Conference Report: Martin Niemöller und seine internationale Rezeption – Martin Niemöller and his international reception

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 27, Number 2 (June 2021)

Conference Report: Martin Niemöller und seine internationale Rezeption – Martin Niemöller and his international reception, Frankfurt/Main, Germany, April 27-28, 2021

By Michael Heymel, Independent Scholar and Central Archives of the Protestant Church in Hessen and Nassau (retired)

On this topic an international conference took place on April 27-28, 2021, at the Evangelische Akademie Frankfurt. The conference was conceived by Lukas Bormann, professor for New Testament research at Philipps-Universität Marburg, together with practical theologian Michael Heymel, and was conducted in collaboration with study director Eberhard Pausch. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was held as a videoconference.

Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) is one of the most internationally known German Protestant church leaders and theologians of the 20th century. For some years he has been back in the discussion through the biographies of Heymel (2017), Hockenos (2018), Ziemann (2019) and Rognon (2020). Historian Benjamin Ziemann takes a particular position. He emphasizes Niemöller’s temporary closeness to German national (völkische) movements and problematizes his attitude toward Judaism and Jewish people, the attribution of his activities from 1933 on as resistance against the Nazi regime, his criticism of the Lutheran regional churches, and his contribution to the ecclesiastical discourse on guilt to 1948.

The conference, supported by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation for the Promotion of Science and the EKHN Foundation, took up these topics in the new Niemöller debate. It presented contributions on basic questions of Niemöller research and on the reception of Martin Niemöller in five European countries and the USA, which were discussed in an interdisciplinary and multinational exchange. This was done in order to arrive at a historically and theologically reflected re-evaluation of Niemöller’s work in international perspective.

Section I dealt with the particularly controversial topics of anti-Semitism and resistance. Benjamin Ziemann (Sheffield) emphasized Niemöller’s racial antisemitism as seen in his connection to the DeutschVölkischer Schutz- und Trutzbund after the First World War. This völkisch antisemitism remained in place through the balance of the Weimar era. Beginning in 1931-1932, Niemöller embarked on a theological interpretation of Jewry and Judaism but continued to struggle with antisemitism even into the postwar era.*

When asked if Niemöller had been a man of resistance against the Nazi regime, Victoria Barnett (Washington) answered with a “cautious no.” She indicated that resistance was a complicated matter. Personality and a common language played an important role. As a “good German,” Niemöller had seen himself in opposition to the ‘German Christians’ (Deutsche Christen), similar to other nationalist Germans. Others, especially women, had been clearer in their opposition. The Nazi policy against the church had touched him as a pastor and in his loyalty to the fatherland and challenged him as a fighter, which he had been by nature. He had been seen as a successor to Luther who became a preacher of resistance. With regard to Niemöller’s conflict between nationalistic loyalty and Nazi church policy, Barnett brought his attitude to the concept of a “loyal resister”.

Malte Dücker (Frankfurt) suggested that Niemöller should be viewed from the perspective of cultural studies as a figure of memory. He distinguished phases of reception, which were characterized by companions of the Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche, or BK), church-historical heroization, and the deconstruction of Niemöller legends in response to them. Niemöller was portrayed as a Christian who confronted the rulers like Luther in Worms, or as a socio-political Protestant who appeared like a biblical prophet (i.e. Jeremiah). He was perceived as an authentic personality. In contrast, narrative contextualization of today’s post-heroic society shows him as an ambivalent hero with fractures and contradictions. An artistic form (musical, drama, film) could be suitable for this.

The lectures in Section II were devoted to Niemöller’s reception in European Protestantism and dealt especially with the period after 1945. Frédéric Rognon (Strasbourg), who presented the first French biography on Niemöller in 2020, made clear that his name is generally unknown in France today. Before 2020, only one book about him and one by him had been published: in 1938 an anonymous, hagiographically colored writing about the everyday life of the Dahlem pastor, in 1946 a brochure with four texts about German guilt, which hardly allowed French readers to understand Niemöller’s special situation. To this day, he is not recognized in France because he was German and a pastor, and especially in secular France there is a strong distrust of religious people. Moreover, for the Protestant minority, he is overshadowed by Bonhoeffer. But it is precisely the paradoxical character of his life and thought that encourages people to identify with Niemöller.

