Niemöller, Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin, the son of a pastor, born 14-01-1892 in Lippstadt, Germany,the begin of At the age of eighteen Niemöller became an officer-cadet in the German Navy. Niemöller was assigned to the training vessel Hertha and eventually graduated to the battleship Thuringen.
By the begin of the First World War in 1914, Niemöller had reached the rank of Sub-Lieutenant. It was decided that the Thuringen was too old and was retired from active service. Niemöller was now assigned to a mine-laying submarine (U73). This was followed by spells as an officer on the U39 and the U151. In 1918 Niemöller took command of the UC67. Later that year he was responsible for laying mines off Marseilles. This operation resulted in sinking three enemy ships totalling 17,000 tons. By the end of the war Niemöller as Oberleutnant zur See was seen as one of Germany’s most successful U-boat captains and was awarded the Iron Cross (first class).
After the war Niemöller became active in German politics. Senior officers in the German Army began raising private armies called Freikorps. These were used to defend the German borders against the possibility of invasion from the Red Army. Niemöller joined this group and took part in the attempt to stop a socialist revolution taking place in Germany.
In March, 1919, General Franz Epp led 30,000 soldiers to crush the Bavarian Socialist Republic. It is estimated that Epp’s men killed over 600 communists and socialists over the next few weeks. The following year Herman Ehrhardt, a former naval commander and Wolfgang Kapp, a right-wing journalist, led a group of soldiers to take control of Berlin. Niemöller supported this Kapp Putsch and commanded a battalion of Freikorps in Munster. The right-wing coup was eventually defeated by a general strike of trade unionists. Herman Ehrhardt in 1936 went to live in Austria where he died in 27-09-1971, age 88. Wolfgang Kapp, when the coup d’état failed fled to Sweden. After two years in exile, he returned to Germany in April 1922 to justify himself in a trial at the Reichsgericht. He died in custody in Leipzig on 12-06-1922, aged 63, shortly afterwards of cancer.
After the establishment of the Weimar Republic Niemöller decided to study theology. He remained interested in politics and became a supporter of Adolf Hitler and in the 1924 elections voted for the Nazi Party. Even after he was ordained in 1929 and became pastor of the Church of Jesus Christ at Dahlem, where he lwas living
he remained an ardent supporter of Hitler. In 1931 Niemöller made speeches where he argued that Germany needed a Führer.
In his sermons he also espoused Hitler’s views on race and nationality. In 1933 he described the programme of the Nazi Party as a “renewal movement based on a Christian moral foundation”. The following year Niemöller published his autobiography From U-Boat to Pulpit. This right-wing nationalist view of the war and its aftermath made it a popular book with party members and sold 90,000 copies in the first few weeks after it was published.
In 1933 Niemöller complained about the decision by Adolf Hitler to appoint Ludwig Muller, as the country’s Reich Bishop of the Protestant Church. With the support of Karl Barth, a professor of theology at Bonn University, in May, 1934, a group of rebel pastors formed what became known as the Confessional Church.Karl Barth died age 82 on 10-12-1968 in Bazel. Ludwig Müller remained committed to Nazism to the end. He committed suicide in Berlin on 31-07-1945, age 62, soon after the Nazi defeat..
When the Nazi government continued with this policy Niemöller joined with Dietrich Bonhoffer to form the Pastors’ Emergency League and published a major document opposing the religious policies of Adolf Hitler. Niemöller was particularly concerned by Hitler’s decision that Jews should be expelled from the Church. He argued that once Jews had been converted to Christianity they should be allowed to remain in the Church. As Bonhoffer pointed out at the time, although Niemöller was critical of Hitler he remained a committed supporter of the Nazi Party. Niemöller was later to admit that his group “acted as if we had only to sustain the church” and did not accept that they had a “responsibility for the whole nation”.
Niemöller therefore did not criticize the Nazi Party for putting its political opponents into concentration camps. However, he spoke out when members of the Protestant Church were arrested. In his sermon on Sunday 27-06-1937, Niemöller pointed out that on: “On Wednesday the secret police penetrated the closed church of Friedrich Werder and arrested at the altar eight members of the Council of Brethren.”
The following month Niemöller was himself arrested. He was held eight months without trial and when his case eventually took place he was found guilty of “abusing the pulpit” and was fined 2,000 marks. As he left the court he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp to be “re-educated”. Niemöller refused to change his views and was later transferred to Dachau.
George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, took up Niemöller’s case. He had a series of letters published in the British press about the arrest and imprisonment of Niemöller. Bell argued that Hitler’s treatment of Niemöller illustrated the attitude of the German state to Christianity. Bell’s campaign helped to save Niemöller’s life. It was later discovered that in 1938 Joseph Goebbels urged Adolf Hitler to have Niemöller executed. Alfred Rosenberg argued against the idea as he believed it would provide an opportunity of people like Bishop Bell to attack the German government. Hitler agreed and Niemöller was allowed to live.
