Department of History
Students Grill Faculty
Faculty spend a lot of time questioning students; this program gives students a chance to return the favor by pairing a student with a faculty author. After reading the faculty member's book, the student grills the author and writes up an article based on the interview. See what they have to say!
The current article is about Dr. Griech-Polelle:
Bishop von Galen: Not Quite a Hero
Most students of German history, intrigued and horrified by the brutality of the Nazi regime, wonder about the complicity of German citizens. Were ordinary German men and women supportive of the Nazi's anti-Semitic policies? Did Christian religious leaders condone discrimination and violence against Jewish citizens? In an attempt to answer these important questions, Dr. Griech-Polelle researched and wrote about an influential Catholic bishop who lived in Germany during the Third Reich. This year, I had the pleasure of reading her book Bishop von Galen: German Catholicism and National Socialism.
Dr. Griech-Polelle is an assistant professor of modern European history here at BGSU. Her real passion, though, is modern German history. Her class on Hitler's Germany is one of the most popular courses offered by the history department, and with good reason. In her class, Dr. Griech-Polelle combines her own experiences in Germany, her years of research, and her sense of humor into a thorough and fascinating look at German history. Similarly, in her book, she combines her experiences and extensive research into a detailed and comprehensive look at Bishop von Galen.
In Bishop von Galen, Dr. Griech-Polelle provides a new perspective on a historical figure familiar to historians of Nazi Germany. For years after World War II, von Galen was regarded as a hero-a brave soul who resisted the evils of Nazism. He was particularly respected for three powerful speeches he delivered in the summer of 1941. In the final speech, von Galen denounced the "mercy killings" of the elderly, mentally ill, and physically handicapped.
Dr. Griech-Polelle finds much of the praise Bishop von Galen received to have been undeserved. In fact, she argues that von Galen failed as a leader in one very important way. Bishop von Galen never applied the morals of his religion to those outside of his religion, to those most in need-the Jews. Dr. Griech-Polelle writes, "It would be more useful to portray von Galen as a person who practiced selective opposition and who revealed the fluid nature of the boundaries between conflict and consensus in Nazi Germany" (166).
While Dr. Griech-Polelle does not deny that Bishop von Galen opposed the Nazi regime on a narrow range of issues, she does not see him as a leader worthy of boundless admiration. He had the power, position, and training to have helped so many individuals; instead, he chose to protect the interests, first and foremost, of the Catholic Church. Bishop von Galen failed precisely because of the higher standards applied to those in positions of power. As a leader with considerable influence, Bishop von Galen should have done more to protect the Jews. To be regarded as a true hero of World War II, he ought to have seen the victims of Nazi persecution without distinction. As opposed to speaking out for specific groups, he should have attempted to help all of Hitler's victims.
In making her argument, Dr. Griech-Polelle examines the Kulturkampf and Church-State relations. These seemed to have been two of the biggest factors in constructing the framework within which Bishop von Galen worked. The Kulturkampf was a period of religious persecution that occurred under Bismarck's rule. During this period, Catholics living in Germany were branded as outsiders and enemies of the state. The memory of this painful time led many Catholics to fear being labeled as outsiders yet again. This fear may have been one of the reasons that von Galen was not quick to defend the Jews. Aligning Catholics with Jews could have led to the persecution of both groups- exactly what the Catholic leaders were desperate to avoid.
The Church-State relations during Hitler's regime also played a major role in determining Bishop von Galen's actions. This relationship was partly shaped by the Kulturkampf. The Catholic hierarchy was more willing to comply with whatever government was in power at the time simply out of a desire for self-preservation. While there was some debate within the Church, the ultimate decision was to comply with the Nazi regime, because of fears that the Catholic Church would be the next target of Nazi persecution. "The hierarchy placed its faith in the church's ability to outlast any secular government as long as it kept its structures intact" (50). This faith aids in explaining Bishop von Galen's determination to preserve the Church and its followers.
In addition to the Kulturkampf, the writings of Thomas Aquinas and other theologians affected beliefs within the Church regarding disobedience. According to these teachings, revolution was strictly forbidden in almost all circumstances, even in the case of tyranny. These beliefs were commonly held in Germany during the Third Reich, by both followers and leaders within the Catholic Church. Bishop von Galen studied these writings during his education. Therefore, it's reasonable to assume that Thomas Aquinas affected Bishop von Galen's beliefs about disobedience.
In her conclusion, Dr. Griech-Polelle attempts fairly and accurately to assess the role that Bishop von Galen played in Nazi Germany. Ultimately, she asserts that Bishop von Galen had the potential to be a true hero, but failed by not helping those outside of his religion and by not advocating disobedience towards a corrupt and evil government.
After reading Dr. Griech-Polelle's book, I had the opportunity to interview the author. During this interview, I was able to gain insight into the process by which she researched and wrote the book. Interestingly, Dr. Griech-Polelle did not set out to write a book on Bishop von Galen. The original focus of her dissertation was Catholic youth groups and other youth programs during the Nazi regime. While she was in Germany conducting this research, she constantly came across the name of Bishop von Galen. Her curiosity finally got the best of her, and she decided to revise the topic of her dissertation.
As she embarked on this new research path, Dr. Griech-Polelle expected to learn about a true hero, a selfless and courageous man who fought against the horrors of Nazism. Dr. Griech-Polelle's expectations were never realized. Instead, she was disappointed to find that Bishop von Galen was not as selfless and courageous as the many true heroes of World War II. Having read, in her previous research, about the numerous World War II heroes who gave their lives to help those in need, Griech-Polelle knew that such heroes existed, but Bishop von Galen was not one of them. He was a man who could have been a hero. In actuality, she found that von Galen spent more time encouraging obedience and complying with Nazi rule than providing real moral leadership in a time when such leaders were in great need. Thus, the argument for her dissertation was born.
When asked about the purpose of her book, Dr. Griech-Polelle responded by saying that she was attempting to provide a more accurate picture of the Bishop. History is the search for the truth, and Bishop von Galen and the Catholic Church had not been portrayed truthfully. The purpose of this truth seeking is to learn from the mistakes that have been made. She described Bishop von Galen as a mixture of good and bad, as each of us is a mixture. Bishop von Galen and the Catholic Church were not infallible, and we need to understand what happened so that we may learn from people like von Galen.
When starting out, Dr. Griech-Polelle had no intention of writing the book that she did. However, instead of rigidly following her plans, her flexibility and curiosity allowed her to write Bishop von Galen: German Catholicism and National Socialism. This book focuses on a unique historical figure during a critical period in our modern history. Not only can we learn about Bishop von Galen and his role in Germany, we can apply these lessons to our own lives. Critically evaluating von Galen's role in Nazi Germany forces us to think about morality in ways that are applicable even in everyday life.