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Remembering the "Lion of Münster" - the bishop who exposed the Nazis' eugenic euthanasia programme

Posted by Alithea Williams on 3 August 2018

​The Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen: Count, Cardinal and voice against the Nazi regime.

77 years ago today, on August 3, 1941, Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen, Bishop of Münster, preached a sermon in St. Lambert's Church, Münster.

The anniversary of a sermon might not seem worth commemorating. But this one was different. It was the latest in a serious of denunciations of the evil of the Nazi regime, in which he revealed a horror equal to any of the better known crimes committed by the Third Reich - the forced euthanasia of the disabled and mentally ill.

A terrible doctrine

After condemning the desecration of churches, and the closing down of monasteries, Bishop von Galen introduced the main theme of the sermon:

"For some months we have been hearing reports that inmates of establishments for the care of the mentally ill who have been ill for a long period and perhaps appear incurable have been forcibly removed from these establishments on orders from Berlin. Regularly the rela­tives receive soon afterwards an intimation that the patient is dead, that the patient's body has been cremated and that they can collect the ashes. There is a general suspicion, verging on certainty, that these numerous unexpected deaths of the mentally ill do not occur naturally but are intentionally brought about in accordance with the doctrine that it is legitimate to destroy a so-called “worthless life” — in other words to kill innocent men and women, if it is thought that their lives are of no further value to the people and the state. A terrible doctrine which seeks to justify the murder of innocent people, which legitimises the violent killing of disabled persons who are no longer capable of work, of cripples, the incurably ill and the aged and infirm!"

Aktion T4

​The programme the bishop was referring to is popularly known as Aktion T4, after the address of its headquarters, Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin. Plans for the programme had been drawn up in the summer of 1939, and on 18th August the registration of ‘malformed’ newborns became compulsory. Doctors were to draw up reports on all ‘malformed’ infants under the age of three years which were to be forwarded to three medical ‘experts’ who would review their cases and decide if they would live or die. The programme was quickly extended to all children, and then to adults. Aktion T4 targeted the senile, the mentally and physically disabled, and people with conditions such as Down's syndrome and epilepsy. The programme systematically murdered more than 70,000 people between September 1939 and August 1941. After 1941 the killing continued unofficially, with the total number of deaths estimated at 200,000.

Unlike the Nazi extermination of the Jews, which took place on Polish soil, because this state sanctioned murder happened in Germany, and interfered directly in Catholic and Protestant welfare organisations, it became public knowledge, and Church leaders such as von Galen and Theophil Wurm, the Lutheran Bishop of Württemberg, were able to rouse widespread public opposition. 

Huge impact

Bishop von Galen's sermon of August 3, which he telegraphed directly to Hitler himself, caused shock-waves throughout Germany, and was one of the major reasons for the official suspension of the programme. Thousands of copies were printed and distributed illegally. According to Robert Jay Lifton, "[t]his powerful, populist sermon was immediately reproduced and distributed throughout Germany — indeed, it was dropped among German troops by British Royal Air Force flyers. Galen's sermon probably had a greater impact than any other one statement in consolidating anti-'euthanasia' sentiment." It was also one of the pamphlets distributed by the White Rose Movement. 

Still relevant today

Bishop von Galen and Aktion T4 have recently been brought to the public attention by the West End play All Our Children, which was written and directed by a man who himself has a seriously disabled son. The video of him and the cast talking about the play which I have posted below, is well worth watching. 

The anniversary of this sermon should be commemorated both because of the role it played in exposing the horror of Aktion T4, and to remind us to remember the bravery of this man who stood up to Hitler without flinching (he only escaped arrest and execution because the regime feared revolt in the heavily Catholic Westphalia). 

I think that this sermon also has much to say to us today. Comparing modern day events with Nazism should not be indulged in too much, and we should be careful when we do, but if you read the whole sermon (which I encourage you to do, it can be found here) there are many lines which resonate. The idea that some lives are not worth living is becoming common both at the beginning and end of life. Bishop von Galen's question "Who could then have any confidence in a doctor?" where there is euthanasia also seems increasingly topical

Finally, the "Lion of Munster"'s call that all lives are worthy of protection, is one that could be echoed by all who hold the pro-life position:

"We are concerned with men and women, our fellow creatures, our brothers and sisters! Poor human beings, ill human beings, they are unproductive, if you will. But does that mean that they have lost the right to live? Have you, have I, the right to live only so long as we are productive, so long as we are recognised by others as productive?"

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  • barry tebb said:

    05/11/2018 16:26

    I had never heard of this man.Wonderful!

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