The Strange Case of Pastor Niemöller


AMONG all the opponents of the National Socialist régime who to-day languish in German prisons or concentration camps, the most widely famed is undoubtedly the Reverend Martin NiemÖller. Some of Hitler’s political prisoners are known wherever radicals gather; a few are remembered as martyrs in every centre of the pacifist movement; churchmen, both Catholic and Protestant, hold in honor priests and pastors who have dared the wrath of the Nazi authorities. But Niemöller is known among all these groups, as well as by a world public which knows little of these restricted causes. Even before his arrest and imprisonment the defiant figure of the vicar of Berlin-Dahlem had captured world attention. To millions of Protestants outside Germany — and to hosts inside — this young pastor has taken on the gigantic stature of a reincarnation of that other Martin who, four centuries ago, defied both temporal and ecclesiastical powers before the Diet of Worms. It is fitting that the publishers have entitled the forthcoming volume of this rebellious pastor’s sermons Here Stand I!

Contemporary Germany certainly contains no more heroic or gallant figure than Niemöller. Reaching a pulpit of national prestige within less than half a dozen years after his ordination, marked for the highest honors in his profession, sympathetic with almost all the political purposes of the Hitler government, this cleric nevertheless has not hesitated to challenge the authority of the State and to defy it in words which have echoed around the world. Where so many others, committed far more completely to opposition to all that National Socialism stands for, have compromised, gone underground, or fled, not only has Niemöller stood by his guns, but, as the pressure on him has intensified, his resistance has stiffened. Accordingly, he has come to be increasingly the symbol of a cause which millions believe to be of transcendent importance — the cause of religion’s freedom from state domination.

Yet it is apparent that large numbers of Protestants in America and England who hail the courage of Pastor Niemöller have little real conception of the rôle which he is actually playing. Because he became a sufficiently dangerous opponent of the National Socialist régime in Germany to win a cell in Moabit prison, persons outside Germany have been inclined to leap to the conclusion that this recalcitrant Berlin cleric is a thoroughgoing opponent of everything the rest of the world stigmatizes as Hitlerism. Niemöller’s defiance of the efforts of his government to establish control of the German Protestant Church is mistakenly interpreted, at this distance, as putting him in that small company of ‘liberal’ or ‘radical’ clergy who, in the Protestant communions of the English-speaking world, oppose all the institutions and processes of what has been an established order. Among American clergy Niemöller is most honored in the very quarters where, should he come to this country, he would soon be least at home.

Perhaps as good a way as any to make clear to Americans the disparity between the Niemöller of their imaginations and the Niemöller who has taken a historic rôle in the development of the Third Reich is to play with this idea of transporting the Berlin pastor to this country. Let us suppose that, released from a Nazi prison, Niemöller should decide to leave Germany and to join the ranks of the American clergy. Where would he find his place?

Would it be among the critical exegetes who make their pulpits a place for the dissemination of ‘liberal’ ideas of Biblical interpretation — men, let us say, of the Fosdick type? No; a sermon by Martin Niemöller would be found to rest on the old premise that the Bible is the literally inspired Word of God, to be regarded as fully authoritative in all its parts for all ages. Would Niemöller be among the clergy who discuss the need for new doctrinal formulations, congenial to the mind of this century? No; for him the creeds of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries — and particularly the dogmatic formulas laid down by Luther and his immediate circle — remain sufficient. Would he insist that Christianity must demonstrate its worth by taking the lead in solution of the community problems of modern life — or, in other words, in the application of the so-called ‘social gospel’ of contemporary American Protestantism? No; it is this sort of thing which he has excoriated as the false ‘ positive Christianity’ of the Nazi attack on the Church.

