Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2019-072
8 Aug. 2019
Review by Mark Jantzen, Bethel College
Then They Came for Me: Martin Niemöller, the Pastor Who Defied the Nazis
By Matthew D. Hockenos
New York: Basic Books, 2018. Pp. ix, 322. ISBN 978–0–465–09786–9.
Descriptors: Volume 2019, 20th Century, World War II, Religion Print Version

Historian Matthew Hockenos (Skidmore College) opens his biography of Martin Niemöller with the German pastor's often quoted (and misquoted) summary of his life under National Socialism:

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. (1)

Despite the presence of these words at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and in American popular culture, their "author's life story remains largely unknown" (3). Niemöller's life, like his signature quote, has become a shorthand for virtue, but, in terms of their sources, details, and implications, accounts of that life have been too simplistic. In this biography, Hockenos takes a hard critical look at an icon who was neither a true moral exemplar nor an irrelevant Protestant pastor who failed to grasp the meaning of what was going on around him. In the process, he brings his subject down to a human scale, while demonstrating the importance of context and a command of the sources.


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Chapters 1–3 chart Niemöller's path from childhood to the pastorate of a wealthy Berlin congregation. His father Heinrich was a Lutheran pastor in Lippstadt, Westphalia, where Martin was born in 1892. His mother Paula was of Huguenot stock. He grew up mostly in Elberfeld, where his father accepted a pastorate in order to send his son to better schools. The household was nationalistic and bourgeois, leading Martin to join the navy (1913), which was more open to commoners than the army. In World War I, he served on several U-boats before receiving the command of a mine-laying submarine in summer 1918. As a nationalist, he was devastated by Germany's defeat in the war. Only his marriage on Easter 1919 to Else Bremer prevented him from joining one of the numerous right-wing paramilitaries (Freikorps) that proliferated in the confusion after the war, although he briefly led a unit of the Academic Defense Corps that fought the Communist paramilitary Red Army in Lippe in 1920. But he ultimately decided to serve his country by becoming a Protestant pastor, where his nationalism could also be put to good use in an institution that for the most part opposed democracy. After completing his studies and a stint with the Westphalian Inner Mission, he was called in 1931 to lead a congregation in Dahlem, an affluent Berlin suburb.

Chapters 4–6 document Niemöller's shift from embracing aspects of Nazi ideology to opposing its implementation in the Protestant Church, which led to his incarceration as a personal prisoner of Adolf Hitler. He voted for the Nazis in the last elections (March 1933) and eagerly welcomed the possibilities for national renewal under Hitler. This enthusiasm, however, ended when the "German Christian" movement sought to make the faith compatible with Nazi ideology by removing any reference to Judaism. Actively resisting this attempt to take over the Protestant Church, Niemöller quickly became a leader of the Young Reformers movement, which opposed the German Christians in church leadership elections, but otherwise supported the Nazis. Around this time, he met Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was anti-Hitler from the beginning. Apart from a distaste for the German Christians, the two men agreed on little, since Niemöller still expected the church and Hitler to support each other. After the German Christian movement gained control of the Protestant Church in Prussia in an election campaign that saw the Gestapo raid Niemöller's office, he and Bonhoeffer cooperated to establish the Pastors' Emergency League (PEL) with Niemöller as the leader. Initially, seven thousand of the nation's eighteen thousand pastors joined forces to keep German Christians from running the church.

These efforts led to PEL leaders being summoned to a meeting with Hitler, where they were presented with transcripts of phone calls showing they hoped President Paul von Hindenburg would intervene on their behalf. They were accused of being a political, not a theological, group. When Niemöller protested that the calls were taken out of context and the PEL was only looking after the best interests of the German people and the Third Reich, Hitler replied, "Leave the care of the Third Reich to me" (106). Hockenos aptly notes, "There are as many accounts of this famous meeting as there were men in the room" (107). Most controversial was Niemöller's claim that he told Hitler that the state could not assume a responsibility God had given to pastors. In a welcome deconstruction of some of the mythology surrounding Niemöller, Hockenos notes that his varying accounts of the meeting raise doubts about his version of his exchange with Hitler.

Niemöller was also instrumental in calling for the drafting of a confession or statement of faith to clarify the difference between the two groups, or, as he put it, "the teachings of the Reformation and those proclaimed by the German Christians" (91). This call was important in the creation of the Barmen Declaration of Faith and the Confessing Church, the movement that grew out of the PEL. Niemöller's parish had elected a church council that, unlike the church at large, rejected the German Christians, thus providing him with valuable cover. By June 1937, he was reading from the pulpit the names of Confessing Church members who had been arrested and asking for intercessory prayers.