Stephen Plant (Cambridge) outlined how the relationship between Niemöller and Karl Barth changed from casual allies in the 1930s to respectful friends after 1945. For both, he said, the Lutheran churches offered a common front. Barth had seen in Niemöller “too good a German” and “too good a Lutheran.” After the end of the war, he honored him as a symbol of resistance and reaffirmed his full confidence in Niemöller when it came to the future path of the church in Germany and a confession of guilt. He also noted Niemöller’s “blind spot for church diplomacy” and admonished him in 1951 to concentrate his energies. The confessional synod in Barmen (1934) had made Barth and Niemöller colleagues, the church conference in Treysa (1945) friends.

Wilken Veen (Amsterdam) spoke about the reception of Niemöller’s appearances and speeches in the Netherlands. There he is one of the ten best-known Germans. Niemöller was very popular as a resistance fighter after 1945; he was identified with the Confessing Church and was acclaimed like a movie star during his first visit in 1946. Franz Hildebrandt’s anonymous writing of 1938 had been translated immediately. Although a nationalist, Niemöller had preached biblical sermons. His sermons in the Netherlands had been evangelistic and missionary, and only in his speeches had he expressed himself politically.

Peter Morée (Prague) illuminated Niemöller’s relationship with Josef L. Hromádka against the backdrop of the special situation of the Czech Protestant Church as a minority church in an Eastern Bloc state. Church and state were ecumenically isolated here after 1945. Hromádka had contacts with Karl Barth and the Confessing Church. Without him there would have been no ecumenical relations. Niemöller came to Prague in 1954; his visit had been in the interest of the Politburo of the Communist Party since 1951. He and Hromádka would have known that their friendship was determined by the political agenda. The Christian Peace Conference (CFK) had been founded in 1958 together with representatives of the BK (including Iwand, Vogel and Gollwitzer) in response to the refusal of the World Council of Churches (WCC) to cooperate with the World Peace Council (WFR), which had existed since 1950.

Section III focused on Niemöller as a preacher and theologian. Alf Christophersen (Wuppertal) problematized Niemöller’s position between Lutheranism and Catholicism. In his notes of 1939, there was only one church for Niemöller; his exclusive model only allowed being Catholic or Protestant. From his point of view, Luther’s mistake had been that there was no longer any magisterial authority; the confessional writings could not be updated. Niemöller had formed an ideal image of Catholicism. Later, he did not see a plural Protestantism, but polarized it through his declamatory preaching.

Michael Heymel (Limburg/Lahn) presented Niemöller in three ecclesiastical fields of work—as preacher, theologian, and ecumenist. Niemöller’s sermons from 1945 to 1981, unlike those of the Dahlem period, have not yet been critically edited, and comparative studies are lacking. Niemöller had always wanted to preach Jesus Christ as the only Lord and to reach people in the reality of their lives. As a Bible-oriented theologian, influenced by Luther and Prussian Pietism, and one who was concerned with faith and the church as a Christocratic brotherhood, he criticized an academic theology without reference to the congregation. As an ecumenist, he said, he worked for communion with Christ in all churches and the “brotherhood of all people” and adhered to the WCC’s programmatic objectives. “The time of the white man is over,” he declared, adding that one must adjust to an ecumenism not dominated by the West.

Lukas Bormann (Marburg) devoted himself to Niemöller’s approach to the Bible in the Dahlem sermons, first emphasizing the importance of scriptural interpretation in the sermon and the service in a cognitive science perspective as a religious ritual. As a preacher in 1933-1937, Niemöller stood in a unique way for the religious distinctiveness of Protestantism. In his sermons on Volkstrauertag, or Heldengedenktag from 1934 on, there was no enthusiasm for war and no heroic pathos, but rather an increasing distancing from the National Socialist instrumentalization of “heroic remembrance.” The preacher addressed a “we” beyond the National Socialist state, created solidarity among those who positioned themselves beyond National Socialism, and strengthened the individual. Admittedly, an ethical orientation in the sense of a ‘church for others’ (Kirche für andere) was missing.

