How much did the Catholic Church hierarchy know about Hitler's oppression of the Jews as it was happening? And why didn't it speak up? With the opening of the Vatican archives from the pre-World War II years, we can finally explore these heated questions -- and German historian Hubert Wolf has dug through the files to find damning evidence that Pope Pius XII, known to critics as "Hitler's pope," made a conscious decision to pass on the issue, leaving it up to his bishops in Germany to protect the Jews and Catholics who were being persecuted. Even when directly confronted with the growing enormity of the situation, as in this story of a German bishop who did stand up for his morals, the pope avoided public action.*
Clemens August Count von Galen, the bishop of Münster, was a "perfectly ordinary fellow, with quite a limited intellectual endowment, who therefore had not until very recently seen where things were going, and therefore was always inclined to come to terms." This less than flattering assessment came from none other than Bishop von Preysing of Berlin and dates from the summer of 1941, when Galen gave his three famous sermons in Münster. A completely average person, a child of his time and place, only moderately talented, Galen was not a man who came easily by the moral courage to call the Nazi policy of euthanasia precisely what it was -- the murder of innocent human beings.
From the beginning, Galen had been just as critical of the National Socialists as he had earlier been of the Weimar Republic. Although Galen primarily opposed National Socialism for ecclesiastical reasons without questioning the legitimacy of the regime itself, this would change in 1936. In his sermon at the Xanten pilgrimage on September 6, he for the first time formulated something akin to righteous resistance to an unjust regime motivated by human rights and freedom of conscience. Drawing on the Acts of the Apostles (5:29) -- "We must obey God rather than men" -- Galen celebrated the martyrs of Xanten of late antiquity, to whom humankind owed a debt of gratitude, not only because "of their Christian faith, but also for reasons of human dignity, which they defended with their blood and life! Because at the very moment in which human authority conflicts in its commands with the clearly recognized will of God, witnessed in one's own conscience, it ceases to be the 'servant of God.'"
Nonetheless, it was a far distance from a sermon about the historical martyrdom of the saints of Xanten to a willingness to become a blood witness to human rights. The tipping point, which could hardly have been more clear and unambiguous, may very well have been a conversation Galen had on June 7 or 8, 1941, with the Dominican priest Odilo Braun. Braun showed him lists of monasteries that had been seized in other dioceses and urged him to act.