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Pastor Martin Niemöller was a conservative Lutheran pastor from Germany. He helped found the Confessional Church and advocated against the Nazi control over German Protestant churches. He was almost executed while imprisoned in Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps for his political activism. He later became a pacifist and advocated against the war after initially supporting the Nazis.

Early Life and Military Service

Martin Niemöller was born on January 14, 1892, in Lippstadt, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. He and his conservative parent’s Heinrich Niemöller, also a Lutheran pastor, and Pauline Müller moved to Elberfeld, Wuppertal in 1900. He completed his secondary education and passed his Abitur exams in 1908.[1] He enrolled in the German Navy as an officer cadet in 1910, serving first on the Hertha then the Thurigen.

The Thurigen retired with Niemöller as the Sub-Lieutenant at the start of World War I. He moved to U73, a sub laying mines. He commanded U39 and U151 before taking control of UC67 in 1918. He sank three enemy vessels with mines he laid outside of Marseilles for a total of 17,000 tons of wreckage. The German Navy recognized his excellence as a U-boat captain by awarding him the Iron Cross, First Class.

Pastor Martin Niemöller did not begin a pacifist and fought and killed many while serving as a U-boat captain and commander.

Martin Niemoller entered into politics after the war and joined a private army run by German Army senior officers, called a Freikorps. In 1920, Niemöller joined Herman Ehrhardt, formally a naval commander, and Wolfgang Kapp, a right-learning journalist, when they led an army to take Berlin and end the Bavarian Socialist Republic. Niemöller led an attack in Munster, but neither succeeded. The Socialist government eventually fell due to striking trade unions and the Weimer Republic was formed.[2]

Post-War and Nazi Germany

On April 20, 1919, Martin Niemöller married Else Bruner and the couple produced six children. He enrolled in the University of Münster to begin seminary training in 1920. [3] Niemöller supported the Nazi party as a national conservative and outspokenly opposed the Weimar Republic. He voted for the Nazis twice in 1924.

Niemöller supported Hitler, even after being ordained in 1929, going so far as to give public speeches about the need of a Führer in 1931 and incorporating Hitler’s stances on nationality and race into his sermons. When he published his autobiography, From U-Boat to Pulpit, in 1934, Nazi party members purchased many of the 90,000 copies sold in the first weeks.

Pastor Niemöller held anti-semetic views, but felt if a Jew converted to Christianity they should no longer be judged for their Jewish faith.

Niemoller disagreed with Hilter’s appointment of Ludwig Muller as the new Bishop of the Protestant Church in 1933. In September of that year, Niemoller joined Karl Bath, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and other unhappy pastors to form the Pastors Emergency League (PEL). He met with Hitler in January 1934 to discuss the issues he felt arising from the Nazi Party’s involvement in the German Church. He discovered the German Secret State Police, Gestapo, had been tapping his phone and surveilling PEL members.

In May 1934, the PEL became the Confessing Church, a Protestant faction opposing the politicization of leadership positions in the church, the declaration of German culture as divine, and the excommunication of former Jews who converted to Christianity.[4] He only spoke out against the Nazis for imprisoning political dissidents in concentration camps once they began taking Protestant Church members.[5] The Nazis arrested him several times between 1934-1937 for preaching against Nazi interference in Church affairs.

Arrest, Prison, and Release

The Gestapo arrested Pastor Niemoller in July 1937, for his criticism of the Nazi Party and they imprisoned him in Berlin’s Moabit Prison in solitary confinement for almost eight months. He was convicted in February 1938 of treason and disrespect, fined 2,0000 Reichsmark, and sentenced to seven months in prison. The Gestapo imprisoned him in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, again in solitary confinement, rather than returning him to Moabit Prison.

Niemöller appealed to the Commander-in-Chief of the Germany Navy to allow him to enlist during the beginnings of the Second World War to fight for Germany, once in 1938 and again in 1941. He was denied both times. Niemöller was transferred to Dachau and permitted books by the Gestapo in 1941. [6] The SS moved him and other important political prisoners to Tirol, Austria in 1945 as the Allies encroached on Germany.[7] He was freed soon after by United States forces overtaking the prison. [8]

Martin Niemoller and His Famous Quote

Some debate exists as to whether or not Martin Niemoller wrote the poem in the quote below, but his second wife, Sybil who he married in 1971, claims it did not appear until after his death.[9] The Holocaust Memorial Museum lists the quote on its website, but has changed the original “Communists” for “Socialists.”

“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.” [10]

Later Career and Death

Pastor Niemöller became the Hessen-Nassau Lutheran Church’s president in 1947 and toured the world while preaching for collective German guilt in response to the Nazi’s great crimes. He published a book, The Stuttgart Confession of Guilt, in October 1945 documenting these ideas. His conservative principals earned him unpopularity in German political circles, especially his condemnation of Hitler’s religious aims only and not his social or political ones.

Martin Niemoller also openly attacked the Allied officials’ handling of removing the Nazis from power and banned his parish members from participating in the arbitration tribunals. He did not agree with the dividing of Germany and spoke about the need for quick release of German war prisoners.

On August 7, 1961, Niemoller and his wife, Else, were involved in a car crash. He survived, but she died. He became a pacifist in the 1950s and joined the World Council of Churches, working towards international peace.[11] Pastor Martin Niemöller died on March 6, 1984, in Wiesbaden, Germany.[12]



Bentley, J. (1984). Martin Niemoller. United States: The Free Press.
 Simkin, J. (2013, May ). Martin Niemöller. Spartacus Educational Publishers Ltd.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (2016, July 2). Martin Niemöller: Biography. Holocaust Encyclopedia. 


  1. Bentley, 1984
  2. Simkin, 2013
  3. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2016
  4. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2016
  5. Simkin, 2013
  6. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2016
  7. Simkin, 2013
  8. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2016
  9. Simkin, 2013
  10. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (2016, July 2). Martin Niemöller: “First They Came for the Socialists...” Holocaust Encyclopedia.
  11. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2016
  12. Simkin, 2013

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