Matthias Ehmann (Ewersbach) pointed to a forward-looking theological contribution of Niemöller to the transnational responsibility of the churches. At the WCC World Conference on Migration in June 1961, Niemöller, at the beginning of his term as one of the presidents of the WCC, called on the churches to show solidarity with non-Christian migrants. He referred to the image of the Good Samaritan and stressed that mission to people in need took precedence over church structures. An increase in churches founded by migrants was to be expected, he said. Ehmann praised Niemöller’s speech as a differentiated contribution to interreligious dialogue that took into account the growing diversity of the churches.

Section IV turned to the leading figure of the Pfarrernotbund and later church president. Thomas Martin Schneider (Koblenz-Landau) characterized the Barmen Theological Declaration (BTD) as a church-political and theological consensus paper and confession of basic Reformation truths, which was received differently in the two wings of the Confessing Church. The BTD did not contain a political program, but after 1945 it was claimed politically for different goals. It had been called the “sum” of Niemöller’s theology, although as late as 1934 he referred to theological teachers such as Wehrung and Althaus who were in tension with the BTD. He was concerned with the one ecclesiastical office of preaching, whereas the fourth Barmen thesis speaks of ministries of equal rank. Niemöller had no understanding for Lutheran concerns—the experience of Barmen was more important to him than the theology of the BTD. All in all, he only took up the Christocentrism of the first thesis, but showed hardly any interest in the other theses.

Gisa Bauer (Karlsruhe) looked at the relationship between Niemöller and the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau (EKHN) from the perspective of the history of perception. In the official self-representation of the EKHN, Niemöller stood for a political church. The radical wing of the EKHN had voted for him as church president. Pastors of this direction had been strongly positioned in Hesse; the regional council of brethren had elected him as chairman in 1946. Niemöller helped to shape the first thrusts of the politicization of the EKHN, after which he became its symbol. The commemorative publication of 1982 and funeral and memorial speeches of 1984 elevated him to the pantheon of the political church. It is difficult to separate the symbolic and the historical person, Bauer pointed out.

Jolanda Gräßel-Farnbauer (Marburg) showed how Niemöller positioned himself in the process towards equality for women in church positions. While he was initially ambiguous in the church synod and in 1955 still argued from the basis of creation-related biological differences between men and women, in 1958-1959 he argued for a law on women pastors, which paved the way for equality. In 1969, he even proposed Marianne Queckbörner, then only 37 years old, to the synod as church president, but Helmut Hild was elected. The EKHN still does not have a woman as church president at its head. How it would have developed if Niemöller’s suggestion had been followed stimulates the historical imagination considerably. Niemöller had taken a positive attitude towards women vicars in the church struggle. He did not share the anti-feminism of some representatives of the Confessing Church, who denied women the administration of the sacraments.

Finally, Section V focused on Barmen and the legacy of the Confessing Church, with two lectures examining Niemöller in the light of his relationship with two fellow Confessing Church members in the postwar period. Gerard C. den Hertog (Amsterdam) spoke about Niemöller’s and Hans Joachim Iwand’s common path from national Protestantism to the ecumenical peace movement. Iwand came from eastern Germany, was a soldier and became involved in the Freikorps in 1921. As a theologian, he presented a polemical Luther. Niemöller had known Iwand since September 1934 and had received his Luther studies, which advocated the doctrine of justification, in the concentration camp. As a Dortmund pastor, Iwand was committed to Jews; there was no anti-Semitism in him. Niemöller had been “the closest of friends” with him and had written to him: “We understand each other before we talk to each other.”

