Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller (January 14, 1892 – March 6, 1984) was a prominent German anti-Nazi theologian and Lutheran pastor. Although he was a national conservative, an antisemite, and initially a sympathizer of Adolf Hitler, he became one of the founders of the Confessing Church, which opposed the nazification of German Protestant churches. For his opposition to the Nazi's state control of the churches, Niemöller was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945. He narrowly escaped execution and survived imprisonment due largely to the intervention of the Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, who was at the time the strongest British ally of the Confessing Church. He claimed these events purged him of his anti-Semitic beliefs.
From the 1950s he was a vocal pacifist and anti-war activist. He met with Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War and was a committed campaigner for nuclear disarmament. Criticized for failing to speak out against Hitler's execution of Jews and other victims of his ideology, Niemöller nonetheless showed courage in opposing the regime, which too few did. While he said that he should have done more to oppose Hitler, it is difficult to see what more he might have done, given the length of time he spent in prison.
He was born in Lippstadt and was a U-boat commander in World War I, winning the Iron Cross First Class. After the war, he spent some time in the Freikorps. He studied theology and was ordained in 1931, becoming pastor of St. Anne's Church in Dahlem, an affluent suburb of Berlin.
Role in Nazi Germany
According to Holocaust scholar Robert Michael, beliefs such as those held by Niemöller made even Nazi victims into Holocaust collaborators: "Martin Niemoeller in his radically antisemitic August 1935 sermon noted that the Jews would not be released from their suffering until they converted, Jewish suffering being 'proof' that Jesus was God. The essential reason the Jews were cursed was because they 'brought the Christ of God to the Cross ... These kinds of statements are a result of traditional antisemitism, and beliefs such as these corrupted average people as well as the elite and made them all not just victims of Nazis but active or passive collaborators in the Holocaust.” According to Michael, Martin Niemoeller agreed with the Nazi's position on the Jewish question.
The author, Professor Werner Cohn, states: "I lived as a Jew under the Nazis in the very years that [Martin Niemöller] told his Dahlem congregation that we Jews were race aliens, and also that we deserved what we got, having murdered Christ. I lived not too far from his church, and his name was mentioned in my home.”
Professor Werner Cohn, states: "One of the most striking exemplars of the pervasive anti-Semitism of the non-Nazi right wing is a man whose record is nowadays often whitewashed. Pastor Martin Niemöller, later himself to be persecuted by the Nazis, never made a secret of his strong, racial anti-Semitism. In his Sätze zur Arierfrage in der Kirche ('Theses on the Aryan Question in the Church') of November 1933, he opposed the introduction of the "Aryan paragraph" in the Protestant church on doctrinal grounds, but takes care, nevertheless, to opine that Jews had done great harm to Germany; he also indicates that the baptized Christians of Jewish origins are personally distasteful to him.” 
In 1933, Niemöller founded the Pfarrernotbund, an organization of pastors to "combat rising discrimination against Christians of Jewish background." By the autumn of 1934, Niemöller joined other Lutheran and Protestant churchmen like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in founding the Confessing Church, a Protestant group that opposed the Nazification of the German Protestant churches.
"Niemoller had exposed himself as an opportunist who had no quarrel with Hitler politically and only begun to oppose the Nazis when Hitler threatened to attack the churches."
As late as 1935, Niemöller went out of his way to preach hatred against the Jews: "What is the reason for [their] 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!"
Arrest and Imprisonment
Arrested on July 1, 1937, Niemöller was brought to a "Special Court" on March 2, 1938 to be tried for activities against the State. He was fined 2,000 Mark and received a prison term of seven months. As his detention period exceeded the jail term, he was released by the Court after the trial. However, immediately after leaving the Court, he was rearrested by Himmler's Gestapo. He was interned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1938 to 1945.
After his former cell mate was released from Sachsenhausen to go to America, he wrote an article about Niemöller for The National Jewish Monthly. The author reports that having asked Niemöller why he ever joined the Nazi Party, Niemöller replied:
"I find myself wondering about that too," he answered. "I wonder about it is much as I regret it. Still, it is true that Hitler betrayed me. I had an audience with him, as a representative of the Protestant Church, shortly before he became Chancellor, in 1932. Hitler promised me on his word of honor, to protect the Church, and not to issue any anti-Church laws. He also agreed not to allow pogroms against the Jews, assuring me as follows: 'There will be restrictions against the Jews, but there will be no ghettos, no pogroms, in Germany'."