Would Martin Niemöller, confronted by the inequities and tensions of the American order, stand up in his pulpit as a prophet of social revolution, or even as one demanding, in religion’s name, drastic social reform? No; Niemöller has, at Dahlem, been the pastor of what probably is the wealthiest and socially most distinguished congregation in Germany, and there is no evidence that his preaching has ever exposed him to the charge of being a social radical. Would an Americanized Niemöller challenge the morality of the modern, power-centred State? No; this man never questions the authority of Cæsar. ‘It is reassuring,’ writes Professor James Moffatt in a foreword to Niemöller’s sermons, ‘to find that he feels no need to repent of having taken part in war.’ As to the ‘ reassuring ’ aspect of that discovery, I leave the reader to form his own judgment; but as to the fact there can be no question. Pastor Niemöller has no more quarrel with the ethical pretensions of the modern State to wield the temporal sword for the terror of evildoers than, twenty years ago, had Lieutenant-Commander Niemöller of the Mediterranean submarine flotilla.

In only one respect is Niemöller a rebel against the policies of his government; and, since that issue has not yet assumed an exigent form in the United States, a Martin Niemöller translated to clerical life on these shores would quickly become—in the eyes of the ‘liberal’ portions of American Protestantism — just another ultraconservative, even reactionary parson.

The one respect in which Niemöller stands in defiance against his government to-day is, of course, the situation created by the attempt of National Socialism to bring the churches of Germany within the orbit of ‘totalitarianism.’ Logically, the argument would seem to favor the Nazi contention that, provided the idea of the totalitarian State is not rejected entirely, such a State must include control of religious agencies as one of the most important means of solidifying and energizing the national community. Protesting pastors in Germany to-day take violent exception to such a statement as Dr. Ley, Labor Front Führer, made when he said: ‘The party claims the totality of the soul of the German people. It can and will not suffer that another party or point of view shall dominate in Germany. We believe that the German people can become eternal only through National Socialism, and therefore we require the last German, whether Protestant or Catholic.’ But four years ago, when Hitler came to power, the more nationally-minded clergy — Niemöller among them — were quite ready, because of the disjointed state into which Germany had fallen, to embrace National Socialism, not only as a party but as a political philosophy.

The truth is that Niemöller’s revolt has at bottom been a revolt not against Nazi ideas so much as against Nazi political ineptness and boorishness. Despite the fact that ‘creed’ is the central word in Niemöller’s defiance to-day, and that the group which stands about him designates itself as a Bekenntnis Church (the term is translated ‘Confessional,’ but the meaning is ‘creedal’), it can be seen from a study of Niemöller’s own writings that a modus vivendi might easily have been arranged between pastors and state authorities in 1933 had the latter employed only a little finesse. It was the actual experience of finding that a National Socialist government meant the setting aside of a Von Bodelschwingh in favor of a Müller when it came to filling the new office of Reichsbischof, the placing of a Rosenberg with his pagan Mythos of the Twentieth Century in charge of all cultural affairs, the capture of church youth organizations by a Baldur von Sirach — it was this sort of thing, rather than any question of theory or doctrine, which in the first place drove Niemöller into opposition.


One must take into account Niemöller’s entire career to grasp the significance of his present position as Hitler’s most noted prisoner. Child of a Lutheran parsonage in Westphalia, he had just become a sublieutenant in the German navy when the war broke out. Port service with the high-seas fleet bored him to distraction; when an opportunity came to seek transfer to the young submarine service he jumped at it. Practically all his active service, from that time on, was in the Adriatic and Mediterranean, with the exception of a brief period of desk duty in the Berlin Admiralty. Those early submarines required men of strong nerves. No U-boat crew in the early stages of submarine operations could be sure whether, when the order to submerge was given, the boat would go down — still less that it would come up again. In the Allied countries an illusion persists that the danger at sea during the war was almost entirely on the side of surface vessels. As a matter of fact, the proportion of submarines destroyed far outran that of the ships which the U-boats stalked, and few were the survivors in that branch of the service — especially in the German navy — who did not have their share of hair-raising escapes. Niemöller, who rose to be commander of some of the largest U-boats operating from Adriatic ports, had his full share of breath-taking experiences. He has told the story in unadorned sailor fashion in his abbreviated autobiography, From U-boat to Pulpit, which I understand is soon to be published in English translation in this country.

There is no need to retell that story here. But no one can read the book without sensing the full-blooded joy which the man found in his naval war service. Even eighteen years after the Armistice the Lutheran pastor could not sit down to write of that period in his career without making it clear that, despite the death and destruction which he spread, his adventures as a submarine officer left him unclouded satisfaction.

