Martin Niemeoller was a leading Protestant pastor who was an outspoken critic of the Nazi Party and all it stood for. Martin Niemeoller lived a dangerous life and in many senses he was lucky to survive World War Two as many others were executed for much lesser charges.
Niemeoller was born in Lippstadt on January 14th 1892. During World War One he was a U-boat commander and was awarded some of the highest military decorations for his bravery such as the Pour le Merité. After the end of World War One Niemeoller decided to study theology and was ordained in 1924.
Niemeoller was an ardent nationalist and opposed communism and all it stood for. At first he welcomed Hitler’s appointed as Chancellor in January 1933 and he joined the Nazi Party. However, he did a volte face when it became clear that Hitler was trying to make the Reich Church supreme in Nazi Germany – as part of Gleichshaltung. Niemeoller was especially against the move to make Positive Christianity supreme in Germany. As a result of this Niemeoller decided to take over the leadership of the Confessional Church in Germany. To protect Lutheranism and all it stood for, Niemeoller set up the Pastors’ Emergency League and in 1934 some 7000 people met at his Synod of Barmen. Such open defiance could not be tolerated by the Nazi hierarchy and the Pastors’ Emergency League had little impact as so many of its members were persecuted by the state’s internal security forces.
On June 27th 1937 Niemeoller made his last sermon in Nazi Germany. Hitler was furious with the theme which pushed the idea that:
“We must obey God rather than man.”
He was arrested on July 1st 1937 and spent the next eight months in Moabit Prison, Berlin. Niemeoller was put on trial on March 3rd 1938. Rather than adopt a submissive approach, he went on the offensive. He attacked his accusers of turning their back on God. However, he was found guilty and sentenced to seven months in prison (in fact, he served his time in a fortress reserved for ‘honourable prisoners such as military officers) and fined 2,000 Marks for “abuse of the pulpit”.
Niemeoller served eight months in prison – one month more than the sentence. This was probably because Hitler was so furious with the leniency of the original sentence. Niemeoller was immediately arrested by the Gestapo on release and held in ‘protective custody’. He spent World War Two in various concentration camps before being released by Allied troops in 1945.
In 1946 Niemeoller admitted Germany’s guilt for the war during a speech he gave in Geneva. In 1947 he became the first bishop of the newly reformed Evangelical Church and spent his time preaching about the virtues of pacifism. During the fraught era of the Cold War, Niemeoller even visited Moscow and North Vietnam in an attempt to make the world a safer place.