"I really believed," Niemoeller continued, "given the widespread anti-Semitism in Germany, at that time—that Jews should avoid aspiring to Government positions or seats in the Reichstag. There were many Jews, especially among the Zionists, who took a similar stand. Hitler's assurance satisfied me at the time. On the other hand, I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while.
"I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me."
The Confessing Church and their theological stance
Bennett has pointed out that what the Confessing Church opposed was the near worship of Hitler, and his dictatorial rule. "God is my fuehrer," said Niemöller. Even those who vehemently opposed Hitler and risked their lives in the cause, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not denounce "Hitler's Jewish policy." In 1945, Niemöller famoulsy stated:
- They came first for the Communists,
- and I did not speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
- Then they came for the Jews,
- and I did not speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
- Then they came for the trade unionists,
- and I did not speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
- Then they came for the Catholics,
- and I did not speak up because I was a Protestant.
- Then they came for me,
- and by that time no one was left to speak up.
Another member of the Confessing Church, Rudolf Bultmann warmed "to Hitler's emphasis on hard work" and to what he saw as a respect for authority and although he "disliked the regime's racist views," he, too, remained silent. Karl Barth, the leading theologian and co-founder of the Confessing Church, too, left Germany to return to his native Switzerland and did not denounce Hitler's treatment of the Jews. His dialectic theology was designed to critique the view, shared by many Christians in Germany, that since God spoke through nature as well as Scripture, he might well have a message for them in what Hitler was saying. Barth argued against nature as a source of revelation. Even Carl Jung initially welcomes Hitler's rise to power, fascinated by his "use of myth and symbol." It is also true that the leaders of the Western powers knew that the Holocaust was happening but chose to remain silent, on the grounds that the best way to help the Jews was to win the war. Franklin D. Roosevelt was briefed by eye-witnesses that two million Jews had already been murdered in the Spring of 1943, promised to help but "no action was ever taken." In their opposition to Hitler-worship and to his world dominating ambition, it can be said that the Confessing Church, while not explicitly condemning the death camps, were nonetheless opposed to Hitler's final solution. On the other hand, the fact that members did not condemn Hitler's murderous Jewish policy raises a question about just how many people silently thought that, even if Hitler was evil, he was doing Germany a favor in making it Jew-free.
Release and post-War activities
He was released by the allies in 1945. Bishop Bell has conducted a lengthy campaign to secure his release as well as against the possibility of his being executed. After his release in 1945, he was president of the Evangelical church in Hesse and Nassau from 1947 to 1961. He was one of the initiators in the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, signed by leading figures in the German church. The document acknowledged that the church had not done enough to resist the Nazis.
Aspects of his biography had been played down when America had needed a clean German hero.
“In contrast to the leftist and communist resistance, his status as a Protestant minister fighting for freedom on a Christian platform and his principled disobedience to an unjust regime made him highly useful to governmental propaganda agencies, which turned him into a martyr for the cause of democracy.”
“He was presented by the American press as the spokesman for a different Germany and the hope for a better future.”
“Niemoller had become an ‘American hero.’”
However, “his star began to sink rapidly when his other pronouncements and his past … caught up with him.”
"Further evidence of his moral duplicity was found in his statement that anti-Semitism had come to an end in Germany and would not recur." Niemöller himself spoke out on the matter in 1959 in a letter to Alfred Wiener, a Jewish researcher into racism and war crimes committed by the Nazi regime. In this letter, Niemöller wrote that he had "never concealed the fact" he had come "from an anti-Semitic past and tradition"; he added that eight years of imprisonment had turned him into a completely different person.
Especially under the impact of a meeting with "the father of nuclear chemistry," Otto Hahn, in July 1954, Niemöller became an ardent pacifist and campaigner for nuclear disarmament. He was soon a leading figure of the post-war German peace movement. He was even brought to court in 1959 because he had spoken about the military in a very unflattering way.