On the other hand, Hannah M. Kreß (Münster) made clear how the relationship between Niemöller and Hans Asmussen changed between 1945 and 1948. The latter had been involved in the Reich Church since 1933, was active at the Church College in Berlin and supported Else Niemöller during her husband’s imprisonment. Conflicts broke out in Treysa, where Asmussen became the head of the Evangelische Kirche Deutschlands (EKD) church chancellery. He was concerned that the brethren councils might gain too much influence among the Lutherans. In a letter to him in 1946, Niemöller had reckoned with the founding of the EKD. It lacked the connection to Barmen. He feared an understanding of ministry in the EKD that he considered to be hierarchical in the style of Catholicism. Asmussen had come into conflict with the Council of the EKD and left office in 1948. In that year, Niemöller had broken off his friendship with him. An important role in the alienation process was played by the disagreement over the church’s participation in public political activities.

Arno Helwig (Berlin) reported on remembrance work at the Martin Niemöller House in Berlin-Dahlem, which served as a peace center in the intellectual environment of Gollwitzer and Marquardt from 1980 to 2007 and was shaped as such by Pastor Claus-Dieter Schulze. After 2007, it became a memory and learning space. The former pastor in Dahlem, Marion Gardei, is now the commissioner for remembrance culture in the Evangelische Kirche Berlin-Brandenburg-schlesische Oberlausitz (EKBO). In 2018-2019, the house was reopened with a permanent exhibition covering the topics of Jews, human rights, social responsibility and resistance to the Nazi dictatorship. Niemöller’s work after 1945, however, is almost completely missing.

What remains of the Confessing Church? Who carries on the memory of it? Harry Oelke (Munich) took up these questions about the significance of the legacy of Barmen for today’s Protestantism, limiting himself to the German Protestantism of the regional churches. Four phases of the culture of remembrance of the Confessing Church can be distinguished: (1) a contemporary witness-supported communicative memory formation (1945-1970), in which church history was written by and about participants and, with the exception of Niemöller’s call to repentance, no self-critical remembrance was practiced (“Confessing Church myth”); (2) a politicization, polarization, and pluralization of Christian value concepts (1970-1989); (3) a canonization (1990-2005), in which the Confessing Church had become a part of Protestant identity. (4) The present perspectives (since 2005) have been characterized by the loss of contemporary witnesses, the end of the culture of excitement, an objectification of the culture of historical scholarship and, in some tension with this, a tendency towards moral evaluation.

The final discussion circled around open questions and tasks of further research. 75 years after the end of the war, there is a danger that the Protestant Church will shirk its responsibility for the legacy of the Confessing Church, especially since the EKD is planning a considerable reduction in funding for the Institute for Contemporary Church History. Who would be the bearer of the memory of the Confessing Church in the future was up in the air. Benjamin Ziemann made it clear that he was against renaming institutions that bear Niemöller’s name. It remains to be considered how Niemöller could be present in a contemporary form in the practical culture of remembrance. Dahlem, with its new exhibition, stands as an example of how the memory of Niemöller is possible in a post-migrant society.

Research will focus on clarifying open questions about Niemöller’s understanding of preaching after 1945, his ecumenical commitment against colonialism and racism, and his attitude toward the state of Israel. For this purpose, further sources have to be opened up for scholarship, such as Niemöller’s unedited sermons after 1945, the sources on his activities as president of the World Council of Churches or also as head of the administrative council of the Palestine Association. Terms such as ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘resistance’ need to be further differentiated and clarified in relation to Niemöller. When it comes to the Confessing Church, the concept of resistance should in any case not be too narrowly defined. Finally, theological and non-theological perspectives of the perception of the life and work of Martin Niemöller must be combined.

A conference volume is to be published in the series “Arbeiten zur kirchlichen Zeitgeschichte” (AKIZ.B) by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen.

* This paragraph was edited for clarity after publication.


Review of Benjamin Ziemann, Martin Niemöller. Ein Leben in Opposition

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 26, Number 1/2 (June 2020)

Review of Benjamin Ziemann, Martin Niemöller. Ein Leben in Opposition (Munich: DVA, 2019). 640 pages. ISBN: 978-3-421-04712-0.

