Hitler's Personal Prisoner:
The Life of Martin Niemoller

It is a rare person who gets to grow beyond the spirit of their own times. This is the story of one of them.

By Neil Earle

Pastor Martin Niemoller (1892-1984). This was once a name to conjure with in Christian circles. Niemoller, at one time a legend in his own country and beyond, seems almost forgotten today. Yet the almost sainted theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer dedicated his The Cost of Discipleship to Niemoller in 1937. An English bishop described him as “a man on fire” – warm-hearted and humorous and full of the spirit of Christian friendship. Niemoller was a man of many parts – a U-Boat commander in World War One, a winner of the Iron Cross, an effervescent and motivational church pastor, an incisive writer and, above all, living symbol of the Christian resistance to the Third Reich. As a freed concentration camp prisoner he later spoke his own mind seemingly without fear or favor. At the end – as an avowed pacifist – he was almost the conscience of Christian Germany.

Patriot and Pastor’s Son

Martin Niemoller’s maturity coincided with the difficult years of the Third Reich in Germany (1933-1945) – the last eight of which he spent behind bars. He was jailed for strenuously opposing his government’s moves to muzzle and corrupt the German Protestant churches. Niemoller actually met face to face with Adolph Hitler and had taken his measure. His belief that the Christian Gospel was being destroyed in Germany in the 1930s led him to probe deeply into the roots of his faith and to record a rare pilgrimage, a faith journey that eventually took him beyond the mental barriers of extreme nationalism, mild anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism.

His was an unusually full life near the center of events in the storm-tossed 20th century.

In the beginning Martin Niemoller was the second son of a Lutheran pastor in Lippstadt in Westphalia. Descended from a family close to the soil, the Niemollers were more Calvinist than Lutheran in approach. Lutherans tended to follow Martin Luther’s idea of supporting the state at nearly all costs while Calvin’s disciples called the saints to be “at work in the world,” trying to change it wherever possible. Martin Niemoller remembered his family Bible – richly illustrated, almost a meter high and a meter broad filled with steel engravings. The stories of Jesus so caught the young boy’s attention that Christ always seemed to him a close friend. The young Niemoller was attracted to the work of the Social Gospel in Germany – that activist theology that tried to soften the harshness of the new industrial transforming Germany. This “Inner Mission” to work for the spiritual regeneration of the nations had more affect when Niemoller’s father accepted a pastorate at Elberfield in the Ruhr. There it was not uncommon to pray for parishioners dying of tuberculosis and other diseases.

A trip to England in 1908, however, convinced the 16 year old to enlist in the navy. In 1910 Martin took his oath of loyalty to the Kaiser Wilhelm II at the ship yard in Kiel and began a strenuous apprenticeship at sea. The U-boat service, soon to become crucial to Germany’s war effort (1914-1918), appealed to a man of action. As a torpedo officer on U151 he helped compile the longest time spent at sea by any German submarine. Niemoller later regarded his good fortune in having survived the war. Of the 300 active service submarines no fewer than 199 were lost.

Niemoller ended the war with an Iron Cross for bravery while a deeply disillusioned patriot. He mourned that Germany’s magnificent high seas fleet had to surrender to the Allies. He refused to sail his submarine to the British authorities. This bitterness made him susceptible to some of the right-wing paramilitary organizations that were waging open combat with the Communists, who were actively attempting to take over the country in the postwar chaos. Still, Niemoller had come out of the war with a sense of questioning. “Is there peace anywhere?” he penned in his memoir, From U-Boat to Pulpit. What of the eternal questions, he wondered. What of life, the universe and God?

The Lutheran ministry soon beckoned and Niemoller began a long and determined struggle to earn his divinity degree with a wife and a growing family of seven children to look after. Though highly intelligent he possessed little gift for abstruse theology and endured the academic grind as a necessary evil. His fittedness as a pastor, however, with his bouncy confidence and outgoing temperament, was undeniable. After ordination on June 19, 1924, Niemoller was offered the post of manager of the Westphalia Inner Mission. His task to organize welfare work he found not as fulfilling as full-time pastoring. Thus he accepted a position of pastor at Dahlem, then an upscale suburb of Berlin. The year was 1931 and events were conspiring to bring Martin Niemoller closer to his rendezvous with fate. The German capital was reverberating to the sound and fury emanating from the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (“Nazi” for short), led by its charismatic orator Adolph Hitler. In less than two years Hitler would be Chancellor and Niemoller’s life would change dramatically.

The Church Crisis

Hitler, like Niemoller, had fought well in the war and had won the coveted Iron Cross. At first Niemoller, having imbibed some of the anti-Semitism of his generation, greeted Hitler as the ideal man to restore Germany’s shattered post-war pride. Pastor Martin voted for the Nazis in 1924. Ever the German patriot, Niemoller expostulated as late as 1933 that National Socialism was “a renewal movement based on a Christian moral foundation.” He was quickly disillusioned. As the new government set out to reorganize the churches, Niemoller saw a shameful lust for power emerge among German Protestants. He firmly rejected the new racist theology emanating from the doctrine of creation, a teaching which insisted that “race and nation” were the supreme issues in Scripture. Niemoller soon joined a group of pastors in protest against the new state church being put together. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth, then lecturing in Germany, took extreme issue with the notion that nationalism was “a second source of divine revelation.” Barth and Niemoller soon became friends – Barth the theoretician and Niemoller the practical organizer.