With the Armistice, however, Niemöller the confident U-boat commander became Niemöller the uprooted. He could not and did not accept the revolution which had overthrown the Kaiser or the republic of the Weimar Constitution. His autobiography declares that, from the moment when news of the downfall of the Hohenzollern empire reached him, he — in company with his fellow officers of the Mediterranean submarine flotilla — accepted fully the ‘stab in the back’ theory which found in the ‘treachery’ of Marxist and pacifist elements the cause of the defeat of the heroic German arms.

There may be in this a certain amount of reading back into recollections of that tragic period ideas which actually flowered in Niemöller’s mind at a later date. But there can be no question that when he finally brought his U-boat into harbor at Kiel he treated the revolutionary government with contempt; that he later refused to carry out orders to take his submarine to the surrender at Scapa Flow; that he finally, over the protests of his friends and despite the flattering offers of the republican government, resigned his naval commission. So deeply imbued with old imperial ideas of order and authority was he that he wanted nothing to do with this upstart government which, proclaiming democracy, seemed to him to be pushing Germany into chaos.

Left at loose ends after his resignation from the navy, Niemöller took the strange step of turning to farming. With what seems to have been a vaguely mystical idea of extracting a new strength, a new identification with the deutsches Volk, from the soil, this unbending aristocrat determined to turn to the land. For a time he toyed with the idea of joining a large party of emigrants to the Argentine; when he found that his financial resources would not permit him to carry this scheme through, he turned to the prospect of becoming an independent landowning farmer in Germany. Deflation, however, put an end to that idea, whereupon he settled down to the life of a farm laborer. Lieutenant-Commander Martin Niemöller, Iron Cross, formerly of the Imperial German Navy, spreading manure on a Westphalian farm!

What finally moved Niemöller to enter the Lutheran ministry is not entirely clear. In his autobiography he tells of standing on the bridge of the UC67 during the closing months of the war, just after completing certain mine-laying operations in the course of which he had sunk 17,000 tons of Allied shipping, and suddenly saying to his second in command, ‘I will be a parson!’ He admits, however, that ‘it was just a passing thought.’ In a postscript to his book he acknowledges the influence which his boyhood days in a parsonage probably had, subconsciously, in preparing him to go into the Church. At any rate, he made the decision, and after a period of about two years’ intensive study at Münster he was ordained on June 29, 1924, and appointed curate of the Church of the Redeemer in the same city.

The words in which Niemöller tells of another incident on his ordination day throw a striking sidelight on the mixture of elements in his character: —

On the afternoon of that day and in the attic room which had been the scene of so much misery and joy during the preceding years, I baptized our son Heinz Hermann. My desk served for a baptismal altar and bore the crucifix, candlesticks and font, while the window behind it was draped with the ensign of Submarine UC67, which I had flown when entering Kiel on November 29, 1918. . . . The journey from submarine to pulpit was completed and my service for my people and native country, in my new profession, was beginning.

During those years of transition only one important incident interrupted the steady grind of Niemöller’s theological studies, but that was an incident of great significance in revealing the character of the man. As has been said, the former naval officer had never disguised his scorn for the Weimar republic; his boon comrades at Münster were former officers who, like himself, believed that the Social Democrats had betrayed the soul and drained away the strength of Germany. But when the Spartacist movement broke out in the Ruhr, just before the French occupation, Niemöller at once put himself at the disposal of the authorities and was made commander of one of the three columns which were sent to put down this radical proletarian revolt. He displayed no compunction at serving the Berlin government when it was a question of dealing with what he regarded as simply red revolution; in reading his version of that brief campaign one is likely to agree with the literary critic of the Manchester Guardian who, commenting on Niemöller’s account of the episode, remarked that he gave every evidence of having had the time of his life while putting down reds.


