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from issue no. 08 - 2004

The Lion of Münster and Pius XII

The New York Times described Bishop von Galen as "the most obstinate opponent of the National Socialist anti-Christian program". His courage and tough sermons against Hitler, given out from the pulpit of the Cathedral of Münster, caught the attention of the world. And Pope Pacelli wrote him to manifest his full support and gratitude

by Stefania Falasca

«The three sermons of Bishop von Galen gave us also, on the road of pain we are travelling together with the German Catholics, a comfort and a satisfaction, that we have not felt for a long time. The bishop has chosen the moment well to come forward with so much courage»1. With these words of gratitude and full approval, Pius XII, writing on 30 September 1941 to the Bishop of Berlin, Konrad von Preysing, commented on the frontal attack unleashed on the Hitler regime from the pulpit of the Cathedral of Münster in the summer 1941 by Clemens August von Galen. Not just that. Pius XII concluded his letter to the Berlin prelate by manifesting all his support: «meantime there is no need for us to expressly assure you and your brethren that bishops who, like Bishop von Galen, intervene with such courage and such irreproachability, will always find support from us»2. Pacelli’s missive got an immediate response from the Bishop of Berlin. On 17 October von Preysing took pen and paper and didn’t hesitate to reply to the Pope as follows: «the fact that the action of Bishop von Galen has been of comfort to your Holiness’s heart fill my heart with true joy»3.
Clemens August von Galen

Clemens August von Galen

But what was the action of this bishop to whom Pius XII made known his encouragement and praise? Who was Clemens August von Galen? The New York Times in 1942, at the height of the war, published a series of articles on churchmen who were opposed to Hitler. On 8 June of that year, the American daily began the series entitled Churchmen who defy Hitler with an article on Bishop von Galen, describing him as: «The most obstinate opponent of the National Socialist anti-Christian program».
The first biographer of von Galen, the German priest Heinrich Portmann, who was his private secretary from 1938 to 1946, pointed out a coincidence: «von Galen had governed as bishop for a period of time equal to that of Adolf Hitler. He was consecrated bishop nine months after Hitler rose to power and died about nine months after the death of the Führer»4.
Born in 1878 in the castle of Dinklage, close to Münster, Clemens August Count of Galen, scion of a very Catholic noble family from Westphalia, had spent twenty three years of his priesthood in a parish in Berlin before being consecrated bishop by Pius XI. But when on September 1933 Pius XI appointed him successor to the See of Saint Ludgers, the steel helmets bearing the swastika of the Third Reich present at the solemn ceremony of his installation could not have imagined the trouble this prelate of noble origins and deep-rooted patriotism was to create for them. Von Galen was the first bishop elected after the Concordat with the Reich, signed by the Holy See on 20 July 1933, and he was one of the first German bishops not only to perceive and unmask with extreme clarity and firmness the danger of the neo-pagan ideology of Nazism, but also to denounce forcefully and openly the violence and the barbarity of the Nazi reign of terror.

The condemnation of the “catechism of blood”
Nec laudibus nec timore [Neither with praise nor fear]. That was the episcopal motto chosen by the imposing German prelate. And the intrepidity of that nec timore was shown immediately.
Just two months after his consecration, in November 1933, he realized that the barely signed agreement with the government was not being respected and energetically protested against the breaches of the Concordat. And when at the beginning of 1934 Alfred Rosenberg, the leading theoretician of National Socialism, appointed the Führer’s deputy for the spiritual and ideological direction of the party, had a mass circulation edition of his Myth of the XX century published, von Galen, in his first pastoral diocesan letter for Easter 1934, condemned without reserve the neo-pagan Weltanschauung of Nazism, highlighting the religious character of the ideology: «A new ill-omened totalitarian doctrine that sets race above morality, sets blood above law... repudiates revelation, aims to destroy the foundations of Christianity.... It is a religious sham. Sometimes this new paganism happens to hide even under Christian names.... This anti-Christian attack we are experiencing in our days goes beyond, in its destructive violence, all others we know of from the remotest times»5. The letter concludes with a warning to the faithful not to allow themselves to be seduced by such a «poison for consciences» and invited Christian parents to watch over their children. The Easter message burst like a bombshell and had a liberating effect on the clergy and on the people, stirring an echo not only in Germany, but also abroad.
At Easter 1935 another counterblow. And the racial theory and Rosenberg’s «catechism of blood» was still in the bishop’s sights. Von Galen, unable to remain silent in the face of aberrations so dangerous for believers, attached to the diocesan bulletin a study against The legend of the XX century and saw to getting it circulated. The response of the regime was not long in coming. Hermann Göring, the head of the Gestapo, sends a circular in which he demanded the exclusion of the clergy from teaching in schools. Rosenberg rushed to Münster and pronounced fiery words against the bishop, in an attempt to incite people against him and get rid of him. But the people of Westphalia, for the most part Catholic, rallied round their bishop; on 8 July the demonstrations of solidarity culminated in a mass procession of the faithful. The events of Münster resonated once again beyond the frontiers and the foreign press recorded the battle praising the courageous behavior of the German bishop: «If the Catholics are accused of meddling in politics, in reality it is National Socialism that is meddling in religion», the Paris Le Figaro commented laconically6.
Von Galen in procession during the ceremony 
for his consecration as bishop, 5 September 1933

