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The man behind the legend: Martin Niemöller, Hitler’s Personal Prisoner

Martin Niemöller, Lutheran pastor in the Dahlem parish at the outskirts of Berlin, stood at the centre of the struggle over hegemony in the German Protestant Church during the Third Reich. As figurehead of the Confessing Church, established in May 1934, Niemöller fought with great energy against the German Christians, a Nazi affiliated group, and their attempt to seize control of the Protestant Churches.

By 1937, Niemöller’s fight against any accommodation with the German Christians was lost. His public rhetoric radicalized. The regime responded by putting Niemöller on trial. Yet on 2 March 1938, the judges effectively acquitted him, taking pre-trial detention into account. On the same day, he was brought to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Upon arrival, the camp commander explained to him that he was detained as “Hitler’s Personal Prisoner.” He was kept in solitary confinement, but not subjected to the brutal terror that all other inmates faced.

During the time of his concentration camp detention—he was moved to Dachau in 1941, and liberated in April 1945 by US troops—Niemöller rose to international fame. Especially the media in the UK and the US elevated him to a symbol of Christian resistance against the Nazi dictatorship.

After 1945, Niemöller credited his time in concentration camp detention as the key reason for a fundamental change of heart. In Sachsenhausen and Dachau, he had learned—so he claimed—to discuss openly with Communists, his main political enemies prior to 1933, and to abandon his nationalist worldview.

Yet these claims were wrong. They were part of the Niemöller legend, the rose-tinted image of a chastened former nationalist that was carefully curated and protected by Wilhelm Niemöller, Martin’s younger brother, in many post-war publications. In reality, Martin Niemöller’s nationalist and anti-Bolshevik worldview was undiminished right until the moment of liberation in 1945.

“A rose-tinted image of a chastened former nationalist was carefully curated and protected by Martin’s younger brother.”

His volunteering for the Wehrmacht is an important proof for this point. After the start of the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, Niemöller wanted to support his nation in its fight against a treacherous enemy. In a discussion with his wife Else—she had the right to visit him once a fortnight—on 7 September 1939, he pondered his options.

From 1910 to 1919, Niemöller had served as an officer in the Imperial Navy, having his own command of a U-boat in 1918. Hence, he wrote to High Command of the Navy on 7 September 1939: “As I have waited in vain to be drafted for military service … I hereby apply explicitly as a volunteer for military service.”

Niemöller’s friends and supporters claimed after 1945 that he had intended to escape from detention and join resistance circles within the Wehrmacht. But on the back of his letter from 7 September 1939, he addressed the Gestapo to dispel any doubts:

“I declare on my own account that I will, as a matter of course, make myself available to continue my protective custody immediately after my release from military service.”

The purpose of his volunteering was to support the Wehrmacht in its war against Poland. Yet his demand to join the Navy for combat service was turned down by the High Command of the Armed Forces. When he received the rejection letter, signed by Wilhelm Keitel, Niemöller “was dumbfounded” and his wife Else “had tears streaming from her eyes,” as he recorded in his notes on her next visit.

The campaign against Poland was soon over. However, after the lost battle of Stalingrad in 1943, it became obvious that the German army was facing defeat. Hence, Niemöller, now detained in Dachau concentration camp, considered to volunteer again. On 13 June 1943, he wrote to his wife:

“During the last weeks and months I have often thought about the question whether I should try again and apply for voluntary service; but Keitel’s letter in response to my first attempt does not leave me with the possibility to take the initiative again, although it makes me sick to watch. As long as everything seemed to go well, it was not even half as difficult.”

The defensive war situation in 1943 also refreshed and hardened Niemöller’s anti-Bolshevism. In late April 1943, he wrote to Else: “Sometimes I am tormented by the thought that the whole bloody fighting might end for us in Bolshevism.”

As the Red Army moved closer to Berlin in early 1945, Niemöller’s mood turned gloomy. In February 1945, his son Jochen had written to him, asking “Was Spengler right after all?” Was “The Decline of the West” imminent, as the philosopher Oswald Spengler had suggested in his book with this title, published in 1922. His father’s answer was unequivocal:

“I don’t see how this question could be answered in the negative; because I cannot imagine that the Anglo-Americans care in the slightest about the fate of the European culture; besides, what is left of it anyway? Ruins and a pile of shards.”

Niemöller perceived the moment of liberation in May 1945 in the first instance as a defeat of the German nation. Occupied by Bolsheviks and Anglo-Americans, it faced an uncertain future. Niemöller did indeed abandon his nationalist worldview and anti-Bolshevik stance. Yet he only did so in the decade after 1945.

Feature Image by Nationaal Archief. CC1.0.

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