
We could continue to chronicle Bishop von Galen’s protests during the course of the Thirties as Nazi anti-Catholic measures became ever more aggressive, as when, in 1936, for instance, even the nation’s diocesan press, what remained of it, was prohibited from publishing the pastoral letters of bishops. However, we want to come to August 3, 1941, when the Lion of Munster, having learned direct from officials of the provincial Ministry of Health that insane persons were indeed being deliberately killed and that the killing was to continue, climbed once more into his pulpit and declared:
If the principle is established that unproductive human beings may be killed, then God help all those invalids who, in order to produce wealth, have given their all and sacrificed their strength of body. If all unproductive persons may thus be violently eliminated, then woe betide our brave soldiers who return home wounded, maimed or sick. Once admit the right to kill unproductive persons, then none of us can be sure of his life. A curse on men and on the German people if we break the holy commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’85 Woe to us German people if we not only license this heinous offense but allow it to be committed with impunity. . . . Our motto must be: Death rather than sin.
Can words spoken by any prelate anywhere six decades ago be more relevant to our own day? And consider the time and circumstances in which they were pronounced. In August, 1941, the Nazis bestrode all Europe from the Pyrenees to the Urals. Hitler was at the zenith of his power. He and his regime seemed unassailable. Who could dare to challenge them?
The Bishop of Munster did, and not without knowing the possible consequences. In the sermon of his we cited earlier, there was a passage whose quotation we have reserved until now:
Not one of us is certain, though he be the most loyal, the most conscientious citizen, though he knows himself innocent, I say that not one of us is certain that he will not one day be dragged from his home and carried off to the cells of some concentration camp. I know full well this may happen to me, perhaps now or on some future day. And it is because I shall then no longer be able to speak out publicly that I do so today. I openly warn them not to pursue these actions which I am firmly convinced will call down God’s punishment and bring our people to misery and ruin.
Mark the last words. Yes, in August, 1941, Nazi power seemed unassailable — every bit as much as that of the Communists in the Soviet Union in 1985, or the superpower status of the United States today. Less than four years later Hitler was dead by his own hand and his Thousand-Year Reich finished in twelve, but every major German city lay in ruins.
The next year, on February 20, Bishop von Galen was in Rome to receive the red hat of a cardinal from Pope Pius XII. He then spent some time in Italy, mostly visiting German soldiers interned in prisoner-of-war camps. On March 16 he returned home and was greeted by a crowd of 50,000 congregated around the mountain of rubble that had been his cathedral before Allied bombing destroyed it in 1943. The new cardinal was not feeling well, but the next day, Sunday, he offered a Pontifical High Mass with the choir singing the Te Deum . The following Tuesday, still not feeling well, he agreed to let a doctor examine him. Emergency surgery confirmed the doctor’s diagnosis and worst fear: the Cardinal’s appendix had burst, and it was too late to do anything about the resulting intestinal paralysis. The Cardinal died that Friday, March 22. He had turned 68 on the day of his return to Munster.
A cause for the canonization of Cardinal von Galen was introduced soon after his death, but in 1987 Pope John Paul II announced that, instead of him, it would be another citizen of Munster raised to the Church’s altars, the convert Edith Stein. How could it have been otherwise? The world and the Church had changed profoundly since 1946 when the Lion of Munster was rewarded with the cardinalatial purple for his courageous outspokenness. Pope John XXIII’s aggiornamento had long since “opened” the Church so that not one of her teachings could any longer be taught as always before, not without challenge from some quarter — followed usually by equivocation of the teaching to accommodate the challenge. It would hardly do in 1987 to remind the Church’s sons and daughters that a scant 40 years before there had still been a bishop who was “oak-bottomed” in his faith. That was one problem. As bad or worse, there was a problem of political correctness: Bishop von Galen openly despised democracy as much as he did the Nazis. He could never forget it was by democratic means, after all, that Hitler came to power. That being so, the bishop’s canonization, if it ever takes place, doubtless will have to wait for a time when developments make it clearer than it is to most men today that we have not quite reached “the end of history.”
This article was begun with talk of Col. Claus von Stauffenberg and a promise there would be more. We want to keep the promise. But there was also reference to the “other many Germans who together constituted a veritable Catholic Resistance to Hitler and Nazi rule.” We fear that to speak of some of these others as little as we shall will leave the impression they were very few and that their actions did not matter very much. Certainly they did not constitute a majority of Catholic Germans, far from it, and those like the young persons of The White Rose were very far from posing a real threat to the Nazi state. Not to speak of them at all, however, could leave the worst possible impression: that Bishop Count von Galen and Colonel Count von Stauffenberg were alone among Catholic Germans in their opposition to the Nazi regime, the one in urging resistance to it, the other in trying to overthrow it by assassinating its Leader. It was not the case.