By Hansjörg Buss, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen; translated by Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

At Christmas 1940, Martin Niemöller appeared on the front page of Time Magazine as the “Martyr of 1940.” Since that same autumn, the film Pastor Hall, inspired by a drama by the playwright Ernst Toller, had been showing in American cinemas. It captured the story of the “Church Struggle” in Germany on celluloid, with little attempt to conceal Niemöller’s biographical details. Since his arrest in the summer of 1937 and subsequent transfer to Sachsenhausen concentration camp on the personal orders of Adolf Hitler, Niemöller had become a worldwide symbol of church resistance to the National Socialist dictatorship. Interest in his person continued even after his liberation at the beginning of May 1945. Despite the irritation that Niemöller provoked by making nationalistic statements in his first public postwar interview, he and his wife travelled to the United States for several months in 1946 and 1947, where he gave over 200 public lectures in 22 states.

To this day, Martin Niemöller remains one of the most famous German churchmen of the twentieth century. He is regarded as an upright resistance fighter against Hitler, who testified to his stance with seven years of incarceration in concentration camps, as a preacher who admonished German “guilt” and as someone who had transformed from an imperial submarine commander of the First World War into a pacifist, who during the 1950s eloquently and powerfully opposed the Federal Republic of Germany’s Western alliance, its remilitarization, and nuclear weapons. Now, 35 years after Niemöller’s death in 1984, Benjamin Ziemann, Professor of Modern German History at the University of Sheffield and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, cuts through the thicket of legend concerning Niemöller’s story and uncovers important strands of his life.

Born in 1892, Niemöller came from the home of a Westphalian pastor and chose the career of naval officer. Caught up in the national Protestantism of his time, he experienced the German defeat in the First World War as nothing less than a catastrophe. Only then did he decide to study theology, which he successfully completed in Münster. The book chapter on the völkisch and German national “student politician” is one of the most striking. Niemöller belonged to various far-right parties and associations such as the antisemitic German Nationalist Protection and Defiance Federation (Deutschvölkischen Schutz- und Trutzbund) and the National Association of German Officers (Nationalverband Deutscher Offiziere) and counted himself among the enemies of Weimar democracy. He also personally held, as Ziemann comprehensively proves for the first time, an aggressive attitude of racial antisemitism. As a father of several children and with his entry into civilian professional life, Niemöller became more moderate in the second half of the 1930s, but initially his political stance did not change. In 1931, after seven years as the organizer of the Westphalian Inner Mission, he moved to Dahlem, a well-to-do parish in Berlin’s southwest. Like many German nationalist pastors of his generation, Niemöller welcomed Hitler’s chancellorship, the “Third Reich,” and the emergence of a “people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft) founded on Christianity.

Those disputes, which are treated today under the term “church struggle,” were crucial tests. As head of the Pastors’ Emergency League, founded in mid-September 1933, Niemöller became one of its most important protagonists in the second half of 1933 and gained importance throughout the Reich. Ziemann expertly describes the activities of Niemöller in the conflicts of the “church struggle,” accompanied by ecclesiastical, political, and personal tensions and breaks, and ascribes to him a key role in the debates of the Confessing Church concerning the inevitable consequences of Barmen Theological Declaration of the end of May 1934. He experienced the February 1936 division of the Confessing Church into a Dahlemite wing led by Councils of Brethren and a Lutheran wing led by regional bishops not only as a loss, but also as an opportunity for the (Confessing) Church.

His involvement, which led him to become increasingly opposed to the Nazi state and the growing state pressure on the church, ended abruptly on July 1, 1937, with his arrest. After a comparatively mild judgment by the Special Court at the regional court level, which would actually have resulted in his release, he was transferred directly to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. In the detailed description of his concentration camp imprisonment in the almost fifty-page chapter on Niemöller’s time of suffering as the “personal prisoner of the Führer,” two themes stand out. One was the almost-two-year deliberation about conversion to the Catholic Church, which he only finally decided against at the urging of his wife, in February 1941, a few months before his transfer to Dachau. The other was the “empathy for communists and other victims of Nazi terror,” which Ziemann exposes as a subsequent self-stylization of the postwar period. Rather, he demonstrates an ongoing anti-Bolshevik and nationalist stance: “Even at the moment of liberation from the concentration camp, he interpreted the defeat of the German nation as the fall of the West” (p. 356).

