Home > Archives > 11 - 2004 > A bishop under the moral bombs
from issue no. 11 - 2004

A bishop under the moral bombs

The Lion of Münster, «the most relentless opponent of Nazism», as the New York Times described him in 1942, condemned the terrible Allied bombing that razed German cities to the ground. These pages contain the letters that the bishop wrote to Pius XII during the war years

by Stefania Falasca

The city of Münster destroyed by Allied bombing

The city of Münster destroyed by Allied bombing

In the chronicles of the German cities baptized by fire in Allied attack during the Second World War there is always one day to remember. Münster’s occurred on 10 October 1943. It was a Sunday. In the early afternoon, under a clear autumn sky, the Catholic faithful of Münster had gathered in front the doorway of the ancient cathedral. It was the feastday of the motherhood of Mary. The high altar of the majestic Gothic cathedral blazed with candles. The canons of the cathedral had hardly sat down in the choir stalls when the sirens howled: it was 2.55.
«We got an alert at 22 hours on a Saturday night, in the middle of a party,» Major Ellis B. Scripture, navigator with the American 95 Bomber Squadron, wrote in his report. «The order for take-off arrived by teleprinter. We were informed that our objective was the entrance to Münster cathedral. I remember I was stunned when I learned that, for the first time since the war started, civilians were meant to be the target of our bombs. I went to Colonel Gerhart and I told him that I didn’t think I could carry out the orders. His reaction was exactly what, in hindsight, I should have expected from a career officer and a fine commander: “Listen, Major, this is war: w-a—r, do you understand? We are in a fight with no holds barred, the Germans have been killing innocent persons all over Europe for years. Our assignment is to smash them. And we’ll do it. Now, I’m in command of this mission, and you are my navigator, so you’re coming with me! Any questions?”. “Nossir”, I answered. The issue was closed». 1.
The first high explosive bomb fell with extreme precision on the vault of the west quadrant of Münster cathedral. From above, the west entrance of the cathedral, crowned by imposing Romanesque towers, was a target difficult to miss. The survivors fled, seeking shelter under the walls of the tower. Solid as the firmament they had weathered seven hundred centuries of history. The second high explosive bomb hit them square. They fell, toppling like a mountain of refuse. After the high explosive bombs a downpour of incendiary bombs. The buildings hit lit up like torches. The entire old center became a torch. Yellow fumes and dense columns of fire and black smoke rose for kilometers into the sky. In few minutes the ancient and proud beauty of the episcopal city of Münster went up in the flames. At 16.30 hours Colonel Gerhart declared the Münster operation over.
The impeccable reconstruction of that raid made by historian Jörg Friedrich closes thus. History is story-telling, and, out of duty to story-telling, he adds a detail in a footnote. A detail without commentary. «Colonel Gerhart had, however, to admit that not everything had gone right. The mission had not been carried through completely. “There was a mistake”, says his report: “The 305 Bomber Squadron missed Münster, it went to Enschede, in Holland. Mistaking it for the German city it dropped its load on Enschede. Sorry.”»2.
Bishop Clemens August von Galen among the rubble of the Cathedral square

Bishop Clemens August von Galen among the rubble of the Cathedral square

The citizens of Münster also wondered whether they weren’t the victims of some mistake. They had already been bombed by mistake. On the night of 15 May 1941 six bombs had fallen on Münster. The English planes had crossed the Rhine in reaction to the German bombing of Rotterdam; they were aiming at sixteen targets between Cologne and Dortmund, but they finished by dropping their bombs on any place where a light showed the presence of an inhabited center. Details. These, too. And there are many of them. Also in the tales of the survivors of that 10 October, in the testimonies of those who had stamped on their minds the horror of the piles of half carbonized bodies, bodies incinerated, torn apart, heaped above the rubble of the Marienplatz, of Groitgasse... Of those who dug into the rubble hoping still to separate the living from the dead and found the spine-chilling spectacle of tangles of corpses of women and children suffocated, boiled in the shelters. Details. Like those described in the pages where still other memories crowd: those of the witnesses who gave evidence at the canonical process for Clemens August von Galen, Bishop of Münster.
«When the sirens sounded the alarm the bishop was putting on his vestments to go into the cathedral. He had no time to get to the air-raid shelter», said Canon Alois Schröer. «High explosive bombs hit and destroyed his residence. He stood clutching the only wall left standing»3. And it was there that his secretary Heinrich Portmann found him: «While the planes were still flying over the city, I saw the Most Reverend Monsignor up above, under the open sky among the smoking ruins... miraculously he was unharmed. With difficulty I helped him down.... Later, in the shelter of the Ludgerianum College, I told him of the faithful who had died... of Vicar Emmerich and of the fifty nine nuns of the Charity of Saint Clement, who had all flown to heaven together from their convent hit squarely by an incendiary bomb. That night he asked me to accompany him to the cathedral. He stood there, motionless, in front of that rubble devoured by the flames. He wept in silence»4.
Had it not been from that cathedral that the “Lion of Münster” had raised his voice to unmask and condemn the monstrous crimes and iniquities of Nazism? That he had dared to attach Hitler frontally? No one in the Third Reich had dared as much. So much so that his daring and indomitable courage had won him mention in the pages of the New York Times hardly a year earlier as «the most relentless opponent of the Nazi regime»5, and his famous sermons had even been dropped from the sky above Berlin by the British Royal Air Force. Furious with hate, Hitler swore that he would «make him pay for it down to the last penny»6. He knew, however, that destroying him would also mean losing the whole of Westphalia and decided to postpone the accounting to the end of the war. But this now belonged to the past.
The city of Dresden razed to the ground by the bombing of 1945