In 1961, he became a president of the World Council of Churches, just as Bishop Bell, who died in 1958, would have finished his own term as a President of the body he helped to found. He took active part in protests against the Vietnam War and the NATO Double-Track Decision to on the one hand reduce the number of medium and intermediate range nuclear missiles aimed at the Soviets while on the other hand threatening to increase middle range missiles.
He died at Wiesbaden.
- "Niemöller, (Friedrich Gustav Emil) Martin" The New Encyclopaedia Britannica (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1993, ISBN 978-0852295717), 8:698.
- F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone (eds.), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 978-0192802903).
- John Simkin, Martin Niemöller Spartacus Educational website. Retrieved May 15, 2023.
- Robert Michael, "Theological Myth, German Antisemitism, and the Holocaust: The Case of Martin Niemoeller," Holocaust Genocide Studies (1987); 2: 105-122.
- Robert Michael, "Christian Theological Antisemitism," H-Antisemitism, May 6, 1997 .
- Werner Cohn and Harold Marcuse, "Correspondence about Niemöller’s Antisemitism," April 21, 2005, Correspondence about Niemöller’s Antisemitism. Retrieved May 15, 2023.
- Gunther van Norden, Der Deutsche Protestantismus im Jahr der nationalsozialistischen Machtergreifung (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Mohn, 1979, ISBN 9783579040837), 361-363.
- Raimund Lammersdorf, "The Question of Guilt," 1945-47: German and American Answers, Conference at the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC, March 25-27, 1999.
- The text of this sermon, in English, is found in Martin Niemöller, First Commandment (London, 1937), 243-250.
- William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (Simon & Schuster, 2011, ISBN 978-1451651683).
- Martin Niemöller, "God Is My Fuehrer," Being the Last Twenty-Eight Sermons (New York: Philosophical library and Alliance book corporation, 1941).
- Clinton Bennett, In Search of Jesus: Insider and Outsider Images (London & NY: Continuum, 2001, ISBN 9780826449153).
- Clinton Bennett, In Search of the Sacred: Anthropology and the Study of Religions (London: Cassell, 1996, ISBN 9780304336814), 121.
- Richard Rashke, Escape from Sobibor (NY: Avon, 1982, ISBN 0380753944), 121-123.
- Harold Marcuse, The Stuttgart Declaration of Gult. Retrieved May 15, 2023.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Bennett, Clinton. In Search of the Sacred: Anthropology and the Study of Religions. London: Cassell, 1996. ISBN 9780304336814
- Bennett, Clinton. In Search of Jesus: Insider and Outsider Images. London & NY: Continuum, 2001. ISBN 9780826449153
- Bentley, James. Martin Niemöller, 1892-1984. New York: Free Press, 1984. ISBN 9780029027301
- Cross, F.L., and E.A. Livingstone (eds.). The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0192802903
- Locke, Hubert G., and Marcia Sachs Littell. Remembrance and Recollection: Essays on the Centennial Year of Martin Niemöller and Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Fiftieth Year of the Wannsee Conference. Studies in the Shoah, v. 12. Lanham: University Press of America, 1996. ISBN 9780761801573
- Niemöller, Martin. First Commandment. London, 1937.
- Niemöller, Martin. "God Is My Fuehrer," Being the Last Twenty-Eight Sermons. New York: Philosophical library and Alliance book corporation, 1941. ASIN B0006APIFG
- Niemöller, Martin, and Hubert G. Locke. Exile in the Fatherland: Martin Niemöller's Letters from Moabit Prison. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1986. ISBN 9780802801883
- Norden, Gunther van. Der Deutsche Protestantismus im Jahr der nationalsozialistischen Machtergreifung. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Mohn, 1979. ISBN 9783579040837
- Rashke, Richard. Escape from Sobibor. NY: Avon, 1982. ISBN 0380753944
- Schreiber, Matthias. Martin Niemöller. Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1997. ISBN 9783499505508
- Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. Simon & Schuster, 2011. ISBN 978-1451651683
- The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1993. ISBN 978-0852295717
All links retrieved May 15, 2023.
- Who Was Martin Niemoller?
- Martin Niemöller's famous quotation: "First they came for the Communists" What did Niemoeller really say? Which groups did he name? In what order? Harold Marcuse, UC Santa Barbara (2005).
- Niemöller's famous quotation as posted by Holocaust Survivors' Network
- The text (and an English translation) of the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt
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