Von Galen in procession during the ceremony for his consecration as bishop, 5 September 1933

Von Galen was certainly not the only German prelate to react publicly against the doctrine of Nazism, and already from 1932 the bishops had also expressed themselves as a college. The 1933 sermons of Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, Archbishop of Munich were to remain famous. But with Hitler’s ascent to power, the German Church found itself facing a regime that ever more insidiously and brazenly usurped total dominance in the religious and ecclesiastical sphere, destroying civil and human rights. Thus in the span of a few years the Church endured violent persecution. Persecution that became crueller after the publication, besought by the German bishops themselves, of the papal encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, in 1937. Pius XI’s encyclical, «one of the most severe condemnations of a national regime the Vatican has ever pronounced»7, was declared by the Nazi authorities «an act of high treason against the State». Arrests and expropriations followed its publication. In his diocese von Galen had 120,000 copies printed. The threats against him increased, and in parallel the prestige and great moral authority that made him a point of reference acknowledged by all, even by the Jews. And on the eve of the war, the Bishop of Münster was registered by the Chancellery of the Reich as one of most dangerous adversaries of the regime because of his «fierce attack on the foundations and feelings of National Socialism», But it was with the sermons of the summer of 1941 that the bishop became famous throughout the world. Earning himself the title of “Lion of Münster”.

«I cry out: we demand justice!»
On Saturday 12 July 1941 the bishop received news of the occupation of the houses of the Jesuits in Königstrasse and Haus Sentmaring. As the war advanced the top leaders of the party intensified the confiscation of the property of the Christian denominations, and precisely in the days when Münster was suffering grave damages from the bombing, the Gestapo started systematically to deport religious and occupy and confiscate the monasteries. Even the convents of cloistered nuns were expropriated. The religious, men and women, insulted and driven out. The bishop reacted immediately. He faced the men of the Gestapo in person, telling them that they were carrying out «an infamous and shameful task», and called them very clearly and frankly «thieves and brigands». He decided the moment had come to intervene publicly. He was ready to take everything on himself for God and the Church, even if it might cost him his life. The following day, after carefully preparing his sermon, he climbed into the pulpit determined to call things by their proper name. «None of us is safe, not even whether he be in conscience the most honest citizen, safe from not being one day taken from his own house, stripped of his freedom, imprisoned in the concentration camps of the State’s secret police. I am aware that this can also happen to me today...»8. And he did not hesitate to unmask before everybody the vile intentions of the Gestapo, holding them responsible for all the breaches of the most elementary social justice: «The behavior of the Gestapo is grievously harming large swathes of the German population... In the name of honest German people, in the name of the sovereignty of justice, in the interest of peace... I raise my voice as a German, as an honored citizen, as minister of the Catholic religion, as Catholic bishop, I cry out: we demand justice!»9. Forcefully and steadily the phrases came out of his mouth like thunder. With indomitable ardor he denounced one by one the «infamous acts» and the abuses he had learned of. «The men and the women», remembers a witness,«rose to their feet, voices lifted in agreement and also in terror and indignation, something that is generally unimaginable here amongst us, in church. I saw people burst into tears»10.
Von Galen with aspirants to Confirmation during a pastoral visit to Münster in 1934

