In 1930s Nazi Germany, Martin Niemöller played a crucial role in organizing the Confessing Church, an ecclesial movement that resisted Adolf Hitler’s interference in German Protestant affairs. As punishment for his protest, Niemöller was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps from 1938 to 1945. Due to his outspoken critique of Hitler’s efforts to dominate the church, Niemöller is remembered as one of the few German Protestants who openly defied the Nazis.
Yet behind Niemöller’s protest stands a much more complex story and profound personal transformation. During elections in 1924 and 1933, Niemöller had actually voted for the Nazi Party in the hopes that a strong and powerful leader might unify the German nation and restore it to greatness following its crushing defeat in the First World War. While he protested Hitler’s meddling in the church, he was still a committed nationalist, and he remained so even as he sat in a Nazi prison cell. Having commanded U-boats in Germany’s imperial navy in the First World War, he even offered his services to the Nazi military in the Second World War.
Only in the years after 1945 did Niemöller repent of such political and nationalistic support of the Nazis. In wrestling with his past, he realized that his Christian faith had been taken captive by an ardent nationalism and a fervent militarism. While he had protested the Nazi intrusion into the church, he had failed to challenge the Nazi state outside of this spiritual realm.
Ultimately, Niemöller’s captivity as a Nazi prisoner fostered a slow yet powerful transformation within him. Following the Second World War, he left behind his nationalism for a devoted ecumenism and forsook his militarism for a principled pacifism. Having confessed his wartime guilt and repented of his complicity with the Nazis, Niemöller dedicated his remaining years to the pursuit of justice and reconciliation through the power of the gospel.
For Kaiser and Empire
Born in 1892, Niemöller grew up in an era in which Germany was quickly rising in the world as a powerful international empire. As Germany strove for imperial glory, its Protestants readily supported their emperor, Wilhelm II, in his imperial mission. As a young man, Niemöller regularly heard it proclaimed that God had providentially chosen the German nation to be a vessel of divine salvation in the world. Readily adopting such ideas, Niemöller affirmed that the German cause of “throne and altar” were one and the same.
Seeking to advance these twin causes, Niemöller became a cadet in the quickly expanding Imperial German Navy at the age of 18. Four years later in 1914, Wilhelm II’s plans for German greatness submerged Europe into chaotic conflict. As the Great War dragged on, Niemöller worked his way up to the command of a U-boat submarine that would terrorize the open seas.
Although the Great War inspired a new wave of theological reflection throughout Europe, Niemöller’s nationalism remained unshaken. In contrast, a young Swiss theologian named Karl Barth began to challenge the reigning imperialist theology. Although Barth had studied in the same nationalist environment as Niemöller, the Swiss pastor began to question his theology teachers as they declared their support for the Kaiser’s war effort. Claiming that they had idolized the German nation, Barth ultimately rejected their theology.
Such thinking, however, would not resonate with Niemöller until much later in his life. At the end of the Great War, Niemöller instead insisted that the German nation had been betrayed by socialists who had overthrown the empire and established the secular and liberal Weimar Republic.
In the chaotic postwar landscape, Niemöller counted himself among the many disillusioned conservative nationalist Protestants who openly opposed the Weimar Republic. To further advance the cause of the German nation and the church, he made his way from command of a U-boat to a preacher’s pulpit.
As the new pastor watched Weimar Germany suffer from economic and political instability, he began to long for a strong political leader who would promote national unity and restore German honor. In 1924 and 1933, Niemöller cast his vote for the Nazis, believing that Hitler might fulfill exactly those aims. As Hitler campaigned for office, he emphasized the importance of Christianity in Germany’s renewal, a commitment which greatly appealed to Niemöller.
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Source: Christianity Today