We have just spoken of The White Rose. From the days when I was myself a young man and first heard of them — it was some years before I became a Catholic — I have felt something very like love towards the brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl, together the soul of The White Rose, and their friends. I think their story probably even had a role in my conversion. What caused them to sacrifice themselves as they did, I wondered. Young persons are idealistic, of course, but it surely takes more than idealism to move you to distribute an anti-government leaflet when you know that an action as trivial as that can lead to execution. Hans and Sophie did not see themselves impelled by the teachings of the Faith. They did not say, “The White Rose is Catholic,” but it and they were that in the same sense all of society once was, at least in Catholic Europe and even in our own land until the English came along, simply because its members led lives that can be described in no way except as Catholic.
But our love of the young persons of The White Rose must not lead us to speak of them at too great length. To be brief: The Scholls and their friend Christoph Probst were students at the University of Munich. They and others who joined them essentially sought no more than to maintain their intellectual independence, to keep from being totally absorbed into National Socialism in the way the totalitarian ideology demanded of all students. They became increasingly self-conscious in their resistance to Nazism during the late autumn of 1942 and the Winter Semester of l942-43 as the Battle of Stalingrad was reaching its climax. Hitler had ordered German forces in the battle not to surrender in any circumstances, an order that protracted the fighting and rendered all the suffering and sacrifice of life senseless, in the view of the students, once it became clear that the Soviets would prevail. The young persons resolved on a course of “passive resistance” to the regime on the grounds that its conduct of the war was criminal and decided to urge others to join them. Some students at the University of Hamburg did. On February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie threw hundreds of copies of a leaflet calling for passive resistance into the foyer of their university’s main building. They were spotted by a janitor who identified them to the Gestapo. They, Christoph, and then others were quickly arrested. Arrests of ten others in Munich and Hamburg followed. All were tried for political sabotage. Hans, Sophie and Christoph were beheaded on the same day they were convicted. (The Nazis had revived the headsman’s ax for meting out capital punishment.) The others would all be executed in following months. If it was political sabotage for which they were convicted and executed, their real crime was that they reserved to themselves part of their being — their conscience — instead of turning themselves over entirely to the demands of a state which saw very correctly that if it allowed so much as even a handful of students to do so, its rule could not be total. It would be somewhat as if in our political system a candidate for political office or a judgeship were to say, “I don’t believe in abortion,” and then failed to add: “However, I believe in a woman’s right to have one as long as it is the law.”
No, that does not quite register the point that wants to be made. It would be more as if an avowedly Christian candidate were to declare: “My conscience requires that, if elected, I do everything in my power to make abortion illegal, with no exceptions.”He would not risk facing the headsman’s ax, he simply would not be a candidate. Neither major political party, not any third party with a serious hope of its candidate being elected, would nominate a Christian unprepared to set aside his conscience on this issue. That’s today. Who can doubt that tomorrow’s candidates will also be required to support same-sex marriage, or at least “civil unions”?
In other words, if there is still any room for Christians in American politics, there soon will be none, at least not for Christians who believe, in Bishop von Galen’s language, that they “must always obey the inner voice of conscience molded by faith.” Thus do we behold the genius of those in our day who put human will (not the will of the Fuhrer in our case, but “the will of the people”) in the place of God’s. They understand that to maintain total political control it is no longer necessary to resort to the methods of Nazi totalitarianism — secret police, concentration camps, and so on. They can rely on the fact there simply are not enough Christians around anymore to make it necessary, not Christians who would obey their conscience, or even possess one molded by the Faith. Thus do we behold the complicity of Christians in the triumph of totalitarian democracy. If the Faith is to live again as a force in the life of society, the question is, for how long will they remain complicit?
In Germany there were centers of resistance and opposition to the Nazis besides purely Catholic ones. For instance, there were labor union activists from the days before the Nazis made unions illegal. They organized significant resistance groups. Various Protestants, as Protestants, were also active in the opposition. Indeed, a pastor from among their ranks, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is probably the most famous of all the opponents of Nazism. Numerous monarchists were active opponents of the regime, though most understood that restoration of the pre-World War I monarchy was politically unrealistic. They hoped for a Germany with the sort of local rights and separation of powers as used to exist, even if it was without a Kaiser. Other opponents existed.
