Surely, it is a curiously compassionate thing to congratulate a 53-year-old Christian minister for his impressive achievement in 1945 of having finally developed into a defender of Jews at the end of the Holocaust.
Last, and most tellingly, Niemoller was in prison on Kristallnacht, that November day in 1938, when, among other appalling antisemitic acts, storm troopers set afire 119 synagogues, 91 Jews were killed, and more than 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Niemoller admitted to Bentley that “[i]t became clear only then that the Jews were to be eliminated not simply from the church but from human society.”
Niemoller saw in Kristallnacht the death of all Jews, knew of Germany’s antisemitic laws that preceded and followed Kristallnacht, and was aware of the overwhelming evidence of public Nazi barbarity toward Jews that accompanied Hitler’s exercise of power.
Even so, less than a year after Kristallnacht, upon Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the ensuing declaration of war between Britain and Germany, Niemoller volunteered to fight for Hitler’s Germany. Bentley describes how that September, a 47-year-old Niemoller wrote to Germany’s Grand Admiral Raeder “offering, as a reserve officer, to serve his country ‘in any capacity.’” The Nazis rejected Niemoller’s offer but released to the world’s press the details of Niemoller’s attempt to enlist.
This offer to serve the Nazis was made by a man whose famous words, uttered after the defeat of Germany, so appeal to us. This offer to serve the Nazis “in any capacity” was made by a man who, when “they came for the Jews,” failed to speak out. This offer to serve Hitler “in any capacity” was made by the man who, after they came for him, spoke out for himself by offering to bear arms for them, for those who, had they won the war, would have joined in the hunt to kill every last Jewish man, woman and child. What darker example of the power of nationalism is there than Niemoller, a Christian minister, ready in the name of Germany to drink from the cup of genocide?
When Martin Niemoller died in 1984 at the age of 92, he was known internationally as an extraordinary personality in 20th-century Christianity. As a German U-boat commander, he had been a hero in World War I. Thereafter, he became a Christian minister and, as a popular preacher in Berlin-Dahlem, he held one of Germany’s most prestigious pulpits. He is often described as a “leader in the church struggle with Nazism.” His confinement as Hitler’s “personal prisoner” from 1937 to 1945, first in prison and then in a concentration camp, is a dramatic fact known to many familiar with modern German history.
After World War II, he became president of the World Council of Churches, and he was a prominent spokesman for civil rights and peace. In October 1945, within months of the war’s end, Niemoller participated in a meeting that framed the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt. It was during his post-World War II tour of the United States that, in speaking before many audiences, he concluded his addresses with the famous statement that ever since has been attributed to him as the words of a typical victim of Hitler.
In 1937, when the Nazis came for Niemoller, he was opposed to any political resistance to Hitler. He simply saw Hitler as an intruder into that part of German life reserved for the church. In fact, as noted by Harold Marcuse in “Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp, 1933-2001” (Cambridge University Press, 2001), Niemoller tried to avoid arrest by assuring the Gestapo that he was an antisemite.
“By the time he was arrested and imprisoned, first in Moabit and later in Sachsenhausen and Dachau, where he was held without trial or charge on direct order of the Fuhrer, the basic lines of the Christian resistance were set,” echoes Franklin H. Littell in his introduction to “Exile in the Fatherland: Martin Niemoller’s Letters from Moabit Prison” (W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986). “The Nazi regime was resisted for invading the church’s area of competence and for idolatry — not for breaking the law or for its brutal breach of the rights of human beings.”
What Littell does not tell us is that Niemoller, during his imprisonment by the Nazis, probably was an antisemite. In 1935, Niemoller, then 43, delivered a sermon that described his conception of a Jew. “He spoke of a ‘highly’ gifted people which produces idea after idea for the benefit of the world, but whatever it takes up changes into poison, and all that it ever reaps is contempt and hatred,” James Bentley recounts in his biography, “Martin Niemoller” (Free Press, 1984). “The reason, he explained, was not hard to find. The Jew was cursed for crucifying Jesus, and Jews since then have carried about with them as a fearsome burden the unforgiven bloodguilt of their fathers. The assumptions behind this thinking not only offered no practical guidance for coping with the Jewish question during the Third Reich, but actually played into Hitler’s hands.”
Bentley’s scholarly biography is dedicated to Niemoller, with whom Bentley had a long, friendly relationship. This fact should be kept in mind, because Bentley reports that in 1933, Niemoller, in an accommodation of Nazi Aryan belief, actually suggested the idea of separate congregations for Jews who had converted to Christianity.
“It is… important to realize that Martin Niemoller was prepared to contemplate such proposals,” Bentley wrote. “This makes all the more impressive his development as a defender of the Jews — a development that was not complete until the end of World War II.”