January 26, 2011 (Breakpoint.org) – Earlier this week, I told you the story of Lothar Kreyssig, the Protestant German judge who defied the Third Reich’s program to rid Germany of what it called “lives unworthy of life.”
But while Kreyssig was exceptional, he wasn’t alone.
Clemens August Graf von Galen was the Bishop of Muenster. He became bishop in 1933, the same year Hitler came to power, and from the start he made life difficult for Nazi officials.
He opposed Reich policies in education and its attacks on religious freedom. When others were bending over backwards to avoid provoking the Nazis, von Galen went on the rhetorical offensive: He mocked Nazi ideology and defended the authority of the Old Testament against Nazi attacks.
But von Galen’s most important confrontation with the regime came over the Action T4 program — the Nazi effort to eliminate the physically and mentally disabled. By 1941, Nazi persecution of Catholics, which included sending thousands of priests to concentration camps, had caused leading German prelates, as historian Richard Evans put it, to “[keep] their heads down.”
But as more and more disabled patients were being murdered, keeping one’s head down became tantamount to complicity with evil. What’s more, as von Galen realized, it was futile — because the Nazis were going to persecute the Church, anyway.
So, in July and August of 1941, he delivered a series of sermons that denounced the Nazi regime. He told the German people that if the disabled could be killed with impunity, “then the way is open for the murder of all of us, when we become old and weak and thus unproductive.” If a regime could disregard the commandment against murder, it could do way with the other nine commandments as well.
The sermons caused an international sensation: Copies were sent to German soldiers at the front lines; the BBC read excerpts on the air. The local Nazi leader demanded that von Galen be executed. The bishop’s sister, a nun, was arrested and locked in the nunnery basement, from which she escaped by climbing out the window.
Von Galen himself expected to be martyred. But something extraordinary happened: The Nazis backed down. The bishop’s sermons had galvanized the public: nurses and orderlies began to obstruct the program. So Hitler issued an order suspending the gassing of disabled adults.
While the Nazis did continue to kill the disabled, especially children, they killed fewer and they took pains to hide it. As Evans has written, but for von Galen’s actions, the Nazis would have continued unhindered in their quest to rid German society of “those they continued to be a burden to it.”
Von Galen outlived the Third Reich but not by much: shortly after being made a Cardinal in 1946, he died from an appendix infection. But he wasn’t forgotten: in 2005, he was beatified by the Catholic Church. In Catholic terms, that makes him the “Blessed Clemens von Galen.” But it is we who are blessed by examples like his and that of Lothar Kreyssig. They stood up for life in circumstances we can’t imagine and forced a demonic dictatorship to back down.
Imagine what we could accomplish today with their kind of commitment and courage.
This article reprinted with permission from www.breakpoint.org