Martin Niemöller had been a World War I hero as a German naval lieutenant and U-boat commander. He was ordained as a Lutheran pastor in 1924. One of the earliest Protestant critics of Nazism, he and a few brave Lutherans formed a resistance movement called the “Confessional Church” of about 3,000 pastors. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author of The Cost of Discipleship, came into contact with Niemöller when he joined the “Pastor’s Emergency League,” which was formed under Niemöller.
In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer describes the spiritual pattern that led to the mass slaughter of human beings. In the chapter entitled “The Persecution of the Christian Churches,” Shirer points to a sterilization law passed in 1933 as the event which began the persecution of Christians and Jews throughout Germany.
“On July 25 , … the German government promulgated a sterilization law, which particularly offended the Catholic Church. Five days later the first steps were taken to dissolve the Catholic Youth League. During the next years, thousands of Catholic priests, nuns and lay leaders were arrested, many of them on trumped up charges of ‘immorality’ or of ‘smuggling foreign currency.’”
Abortion was also made legal during this time. This was the spiritual impetus which brought a revival of human sacrifices being offered to ancient pagan deities – complete with Nazi rituals – to the forefront. The Holocaust was preceded by vast pageants which Hitler used to promote neo-Paganism. Among the various sects of Protestants (most of which had adopted liberal theology and had apostatized in the late 1800s), a new “German Church” was instituted:
“Dr. Reinholdt Krause, the Berlin district leader of the sect, proposed the abandonment of the Old Testament, ‘with its tales of cattle merchants and pimps’ and the revision of the New Testament with the teaching of Jesus corresponding entirely with the demands of National Socialism. Resolutions were drawn up demanding ‘One People, One Reich, One Faith,’ requiring all pastors to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler and insisting that all churches institute the Aryan paragraph and exclude converted Jews.”
Pastors who resisted the neo-Pagan religion of the Nazis were jailed. Many were eventually led to the gas ovens of the concentration camps. Millions of Jews and Christians were executed. The sad state of the liberal Protestant churches led Germany to this holocaust. Although there were enough evangelical Christian leaders strategically positioned throughout Germany in the 1930s to resist Hitler; only a few stood against him.
“Not many Germans lost much sleep over the arrests of a few thousand pastors and priests or over the quarreling of Protestant sects. And even fewer paused to reflect that under the leadership of Rosenberg, Borman and Himmler, who were backed by Hitler, the Nazi regime intended to destroy Christianity in Germany, if it could, and substitute the old paganism of the early tribal Germanic gods and the new paganism of the Nazi extremists. As Bormann, one of the men closest to Hitler, said in 1941, ‘National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable.’”
As the methods of oppression by the Nazis grew worse, the resistance movement justified previously unimagined types of disobedience. For Niemöller and the resistance, the plan to assassinate a tyrant was a matter of obedience to God. They reasoned that Hitler was anti-Christ, therefore they decided to join the underground plan to eliminate him. Niemöller remained a key figure in the resistance movement until his arrest and imprisonment. In 1937, Niemöller preached his last sermon in the Third Reich knowing that he was soon to be arrested:
“We have no more thought of using our own powers to escape the arm of authorities than had the Apostles of old. No more are we ready to keep silent at man’s behest when God commands us to speak. For it is, and must remain, the case that we must obey God rather than man.”
Under orders from Hitler, he was imprisoned and finally transferred to the infamous Dachau concentration camp until the end of the war in 1945. He emerged from his years of detention as a towering symbol of the Church’s struggle. In his travels to America, he addressed over two hundred audiences, sometimes with the concluding words that have become famous:
“First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. 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.”
Niemöller did much more than speak out, however, as did his friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As a consequence, Bonhoeffer lost his life and Niemöller lost eight years of his freedom.
William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall the Third Reich (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1960) p.234-239.
Christian History, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” Issue 32 (Vol. X, No.4), p.20.