The city of Dresden razed to the ground by the bombing of 1945

On 4 November 1943 Bishop von Galen wrote Pius XII informing him of the disastrous conditions in the city of Münster and his suffering for the casualties of the Allied bombing. «Along with the suffering of the population, the destruction of the two hundred churches of the diocese also grieved him deeply and, most of all, that of the cathedral, so much so that he never managed to understand why the Allies had done it»7, declared Father Theodor Holling at the process. What Hitler had not succeeded in doing was done by moral bombing. So Churchill had interpreted the concept of the strategy of the «just war of the air» destined to «restore morale through the systematic demolition of the moral resistance of the Germans»8. During 1943 Münster was “restored” by 49 raids, to which there would be another 53 before the end of the war: the heaviest were those of 30 September and of 22 October of 1944. They dropped in total 5,000 high explosive bombs and 200,000 incendiary bombs on a city of 66,000 inhabitants.
It was a fate that united it to many other German cities, in that deliberate “therapeutic ferocity” of the ordeal by fire that brought about the total annihilation of the country9. Münster, however, didn’t number among the cities preferred by the Allied Bomber Command, which underwent the sophisticated techniques of “Maximum use of fire, with the special effects of “Fire Storm” causing their total “desertification”: cities such as Potsdam, Lubeck, Hamburg, Dresden... the feathers in the cap of Arthur Harris, the unquestioned genius of moral bombing, who gave the name « Operation Gomorra» to the annihilation. Yet, in England, as soon as the number of the casualties of such operations reached four figures, and while the military minds were planning the «Hamburghization» of Germany, it was no longer communicated to the public. The British, however, who had endured the raids on London, knew the meaning of the «targeted operations of cleansing practiced by Bomber Command»10, and when the strategic employment of carpet bombing intensified, the Anglican Archbishop of York, Cyril Forster Garbett, had to enter the fray and dust off, once again Augustine’s definition of «just war», to legitimate in the eyes of the public the awesome deployment of human and economic resources. But another authoritative member of the Anglican Church, the Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, publicly asked another question: «Who personifies “war-loving Germany” and who instead is a simple victim of the “just war” that is intended to put an end to the war?»11. And to a House of Lords in tumult, Bell proclaimed: «The Allies cannot behave like gods that strike their foes from the sky. A god can hurl all the plagues he likes because he is not subject to the law, indeed himself represents the law. The crucial word inscribed on our banners is right. We, who together with our allies are the liberators of Europe, must put our strength in the service of the right. And the right is contrary to the bombing of enemy cities, especially carpet bombing!» «I demand therefore», he concluded, «that the government be asked the reason for its policy of bombing enemy cities in the present state of things, above all about the actions against non-combatant civilians and non-military and non-industrial targets»12. That was on 11 February 1943. A year later, on 9 February 1944, in the House of Lords, Bell returned in a frontal attack on what had become an ever more devastating practice: «There must be proportion between the means employed and the goal achieved. Wiping out a whole city goes beyond that proportion. The question of limitless bombing is of enormous importance for the policies and action of the government! To set the Nazi killers and the German people, on whom they have inflicted every kind of misdemeanour, on the same level is to spread the barbarism»13. This was the same lucid and courageous condemnation that, on the other side, in a Germany devastated by moral bombing, Bishop von Galen dared make of the Allied Forces.
Above, Air Marshal Arthur Harris; below, George Bell, the Anglican bishop of Chichester

Above, Air Marshal Arthur Harris; below, George Bell, the Anglican bishop of Chichester

