Bishop von Galen stood up to the Nazis, says Dwight Longenecker. But his biographer seems determined to portray him as a coward
Bishop von Galen: German Catholicism and National Socialism by Beth A. Griech-Polelle, Yale University Press £25 Will the antiCatholic historians never give it a break? For years now they have been attacking the Catholic Church's record during the Second World War. They have done so with the flimsiest of evidence, while consistently ignoring the enormous amount of good people like Pope Pius XII did in very difficult circumstances. Writing books about how the evil Catholics were hand in hand with the Nazis has become a sort of historians' cottage industry. Each book promises to "debunk myths", or make "startling revelations". The covers must feature grainy black and white photos of Catholic priests doing something that looks sinister. What next? Catholic priests being linked with Italian fascists because they wore black shirts?
The latest Catholic bashing book to come from American. academia is this volume by an assistant professor at Bowling Green University. Beth GriechPollele tells the story of Bishop von Galen, the Catholic bishop of Munster, who was well known for speaking out against Nazi policies on euthanasia and eugenics.
Of course the author doesn't allow von Galen to be a flawless hero. Throughoirt the book, no matter what he does to stand up to the Nazis it is never enough. Whenever he supports the German cause, he is seen to be supporting Nazism. When he is silent, he is either a coward or condoning Nazi actions. With biased books like this, one wonders whether the current fashion for Catholic-bashing is not the real agenda, and whether young history professors need to write along these lines to get published and promote their careers.
But, that said, Griech Polelle is better than most writers in this particular genre. She relates von Galen's Catholic aristocratic background, and explores the social and cultural background of Catholic Germany before the Second World War.
Understanding the historical background, not only of Germany, but of the whole of Europe, puts the actions of German Catholics in the correct context. Catholics had been persecuted along with other minority groups in the Kulturkampf of the 1870s and 80s. By the early 20th century they were trying to prove that Catholics could be good loyal Germans. To do this, Catholics not only tried to develop good ties with the state, but they tried to distance themselves from the Jews, lest they appear to be another ethnic and religious minority like them. It is also true that European Catholics were suspicious of Jews. In that respect they were simply part of a European culture that was deeply anti-Semitic.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Catholics distrusted certain political movements that were atheistic, revolutionary, antiChurch and anti-monarchy. In its early days National Socialism seemed to be the antidote to the frightening prospect of communism, republican revolt and bolshevism. The fact that bolshevism was conceived and largely funded by Jews fuelled the underlying antiSemitic feelings. Finally, Catholic teaching forbade any kind of organised political revolt. The New Testament and the social teaching of the church expected the faithful to submit to the government that they found themselves under — even if it as tyrannical. Once the shocking truth about the Nazi regime was clear, Catholics often kept their mouths shut about the fate of the Jews because they feared they would be next.
As a result of these underlying factors, German Catholic leaders like von Galen could only do so much. Griech-Polelle has the benefit of hindsight, but at the time there must have been much confusion about the Nazi regime. It must have been easy to whitewash, ignore or deny their crimes. It must have been easy to have the wrong priorities, and it must have been easy to take decisions to preserve oneself and one's flock rather than court disaster.
0 % erall, this is a professional historical study. marred by its antiCatholic agenda. The book includes an excellent bibliography and index as well as an appendix that gathers von Galen's Three Sermons in Dark Times. Despite her bias, the author expertly explains von-Galen's role in Church-State relations, discusses his outspoken stance against Nazi eugenics, and explores his relationships with the Jews. She sheds light on the image of von Galen as a heroic opponent of the Nazi regime and, although the jacket blurb says she debunks the image of von Galen as hero, I believe she successfully portrays him as a real kind of hero; one that is complicated and flawed-struggling in circumstances that are impossible for us to imagMe.
In that respect, the book is like its subject. It too is trying hard, but can't help being flawed by a viewpoint that is influenced by its own prejudices and the politics of its time.