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Pastor Martin Niemöller

After Hitler, said Pastor Niemöller, President Harry S.Truman was 'the greatest murderer in the world'.
I was reading Albert Speer's 'Inside the Third Reich' the other day and, towards the end, came across a reference of Martin Niemöller. I had already read about this individual in several other books on the Second World War, most notably William Shirer's 'The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich'. And I was, of course, acquainted with his famous poem -

"First they came for the Communists,
But I was not a Communist,
So I said nothing.

Then they came for the Social Democrats,
But I was not a Social Democrat,
So I did nothing.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
But I was not a trade unionist,
So I did not speak out.

And then they came for the Jews,
But I was not a Jew,
So I did little.

Then when they came for me,
There was no one left who could stand up for me."

Written in 1946, this poem has since been much misquoted and altered to include everyone from the Roman Catholics to the Gays. Anyhow, the basic impression you got from all this regarding Niemöller, who was born on 4th January 1892 in Lippstadt, was that of a decent, upright human being, who opposed the Nazis, suffered imprisonment in a concentration camp, and, luckily, survived. A hero, in short.

You get a slightly more three-dimensional view after reading the sermons he preached in the Third Reich -

"I cannot help saying quite harshly and bluntly that the Jewish people came to grief and disgrace because of its own 'Positive Christianity!' It bears a curse throughout the history of the world because it was ready to approve of its Messiah just as long and as far as it thought it could gain some advantage for its own plans and its own aims for Him, His words and His deeds. It bears a curse, because it rejected Him and resisted Him to the death when it became clear that Jesus of Nazareth would not cease calling to repentance and faith, despite their insistence that they were free, strong and proud men and belonged to a pure-blooded, race-conscious nation!" (Sermon, 1928)

"What is the reason for (the Jewish people's) obvious punishment, which has lasted for thousands of years? Dear brethren, the reason is easily given: the Jews brought the Christ of God to the cross!" (Sermon, 1935)

And after reading that in his personal opinion converted Jews were 'distasteful', that he had actually considered a proposal to have them attend separate services, and that he didn't find anything offensive about Hitler promising in the early days to not harass but just repress and keep out Jewish citizens from public life.

Not to mention from his autobiography 'From U-boat to Pulpit', which was published in 1934 and at the end of which he heaps high praise on Hitler and expresses the fervent hope that the National Socialists may lead Germany to renewed glory.

Given that once I had a pretty black and white, cut and dry concept of history, this had rather outraged me - how could any decent person approve of the Nazis? Since then I have not only wised up, world events have helped in giving me a better perspective. If decent people can approve of the policies of the current American President Bush, it really doesn't seem like a complete impossibility for an equally ardent patriot (merely from another nation and another era) to have approved of Chancellor Adolf Hitler.

Martin Niemöller, after all, was a German Patriot and a Christian. As a Naval Officer, he had seen active service in the First World War and had received the Iron Cross, First Class, for bravery (for operating mine-laying submarines, laying mines, sinking enemy ships, and killing enemy personnel). After the War, he, like other Germans, naturally resented the injustice and humiliation of the Versailles Treaty, and wanted his country to regain all its former eminence. Along came Hitler and promised to do just that. When you're in the throes of despair, any old scoundrel can gull you. Look at the way Bush took his countrymen for a WMD ride after 11 September. And as a hardcore Christian - after a brief stint in right-wing, anti-communist politics that ended with the formation of the Weimar Republic, Niemöller had taken up Theology and, like his father, became a Lutheran Pastor in 1924 - Niemöller probably didn't stop to reflect that generations of Jews had already suffered horribly throughout history all on account of the death of one individual - Jesus - and so perhaps, at long last, someone ought to show them some of the famed Christian forgiveness. No more, I suppose, than the current Israeli regime reflects upon the fate of the Palestinians.

After the Nazis began euthanizing unfit Germans and expelling converted Jews from the Church and made it otherwise clear that, as Martin Bormann later in 1941 put it, "'National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable", Niemöller helped found the Confessional Church resistance, established contact with people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and began to speak out vigorously against the government. Matters came to a head after, on 27th June 1937, he protested the arrest of the Protestant clergy. The Nazis, by this time, had grown tired of wire-tapping and spying on Niemöller and listening to his now rebellious opinions -

"Our people are trying to break the bond set by God. That is human conceit rising against God. In this connection we must warn the Führer, that the adoration frequently bestowed on him is only due to God. Some years ago the Führer objected to having his picture placed on Protestant altars. Today his thoughts are used as a basis not only for political decisions but also for morality and law. He himself is surrounded with the dignity of a priest and even of an intermediary between God and man... We ask that liberty be given to our people to go their way in the future under the sign of the Cross of Christ, in order that our grandsons may not curse their elders on the ground that their elders left them a state on earth that closed to them the Kingdom of God." (on behalf of the Confessional Church, July, 1936)

"We have no more thought of using our own powers to escape the arm of authorities than had the Apostles of old. No more are we ready to keep silent at man's behest when God commands us to speak. For it is, and must remain, the case that we must obey God rather than man." (sermon, 1937)

For his views, Niemöller was arrested in July and held in the dreaded Moabit Prison in Berlin, without trial, for the next eight months. When eventually the Nazi courts got around to trying him, he was accused of 'abusing the pulpit', ordered to pay a monetary fine, and sentenced to seven months in jail. Since he had already spent more than that time in jail, he was released. He emerged from the court session and found the Gestapo awaiting him right outside. They sent him, for 'reeducation' purposes, to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. However, he proved unreformable and so he was sent on to Dachau. He would have been summarily executed, except for the great publicity given to his incarceration by the Bishop of Chichester - for some reason, in this case, the Nazis appear to have cared about public opinion.