On the first pilgrimage that the population of Münster made after the war, on 1 July 1945, to the Marian sanctuary of Telgte, von Galen made a tough public protest at the behavior of the Allied military government that was allowing the rights of the German people to be infringed. «The faithful», Heinrich Portmann testified, «who again found their great advocate in the midst of tribulations and sufferings, were very positively comforted, not so the leaders of the occupying troops, to the extent that the bishop was summoned to give an explanation to the military commander of Warendorf»14. The meeting is documented in the deposition of Father Friedrich Sühling: «Commander Jackson asked the bishop for clarifications of what he had said; he answered firmly: “As an occupying force you also have duties and if you don’t carry them out I shall act just as I acted against the injustices and the barbarity of Nazism”. He then mentioned some points that were particularly on his mind: the acts of aggression by foreign workers, Russians and Poles in particular, and the violence used on civilians by the occupying soldiers. Referring above all to cases of violence the bishop became very angry, beat his fist on the desk and told the interpreter: “Translate what I said word for word”. After a long discussion an agreement was reached, but the bishop didn’t take back even one word of his sermon»15. In Münster itself, in October of 1945, von Galen and the Anglican bishop of Chichester met in the headquarters of the military government in the presence of brigade commander General Chadwick. Bell, who was in Germany as representative of the Anglican Church, expressed his esteem and his full sympathy with the German bishop who «with ardent pastoral love had done everything to protect the flock entrusted to him» and had not feared «to say white was white and black was black in defense of the laws of God and of human dignity trampled underfoot, even now that chaos and barbarism are rife because of the bullying, looting, violence following on the entry of the Allied troops»16.
On 20 August 1945 von Galen wrote to Pope Pacelli: «Even the new German newspapers directed by the forces of occupation must continuously publish declarations aimed at imputing to the whole German people, even to those who never stooped to the erroneous doctrines of Nazism, and indeed resisted it according to their possibilities, a collective guilt and responsibility for all the crimes committed by the previous holders of power». Then he went on with bitterness: «It seems as if this state of mind is the basis for allowing campaigns of robbery and looting... and for the merciless deportation of the German population from its country». And he didn’t spare his words: «It is truly appalling that the exasperated nationalism culminating in the cult of the race of Nazism should today dominate even the victors, to the extent that it has been decided in Potsdam to expel the entire German population from the territories allotted to Poland and Czechoslovakia and crowd them into the western territories...»17.
In the following letter dated 25 September 1945, describing again to Pope Pacelli «the terrible conditions in the occupied territories», he begged him to intervene with «direct help through remonstrations to the victorious powers»18.
On 6 January 1946 the bishop wrote his last letter to Pius XII before coming to Rome to receive the cardinal’s hat. He had gone that day to celebrate the Epiphany in the ruins of the sanctuary of Telgte. He closed his sermon with these words: «Under Nazism I publicly declared, and I also wrote it directly to Hitler in 1939, when no power was then intervening to block his expansionist aims: “Justice is the basis of the State; if justice is not re-established, then our people will die from inner putrefaction”. Today I must declare: if the law is not respected among peoples, then peace and concord among peoples will never come»19.

1 Bomben auf Münster, published by the Civic Museum of Münster, Münster, 1983, p.44.
2 Jörg Friedrich, La Germania bombardata, la popolazione tedesca sotto gli attacchi alleati 1940-1945 [Germany under the bombs, the German population under the Allied attacks], Milan 2004, p. 200.
3 Positio super virtutibus beatificationis et canonizationis servi Dei Clementis Augustini von Galen, vol. II, Document, p. 341.
4 ibid., vol. I, Summarium, p. 625.
5 New York Times, 8 June 1942, cf. 30Days no. 8, pp. 44-53
6 Joachim Kuropka, Clemens August Graf von Galen. Neue Forschungen zum Leben und Wirken des Bischofs von Münster, Münster 1992, in Positio, op. cit., vol. II, Documenta, p. 1099.
7 Positio, cit., vol. I, Summarium, p. 209.
8 Sir Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany, 1939-1945, London 1961, vol. V, p. 135.
9 «An incessant, intense and lasting ordeal by fire, such as has never happened to any other country up to today», as Churchill declared, cf. Dokumente deutscher Kriegsschäden, Evakuierte, Kriegsgeschädigte, Wahrungsgeschädigte. Die geschichtliche und rechtliche Entwicklung, published by the Bundesminister für Vertriebene, Flüchtlinge, Kriegsgeschädigte, Bonn 1962, suppl. no. 2, p. 105; «An agony inflicted that gave no quarter and continued in extremis, when everybody knew by then that the war was lost, including the Führer», Joachim Fest, La disfatta. Gli ultimi giorni di Hitler e la fine del Terzo Reich [The defeat, the last days of Hitler and the end of the Third Reich], Milan 2003, p.12.
10 Stephen A. Garrett, Ethics and Airpower in World War II. The British Bombing of German Cities, New York 1997, p. 89-90.
11 ibid., p. 99.
12 ibid., p. 111.
13 ibid., p. 113.
14 Positio, op. cit. vol. The Summarium, pp. 429-430.
15 ibid., pp. 47-48.
16 ibid., p. 386.
17 Letter of Clemens August von Galen to Pius XII, see p. 56???
18 Peter Löffler, Bischof Clemens August Graf von Galen, Akten, Briefe und Predigten 1933-1946, vol. II, Mainz 1988, p. 1226.
19 Positio, cit. vol. II, Documenta, p. 623.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português