Jewish historians such as Daniel Goldhagen have rebuked Niemoller for his early pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic views and for all but ignoring the Jewish persecution being unleashed, but this may be true only up to a point. Niemoller was soon charging the new Hitler regime with abusing its power over the churches. He called for a church “grounded on the word of God and free from state control.” He saw the core issue clearly – Who is Lord: Caesar or Christ? Dramatic confrontation was at hand inside Germany and inside the churches.

Who is Lord?

On April 7, 1933 a law was passed dismissing all “non-Aryan” officials from state office. On 21 September 1933 Niemoller sent a circular letter to the 2000 pastors on the mailing list of the Young Reformation Movement asking them to join a new “Pastor’s Emergency League.” This organization would be the main bulwark to resist Nazi control over the churches. The letter ended with a commitment to “sole allegiance to the authority of the Holy Scriptures and the Reformation confessions…a testimony that, with the application of the Aryan paragraph to the realm of the church, this stance had already been violated.” (Jensen, Martin Niemoller, page 70).

On January 4, 1934 the leaders of the state-approved “German Christian” churches issued a decree suspending any pastor out of step with the new church structure. The agitation from Niemoller and other pastors led to a remarkable event – an audience with Hitler himself on January 25, 1934. At first Niemoller was very frightened when Hitler launched into one of his famous tirades. “I thought, dear God, let him stop,” he remembered later. Then a car motor sounded outside and the Chancellor harangued them with: “Every time I leave this Chancellery in my car, I am aware that someone might take a revolver and shoot me.”

At that moment Niemoller’s fears subsided. He thought: “You have given yourself away. If he has more anxieties than I have then I have the courage to face him.” On the way out, Niemoller boldly said to Hitler: “As Christians and men of the church we too have responsibility for the German people, laid on us by God.” Hitler said nothing. Back home his wife, Ilse, asked Martin if Hitler was a great man. “He is a great coward,” Niemoller relied. But he knew the battle lines were now drawn.

The Confessing Church

From his base in the Pastor’s Emergency League, Niemoller and other pastors joined Karl Barth in drafting the Barmen Declaration of 1934. “Jesus Christ, as he is testified to us in the Holy Scriptures,” it stated, “is the one Word of God whom we are to hear, whom we are to trust and obey in life and in death.” It continued, taking dead aim at the Fuhrer principle: “We repudiate the false teaching that the church can and must recognize other happenings and powers…as divine revelation.” That of course is what the officially sanctioned “German Christians” were doing. For three years Niemoller waged unceasing attacks up and down Germany against what he called the “pious lies” of this new paganism in the churches. He spent more than three years “calling Christianity back to the source of its original strength.” Then he was arrested for the sixth time on July 1, 1937. This time he would not emerge for almost eight years. Walking to his trial in February, 1938 he was cheered when a prison guard escorting him quoted Proverbs 18:10,”The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous run into it and are safe.” It seemed a word from on high.

According to his biographer, Niemoller’s successful defense was overturned by Hitler himself in opposition to the whole cabinet. Hitler screamed: “This man is my personal prisoner, and that is the end of that” (Jensen, page 141). Four years of solitary confinement stretched ahead, broken by occasional wifely visits. His cause went world-wide. The Archbishop of Canterbury and a Scandinavian prelate lobbied for his release. A letter in The London Times signed by six ex-Admirals of the Royal Navy petitioned for his release. Instead he was moved to the dreaded Dachau concentration camp. It looked like the end and Niemoller’s spirits ran low indeed. Finding comfort from three Catholic priest-prisoners, Martin himself considered becoming a Catholic. He responded instead to a request from several Protestant prisoners to lead them in the Last Supper service in December, 1944.

The “Controversial” Hero

Niemoller’s request to serve in the German Navy when World War Two broke out in September, 1939 disillusioned many who saw him as a Christian hero. Added to his early pro-Nazi statements and his seeming neutrality on the Jewish question, it made him a figure of some debate. Niemoller stuck to his own views, as always. With three sons fighting for Germany (one would die on the Russian front) and dreading a repeat of 1918, he felt compelled. His request was turned down by Field Marshall Keitel himself. Such controversies would follow Pastor Niemoller to the end of his days, a man never far from the center of the storms that racked post-World War Two Germany.

Soon after his rescue by American soldiers in 1945 Niemoller began to criticize the efforts of the pro-American German government to purge anyone from authority just for being National Socialist. He knew many who wore the uniform that were not “beyond redemption.” He vociferously clashed with the new Federal Republic over the issue of West German rearmament, insisting that reenergized German churches could be the balance between East and West in the fast-emerging cold war. Nothing incensed him more than the nuclear arms race and the perceived abandonment of Christians behind the Iron Curtain. He visited Russia, a disciple of Winston Churchill’s dictum that “Jaw, Jaw, is better than War, War!” On his way to becoming a convinced pacifist, he was part of a Christian delegation to talk with Ho Chi Minh of North Vietnam in 1967. Martin Niemoller was not a man who abandoned his core principles.

Niemoller’s outspokenness may have led to his being almost forgotten today. But quite possibly his reputation will rebound in the new united Germany he tried to preach into existence. His legacy is rich. In the words of Anglican bishop George Bell: “He was a man on fire and a man of very great faith…he said that faith was greater than organization.” Niemoller’s own life had underscored the old truth that the weapons of the spirit can be formidable indeed.