Problematic pastor ran afoul of Nazis
THE 20th century saw a lot of bad ideas: Prussian militarism, German Nazism, Soviet communism, the ’60s counterculture. At one point or another in his career, German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller was complicit in all of these phenomena.
But he also ran afoul of German dictator Adolf Hitler, leading to imprisonment in concentration camps for eight years.
Niemoller’s moral ambiguity is depicted by American historian Matthew Hockenos in a biography that seeks neither to vilify nor adulate, but to understand.
Niemoller was born in 1892 in northwestern Germany; his father was a Lutheran pastor. Niemoller served his nation in the First World War as a submarine officer. After the war, he entered the seminary and was ordained a Lutheran pastor in 1924.
Niemoller initially welcomed the rise of Hitler, and voted for Hitler’s Nazi party in
1924 and 1933.
However, he grew disillusioned with Hitler, becoming the leader of German Protestant resistance to the Nazi regime. But Hockenos is careful to point out that Niemoller opposed Hitler not because of any empathy for the plight of the Jews, but because of Hitler’s attempt to Nazify the Protestant church. Niemoller would not accept Hitler’s church policy; as a result, he languished in Nazi camps from 1937 to
This defiance of Hitler, whatever motive was behind it, was the pastor’s finest hour. It was the one phase of his career that was morally unambiguous.
In the immediate postwar years, Niemoller recanted his initial support for Hitler, lamenting that the German Protestant church did not do more to oppose anti-Semitism.
The former naval officer became a strident pacifist and advocate of Christian ecumenism. He identified with various fashionable political causes during the Cold War; he was an outspoken critic of West Germany, the United States and the West in general.
Indeed, he was so anti-American that the Soviet Union awarded him the Lenin Prize, the Soviet version of the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1967. Niemoller had no compunctions over accepting this award; Hockenos suggests that the pastor was blind to the crimes of communism.
Niemoller died in 1984; at best, he was a deeply flawed hero. As Hockenos writes, “Once the legend is stripped away, Niemoller necessarily disappoints us.” The author compares the pastor unfavourably to other great opponents of tyranny.
Hockenos has produced a supremely nuanced account of an enigmatic figure. Then They Came for Me: Martin Niemoller, the Pastor who Defied the Nazis
By Matthew D. Hockenos
Basic Books, 336 pages, $42