Von Galen with aspirants to Confirmation during a pastoral visit to Münster in 1934

The effect of that first sermon was overwhelming. And for the second sermon on 20 July the church was packed. People came from far and wide to listen to it. Von Galen once more opened eyes to the folly of the project being pursued by the powers that be that would have lead the country to poverty and ruin, and again he thundered «against the inequitable, intolerable action that is imprisoning priests, hunting our religious and our dear sisters like rabbits... that persecutes innocent men and women...»11. He declared that all the attempts and the entreaties forwarded in support of the many unjustly attacked citizens had all been made in vain: «Now we clearly see and feel what lies behind the new doctrine that has been imposed on us for years: Hatred! Hatred deep as an abyss towards Christianity, towards mankind...»12. But it was the third sermon of 3 August, that on the 5th commandment, that, in terms of the virulence of the wording, was judged by the Office of Propaganda «the fiercest frontal attack unleashed on Nazism in all the years of its existence». The bishop had learned directly of the plan to exterminate invalids, old people, mental patients and the handicapped children in the nursing homes of Westphalia. The plan had been kept secret by the Nazis. A witness reported: «Only those who have experienced the period of Nazi dictatorship can assess the significance of the following words that a bishop dared to pronounce: “Now defenceless innocents are killed, barbarously killed; people also of a different race, of different origins are suppressed... We are faced with a homicidal folly without equal... With people like this, with these assassins who are proudly trampling our lives, I can no more share belonging to the same people!”. And he threw at the Nazi authorities the words of the apostle Paul: “Their God is their belly”»13.
The sermons had enormous resonance, they were quickly reported worldwide. They were printed and read everywhere. They even reached the soldiers at the front. Suffice it to say that the people wanted them to such an extent that they became the object of barter. The German people, Christian and otherwise, greeted them with enormous thankfulness. Documentation found in the rubble of Berlin reveals that in the winter of 1941-1942 quite a lot Jews were arrested by the Gestapo for circulating the «subversive sermons» of the Bishop of Münster14. Because of his actions everybody, including the bishop, thought that he would shortly be executed. The head of the SS youth organizations published this declaration: «I call him C. A. pig, that is Clemens August. This high betrayer and traitor to the country, this pig is free and takes the liberty of speaking against the Führer. He must be hanged»15. Instead that didn’t happen.
The “von Galen case” was minutely discussed by the Ministry of Propaganda and in the party Chancery. Martin Bormann, Hitler’s “dauphin”, also wanted to hang him. The Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, advised the Führer instead to postpone his execution for reasons of political expediency. The regime’s tactic was not to make a martyr of him, and killing him would have meant alienating part of the population, in particular the soldiers at the front. The Nazis thus postponed «the reckoning» with von Galen till after the “final victory”. Then, Hitler declared on 4 July 1942, there would be a reckoning «down to the last penny».
As Count Franz, the brother of von Galen, testifies: «Even if he was not imprisoned, my brother continued to be exposed to attacks, abuses and insults from the enemies of the Church. Nevertheless he held to his upright stance and continued to declare the truth intrepidly. One day I asked him what we were to do if he were arrested. “Nothing”, he replied. “Saint Paul was also imprisoned for many years and the Lord was unconcerned that the pagans weren’t converted quickly”. He agreed with me that diabolic forces were at work, but he also quoted the consoling words of the Lord: “The gates of the hell shall not prevail against the Church”»16.
Hermann Göring with Joseph Goebbels in 1936

Hermann Göring with Joseph Goebbels in 1936

The process for the canonization of Clemens August von Galen opened in October 1956. On 20 December of last year the decree on the heroic nature of his virtues was proclaimed and the cause is moving with great strides toward beatification.
«The fight that Bishop von Galen conducted against those whom he considered true enemies of the Church», says German Dominican A. Eszer, advocate of the cause for canonization of von Galen, «unambiguously shows that the servant of God considered the defense of the faith as his highest purpose and duty. And towards the spirit of the totalitarian regime of that time, Bishop von Galen showed a heroic fortitude but also a heroic prudence».