Until the time of his break with the Hitler government, which can be dated from the organization of the ‘Pastors’ Emergency League’ in midsummer of 1933, Niemöller’s rise up the ecclesiastical ladder was sensational in its speed. A brief vicarate in Münster was followed by a short term of service as superintendent of the Lutheran Inner Mission in Westphalia. The handsome war hero, whose everyday dress was that of a naval officer on shore leave, and whose speech vibrated with conviction that the national salvation required a revival of the faith of Luther, soon was called to the pastorate of the church in Dahlem, wealthiest of Berlin’s suburbs. Here he found awaiting him a large congregation made up for the most part of members of the old Prussian aristocracy, together with a strong sprinkling of men high in the councils of state. It was, in many respects, the elite Protestant congregation of Germany.

When an attempt is made to discover the reasons why Niemöller was able to preach as long as he did in open defiance of the various church administrations set up by the Nazi authorities, this aristocratic character of his congregation must be taken into account. On the one hand, Niemöller himself presented a thorny problem to the Nazis. No one wanted to put a U-boat war hero in jail if it could be avoided. But, on the other hand, the intrepid pastor had behind him a congregation of great political and social influence which supported him more than a little in his intransigeance. To the Prussian aristocrat of the old school, the Nazi has always seemed a bumptious upstart. The service rendered by the Nazis in freeing Germany from foreign fetters has been acknowledged, but the aristocrat has nevertheless had much secret sympathy with any man or movement which — short of treason— showed readiness to put the noisy Brown Shirts in their place.

At the beginning of the Hitler régime, however, Niemöller had no quarrel with the National Socialists. He had been (and is) a fanatical German nationalist; he had even voted the Nazi ticket in the climactic campaigns by which Hitler moved toward power. Eventually, he enrolled as a member of the Nazi Party. He accepted without cavil the party’s own interpretation of its historical mission. He saw it as an instrument approved by God for the revival of the German soul and as a bar to the further westward advance of a godless communism. His sermons preached immediately following Hitler’s triumph reveal a naïve faith in this divine aspect of the Nazi mission. On the Sunday following the Reichstag fire election, for example, when Hitler obtained his first electoral mandate, Niemöller spoke with almost unrestrained enthusiasm of the prospect for ‘a government which protected and confirmed the alliance between the fate of the nation and the fate of the Church’—strange words in view of what was to come!

But, as has already been said, experience with the actualities of Nazi political machinations soon destroyed the Dahlem pastor’s optimism. The officially stimulated rise of the ‘German Christian’ party, with its ostensible aim of unifying the twenty-eight Protestant state churches in a single body receptive to many of the Rosenberg heresies; the ruthless manner in which the duly elected Von Bodelschwingh was deposed from the Reichsbischof’s office to make way for Hitler’s personal choice, the former army chaplain, Müller; most of all, the way in which the entire machinery of the Nazi Party, including the voice of Hitler himself, was used to swing the church elections in July 1933 — these, and other experiences of an equally disillusioning character, gradually pushed Niemöller into the ranks of the protesting pastors.

By the time the new church constitution had been written by these recalcitrants, Niemöller was at the forefront of the group which formulated the basic First Article on which the subsequent development of the Confessional Church has rested: ‘The Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is laid down in the Holy Scriptures, and as it has come forth again in the creeds of the Reformation, is the unimpeachable basis of the German Evangelical Church. The authority which the Church needs to carry out its mission is determined and limited by the Gospel.’ Later, at the famous Synod of Barmen held in ? May 1934, he was to be one of the men who formulated the famous ‘Six Principles’ over which the fight within German Protestantism has, since that date, raged. The growing clarity of his defiance of Nazi claims is to be found in the first of these principles: ‘Jesus Christ, as He is revealed to us in the Holy Gospel, is the only Word of God, which we hear, which we have to trust and obey in life and death. The heresy is refuted that the Church can and must recognize, in addition to this one Word, other events and powers, figures, and truths in the revelation of God.’ And further: ‘The heresy is refuted that the State, over and above its special task, should and can become the single and total regulator of human life and thus also fulfill the vocation of the Church.’

It is a moving experience to take such a collection of sermons as is to be found in his Here Stand I! and see the transition of Niemöller’s ministry from the uncritical rejoicing of the first days of the Third Reich (was not an anti-religious Marxist régime being overthrown by a government which promised to promote ‘positive Christianity’?) to the days when, only two years later, he saw the Church as locked in battle with ‘hell.’ ‘Hell,’ his sermons of that later period made it clear, was the policy for ecclesiastical affairs announced by Hitler’s personally selected Reich Minister for Church Affairs, Dr. Hans Kerrl.

