Cardinal Clemens von Galen Speech - Against Nazi Euthanasia

This is an excerpt of the sermon by Catholic Cardinal Clemens von Galen, delivered on Sunday, August 3, 1941, in Münster Cathedral, in which he risked his life by openly condemning the Nazi euthanasia program.

Code named "Aktion T4," the Nazi program to eliminate "life unworthy of life" began on Hitler's order in October 1939. The program at first focused on newborns and very young children. Midwives and doctors were required to register children up to age three that showed symptoms of mental retardation, physical deformity, or other symptoms included on a questionnaire from the Reich Health Ministry.

A decision on whether to allow the child to live was then made by three medical experts solely on the basis of the questionnaire, without any examination and without reading any medical records.

Each expert placed a + mark in red pencil or mark in blue pencil under the term "treatment" on a special form. A red plus mark meant a decision to kill the child. A blue minus sign meant meant a decision against killing. Three +++ symbols resulted in a euthanasia warrant being issued and the transfer of the child to a 'Children's Specialty Department' for death by injection or gradual starvation.

The decision had to be unanimous. In cases where the decision was not unanimous the child was kept under observation and another attempt would be made to get a unanimous decision.

The Nazi euthanasia program soon expanded to include older disabled children and adults. Hitler granted "the authority of certain physicians to be designated by name in such manner, that persons who, according to human judgment, are incurable, can, upon a most careful diagnosis of their condition of sickness, be accorded a mercy death."

Questionnaires were then distributed to mental institutions, hospitals and other institutions caring for the chronically ill. A total of six killing centers were established including the well-known psychiatric clinic at Hadamar. The euthanasia program was eventually headed by an SS officer named Christian Wirth, a notorious brute with the nickname 'the Savage Christian.'

At Brandenburg, a former prison was converted into a killing center where the first experimental gassings took place. The gas chambers were disguised as shower rooms, but were actually hermetically sealed chambers connected by pipes to cylinders of carbon monoxide. Each killing center also had a crematorium where the bodies were taken for disposal. Families were then falsely informed the cause of death was medical such as heart failure or pneumonia.

Fellow Christians! In the pastoral letter of the German bishops of June 26, 1941, which was read out in all the Catholic churches in Germany on July 6, 1941, it states among other things: It is true that there are definite commandments in Catholic moral doctrine which are no longer applicable if their fulfillment involves too many difficulties.

However, there are sacred obligations of conscience from which no one has the power to release us and which we must fulfil even if it costs us our lives. Never under any circumstances may a human being kill an innocent person apart from war and legitimate self-defense. On July 6, I already had cause to add to the pastoral letter the following explanation: for some months we have been hearing reports that, on the orders of Berlin, patients from mental asylums who have been ill for a long time and may appear incurable, are being compulsorily removed. Then, after a short time, the relatives are regularly informed that the corpse has been burnt and the ashes can be delivered. There is a general suspicion verging on certainty, that these numerous unexpected deaths of mentally ill people do not occur of themselves but are deliberately brought about, that the doctrine is being followed, according to which one may destroy so-called 'worthless life,' that is, kill innocent people if one considers that their lives are of no further value for the nation and the state.

I am reliably informed that lists are also being drawn up in the asylums of the province of Westphalia as well of those patients who are to be taken away as so-called 'unproductive national comrades' and shortly to be killed. The first transport left the Marienthal institution near Münster during this past week.

German men and women, section 211 of the Reich Penal Code is still valid. It states: 'He who deliberately kills another person will be punished by death for murder if the killing is premeditated.'

Those patients who are destined to be killed are transported away from home to a distant asylum presumably in order to protect those who deliberately kill those poor people, members of our families, from this legal punishment. Some illness is then given as the cause of death. Since the corpse has been burnt straight away, the relatives and also the criminal police are unable to establish whether the illness really occurred and what the cause of death was.

However, I have been assured that the Reich Interior Ministry and the office of the Reich Doctors' Leader, Dr. Conti, make no bones about the fact that in reality a large number of mentally ill people in Germany have been deliberately killed and more will be killed in the future.

The Penal Code lays down in section 139: 'He who receives credible information concerning the intention to commit a crime against life and neglects to alert the authorities or the person who is threatened in time...will be punished.'

When I learned of the intention to transport patients from Marienthal in order to kill them, I brought a formal charge at the State Court in Münster and with the Police President in Münster by means of a registered letter which read as follows: "According to information which I have received, in the course of this week a large number of patients from the Marienthal Provincial Asylum near Münster are to be transported to the Eichberg asylum as so-called 'unproductive national comrades' and will then soon be deliberately killed, as is generally believed has occurred with such transports from other asylums. Since such an action is not only contrary to the moral laws of God and Nature but also is punishable with death as murder under section 211 of the Penal Code, I hereby bring a charge in accordance with my duty under section 139 of the Penal Code, and request you to provide immediate protection for the national comrades threatened in this way by taking action against those agencies who are intending their removal and murder, and that you inform me of the steps that have been taken."