Pacelli-von Galen: a close link
But did Pius XII know von Galen personally? Eugenio Pacelli was nuncio to Germany for twelve years. First in Munich, from 1917 to 1925, and then in Berlin up to 1929.
«It was during his stay in Berlin that Pacelli had occasion to meet von Galen», the German Jesuit Peter Gumpel, one of the greatest scholars on Pius XII and advocate of his cause for canonization, tells us. «And already then he formed an excellent idea of this zealous and daring pastor of souls, a man alert to the social needs of the time».
«Von Galen», explains Gumpel, «was a cousin of Konrad von Preysing, Pius XII’s man of trust in Germany. Von Preysing certainly represented the strongest current of opposition to the regime within the German episcopate. Von Preysing and von Galen, not only were relatives, they were linked by a close friendship». «Pacelli’s esteem and trust in von Galen, along with that for the highly respected von Preysing», continues Gumpel, «is also testified among other things by their presence in Rome, in January 1937, for the preparation of the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge. Pacelli, who contributed in notable fashion to the draft of Pius XI’s encyclical, wanting to be fully informed about the German situation, asked for their opinion, as well as that of the German cardinals».
But Pacelli’s sympathy with the actions of von Galen was already shown in 1935. During the fight against Rosenberg. On that occasion, Secretary of State Pacelli sent a stiff note to the German Foreign Ministry making appeal to the legal basis of the Concordat, and the Vatican gave massive support to von Galen, so much so that L’Osservatore Romano, following the wishes of the Secretary of State, took up the defense of the Bishop of Münster, attacking Rosenberg as the «most rabid and sacrilegious destroyer of Christianity»17.
As for the famous three sermons instead, it doesn’t seem that von Galen received indications beforehand from Pius XII. Von Galen, as recorded in the evidence for the cause, acted on his own initiative, «but he knew», affirms Gumpel, «he would have the Pope’s agreement. Pius XII happened to explain his position very clearly in a letter of 30 April 1943 to von Preysing. Intervention by the Pope, in time of war, might have been interpreted as taking a stance against Germany, with negative consequences for the Church, already harshly persecuted, and for the German people. He therefore left it to the pastors on the spot to assess, in the circumstances, the choice and the responsibility for decisions. He thus encouraged the bishops in the direction followed by the Holy See from the time of Pius XI’s encyclical, but without making impositions. Not least because it is not possible to order martyrdom».
And the extent to which the intrepid action of the “Lion of Münster” and «the force of his protest» were of comfort to Pope Pacelli’s heart is made clear by the fact that Pius XII read the famous sermons personally to his own family members. This comes out of the record of the cause for canonization of von Galen. In his evidence, the priest Heinrich Portmann, one of the best sources for the process, declared that he learned of this detail from a letter of the Bishop of Innsbruck addressed to von Galen on 18 September 1941. In that letter the Bishop of Innsbruck relates that, during an audience in the Vatican, the Pope, showing his deep veneration for the Bishop of Münster, told him that he had read the sermons to his own dear ones.
Von Galen at the window of the Bishop’s Palace saluting a group of young people with the banners of their associations

Von Galen at the window of the Bishop’s Palace saluting a group of young people with the banners of their associations