Niemöller remained a German nationalist and on the outbreak of World War II he wrote to Admiral Erich Raeder offering to serve in the German Navy. The letter was passed to Joseph Goebbels who dismissed the idea as he believed it was an attempt by Niemöller to save his life. Goebbels now leaked the latter to undermine Niemöller’s credibility. Niemöller’s supporters retaliated by claiming the letter was a forgery. This version was believed and Niemöller became a symbol in Britain of resistance in Nazi Germany.
While he was in Dachau his youngest daughter Jutta here infront of the boat, died of diphtheria. On 28th February his eldest son was killed in battle in Pomerania. Another son was captured by the Red Army while fighting on the Eastern Front.
In 1945, with the Allies moving in on Germany, Niemöller, Alexander von Falkenhausen, Kurt von Schuschnigg, Leon Blum and other political prisoners were transferred to Tirol in Austria by the SS. The original plan was to execute them but they were rescued by the Allies just before the end of the World War II.
On 05-06-1945 Niemöller gave a press conference in Naples. He admitted that he had offered to join the German Navy in 1939. He also confessed that he had “never quarrelled with Hitler over political matters, but purely on religious grounds”. This resulted in a savage attack on Niemöller from those newspapers that had presented him as a symbol of resistance to Hitler’s government. It was now pointed out that Niemöller had never opposed the Nazi racial theories, but merely the suppression of the Church in Germany.
When it was suggested that Niemöller wanted to visit Britain there was a campaign to keep him out of the country. Tom O’Brien of the TUC General Council wrote: “I sincerely hope he will not be allowed to come. If he is, it will be the first overt move of the Germans to “organise sympathy”, as they did so successfully and so hypocritically after the last war. Niemöller commanded a U-boat in the last war and, with his brother commanders, was responsible for the drowning of many unarmed British merchant seamen. In this war he volunteered to serve under Hitler. He was (and may now be) as nationalistic as any of his congregation at the fashionable Berlin church to which he ministered.”
The Archdeacon of Lancaster claimed that “the pastor’s visit at this time can do nothing but harm”. The Daily Telegraph pointed out that Niemöller should be denied entry as there was “no record that he ever denounced Hitler’s crimes against humanity or condemned the war”. The Home Secretary agreed and announced that Niemöller would not be allowed to visit Britain.
After the war Niemöller became one of the leaders of the Evangelical Church in Germany. After visiting the Soviet Union Niemöller joined the World Peace Movement. On his return to Germany he pointed out: “I cannot accept communism, but I must admit that its ideals are very different from ours, which are all tangled up with the most sordid materialism.” Niemöller wrote to his friend Karl Barth explaining that he was gradually being converted to the idea of socialism: “The corner-stone of my thinking is that the root of every evil development is money.” Later he wrote that ” the rich must be smashed in order to build human brotherhood.”
Niemöller also spoke out against the development of the Cold War. In a speech he made in New York he argued: “I am… against the often-heard statement that a war against bolshevism is necessary to save the Christian churches and Christianity. But it is unchristian to conduct a war for the saving of the Christian church, for the Christian church does not need to be saved. The church is not afraid of bolshevism. It was not afraid of Nazism. The church has to serve the communists as well as all human beings. While the church rejects communism as a creed, just as it rejects all other creeds, communism must and can only be fought and defeated with spiritual weapons. All other powers will fail.”
Niemöller was a strong opponent of nuclear weapons. He thought the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was immoral. He upset the American government when he stated that after Adolf Hitler, he thought that Harry S. Truman “was the greatest murderer in the world.”
In June 1954 Niemöller met Otto Hahn. The two men discussed the latest nuclear developments. Niemöller was shocked when Hahn told him that it was now possible to produce an atomic device that “would end not only all human life on earth, but also the life of every higher organism.” That night he re-read the Sermon on the Mount and decided he could no longer justify the use of military force for political ends and became a pacifist.
Niemöller praised the new Japanese Constitution: “The renunciation of war as expressed in the Japanese Constitution has given a first ray of hope to a world in darkness and despair.” In April 1958 he travelled to England and took part in the march to Aldermaston that had been organized by the recently formed Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He also campaigned against military alliances such as NATO.
On 07-08-1961 Niemöller was involved in a car crash. His wife, Else Niemöller was killed but as soon as he recovered from his injuries he returned to his campaign for world peace. He became an active member of the World Peace Committee and was for seven years president of the World Council of Churches. He also published a book on his political views entitled One World or No World in 1964..
In 1965 Niemöller upset the United States by visiting North Vietnam and meeting Ho Chi Minh. Afterwards he commented: “One thing is clear, the president of North Vietnam is not a fanatic. He is a very strong and determined man, but capable of listening, something that is very rare in a person of his position.” Niemöller won several awards for his work for world peace including the Lenin Peace Prize (1967) and the Grand Cross of Merit (1971). He married his second wife, Sybil von Sell, in 1971.
Death and burial ground of Niemöller, Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin.