The Bishop of Münster’s Pastoral Letter

The pastoral letter from the Bishop of Münster, Monsignor Klemens von Galen, was addressed during the time of Hitler’s euthanasia of people with mental disabilities. It still speaks to the ethics and morality of the 21st century.

Men and women of Germany! Article 211 of the German Penal Code, which still has the force of law, states: “Premeditated murder shall be punishable by death.” Article 139 stipulates: “Whoever has knowledge of any criminal intention against the life of another person and omits to inform the authorities or the person threatened is himself liable to punishment.” When I learned that patients in the Marienthal Hospital near Munster were in danger of being removed elsewhere and put to death, I at once brought the matter to the notice of the High Court in Munster, and the Chief of Police, by registered letter dated 28th July. I wrote as follows: “I am informed that during the present week – the date mentioned is 31stJuly – a large number of persons considered to be “unproductive citizens,” at present patients in the provincial hospital of Marienthal, near Munster, are to be transferred the hospital at Eichenberg and there deliberately put to death, following the precedent of proceedings in other hospitals. Since this is contrary both in Divine Law and ordinary morality, and since moreover it is an act of mass homicide and subject to the death penalty under Article 211 of the Penal Code, I am bringing the matter to your notice, as it is my duty to do under Article 139 of the Code, with the request that you take the necessary steps to protect the persons who are thus threatened and to deal with the services which are planning their removal and eventual murder. I further request that you will inform me of the steps you have taken.”

So far as I am aware, no action has been taken, either by the police or the Court. We must therefore assume that, sooner or later, these defenceless individuals will be executed.

Why? Not because they are guilty of any crime punishable by death, or because their behaviour towards their guardians or nurses has been so aggressive as to justify the latter in resorting to force in self-defence. There is no extreme reason of this kind, such as justifies the killing of an armed enemy in times of war. Nothing of the sort applies here. These unhappy invalids are to die because a commission has decreed it, because they are judged to be “unproductive citizens,” of no further value to the State. It has been decided that, since they no longer produce, they are to be treated like machinery that no longer functions, or an old horse or a cow that has ceased to give milk. I need not pursue the analogy, which is sufficiently obvious. When the machine, or horse or cow, no longer serves any purpose for which it was intended, we may legitimately destroy it. But here we are dealing with our own kind, men and women who are our brothers and sisters. Certainly they are unhappy people, unproductive individuals, but is that to say that they have forfeited the right to live? Is it our own right to life, yours and mine, to be measured according to our productive capacity as reckoned by others? It will go hard with us, in the weakness of own old age, if the weakness of our old age, if the right to destroy our unproductive neighbours has been accepted as a principle. It will go hard with those who have sacrificed their health and strength to the necessities of production, and with the gallant soldiers who return wounded and broken from the front.

Here is an instance of what happens these days. One of the patients in the Marienthal Psychiatric Hospital was a farmer, about fifty-five years old, who came from a neighbouring village of which I could give you the name. He had suffered from mental disorder for some years, but he was not gravely ill; his family were allowed to visit him whenever they pleased. A fortnight ago he was visited by his wife and one of their sons who was on leave from the front. The son was very devoted to his father, and their parting was a sad one, since he could not be sure that he would ever see his father again. He might be killed in the service of his country. Now it seems that they will not meet again on this earth for a different reason. The father is on the “unproductive list.”

Another relative who called to see the father during the present week was informed that he had been transferred elsewhere by order of the Ministry of War. They did not say at the hospital where he had been taken but expected news of him in a few days. And what will the news be? Will it be the same as in other cases – that the man is dead and had been cremated, and that his ashes will be sent to his family on payment of costs? The soldier risking his life for his fellow countrymen will not see his father again because his fellow-countrymen have murdered him! This is a true story: I give you the names of the family and the place where they live…

If we agree that unproductive members of society are to be destroyed, even if we limit this to those who are without means of support or defence, if we accept the principle, then it means that all people incapable of useful work may be destroyed, including ourselves, when we grow old and infirm. The principle may be extended to include not only the mentally afflicted but all persons suffering from chronic or incurable diseases, tuberculosis, for example, as well as men wounded in war. None of us will be safe. An arbitrary constituted committee may draw up lists of “unproductive persons” which will include anyone whom they consider unworthy to go on living. There will be no police to protect the victim, no court of appeal. Who will then be able to trust his doctor? He may report us to be “unproductive” and receive an order to destroy us. How can we fail to perceive the state of moral anarchy which such a principle must create if it is accepted and applied – the mistrust of every man for his fellow, spreading among families and even into the home? Woe to mankind, woe to the German people, if we thus transgress God’s commandment, delivered amid thunder and lightning from Mount Sinai, and implanted in the heart and conscience of men: “Thou shalt not Kill!”