I have received no news concerning intervention by the Prosecutor's Office or by the police...Thus we must assume that the poor helpless patients will soon be killed.

For what reason?

Not because they have committed a crime worthy of death. Not because they attacked their nurses or orderlies so that the latter had no other choice but to use legitimate force to defend their lives against their attackers. Those are cases where, in addition to the killing of an armed enemy in a just war, the use of force to the point of killing is allowed and is often required.

No, it is not for such reasons that these unfortunate patients must die but rather because, in the opinion of some department, on the testimony of some commission, they have become 'worthless life' because according to this testimony they are 'unproductive national comrades.' The argument goes: they can no longer produce commodities, they are like an old machine that no longer works, they are like an old horse which has become incurably lame, they are like a cow which no longer gives milk.

What does one do with such an old machine? It is thrown on the scrap heap. What does one do with a lame horse, with such an unproductive cow?

No, I do not want to continue the comparison to the end--however fearful the justification for it and the symbolic force of it are. We are not dealing with machines, horses and cows whose only function is to serve mankind, to produce goods for man. One may smash them, one may slaughter them as soon as they no longer fulfil this function.

No, we are dealing with human beings, our fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters. With poor people, sick people, if you like unproductive people.

But have they for that reason forfeited the right to life?

Have you, have I the right to live only so long as we are productive, so long as we are recognized by others as productive?

If you establish and apply the principle that you can kill 'unproductive' fellow human beings then woe betide us all when we become old and frail! If one is allowed to kill the unproductive people then woe betide the invalids who have used up, sacrificed and lost their health and strength in the productive process. If one is allowed forcibly to remove one's unproductive fellow human beings then woe betide loyal soldiers who return to the homeland seriously disabled, as cripples, as invalids. If it is once accepted that people have the right to kill 'unproductive' fellow humans--and even if initially it only affects the poor defenseless mentally ill--then as a matter of principle murder is permitted for all unproductive people, in other words for the incurably sick, the people who have become invalids through labor and war, for us all when we become old, frail and therefore unproductive.

Then, it is only necessary for some secret edict to order that the method developed for the mentally ill should be extended to other 'unproductive' people, that it should be applied to those suffering from incurable lung disease, to the elderly who are frail or invalids, to the severely disabled soldiers. Then none of our lives will be safe any more. Some commission can put us on the list of the 'unproductive,' who in their opinion have become worthless life. And no police force will protect us and no court will investigate our murder and give the murderer the punishment he deserves.

Who will be able to trust his doctor any more?

He may report his patient as 'unproductive' and receive instructions to kill him. It is impossible to imagine the degree of moral depravity, of general mistrust that would then spread even through families if this dreadful doctrine is tolerated, accepted and followed.

Woe to mankind, woe to our German nation if God's Holy Commandment 'Thou shalt not kill,' which God proclaimed on Mount Sinai amidst thunder and lightning, which God our Creator inscribed in the conscience of mankind from the very beginning, is not only broken, but if this transgression is actually tolerated and permitted to go unpunished.

Cardinal Clemens von Galen - August 3, 1941

Post-note: The sermon sent a shockwave through the Nazi leadership all the way up to Hitler. As a result, on August 23, 1941, Hitler suspended Aktion T4 which had accounted for nearly a hundred thousand deaths by this time.

The Nazis pondered what to do about the Cardinal. They eventually retaliated by arresting and then beheading three parish priests who had distributed his sermon, but left the Cardinal unharmed to avoid making him into a martyr.

However, the Nazi euthanasia program quietly continued, but without the widespread gassings. Drugs and starvation were used instead and doctors were encouraged to decide in favor of death whenever euthanasia was being considered.

The History Place - Great Speeches Collection

The History Place Main Page | American Revolution | Abraham Lincoln | American Civil War | Child Labor in America 1908-1912 | U.S. in World War II in the Pacific | John F. Kennedy Photo History | Vietnam War | First World War | The Rise of Adolf Hitler | Triumph of Hitler | Defeat of Hitler | Hitler Youth | World War II in Europe | Holocaust Timeline | 20th Century Genocide | Irish Potato Famine | This Month in History | Books on Hitler's Germany | History Videos | Hollywood's Best History Movies ]

Terms of use: Private home/school non-commercial, non-Internet re-usage only is allowed of any text, graphics, photos, audio clips, other electronic files or materials from The History Place.