Martin Niemoeller served as a highly decorated German U-boat commander in World War I. Though he became a Lutheran pastor, he continued to dream of national glory, and he initially supported the cause of National Socialism. Nevertheless, within months of Hitler’s rise to power he felt uneasy with the Nazis’ hateful extremism. He further rejected the “German Christian movement,” which identified the Gospel with Nazi ideology. When anti-Jewish legislation was applied to Christian pastors of “non-Aryan” extraction, he organized a petition of protest. This later became the seed of the so-called Confessing Church. Ultimately the question was: “Which God do we worship? Christ or Hitler?”
On July 1, 1937, Niemoeller was arrested and imprisoned, where he remained until the end of the war. As he learned of the extent of the Nazi crimes, he felt shame for not having spoken out earlier—especially on behalf of the Jews. Parting company with many Germans who refused to acknowledge any complicity with Hitler, he drafted a confession of guilt for the churches, which emphasized the Christian role in fostering a climate of anti-Semitism.
In later years, in light of the threat of nuclear war, Niemoeller realized that he could no longer justify any use of violence. As he described the key to his ethical principles, he simply asked, “What would Jesus do?” He died on March 6, 1984, at ninety-two.
“When the Nazis came for the Communists, I was silent, because I was not a Communist. . . . When they came for the Jews, I was silent. And when they came to get me, there was no one left to speak.”
—Pastor Martin Niemoeller