The German Cardinal Who Spoke Out Against the Nazis

You probably weren't taught this story in your high school world history class — or any class

At the height of World War II, one German faith leader stood his moral ground and spoke out against Nazi Germany.

Father Daniel Utrecht, a priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Toronto, Canada, tells the story of Cardinal Clemens August von Galen in his book “The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis.” Von Galen risked his life to speak out against the Nazi regime during his time as bishop of the diocese of Münster in Germany, from 1933 to 1946.

The story is one worth knowing, the bishop’s bravery worth remembering.

“[Cardinal von Galen] was not arrested by the Gestapo, although other people were. Priests were put into concentration camps. Some priests were put to death, largely because of distributing [von Galen’s] sermons,” Utrecht — who joined the Oratory in 1980 and was ordained into the priesthood in 1985 — said in a conversation with LifeZette.

Cardinal von Galen was the first bishop appointed in Germany after Adolf Hitler took power in 1933.

“He survived because Hitler didn’t want to make a martyr of him during the war,” said Utrecht, whose book was released in November 2016.

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“The story is worth telling,” Utrecht said. “I think people to need to know about Cardinal von Galen.”

During his time as a religious authority in Germany, von Galen gave three very famous sermons at the peak of Germany’s success in World War II. Utrecht placed von Galen’s sermons into the flow of the narrative of the book. One of his sermons dealt with attacking the euthanasia of the mentally ill. In Germany, people who were old and weak (along with others) — and thus “unproductive” — were often put to death.

“[Cardinal von Galen] spoke out very, very strongly against [euthanasia],” Utrecht said. “He gave a very, very beautiful sermon on the right to life.”

Copies of Cardinal von Galen’s sermons were eventually spread throughout Germany.

The Catholic bishop became one of the “big thorns in the side of some of the Nazi ideologues,” Utrecht said. He was very unpopular in Nazi propaganda magazines. Utrecht’s book details how von Galen encouraged people of the Catholic faith to keep their values and not cave to what he felt was the grave injustices of the Nazi party.

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“Most of us think, at least in the way I grew up, that all the Germans were bad, all the Germans were Nazis. We fought against them and we beat them and now the Germans are OK,” Utrecht said.

Utrecht shows how this his lesson in history is relevant to today’s society.

“So to realize what it was like to live under a totalitarian regime — it helps to see what people were actually living through,” Utrecht said. “And then we see in some sense that we deal with a similar kind of totalitarianism, not so much through our governments, but through the media and the social media that attack the idea of religious liberty, attack the idea that the church or that Christians … can have anything to say in public square on the basis of their faith.”

It’s worth taking a moment to examine how von Galen’s life gives cultural and religious context to Germany under Hitler’s reign. Von Galen’s story is a history lesson worth noting.

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