Up to the 1970s, Niemöller remained a public figure and a noticeable and by no means uncontroversial voice in the social debates of the early Federal Republic. Ziemann goes into great detail about Niemöller’s disappointment at the development of the postwar Protestant Church, which he accused of episcopal and confessional tendencies and of supporting Konrad Adenauer’s policies, which he characterized as restorationist. Rooted in his understanding of a “prophetic guardian role” for the church, this went hand in hand with his keen criticism of the founding of the Federal Republic (“conceived in Rome and born in Washington”), the decision to ally with the West, and West German rearmament. Biographically, Niemöller’s sharpest break occurred at the end of the 1950s over the question of war and peace. Under the impact of the destructive force of hydrogen bombs, the former naval officer—who, despite his pacifist criticism of politics and the West German military, felt committed to the ethos of an officer throughout his life—became the most outspoken leader of the West German peace movement, in the campaign “Fight Against Nuclear Death” (“Kampf dem Atomtod”) and after 1957 as president the German Peace Society (Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft). Only then did Niemöller’s Protestant nationalist guiding principles wear off, which in the immediate postwar period were still expressed in nationalist speeches and manifest in his participation in the mythology of German victimhood. Ziemann’s portrait of the post-war Niemöller is extremely multifaceted, describing how Niemöller, increasingly shaped by international and ecumenical concerns, dramatically shifted his stance toward the church and underwent a political transformation.. Ziemann, however, does not lose sight of the continuities: Niemoller’s persistent unease (which he never completely abandoned) with representative party democracy and media diversity , his latent anti-Catholicism and anti-Americanism, as well as his persistent culturally and socially fueled antisemitic resentment.

Anyone interested in Martin Niemoeller’s eventful life cannot ignore Ziemann’s extremely rich, brilliantly written, critical, yet balanced account. In the controversial and polarizing person of Niemoller—the “volcano” Niemöller, as the Bishop of Württemberg Theophil Wurm once put it—he also depicts the fundamental conflicts that marked the four political systems of the late empire, the unpopular and defeated Weimar Republic, the National Socialist ideological dictatorship, and the Federal Republic, which was in search of new ways forward. Using the example of the “belated” pastor, the “church fighter” (“Kirchenkämpfer”), the church president of the postwar Hesse-Nassau Regional Church, and the internationally-recognized ecumenist, Ziemann also reflects the fundamental upheavals of twentieth-century religious life.

The strength of his biography is also a result of the fact that he does not stop at the public Martin Niemöller. Without committing any indiscretions, Ziemann writes about the strict “patriarch” and family man; the restless, often overwhelmed and driven worker; the impatient, polemical, and self-opinionated disputant who also offended those who were on his side; and, last but not least, the one who was challenged, who repeatedly suffered severe personal crises. And he writes about Else Niemöller, his wife who died in a car accident in 1961 and with whom Martin had been married for almost forty years. One of Ziemann’s great achievements in his publication is that he acknowledges her role as a discussion partner and advisor, editor of his sermons, emotional support during his term in prison, and, last but not least, as the one who took care of the family during Niemöller’s extremely time-consuming activities as an organizer of the Inner Mission, as a pastor, and as a church politician. Benjamin Ziemann’s Niemöller biography is already a standard work.



Review of Martin Niemöller, Gedanken über den Weg der christlichen Kirche

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 26, Number 1/2 (June 2020)

Review of Martin Niemöller, Gedanken über den Weg der christlichen Kirche, eds. Alf Christophersen and Benjamin Ziemann (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2019). 268 pages. ISBN: 9783579085449.

