Yes, It Can Happen Here

If deathly totalitarianism happened to Germany—which, for all its vaunted progress and sophistication, could not prevent its falling into barbarism—it can happen here.

On the first of September, 1939, the armies of the Third Reich began their invasion of Poland, thus launching a devastating Second World War. But there was another war begun that day, of which few were made aware until a brave bishop mounted his parish pulpit.

In the most scathing terms, the bishop denounced the wholesale killing of those whom the state had deemed unfit to live—“The destruction of life not worthy of life,” or Lebensunwertes Leben, to quote the official Nazi designation for eliminating entire categories of unwanted life. The “Lion of Münster,” as Count Clemens August von Galen came to be called, was having none of it.

Recounting in heartbreaking detail what was taking place all across Germany, of incurably ill and defective patients being rounded up for shipment to secret gas chambers, their ashes to be returned to grieving families upon request, his sermon so enraged Nazi officialdom that he was at once arrested, only to be released shortly thereafter, owing to widespread public protest.

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Huge crowds appeared outside the cathedral in Münster to greet him on his return. The sermon, you see, had gotten around, reaching all corners of the Reich, including even soldiers at the front. And when the British press got hold of it, along with the BBC, news spread far and wide; copies were soon sent up in RAF planes, to be dropped all over Germany. 

What exactly had Bishop Galen said? He had, quite simply, condemned what he called “the ghastly doctrine” of regarding some lives as more equal than others, a mentality that had led the state to draw up lists of “unproductive citizens,” on the basis of which some may be allowed to live while others must perish for the sake of upholding the health of the nation. “If all unproductive people may thus be violently eliminated,” he declared, “then woe betide our brave soldiers who return home wounded, maimed or sick.”

Here was an obvious bull’s-eye. For if the government is to decide when life is not worth living, how soon then will it be before injured soldiers, returned to their families from battle, face certain death at the hands of doctors and nurses? “Who can have confidence in any doctor?” asked Galen. 

And, of course, given the implicit logic, why limit the practice of euthanizing to only the ill and the infirm? Why not extend it to others, to whole peoples, in fact, determined—by those who know best—to be unfit, less than human even. Jews, for example. Such a lot of them, too, just waiting to be eliminated. Why not, therefore, transpose the technology of extermination onto a much larger canvas and construct countless factories of death, equipped with state-of-the-art gas ovens for the swift and efficient removal of all the enemies of the German Reich?

This was simply too much for Galen (and for many other bishops as well, it must be noted), who reacted with courage and defiance, calling out to all “who persist in inciting the anger of God, who revile our faith, who hate His commandments…who condemn to death our innocent brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings.” Such as these, he insisted, are men from whom all who are civilized must turn away, “to shun absolutely so as to remain undefiled by their blasphemous way of life.”

If this was to be the new face of Germany and its people, he warned, then we must not think we can escape the Judgment of Almighty God. “Once we admit the right to kill unproductive persons,” he argued, “then none of us can be sure of his life. We shall be at the mercy of any committee that can put a man on the list of unproductives.”

Abhorrence to doing such things, or allowing others to do them for us, is rooted in man’s recognition of a higher law, the architect of which is God himself:

A curse on men and the German people if we break the holy commandment. ‘Thou shalt not kill,” which was given to us by God on Mount Sinai with thunder and lightning, and which God our Maker imprinted on the human conscience from the beginning of time! Woe to us German people if we not only license this heinous offense  but allow it to happen with impunity. 

Apparently, it worked, too; at least for a time. In fact, so effective were his sermons, and the groundswell of anger and outrage they stoked, that Hitler felt it necessary to put an end to the program. Although he would later try and reinstate it, in clandestine form to be sure, and many thousands more would needlessly be murdered. 

As for Galen, Hitler saw him as an enemy of the Reich who must be destroyed. But unlike others in his entourage (Himmler and Bormann, for example) who urged Galen’s immediate execution, Hitler did not wish to make a martyr of him, and so he resolved to settle his fate after the war. Which, of course, he had every intention of winning. He did, however, strike back at Galen by having dozens of his diocesan priests arrested and imprisoned. As for Galen himself, he would spend the latter part of the war under house arrest but otherwise left undisturbed. He died in 1946 and, nearly 60 years later, in 2005, was declared a Blessed by Pope Benedict XVI.

Is there a lesson here for us, who live in a time when, for the moment at least, we’re not subject to totalitarian violence? We are not, thank God, living in circumstances even remotely akin to the horrors of a thoroughly nazified nation. We do not face arbitrary arrest by Gestapo agents bent on total conformity to an insane ideology. Bishop Galen’s chilling account of his native land does not apply to us: “No German citizen,” he writes, “has any defense against the power of the Gestapo….

Not one of us is certain that he will not any day be dragged from his house and carried off to the cells of some concentration camp…   

America is not Nazi Germany, therefore, and to think of our present discontents in that light is, among other things, to trivialize the sufferings of those who actually were forced to live amid the horrors of a nightmare state. But, at the same time, it would be naïve, dangerously so, to think that it could not happen here. If it happened to Germany—which, for all its vaunted progress and sophistication, could not prevent its falling into barbarism—it can happen here.

“If you will not have God,” warned T.S. Eliot on the eve of the Second World War, “who is a jealous God, then go and pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.” It may not yet be certain to whom we’ve been paying our respects, but more and more it has not been God.

[Photo: Count Clemens August von Galen]


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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