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

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