A cardinal criticises Nazi euthanasia (1941)


Cardinal von Galen was a German clergyman based in Munster. In August 1941 von Galen risked his life by issuing this statement, in which he condemns the Nazi euthanasia program:


“Never under any circumstances may a human being kill an innocent person apart from war and legitimate self defence. 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 Munster 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…

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…

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.”