Reviewed by Robert P. Ericksen, Pacific Lutheran University (Retired)

In the first week of February 1941, while Martin Niemöller languished in the Nazi concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, the London Times was one of several international newspapers to announce his conversion to Catholicism. The New York Times headlined this story more circumspectly: “Niemöller’s Friends Deny His Conversion: Say Imprisoned Pastor Is Only Studying Catholic Doctrine” (New York Times, 5 Feb. 1941). Neither version was quite on target. Niemöller had not converted to the Catholic Church; however, his study of Catholic doctrine hardly represented mere curiosity. It involved a serious consideration on his part to convert. This brief moment in Martin Niemöller’s life has received relatively little attention, though it does get mentioned by some, including Matthew Hockenos in his recent Then They Came for Me: Martin Niemöller, the Pastor who Defied the Nazis (reviewed in CCHQ, 25/1, March 2019).

This book, edited by Alf Christophersen and Benjamin Ziemann, has given a surprising moment in Niemöller’s life its most thorough explication. It also offers readers an edited version of the handwritten manuscript Niemöller produced within a period of less than three months during his four years of solitary confinement in Sachsenhausen. His assessment of Catholicism versus Protestantism, a document which numbers over 200 pages in Niemöller’s hand, now comprises 150 printed pages in this book.

Many or most readers of this CCHQ online journal will know at least the main features of Martin Niemöller’s life. He is one of the most famous and most important participants in the German Protestant Kirchenkampf (Church Struggle) alongside important friends and colleagues such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth. He founded the Pastors’ Emergency League in the fall of 1933. He participated in the creation of the Barmen Declaration in 1934, and he played a leading role in the first three years of the Confessing Church. Niemöller was arrested on 1 July 1937 and spent the next eight months in prison in Berlin, awaiting the outcome of his case. Then, having completed the necessary prison time required by the court, he was not released but designated a “personal prisoner” of Adolf Hitler. Instead of going home to Dahlem, a suburb of Berlin, he was hurried off to solitary confinement at the nearby concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, where he stayed from March 1938 until July 1941. At that point he was transferred to Dachau, near Munich, where he remained incarcerated until the collapse of the Nazi regime in May 1945. Niemöller emerged from Dachau a famous figure and he quickly became a leader in the postwar German Protestant Church. His international stature also was high, resulting among other things in a stint as President of the World Council of Churches from 1961-68. After a postwar life traveling the world as a famous advocate for various causes, he died in 1984 at the age of ninety-two. (Personal note: I caught up with Martin Niemöller in 1973 and sought his friendly advice, but only via telephone.)

Martin Niemöller was not a theologian, though he knew theologians. Martin Niemöller also had a first career that gave him a portion of public recognition. Born in 1892 to a Lutheran pastor, he chose life as a naval officer. When World War I began, he commanded a submarine which supported the German cause by sinking British ships. His first burst of fame in Germany came from these activities, especially with his war memoir, From U-Boat to Pulpit (1934), in which he described his wartime exploits as well as his postwar turn toward the church. By 1933, when Niemöller began developing what became his high profile in the Confessing Church, he was already forty-one years old, a pastor in the Dahlem suburb of Berlin, a husband, and a father to seven children.

It is clear from Christophersen and Ziemann’s careful work that Niemöller pursued the possibility of conversion to the Catholic Church with great seriousness. By the summer of 1938 he was using a Catholic prayer book for his daily devotions while sequestered in Sachsenhausen. By August he wrote to his wife that he was “astonished by the richness of prayers and biblical readings” (“erstaunt über den Reichtum an Gebeten und biblischen Lektionen”) in the Catholic tradition (p. 9). By the spring of 1939 he was angered by the attempt of church authorities in Berlin to remove him from his pastorate in Dahlem, a form of discipline intended for the most active opponents of Reich Bishop Müller and the Deutsche Christen (“German Christian”) leadership in the Protestant Church. By July 1939, he wrote, “the Protestant State Church has never been a Christian church” (“Die Evangelische Landeskirche [ist] niemals christliche Kirche gewesen”), but merely a bureaucracy (p. 11, quoting from Martin Niemöller, Brief aus der Gefangenschaft, 61). Soon he was asking Elsa, his wife, to send him books by or about converts to Catholicism, people such as John Henry Newman. This mid-nineteenth-century professor at Oxford University was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1825, famously converted to Catholicism in 1845, was ordained a Catholic priest in 1847, and was created a cardinal in 1879. (Newman eventually achieved sainthood in the Catholic tradition in 2019).