It was after his arrest that the infamous 'Kristallnacht' happened in Germany and, in prison, where he had a comparatively more privileged status, Niemöller saw for himself the inhuman treatment meted out to the Jewish people. By several accounts, he seems to have offered support and solace to the unfortunate. But man is a complicated creature and, while sympathizing with the victims, it was still possible for Niemöller to extend a helping hand to their tormentors as well. In 1939, at the onset of the Second World War, he sent a letter to Admiral Raeder, offering his considerable naval skills for the benefit of the Fatherland. Raeder didn't write back, but Keitel did and, contrary to his usual bombastic and rude manner, turned the Pastor down politely. Meanwhile Goebbels made the letter available to the Press and waited for the dirt to fly - here after all was one of the principal symbols of the resistance against Nazi tyranny, volunteering to help defend and extend the regime - unfortunately for Goebbels, his reputation for propaganda quite defeated him in this case - everyone in the 'free' world agreed that this had to be the most ridiculous piece of forgery ever.

It wasn't until after the war that Niemöller himself admitted the truth and to a large extent undid all the positive public feeling regarding himself -

"In war a German feels bound to join the ranks without question. Three of my sons were called up. I could not hold back."

When I read this, my admiration for the man climbed right up. Not because I admire his logic - in fact, I find the 'without question' frightening, especially coming from intellectuals - but because a lesser being wouldn't have risked tarnishing his image for the truth this way. He wouldn't have admitted, quite disregarding the popular after-war custom of denouncing the Nazis and everything they stood for, that his quarrel with them had only been over Church matters, not racial or political ones.

That doesn't mean his experiences hadn't changed him. He had lost two of his children, had only narrowly escaped being murdered along with other political prisoners in the last days of the war, and had time to reflect. As he wrote to Dr. Weiner in 1956 -

"I have never concealed the fact... that I came from an anti-Semitic past and tradition... I ask only that you look at my life historically and take it as history. I believe that from 1933 I truly represented the Lutheran-Christian outlook on the Jewish question - as I revealed before the court - but that I returned home after eight years' imprisonment as a completely different person."

Yet - and here's another contrast - according to Harold Marcuse - "He devoted substantial time and effort to save the heinous Nazi perpetrators who were put on death row during the various Nuremberg trials. I can understand his Christian anti-death-penalty stance, but of all the people in the world in need of an advocate, why he chose exactly them... [is beyond me]"

It was beyond his former British supporters too and they made a wild outcry when a visit was proposed to their island later on. Since there was, as the Daily Telegraph angrily declared, "no record that he ever denounced Hitler's crimes against humanity or condemned the war", he was kept out.

In Germany, however, Niemöller regained to a large extent his former popular status and, from 1947 to 1961, presided over the Evangelical church in Hesse and Nassau. Not a man to shirk responsibility, he pointed out to his flock -

"We must openly declare that we are not innocent of the Nazi murders, of the murder of German communists, Poles, Jews, and the people in German-occupied countries. No doubt others made mistakes too, but the wave of crime started here and here it reached its highest peak. The guilt exists, there is no doubt about that - even if there were no other guilt than that of the six million clay urns containing the ashes of incinerated Jews from all over Europe. And this guilt lies heavily upon the German people and the German name, even upon Christendom. For in our world and in our name have these things been done." (sermon, January, 1946)

It was due to the efforts of him and several others that the German Protestant Churches officially apologized for their support of the Nazi Regime. This became known as the Stuttgart Confession of Guilt.

In later years, he spoke out against the Cold War and against Nuclear Armaments. He didn't agree with the popular view that dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been 'necessary' for bringing the war to a swifter end and saving the lives of American soldiers (what did the lives of Japanese civilians matter in comparison, apparently), and he lost quite a few friends when he informed the American public that, in arch-villainy, Hitler had company in the person of their own President Harry Truman - after Hitler, said Pastor Niemöller, Truman was 'the greatest murderer in the world'.

Since then, of course, the duo has had plenty more of exalted company.

A lot of people mightn't consider these sort of statements as harbingers of world peace, but, I guess, if you can start a war with lies, you can kick-start peace with home-truths.

From a nationalist, anti-semitic German, Pastor Niemöller journeyed a long way to become a somewhat socialist, completely pacifist and humanist person who believed in rooting out war entirely - especially after hearing from Otto Hahn that we had progressed to the point where we could "end not only all human life on earth, but also the life of every higher organism."

In the late fifties and the sixties, aside from his anti-nuclear and anti-NATO campaigns, he traveled around the world, offending the leading democracies by trying to take his message of peace to communist countries as well. His first wife Else's death in a car accident in 1961 was a set-back, but Niemöller was soon back on track. He expanded his membership of the World Council of Churches to that of the World Peace Committee, wrote a book 'One World or No World', won several Peace Prizes for his activities, and married for the second time. He lived with his second and much younger wife, Sybil von Sell, in Wiesbaden and it was here that he died at the age of 92 on 6 March 1984.

These days, his reputation swings between excessive criticism and sheer white-washing. We would do well to remember that it is after all only too human to be flawed, to make mistakes and wrong choices. What makes people like Pastor Niemöller stand out from the herd is their inherent and courageous honesty, their ability to face up to their failings and, without attempting to make too many excuses, take responsibility for these.
By Sonal Panse
Published: 7/10/2006
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