Review of Matthew D. Hockenos, Then They Came for Me: Martin Niemöller, the Pastor who Defied the Nazis

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 25, Number 1 (March 2019)

Review of Matthew D. Hockenos, Then They Came for Me: Martin Niemöller, the Pastor who Defied the Nazis (New York: Basic Books, 2018). 322 pp. ISBN: 978-0-465-09786-9.

Reviewed by Robert P. Ericksen

Matthew Hockenos, a mid-career historian of modern Germany, has provided us with a new and much-needed book about Martin Niemöller, one of the best-known Protestants to speak out against Nazi church policies, who then suffered imprisonment from 1937 to 1945 as a result. This work, published by Basic Books, is carefully researched, well argued, very nicely written, and deserving of a broad audience. It also will reward academics and others interested specifically in the role of German Protestants in Nazi Germany.

For those of us focused on contemporary church history and Nazi Germany, Martin Niemöller is a pretty famous guy. Matthew Hockenos (one of the editors of this Contemporary Church History Quarterly) is fully aware of that. However, he begins his book by acknowledging that Niemöller’s so-called “confession” is far, far better known than Niemöller himself. Beginning “in the late 1970s and the early 1980s,” he argues, human rights activists and secondary school teachers made these lines ubiquitous. “College students adorn their dorm-room walls” with these words, he writes, and the statement is “prominently displayed” in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and elsewhere (2-3). Hockenos borrows a small portion of these famous words from Niemöller for his title. The more complete version also forms his epigraph for the book:

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Communist.

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

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. (1)

Hockenos is certainly correct to assume that millions of people who know these words do not know Niemöller. His book also makes the implicit claim that many who know Martin Niemöller do not know him well enough.

Part of the problem with “knowing” Niemöller involves hagiography. In our postwar search for Christian heroes within the confines of Nazi Germany, he naturally attracted attention. Niemöller was an important co-founder of the Confessing Church, that 20 percent of Protestants in Germany who resisted the Nazified distortions of Christian theology pushed by the enthusiastically pro-Nazi Deutsche Christen. Within the Confessing Church, he was a leader in what became known as the “radical Niemöller wing,” a rump group that also included the even more famous Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They were less willing than many in the Confessing Church to combine opposition to Nazified heresies (such as throwing the Old Testament out of the Bible or removing Christian pastors “of Jewish descent” from the clergy roster) with ongoing enthusiasm for the political leadership of Hitler. Hockenos comments, “Previous biographies (two in German and three in English, to date) have done little to probe the depths of this complicated man, preferring instead to present him in a mostly heroic light.” He then describes his book as,

a revisionist biography that weaves together Niemöller’s personal story with the great dramas of the twentieth century that drove his moral and political evolution. It seeks neither to vilify him nor to add to the existing hagiographies, but rather to understand him and his confession and to reveal what his transformation from Nazi sympathizer to committed pacifist tells us about how and under what circumstances such reversals are possible. (3)

The second part of the problem in Niemöller’s biographical treatment, according to Hockenos, is also rooted in the hagiographic impulse: a tendency to focus primarily upon Niemöller’s life from 1933-1945. Hockenos devotes about one-third of his book to Niemöller’s life before 1933. During this period, Martin Niemöller mirrored virtually all of the characteristics that led so many Christians to welcome Adolf Hitler as a savior of Germany from its many troubles. Martin’s patriotism and reverence for authoritarian leadership had been nurtured by his father, Heinrich, a Lutheran pastor in Lippstatt and then in Elbersfeld, both in northwestern Germany. In 1892, the year of Martin’s birth, his father visited Wittenberg to attend the 375th anniversary of the Reformation, organized as a special, national celebration by the recently installed Kaiser Wilhelm II. “With the crowds cheering, a young pastor in his robe and collar, overwhelmed by the patriotic religious experience, hurled his hat toward the kaiser’s entourage, where it landed amid the honorary guard.” This was Martin’s father. Though chastised by the captain of the honor guard, Heinrich later would tell this story and add, “But I would do the same again” (15).

In 1898 Martin’s father again had the unexpected pleasure of sharing an event with the Kaiser. Wilhelm II, nurturing the robust expansion of Germany’s military and colonial place in the world, organized a trip to Jerusalem to inaugurate on Reformation Day the German-built Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. Heinrich had to travel on a British steamer, hired by the German Protestant Church, rather than Wilhelm’s royal yacht. However, though only a simple pastor among more important church officials, he was awarded the last spot on this steamer by the Protestant Consistory of Prussia. Mostly thanks to donations from his parishioners to pay the necessary fee, this chance to visit the Holy Land for such an auspicious occasion became one of the most treasured memories of Heinrich Niemöller. Hockenos then fits this early event in Martin’s life, his awareness of his father’s deep love for Germany and respect for the Kaiser, into the story as follows:

The German Protestant pastorate claimed that it was apolitical and above party politics, but in fact the vast majority of pastors were intensely loyal to the Hohenzollern monarchy and supported right-wing anti-Semitic parties. To celebrate Reformation Day in Jerusalem in the presence of His Majesty was an unforgettable benchmark in Heinrich Niemöller’s life. That his trip was as much a celebration of German power and prestige as a religious pilgrimage is evident in certain entries in his ornate memory book, Up to Jerusalem. . . . The consecration of the Redeemer Church itself was a milestone in the history of German Protestantism . . . . Nothing could better demonstrate the alliance of throne and altar, in his view, and that of many others. (18-19)

A second phase of Martin Niemöller’s political education came when he joined the German navy, an experience he later described in his 1934 memoir, From U-Boat to Pulpit. Martin had dreamed of joining the navy ever since his toddler years when he wore his sailor suit to church on Sundays. He became a naval cadet at the age of eighteen, after finishing at the “top of his class” at Gymnasium (a common experience for the intelligent and disciplined Martin). He graduated and received his rank of lieutenant in 1913 at the age of twenty-one (22-25). One year later this placed him at war, and Hockenos’s chapters on World War One and its aftermath show us how the milieu and attitudes Niemöller imbibed from his father shaped him during that fraught period of German history.