On 1 July 1937, the Gestapo arrested Niemöller for the sixth time. This became front-page news in the New York Times and made him the international face of German opposition to Hitler. Indeed, a network of international supporters and a friendly American press kept him in the public eye throughout the Nazi era. After eight months of solitary confinement at Moabit prison, he was tried and sentenced to time served, but then taken out a side door and whisked away to Sachsenhausen as Hitler's prisoner. The ardent nationalist who offered to serve as a reserve officer in 1939 was confined to Dachau in July 1941, though always enjoying better conditions than other inmates. He was evacuated with other prominent prisoners to northern Italy at the end of the war and narrowly escaped assassination by his guards, who had orders to make sure he did not survive the war.

Chapters 7–10 recount Niemöller's postwar career and influence. Captured by the American army in Italy, he enjoyed many special privileges but was not freed for a couple of months after the war. By the time a large group of US and British war correspondents found him on 5 June 1945 in his hotel room in Naples, he was eager to go home. He castigated the Americans for keeping him prisoner while many good Germans, innocent of Nazi crimes, still needed help. This interview with the press exposed Niemöller's lingering nationalist and militarist leanings; it would be brought up repeatedly by his opponents in subsequent decades. Any hopes that he could be a moral or political leader in postwar Germany now seemed misguided. Nonetheless, his international reputation allowed him to play a key role in reestablishing ecumenical connections with other churches.

Niemöller also pushed church leaders publicly to accept responsibility for German crimes, adding decisive language to the 1945 "Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt." Hockenos fails to highlight Niemöller's role here to the extent that others have, a rare missed opportunity. In 1946, Niemöller spoke widely in Germany, identifying specific culpabilities of Germans and church members. This helped Germans perceive and admit their responsibility for persecuting the groups named in his famous quotation.

In late 1946, as the new head of foreign-church relations for the Evangelical Church in Germany, Niemöller was to represent Germans to Americans broadly and the Federal Council of Churches specifically at their meetings in the United States in December. Dean Acheson, undersecretary of state in charge of visas, did not want to grant entrance to a vocal early Nazi sympathizer still seen as anti-democratic. Eleanor Roosevelt and Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress, were among the many prominent Americans who opposed his invitation. Nonetheless, at the urging of Protestant leaders, Niemöller and his wife became the first German civilians to be granted US visas after the war. They spoke in various settings to throngs of people everywhere they went. Niemöller's stump speech prominently featured all the sentiments of his famous quotation, if not its precise wording. It seems to have been created later out of that raw material.

Upon returning to Germany, Niemöller was elected head of the Hesse Nassau provincial church, his main base of influence from 1947 to 1964. He still struggled to formulate an account of events untainted by antisemitic bias, notably as co-author of the 1947 Darmstadt statement criticizing the church's reactionary politics and espousing support for the political left. His contacts with pacifist clergy, starting with the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948, opposition to rearmament in West Germany, and the advent of nuclear weapons turned the former militarist into a pacifist by 1954.

Niemöller's speeches about his experiences were better received abroad than at home. In 1967, he visited Hanoi, Vietnam, and was awarded the Soviet Union's Lenin Peace Prize. In his eighties, he took part in the peace marches of the 1968 generation. In 1977, members of the Red Army Faction conducted a series of kidnappings in an effort to free some of their imprisoned comrades; after the last of these, they proposed that Niemöller accompany them as a hostage on the plane they would escape in. Though nothing came if it, the affair speaks to Niemöller's symbolic status even late in his life. He died of cancer, aged 92, in 1984.

The author's narrative is strengthened throughout by paragraphs that pointedly distill his arguments and their significance. The following—on the aftermath of Niemöller's tour of America—is a typical example.

Niemöller's visit was unable to quell the dispute over his complicity and his resistance.… Niemöller's support for the Nazis in the 1924 and 1933 elections led to false accusations that he was a member of the Nazi party…. At the same time, Niemöller's defiance of Hitler … led his defenders to make unsubstantiated claims that the pastor opposed Hitler's political and racial policies from the start. These misrepresentations of Niemöller can be traced to the conflicted legacy of the Church Struggle. (209)

Matthew Hockenos's compelling new biography strikes a fine balance between the personal, social, and political motives behind Martin Niemöller's actions.

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