Outside the military, the most important center of opposition, the group where men actually planned how to remove the Nazis from power and tried to hammer out political arrangements to succeed them, was the Kreisau Circle. Many military men, including Stauffenberg, figured in it. There were also priests and even some bishops who were in contact with the group.
Much has been written over the years about the Kreisau Circle, but there is still much that cannot be said about it with certainty, including which men played exactly what role in its doings. Freemasonry, as is well known, has discredited some of its keenest enemies by letting it be falsely “discovered” they were members of a lodge. It is something like that with the Kreisau Circle. Once the Gestapo learned of its existence and then after they shut it down, they named as members men who almost certainly never were. By the same token, once the Allies won the war and the Nazis were no longer in power, men who never put themselves at serious risk found it useful to claim they were more active in the Circle than was likely. With all the real principals having been silenced forever by the Gestapo, who could give the lie to their claim?
The Kreisau Circle did not call itself that. It was the Nazis who named it — for the estate in Silesia which was the seat of a family illustrious in German military history, the von Moltkes. By the 1940s it was the home of the family’s scion, Helmuth James von Moltke, whose determination and energy were the driving force behind the Circle. Various members of the group often met at the estate.
They took a motto, a line from Goethe — “A man can only be free when there is a natural order, and an order is only natural when it leaves men free” — but to say it had one makes the group sound more organized than it was. There was no command structure, no rules of procedure, nothing like that. The Circle consisted of men who were far from being like-minded, all of them. They were united in only one thing: a wish to rid Germany of Nazi rule. About that they held discussions, made and discarded plans, exchanged memoranda, made contact with as many others as they could identify who wished the same thing. In the words of English writer Christopher Sykes in his 1969 book Tormented Loyalty, a book to which we earlier referred:
It was the aim of Helmuth von Moltke to bring about a grand coalition, a union sacree of diverse resistance groups, of the civilian and clerical resistance within all the Churches, of the military resistance which he knew personally from the Abwehr, and of the group around Carl Friedrich Goerdeler. There was also an important representation of Social Democrats, notably Julius Leber85and the circle included prominent members of the former Centre [Catholic] Party. Besides this they sought the cooperation of individuals such as Count Friedrich von der Schulenburg, Oberprasident of Silesia, his cousin Count Werner von der Schulenburg, the former Ambassador to Russia, and Albrecht Haushofer, professor of political geography in the University of Berlin. A great deal of time was spent in negotiation, in working out compromises between widely differing policies, and, most difficult of all, in deciding on what action was to be taken to rid Germany of Hitler and his rule. The process was inevitably slow and cautious, beset as it was with the utmost danger at every step.
Most of the names cited in that passage will mean nothing to most readers. What matters is that after a couple of years of “negotiation,” some of the civilians of the Kreisau Circle were ready to move towards decisive action. Their readiness brought them into closer contact and then active collaboration with military men who were themselves moving from determination to do something to the actual planning of a coup — planning that would culminate in the attempt to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944. This brings us back to Claus von Stauffenberg.
He was born the youngest of three sons at his family’s Griefstein Castle in Upper Franconia in southern Germany on November 15, 1907. His father had been senior marshal of the court of the King of Wurttemberg in the days of the Second Reich. His mother was a great granddaughter of the Prussian General Count August Wilhelm von Gueisenau, a hero of the Napoleonic Wars.
Claus would grow up to become strikingly handsome with the physique of an athlete and standing six feet three inches. While still a youth he thought to dedicate his life to music, such was his love of that art. The possibility of a life spent writing poetry had almost as powerful an attraction. Equally, his fluency in Greek and Latin could have made him a classics scholar. At the same time his skills as a horseman qualified him for a place on the German Olympics Equestrian Team. In the end, he embarked on a military career, entering the army as an officer cadet at age 19 in 1926.
In 1930 he met 17-year-old Nina von Lerchenfeld, who was of the Bavarian nobility. They married after a three-year betrothal and would have two daughters and three sons.
As a cadet and young officer, one steeped in Catholic culture and imbued with the principles of the Church’s social teaching, he would identify himself as a monarchist, but he was never doctrinaire about it, never believed the Fatherland’s political future was hopeless unless its various historical kingdoms, principalities and duchies were restored. Indeed, during the economic chaos of Germany in the late Twenties, years that corresponded to the rise to power of the Nazis, Stauffenberg was totally inactive politically. He concentrated on his career. By age 29 he was a staff officer of the Army High Command.