Not always did the Dahlem pastor speak belligerently. His sermons, in fact, show a remarkable ability to combine the boldness of the former naval officer with the caution of an ecclesiastic responsible for the future of the churchly institution and the safety of his fellow pastors. Never, for example, did the minister, even in his most defiant hours, give the secret police who always formed a part of his congregations a chance to accuse him of having preached political treason. It was only after later state decrees defined resistance to the measures of Dr. Kerrl as treasonable that a legal case could be made against the ordained war hero.

In certain important respects, Niemöller in his defiance of the Nazi church administration accepted positions which a majority of the other rebellious pastors were not willing to approve. He saw, for example, that the logic of the Confessional demand for ‘independence’ from the State involved a dissolution of the privileged position hitherto held by the state churches, with a surrender of income from taxes and assumption of voluntary support for clergy and parishes. Only a small minority of the Protestant pastors have so far been willing to follow him in his espousal of this ideal for a ‘free’ Church; most of the ministers who make up the Confessional ranks, steeped in Lutheran traditions, cling to the hope that the State can be required to maintain the ministry of the altar while acknowledging the freedom of the altar’s attendants from state control. As to this, Niemöller’s position is far more realistic; it is, in fact, the only one on which an independent Protestantism can maintain itself against a strong State of the Nazi type.


It became a question of time as to how long Niemöller would be allowed his defiant freedom. The church at Dahlem was always crowded; attendance was one way of showing disapproval of the Nazi régime. At last, on July 1, the blow fell. Niemöller knew it was coming. ‘The pressure is growing,’ he said in his last and bitterest sermon, preached on June 27. ‘I think, for instance,’ he went on, ‘how on Wednesday the secret police penetrated into the closed church of Friedrich Werder and arrested at the altar eight members of the Council of Brethren who were assembled there. ... I think how yesterday at Saarbrücken six women and a trusted man of the Evangelical community were arrested because they had circulated an election leaflet of the Confessional Church at the direction of the Council of Brethren. . . . He who has indeed suffered all this cannot be far from uttering the words of the prophet . . . “Now, oh Lord, take away my life.”’

Three days later he was in prison. And as this is written he is still there. So far the temper of the people has been such that the Nazi authorities are afraid to bring him to trial. The entirely unexpected acquittal of Dr. Friedrich Otto Dibelius, charged with spreading lies against the Nazi church ministry, may have contributed something to this hesitancy. But Niemöller is much too dangerous a man to be allowed to go free.

The Nazis will probably wait until the zeal of the pastor’s followers has somewhat abated and the demonstrations in his behalf have ceased — then a swift and quiet trial. In any case, whatever the outcome, Niemöller’s fate will change nothing in Germany. Nazi nationalism is selfish and tyrannical; it will never divide power with the Church.

Martin Niemöller will not be the first martyr whose personal courage has been of greater lasting importance than his ideas. On one fundamental he is of course eternally right: religion in the hands of the State is religion emptied of spiritual significance. But of what spiritual significance is the religion which Niemöller holds and which he would propagate? It is a narrow, mediæval faith. It would divide man into two selves — spiritual and worldly, the second subordinated to the first. The spiritual self would owe allegiance to the Church, the worldly self to the State. The chief and only aim of the individual in the Church would be the search after absolution from sin through the grace of God — in order to secure entrance into the company of the saved. To the State the individual owes absolute obedience, for the ruler is ordained by God, and only where the State acts contrary to the Word of God, as written in the Bible and interpreted by the Church, dare the citizen protest. The Church must therefore be more powerful than the State, for it must be able to check the State when it wanders outside its worldly province of keeping order and punishing evildoers.

American churchmen tend to ignore Niemöller’s faith for the sake of Niemöller’s fight against the Nazis. The man who awaits trial, who is ready to die for his faith, has more in common with Martin Luther than his strength; he belongs more to Luther’s day than to ours. He is not the man to bring peace or spiritual life to Germany. If Germany is to go forward it can be no more through Niemöller than through Hitler.