Yes, Pius XII considered him a hero. He said so explicitly when receiving a group of priests from Westphalia in December 1945. This testimony also, furnished by the priest Eberhard Brand, is in the record: «The Holy Father told us: “Bishop von Galen will come soon to Rome. Then he added in a loud voice: he is a hero”»18.
And the most eloquent sign of the high respect for «the incalculable merits» acquired in the strenuous defense of the Church and of human rights against the violence of Nazism is the cardinal’s purple that Pope Pacelli himself conferred on him on 18 February 18 1946. Von Galen was «the real hero of that consistory», the Archbishop of Cologne commented.
Vatican Radio announced the nomination of the Bishop of Münster to prince of the Church on Christmas Eve 1945, together with 32 new cardinals. Among them two other German prelates who had distinguished themselves in facing the Nazi terror: the Archbishop of Cologne Joseph Frings and the Bishop of Berlin Konrad von Preysing. For the episcopate and the German people those nominations were «the demonstration that the Pope was not disposed to join in the chorus of hate that at the time was being raised everywhere against the Germans», and were at the same time «the sign of a just reward for the bold resistance that men just like these had made, and among them, the place of honor certainly belonged to the Bishop of Münster»19. In a detailed report of the solemn ceremony for the consigning of the cardinal’s hat, the priest who had been designated as von Galen’s trainbearer declared that: «When, as the cardinals were entering Saint Peter’s, Clemens August appeared in the doorway, a murmur ran through the crowd: “There, that’s him”. Given that, as trainbearer, I was walking immediately behind the cardinal, I could hear what people were saying, and as his gigantic figure passed up the central nave a hurricane of enthusiasm arose. The applause reached its peak at the moment the cardinal climbed up toward the Holy Father’s throne. “I bless you. I bless your country”, Pius XII said. The following day a well-known Roman newspaper said: “Particularly long and loud the applause for Cardinal von Galen, the heroic bishop of Münster, supporter of anti-Nazism, whom the Pope kept by him clearly longer than the others”»20.
The press, then, reported what was at that moment evident to all: von Galen was the symbol of the other Germany that had refused to conform, and recognized in the conferment of the dignity of cardinal «an honoring of the manly defender of the Christian truth and of the inalienable rights of man that in the totalitarian State had to be eradicated»21. So said the German weekly Die Zeit on the day he died, hardly a month after he had received the purple, describing von Galen as «a fighter for justice, a great benefactor of mankind». A crowd of over fifty thousand people attended his funeral in Münster.
When the last ambassador of the Reich to the Vatican, Ernst von Weizsäcker, who in 1946, though having retired from political life, still lived in Rome, sent to the Holy See his condolences for the death of von Galen, the then substitute to the Secretariat of State, Giovanni Battista Montini, thanked him on 28 March 1946 on behalf of Pius XII in these words: «With the death of this prelate, your country has lost one of the greatest personages of our times».

One of the last portraits of von Galen before his death, on 22 March 1946

One of the last portraits of von Galen before his death, on 22 March 1946

And Pius XII wrote: «You have all my support»
But that is not all. There are also other documents that show and put a clear seal on the relationship of respect and fellow-feeling between Pope Pacelli and the “Lion of Münster”: their correspondence. Documents in the Secret Vatican Archive evince that Pius XII wrote direct letters to von Galen.
Four of these letter written by the Pope in German are collected in the second volume of the Actes et documents du Saint Siège relatifs à la Seconde guerre mondiale, the monumental work in 11 volumes and 12 tomes edited by Jesuits scholars that brings together the documents of the Secretariat of State and of the Secret Vatican Archive relating to those years. The work that, as is known, was decided on by Paul VI, when, in the early ’sixties, he put forward the opening of the Vatican Archives in response to the spread of the ugly myth built up around the figure of his predecessor. The letters sent to the Bishop of Münster bear the following dates: 12 June 1940; 16 February 1941; 24 February 1943; 26 March 1944.
In the correspondence Pius XII more than once stresses his gratitude, the agreement in outlook and his appreciation of the work of the German prelate. In the letter of 24 February 1943, for example, in expressing his vivid «consolation» whenever he «learns of a clear and bold word from a bishop», he is also concerned to reassure him of the fact that those bishops who act with «resolute and bold interventions in favor of the truth and of right and against injustice, do not cause harm to the reputation abroad of their people», indeed, «they are of benefit to it», even though some might accuse them of the opposite. Furthermore Pius XII expressly thanks von Galen for having «prepared», through his pastoral letters, the terrain for his Christmas Message of 24 December 1942. A message that the New York Times appreciated for «its clear words in defense of the Jews» and for having «denounced to the world the butchering of so many innocents»; and the divulgation of which was considered in Germany by the upper echelons of the Reich «a crime against the safety of the State, punishable by death»22.
The texts of these important letters (two of which, together with the letter to von Preysing, are now offered for the attention of readers) have never been translated and published as a whole in Italian.
The long funeral cortege through the bombed out streets of Münster