The year 1938 was a turning point for him. It was when there began to develop in him a definite antipathy for the Nazi regime, less for political reasons at first than on account of the inhumanity of the anti-Jewish program launched that year by the Nazis. Nonetheless, when war began in September, 1939, he was ready to do his duty. He would fight for his Fatherland, seeing service first in Poland and then France. In June, 1940, he was transferred back to the Army High Command and then spent eighteen months in the Soviet Union after Hitler invaded that country. It was during these months that he became thoroughly disillusioned with the Third Reich. Two factors mainly accounted for this. There was the totally unnecessary disaster of Stalingrad, a waste, thanks to Hitler, of the lives of thousands of Germany’s best fighting men. In addition, Stauffenberg saw firsthand the brutality of SS operations in the East. The SS might not be real soldiers, but nothing could have been more offensive to the aristocratic officer’s sense of how men in uniform should conduct themselves.
Sickened, Stauffenberg applied for transfer to a new front as soon as Stalingrad finally fell. He was sent to the Tenth Panzer Division in Tunisia, arriving there in time to see action in the last days of the Battle of the Kasserine Pass. That is where he was wounded — by an exploding mine. As we have already recounted, he lost an arm, an eye, and two fingers of his remaining, left hand.
It was first thought by the army doctors that he would not survive or, if he did, that he would be blind. This was in April, 1943. He did survive, and did keep the sight of one eye. Though he could certainly have left the army at this time, by mid-summer he was notifying military superiors of his intention to return to service within three months. He did not share with them, naturally enough, the reason for his determination to do so.
During his convalescence first at a military hospital in Munich and then at home, he decided he had to do whatever he could to assist in any effort to overthrow the regime, even if it meant organizing one himself. There was little or nothing practical about it that he could do if he left the army. It was honor, as much as anything, that impelled him. As he told his wife at the time, “We general staff officers must all accept our share of the responsibility.” He meant responsibility for allowing Hitler to continue the war, and to remain in power.
By September, 1943, Stauffenberg was in touch with all the most important men aiming to overthrow the regime, both in the Kreisau Circle and the army, and was back in Berlin as chief of staff of one of them, Gen. Friedrich Olbricht. While taking care to be seen staying on top of all the routine duties of his assignment, his real business became coordination of the planning of a coup. Under the code name Operation Valkerie, it involved first the decapitation of the regime by eliminating Hitler, Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler. After their assassination the conspirators were to seize command of the army and take over key government buildings, radio stations, telephone exchanges and signal centers in Berlin. (Army units in Paris, Vienna and elsewhere were also to act.) Other officers involved in the conspiracy were senior in rank to Stauffenberg, but through the force of his personality he became its real leader. It can almost be said that he was the conspiracy. He kept it going, recruited for it, inspired everybody. As we shall see in a few moments, this would prove fatal to the enterprise.
Everything was finally in place in June, 1944, when it was arranged for Stauffenberg to become chief of staff to Gen. Friedrich Fromm, Commander of the German Home Army. This assignment gave him entree to briefing sessions conducted by the army for Hitler.
June, 1944, was also the month the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy. The war would be over in less than a year. Some of the conspirators argued Operation Valkerie should now be abandoned. They could see that defeat in the war was inevitable and feared being blamed for it. Stauffenberg beat back their argument with his own: killing Hitler was necessary to prevent a pointless loss of lives and to show the Allies that the men who replaced him had been willing to risk themselves to do it.
There was a briefing scheduled for July 11 at Hitler’s Alpine retreat at Berchtesgarden and Stauffenberg took with him a bomb hidden in his briefcase. He was in the same room with Hitler and Goering for half an hour, but did not release the timing mechanism on the bomb because Himmler was absent. On July 15 there was another briefing, this one at Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia. Stauffenberg again carried a bomb into the meeting. On this occasion, however, Goering as well as Himmler was absent. When Stauffenberg telephoned the situation to Berlin, he was advised not to proceed, but he decided to do so anyway. Unfortunately, when he returned to the conference room he found the briefing had already ended. Hitler was gone. By July 20, the conspirators were agreed that Hitler should be eliminated, whether or not anyone else could be killed with him. So it was that on the 20th Stauffenberg flew once more to East Prussia. Except for the flight back to Berlin, it would be his last trip anywhere. It was very nearly Hitler’s last day on earth.
