Martin Niemoller ~ Pastor and Defier of Adolf Hitler

Born the son of a Protestant pastor, Martin Niemoller’s stand against the Nazification of Germany would lead him to become Adolf Hitler’s special prisoner and a symbol of resistance. Although initially supporting the rise to power of the National Socialists as a response to his dislike of the Weimar Republic, Niemoller became stalwart in his opposition to its paganism from 1933 and helped lead from 1937 onwards the anti Nazi Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche). He also was instrumental in the formation of the Pastor’s Emergency League (Pfarrernotbund).

In 1961 he became a president of the World Council of Churches, a post he held until 1968. During Holy Week in March 1961 Pastor Niemoller came to Perth to take part in services at the St. John’s Kirk. On the 29th March 1961 at the end of his visit he was given a civic reception at the Station Hotel.

Pastor D. Martin Niemoller (D.D.) had been born in 1892 in Lippstadt, Westphalia and entered the German Navy in 1910. During the First World War he was a distinguished and decorated U-boat Commander whose record and exploits made him well known to the German people. In 1924 he was ordained and became the pastor of the Berlin parish of Dahlem in 1931. His account of this period is to be found in his best-selling book, ‘From U-boat to Pulpit’ (1934).

For his attack on the Nazi State, Pastor Niemoller was initially hounded by the Gestapo, arrested and fined 2,000 Reichsmarks. On release he was immediately rearrested and summoned for an interview with the Fuhrher. Despite being an ardent nationalist Niemoller would not support the Third Reich and was prohibited from preaching. This he conflated and consequently was imprisoned for seven years in the concentration camps of Dachau and Sachsenhausen. Much of this time he was placed in solitary confinement and narrowly avoided execution (despite Hitler’s order) as Germany collapsed under allied attacks. He was not released until the end of the Second World War at which point he helped to produce a document known as the‘Stuttgart Confession of Guilt’ in 1945. This paper was a statement of the collective guilt of the German nation including Niemoller himself and a method of atonement. It was a formal confession of the complicity of the German Protestant Church in the suffering and death caused by the Nazi regime. Niemoller then went on to become the first President of a new Evangelical Church.

Amongst the awards and honours he achieved in his lifetime Pastor Niemoller counted the Lenin Peace Prize (1967) and the West German Grand Cross of Merit (1971). In later life Pastor Niemoller would go onto be a pacifist and campaign against nuclear weapons. He died at the age of 92 in Wiesbaden in Germany on March 6 1984.

“First they came for the Communists,
and I did not speak up,
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I did not speak up,
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I did not speak up,
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.”

“Ask the first man you meet what he means by defending freedom, and he’ll tell you privately he means defending the standard of living.”

Pastor Niemoller