Hockenos introduces the background to World War One by describing Kaiser Wilhelm’s great desire to make Germany a world power, especially including the creation of a navy to rival that of Great Britain. He then uses a quotation from Admiral von Tirpitz to give us a window on the logic: “The pressure exerted on England, just by the presence of our fleet—the threat to their position as a world power–better than anything else, ensures peace.”[7] This came in April 1914, so that the peace von Tirpitz thought Germans were ensuring by their aggressive naval build-up and their challenge toward England lasted a bit less than four months. Hockenos also highlights both the irony and the complexity of Niemöller’s exultant response, as a naval officer, the son of a pastor, and a future pastor, to his part in the sinking of British ships and the toll of the dead. He listed death tolls in individual actions from dozens to hundreds. In one case of 1916, after laying underwater mines which sank nine ships, Niemöller later wrote in his memoir (long after the heat and adrenalin of battle), “Revenge is sweet” (36).

Niemöller did not approve of Kaiser Wilhelm’s abdication and flight from Germany, to the extent that he himself considered his naval officer’s oath of loyalty to the Kaiser still in place until Wilhelm’s death in 1941. He also resented the advent of democracy and creation of the Weimar Republic. He and his brother Wilhelm, a (soon-to-be) fellow pastor and future historian of the Confessing Church, both sympathized with and participated briefly in the Freikorps, rightwing paramilitaries opposed to the Weimar Republic. Then, though it might seem jarring to those who know Niemöller as an opponent of Hitler, both Martin and Wilhelm gave early support to Hitler, Wilhelm even joining the Nazi Party in 1923. Both of them voted for Hitler and celebrated Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Refusing to give Niemöller too easy an out for his early politics, Hockenos writes,

He was a middle-aged man who had read Mein Kampf and knew very well what Hitler stood for. And even after he watched Hitler abolish the national parliament, ban political parties and trade unions, and persecute his opponents, Niemöller refused to distance himself from radical nationalism and anti-Semitism—even on occasion after 1945. (264)

However, Hockenos also admires Niemöller’s gradual change in the years after 1945:

His transformation from nationalist to internationalist, from militarist to pacifist, and from racist and anti-Semite to champion of equality all evinced a more general transformation—from provincial, narrow-minded chauvinist to compassionate, open-minded humanitarian. In this, Niemöller is to be admired and his evolution celebrated. Committed as most of us are today to particular beliefs, we would do well to engage with the life of a man who changed his—even if that effort ultimately falls short of the truly heroic. (5)

I have focused here on that early portion of Martin Niemöller’s life, that which tied him most closely to the world of his father’s German nationalism and rightwing politics. This is the sort of thing that helps explain his early willingness, and that of very many Christians in Germany, to accept the leadership of Adolf Hitler, even with enthusiasm. These products of Wilhelmine Germany faced the high costs and wrenching defeat of World War One, followed by the challenge of democratic norms and cultural openness under the Weimar Republic, including specific difficulties and disappointments experienced during that period. Hockenos tells us that, and it tends to put Niemöller and many of his colleagues on the wrong side of history. Hockenos also tells us, however, of the heroic Martin Niemöller, especially his courage and intransigence in the face of Nazi ideologues interfering with church government and his freedom of belief. Then Hockenos gives us four chapters devoted to Martin Niemöller after 1945.

I like this choice: three important chapters on Niemöller before 1933; three chapters on Niemöller’s struggle against and suffering under the Nazi state, for which he is rightly famous; and then four chapters on those nearly four full decades in which he was a world celebrity. Beginning with his release from Dachau, Niemöller was an important figure in helping the postwar German Protestant Church deal with its past. This began with the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt in 1945, followed by gradually facing up to the implications of the Holocaust and leading finally to a dramatically new theological stance on the relationship between Christians and Jews. Niemöller served as President of the Church in Hessen and Nassau from 1947 to 1964 and as President of the World Council of Churches from 1961 to 1968. He was active in the international peace movement already in the 1950s, becoming friends with the Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, among others. He became known for his support of the 1968 generation and its liberalizing efforts, his opposition to America’s war in Vietnam, his visits to Hanoi, and his visits to Russia.

It is no surprise that Hockenos extends his examination of Niemöller into these postwar years and beyond. This was the time in which Christian churches began a dramatic reckoning with the past, spurred on, of course, by the reality that a Christian nation had murdered six million Jews. Hockenos shows respect for Martin Niemöller as he describes the nine tumultuous decades of his life, but he is right to say that this is no hagiographic treatment. It is rather, a clear-eyed, well-informed look into nine dramatic decades in German history and in the history of the German Protestant Church, nine decades that corresponded with and were impacted by Niemöller’s ninety-two years.