From late August to the beginning of November in 1939, Niemöller began and finished the manuscript now described and printed in this book. Christopherson and Ziemann have had access to many sources. These include the document itself, plus letters Martin and Elsa Niemöller were allowed to send every two weeks, and records of the twice-per-month visits Elsa was allowed to make to Niemöller in Sachsenhausen, especially as recorded in notes Niemöller made after those meetings. All of these handwritten materials are available to us based on two pieces of good fortune. First, Niemöller was able on short notice to pack papers into his luggage when transferred from Sachsenhausen to Dachau. Then on 5 April 1945, when the Catholic priest, Michael Höck, was suddenly released from Dachau, he agreed to carry Niemöller’s “things” (“Sachen”) to safety (p. 39).

As Niemöller leaned toward the Catholic Church, it was based partly on his attraction to certain forms of piety in the Catholic faith. His primary concern, however, involved the role of authority. Niemöller was no fan of the tremendous variety of beliefs and emphases within the Protestant tradition, nor was he entirely comfortable with the fruits of modern biblical scholarship. Rather, he valued straightforward teachings of the biblical text. Writing to Elsa, Niemöller regretted about Luther “that in practical terms he abolished the teaching office of the church” (“dass er das Lehramt der Kirche praktisch abgeschaft hat”) (p. 43). He also envied the “apostolic succession” Catholics claimed on the basis of biblical authority, especially the text in which Jesus elevated Peter to a position of special authority.

It is clear that these pages in which Niemöller compared Catholic and Protestant teachings represented for him not just a personal inclination–plus his aversion to the wildly pro-Nazi theological claims of Deutsche Christen in the Kirchenkampf, of course. It also was his one effort to join the ranks of his theologian friends. He did so with some trepidation, not least because so many of his friends were such important theologians. Hans Asmussen, a prolific scholar and a close friend in the Confessing Church, stayed close to Elsa Niemöller as advisor and friend during Martin’s incarceration. Martin asked Elsa to seek Asmussen’s assistance and council and welcomed the chance to use Asmussen’s help. In May 1939, however, he also showed some recognition of his role as a beginner. As he wrote to Elsa, “Certainly Asmussen in my situation already would have written a thick book, or several” (“Asmussen hätte in meiner Lage sicher schon ein dickes Buch oder mehrere geschrieben”) (p. 29).

In fact, Elsa secretly worked together with Asmussen, Helmut Gollwitzer (another close friend and an assistant pastor in Dahlem), and Martin’s clergyman brother Wilhelm Niemöller to try to steer Martin away from his plan to convert. In all cases, they gave assistance and advice to Martin, but usually with small warnings or a nudge against Martin’s intended path. For Elsa, of course, the implications were the most pressing. She worried about financial considerations if Martin gave up his position and his career: “Then you can become a scavenger; and where are we left with the children? In that case we could not feed [or perhaps “support”, RPE] more than three” (“Dann kannst du Strassenkehrer werden; und wo bleiben wir mit den Kindern? Mehr als 3 können wir dann nicht ernähren”) (p. 12). During these months there were tears. There were requests that Martin promise not to make a hasty decision, or not to make a final decision without talking to her beforehand. After nearly two years of contemplation and indecision from July 1939 to the spring of 1941, Niemöller finally gave up on the idea of conversion. Christophersen and Ziemann describe various important reasons for this outcome, but conclude, “The real reason was the tenacity of his wife” (“Der wahre Grund war die Hartnäckigkeit seiner Frau”) (p. 22).