The story of the actual assassination attempt has been recounted in numerous reliable books. There is no need to relate all the details here. We shall only recall that Stauffenberg had practiced for months how to release the timer on the bomb in his briefcase with his three remaining fingers. On the 20th he put his practice to work in the anteroom of the Wolf’s Lair conference barracks. Nobody thought a thing of it when he then walked into the meeting and set the briefcase on the floor under the conference table near Hitler’s feet. The bomb was set to explode in ten minutes. With four to go Stauffenberg left the room on the pretext of taking a phone call from Berlin. He did not know that after he left the room another officer, wanting a closer look at the war map, found the briefcase in his way and moved it — away from Hitler. The bomb exploded at 12:42 p.m. Stauffenberg was a hundred yards away, observing the scene. He saw debris and bodies hurled into the air as the building went up in a roar of flame. He was sure everybody inside must be dead or dying.
All that is well known, as also that Hitler survived the blast though four men died and others were seriously injured. It is also known how Stauffenberg talked his way past four SS checkpoints to a nearby airfield where a plane awaited him with its engines running for the three-hour flight back to Berlin. What is not widely and fully appreciated is why the conspiracy to overthrow the regime now failed.
We have remarked that Stauffenberg by the force of his personality had become the true leader of the conspiracy, though he was outranked by several of the others involved. This was important because when the first messages about a bomb blast reached the War Ministry in Berlin they did not make it clear whether Hitler was dead or alive. With the leader of the conspiracy, Stauffenberg, airborne and out of communication, the men in Berlin could not decide what to do. For all they knew Stauffenberg might be under arrest. They dithered. Nobody issued the Valkerie Orders to start the military takeover of the government. In other words, all momentum was lost during the first three crucial hours while the conspirators awaited word from Stauffenberg or confirmation that Hitler was dead. When Stauffenberg finally landed in Berlin he was appalled to learn that not even the radio stations and telephone exchanges had been seized. (The importance of this was shown some hours later when Hitler was able to address the nation by radio.)
Racing to the War Ministry, Stauffenberg quickly rallied his fellow conspirators, but it was really too late. A few government buildings were occupied and held for the rest of the day, and some Nazi forces kept bottled up, but with communication lines to East Prussia unsecured word eventually reached Berlin that Hitler was still alive. Officers who could not decide which way to go now declared for the Leader. Forces that had remained loyal to him got ready to fight. Gen. Fromm, anxious to protect himself, ordered the arrest of Stauffenberg and other conspirators. At eleven that night Nazi troops smashed through the door of the War Ministry office where Stauffenberg and a few other leaders of the conspiracy had barricaded themselves. There was a brief firefight. Stauffenberg was shot in his remaining arm. A half-hour later Gen. Fromm had it announced to them that a summary court-martial had ordered the immediate execution of Stauffenberg and three others, including Gen. Olbricht. The four were seized and hauled downstairs to a courtyard of the building where the headlights of an army truck illuminated one of the walls. That is where the men were lined up to be shot. The sleeve of Stauffenberg’s wounded arm was soaked in blood. According to most accounts, as the order was barked to the firing squad to shoot, Stauffenberg cried, “Long live free Germany!”
Inasmuch as they failed to kill Hitler and overthrow the regime, did Stauffenberg and the others who died with him sacrifice their lives for nothing? The question becomes more acute considering Nazi actions in the aftermath of their failure. Literally thousands would be killed by the regime in a frenzy of retribution. Some who were never in the least involved in the conspiracy were still being executed for it a few days before the German surrender in May, 1945.
What about Bishop von Galen’s courageous sermons? What good did they do? Three weeks after his protest against the euthanizing of the “unproductive,” Hitler’s decree of September, 1939, was rescinded. However, the killing continued. Officials simply no longer acknowledged it. It went on in secret.
So we repeat our questions: Did Stauffenberg sacrifice his life for nothing? What good did Bishop von Galen’s sermons do? It seems almost anti-climactic to answer these questions and to conclude this article by recalling it, but there does come to mind a truth once expressed by Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta in all her simplicity. It was in reply to a question. We no longer remember the question or who put it to her. (It was probably a silly journalist, one who asked something like, “With so many of them, how can you hope to make a real difference to all the poorest of the poor of the world?”) What is memorable is her reply: “God does not ask us to succeed, but only that we do our duty.”