The long funeral cortege through the bombed out streets of Münster

And the importance of these letters is all the greater when one considers the context in which they were written. The letters to von Galen, in fact, are a part of a corpus of 124 letters addressed between 1939-1944 by Pius XII to the German prelates. The reason for the correspondence was given by Pius XII himself to the four German cardinals who had come to Rome in March 1939 for the conclave that elected him pope. After the conclave, the cardinals prolonged their stay in the Eternal City to study the situation of the Church in Germany with the new pontiff, a situation that the Pope had followed from close by, first as nuncio and then as Secretary of State. What he said was this: «The German question is for me the most important. I keep it for myself to deal with»23. Pacelli, in exceptional fashion, had then invited the cardinals, and, through them, the episcopate, to write to him directly. In his first letter to the German episcopate of 20 July 1939, in a touching state of mind, Pius XII re-evoked the years he had spent in Germany and the relationships he still had there: «... because this has enabled us to have today that deepened acquaintance of the situation, of the sufferings, of the tasks, of the needs of the Catholics of Germany, that can only come of direct experience personal and prolonged over the course of many years»24. With the start of the war those direct relations were to become more precious still. Inviting them to write to him, the Pope indicated that the nunciature in Berlin enjoyed a safe way of corresponding with Rome. The correspondence, that was kept up to the last year of war, shows the bishops made full use of the chance that had been extraordinarily offered to communicate with the head of the Church, and they regularly sent him all possible information, even attaching copies of the more important documents.
The Lettres de Pie XII aux évêques allemands, documents known to scholars, are still, however, unknown to most people. Yet the declarations contained in these letters are of capital importance for understanding not only the Catholic resistance in Germany, the state of persecution under Nazism and the position of the German episcopate too often wrongly considered pro-Nazi, but also, as Jesuit Pierre Blet explains in his Pio XII e la Seconda guerra mondiale negli Archivi vaticani, «constitute exceptional evidence of the thinking of Pius XII, of his intentions and of his doings»25. That intent and that thinking shared by those who, without fear, had dared shout in the face of the Nazis: « I can no more share belonging to the same people with assassins who justify the killing of innocents... Your God is your belly».


Letter of Pius XII to the Bishop from Berlin, see p. 50.
2 Ibid.
3 Lettres de Pius XII aux évêques allemands, in Actes et documents du Saint Siège relatifs à la Seconde guerre mondiale, Vatican City 1967, vol. II, note to p. 229.
4 Positio super virtutibus beatificationis et canonizationis servi Dei Clementis Augustini von Galen, vol. I, Summarium, p. 427.
5 C. A. Graf von Galen, Un vescovo indesiderabile. Le grandi prediche di sfida al nazismo [An undesirable bishop. The great sermons challenging Nazism], edited by R. F. Esposito, Padua 1985, p. 47.
6 Le Figaro, 28 July 1935.
7 A. Rhodes, Vatican and the dictatorships. 1922-1945
8 C. A. Graf von Galen, An undesirable bishop, op. cit., p. 122.
9 Ibid, p. 122.
10 Positio, op.cit., vol. 1 Summarium, p. 418.
11 C. A. Graf von Galen, An undesirable bishop, op. cit., p. 128.
12 Ibid, p. 129.
13 Positio, op. cit., vol. 1, Summarium, p. 422.
14 On the relations of the Bishop of Münster with the Jews, see the biographies of von Galen: Max Bierbaum, Nicht Lob nicht Furcht, Münster 1974; Joachim Kuropka, Clemens August Graf von Galen. Neue Forschungen zum Leben und Wirken des Bischofs von Münster, Münster 1992.
15 R. A. Graham, Il “Diritto di uccidere” nel Terzo Reich – Preludio al genocidio [The “Right to kill” in the Third Reich – Prelude to the genocide], in La Civiltà Cattolica, 15 March 1975, vol. I, p. 154.
16 Positio, op. cit., vol. 1, Summarium, p. 65.
17 L’ Obsservatore Romano, 10 July 1935.
18 Positio, op. cit., vol. II, Documents, p. 505.
19 Neue Westfälische Zeitung, 28 December 1945.
20 Positio, op. cit., vol. II, Documents, p. 507.
21 Die Zeit, 28 March 1946.
22 G. Salt, Hitler la Santa Sede e gli ebrei. Con i documenti dell’Archivio segreto vaticano [Hitler, the Holy See and the Jews. With the documents of the Secret Vatican Archive], Milan 2004, p. 221.
23 Pierre Blet, Pio XII e la Seconda guerra mondiale negli Archivi vaticani [Pius XII and the Second world war in the Vatican Archives, Cinisello Balsmo 1999, p. 81.
24 Ibid, p. 79.
25 Ibid, p. 83.

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