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Martin Niemöller file photo [26669]

Martin Niemöller

Given NameMartin
Born14 Jan 1892
Died6 Mar 1984


ww2dbaseFriedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller was born in Lippstadt, Germany in 1892 to Lutheran pastor Heinrich Niemöller and his wife Pauline (née Müller). In 1900, his family moved to Elberfeld. In 1910, he enlisted in the German Navy, eventually becoming a submariner. He fought in WW1 aboard submarines U-73 (as second officer), U-39 (as navigator), U-151 (as first officer), and UC-67 (as commanding officer). For his WW1 service, he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class medal. At the end of the war, he was ordered to surrender his submarine to the British; he refused the order, and was discharged from the German Navy. In 20 Jul 1919, he married Else Bremer, with whom he would have six children, and briefly worked at a farm. Between 1920 to 1923, he studied theology at the University of Münster. While a student, he was a member of the para-military Freikorps. In 1922, he worked briefly as a railroad track layer. In 1923, Niemöller began working with the Lutheran Home Mission of Westphalia. In 1924, he was ordained. During the latter half of the 1920s, he was the curate at the Church of the Redeemer in Münster and then the superintendent of the Inner Mission in the old-Prussian ecclesiastical province of Westphalia.

ww2dbaseIn 1931, Niemöller became the junior pastor of Saint Anne's Church in Dahlem near Berlin, Germany. He initially welcomed the arrival of the Nazi Party due to its apparent pro-German and anti-communist stance. Once the Nazi Party came to power and began to Nazify all branches of society, namely the church, he began to criticize the government's attempt to intervene in church matters. Overall, he remained a supporter of the Nazi regime, however, going as far as sending Adolf Hitler's office an approving and congratulating telegram for Hitler's decision to remove Germany from the League of Nations in 1933. In 1934, together with other religious leaders such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, founded the Confessional Church as the mainstream Lutheran church slowly became an organ of the Nazi German government. In 1936, he joined a group of Protestant church leaders in protesting the practice of creating "Aryan Paragraph" in various documents of German businesses, citing its incompatibility with the Christian virtues. While he hid a number of Jews in his church to protect them from state persecution, he had also made anti-Semitic remarks, such as the statement from a 1935 sermon: "What is the reason for [the Jews'] obvious punishment, which has lasted for thousands of years?... The Jews brought the Christ of God to the cross". In another sermon also dated 1935, he described the Jews as "a highly gifted people which produces idea after idea for the benefit of the world, but whatever it takes up changes into poison, and all that it ever reaps is contempt and hatred". He was arrested a number of times between 1934 and 1937 for various anti-government offenses. He was arrested for the final time in Jul 1937, and would remain detained at the Moabit Prison in Berlin through Mar 1938, when he was brought to court for anti-German activities. He was given a 7-month prison sentence and was released immediately for time already served; as he was walking out of the court building, however, he was taken in by Gestapo agents. Between 1938 and 1942, he was a prisoner at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. While a prisoner at Sachsenhausen, he wrote two letters, once in 1938 and a second time in 1941, to Admiral Erich Raeder, requesting Raeder's intervention for Niemöller's release, so that Niemöller could re-join the navy. In 1942, he was transferred to Dachau concentration camp, where he would be housed with Catholic dissenters. Near the end of the European War, in late Apr 1945, with about 140 other important prisoners, he was transported southward. This group was possibly being safeguarded as potential bargaining chips. En route, in Austria, German Army personnel overtook the SS guards (who probably had orders to kill the entire group prisoners should any part of the plan go wrong) and took custody of the group. They were eventually freed by members of the US Seventh Army.

ww2dbaseAfter the war, Niemöller was one of the initiators of the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt (dated 19 Oct 1945), which acknowledged that the German churches had not done enough to resist Nazi policies. In 1946, he made the first of several speeches about the cowardice of German intellectuals, including himself, following the Nazi Party's rise to power and subsequent purges. The key points were later re-written as a poem similar to the following:

ww2dbaseFirst they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.

ww2dbaseThen they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist.

ww2dbaseThen they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, Because I was not a Jew.

ww2dbaseThen they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

ww2dbaseOther groups mentioned in other versions of this speech included patients of incurable diseases, Jehovah's Witnesses, and civilians of German-occupied countries.

ww2dbaseOn the political front, Niemöller called for the Germans to collectively admit guilt to the crimes committed during the Nazi regime, which made him unpopular. He also opposed the de-Nazification process being implemented by the Allied occupation administration, demanded the immediate release of German prisoners of war, and, in 1961, opposed the formal division of Germany.

ww2dbaseBetween 1947 and 1961, Niemöller was elected the president of the Hessen-Nassau Lutheran Church. Starting in the mid-1950s, he became an ardent supporter of nuclear disarmament. In 1961, he became president of the World Council of Churches. In 1963, in a West German television interview, he made a statement regretting his anti-Semitism. In 1966, he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize by the Soviet Union. He passed away at Wiesbaden, West Germany in Mar 1984.

Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Last Major Revision: Apr 2017

Martin Niemöller Timeline

14 Jan 1892 Martin Niemöller was born in Lippstadt, Germany.
20 Jul 1919 Martin Niemöller married Else Bremer.
29 Jun 1924 Martin Niemöller was ordained.
1 Jul 1937 Martin Niemöller was arrested.
2 Mar 1938 Martin Niemöller was tried by a special court appointed by the Nazi German government for anti-German activities. He would be sentenced to a 7-month prison sentence and a fine of 2,000 Reichmarks.
6 Mar 1984 Martin Niemöller passed away in Wiesbaden, West Germany.

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