There is a famous man in German and Christian history. His name is Martin Niemöller. He is known for suffering at the hands of the Nazis and for this saying. It is true, what he says here.
He is not so well known for being an officer and then captain on U-Boats in World War I, where he sank many Allied ships. As navigator of the U-73 he was most likely a chief participant in the sinking of the hospital ship, HMHS Britannic. In war so many innocent people die. How many know that those who shed innocent blood are an abomination to God? That’s what Proverbs 6:17 teaches. How could a believer wage war and risk this judgment of being found abominable to God?
Niemöller was awarded the Iron Cross First Class for his contributions to the Imperial war effort. He ended World War I in command of his own U-boat, UC-67. Later, he wrote a book about what seemed to be a change of heart, published in 1934 in Germany.
Published 1934 in Germany as “Von U-Boot zur Kanzel” and in 1937 in English.
But was it a change of heart? From war to peace, as one might think? Did the lion become the lamb, laying down the sword and picking up the cross? Not by any means.
Martin Niemöller is less well-known for volunteering at the outbreak of World War II to serve as a U-Boat captain in Hitler’s navy (see below). He would not be so loved had he captained a U-Boat for the Fuhrer as he had for the Kaiser.
Then, if he had survived combat, he could have written another book: ‘From U-Boat to Pulpit to U-Boat Again,’ to follow up his previous testimony.
Certainly, he is a very complex man. However, he did have an opportunity “to get off the train” in December 1933. This is in reference to another resister’s famous words, those of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
Niemöller did not take the way offered him to get off the “wrong train” that German society was becoming in the 1930s. Nor did he fundamentally object to its wrong direction.
It is fact that he kept on the train of Nazi Germany and was in general approval of the direction it was going. That is, what it stood for. He flew the Nazi flag in his church. He did all this as a good German Christian. Later, it is true, he started going along the corridor in the opposite direction: a little show of defiance that annoyed Hitler, who imprisoned him for eight years.
This was for his opposition to state interference with the churches, but not for opposition to Third Reich politics or racial policies. And obviously not for opposition to its wars, which he was still willing to fight. All that he did he “prophesied” doing, you could say, in 1933.
Niemöller did not Get off the train
Here is the simple, moving description of the chance he had to get off the train. It is the record of the conversation he had with members of the Bruderhof Christian Community. They clearly sensed the wrong direction of the “train” of German society and wanted to bear witness against it. For this they were persecuted, would later have their property confiscated, and were hounded out of Germany. But early in the brief, violent life of the Third Reich many still hoped that they could make a difference. They hadn’t yet learned the depth of the darkness that had fallen upon the land.
The members of the Bruderhof wanted to know whether the famous Pastor Niemöller, the warrior turned pastor, would join them “in the escalating spiritual fight“? Note that the following words were spoken in December, 1933, just weeks after a chilling invasion of the Bruderhof by the Gestapo on November 16, 1933.
Hans Meier of the Bruderhof. He recounts the invasion of the Bruderhof on November 16, 1933 in this video.
“We visited Martin Niemöller at his home in Dahlen. Our question was again whether we could stand together in the escalating spiritual fight and make a united Christian witness against the dark powers of National Socialism. But he refused to have anything to do with us because we were not obedient to the government’s order to do military service. He said in obedience to the government’s call he would again take charge of a submarine, but he would not obey if Hitler forbade him to proclaim the pure word of God. We spoke at length about obeying the pure word of God that bids us love our enemy, and what that obedience implies. But he remained adamant; he couldn’t agree.”
What those on the train do
Niemöller’s words are worth pondering. Curiously, when the government failed to call him, he called them! Niemöller volunteered to serve in the German Navy at the outbreak of World War II “in any capacity“. When he did so is very telling, in late 1939, after so much had happened in Germany to clearly, unmistakably indicate to all but the most blind the spiritual nature of the regime. But Niemöller did not and of course could not plead blindness.
“Last, and most tellingly, Niemöller was in prison on Kristallnacht, that November 9th day in 1938 when, among other appalling anti-Semitic acts, Storm troopers set afire 119 synagogues, 91 Jews were killed, and more than 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Niemöller admitted to his biographer, James Bentley, that “It became clear only then that the Jews were to be eliminated not simply from the church but from human society.”
“Now, although Niemöller saw in Kristallnacht the death of all Jews, knew of Germany’s anti-Semitic laws [Nuremburg Race Laws of 1935] that preceded and followed Kristallnacht, and was aware of the overwhelming evidence of public Nazi barbarity towards Jews that accompanied Hitler’s exercise of power, Niemöller nevertheless, upon Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September, 1939, and the ensuing declaration of war between Britain and Germany, volunteered “to fight for Adolf Hitler’s Germany”.
“In that September, Niemöller, a forty-seven year old Christian minister, who was then still Hitler’s “personal prisoner”, wrote to Admiral Raeder, “offering, as a reserve officer, to serve his country ‘in any capacity’ “.
“His letter was released by the Nazis to the world’s press.“
What kind of importance did Pastor Niemöller have in Germany then? Judge by this: he writes to the head of the German Navy and receives a reply from the head of the German Army, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. How many volunteers get such notice from the highest commands?
As he related after the war:
“In war a German feels bound to join the ranks without question. Three of my sons were called up. I could not hold back. I wrote from the concentration camp to Admiral Raeder, C. in C. of the Navy, asking to be allowed to return to the submarine service or to do any other service in the Navy. I heard nothing for several months, and then a reply came, not from Raeder but from Keitel, head of the Wehrmacht. He thanked me, but regretted I could not be employed on active service.”
Certainly, Pastor Niemöller had a change of heart after the war. That is well-known. But in the midst of the struggle, when his example would have carried immense weight, he offered to wage war for the Third Reich. In so doing he signalled the clearest approval of Hitler’s policies possible. How were his sons, his friends, and those who believed in him to interpret his actions in any other way? There is war guilt, blood-guilt, on the man. This is what being a German led him and his sons to. And how many others followed his example?
At peril to their souls
Martin Luther, the great reformer, gives nearly unlimited approval to his followers to wage war on behalf of their sovereign in the pamphlet, “Secular Authority: to What Extent Should it be Obeyed?”
- “But when a prince is in the wrong, are his people bound to follow him then too? I answer, No; for it is no one’s duty to do wrong. We ought to obey God, Who desires the right, rather than obey men. (Acts 5:29) What about when subjects do not know whether the prince is in the right or not? I answer, As long as they cannot know, nor find out by any possible means, they may obey without peril to their souls.“
By his own teacher, Luther, and by his own admission to his biographer, Niemöller volunteered to wage war, to obey his prince, at “peril to his own soul” because he knew his cause was evil. Or else he agreed with the government that the cause was good. It is one or the other.
So is sharing eternal peril — at knowingly supporting evil, at following “a prince in the wrong” — what allowed some to be accepted and achieve fame after the war? Courageous men and women better than them were ignored and their memory suppressed. (Even survivors of the White Rose faced rejection by family and friends after the war for just that reason: they didn’t support the government! It was a later generation of young Germans that would acclaim them.)
Why was the rare and radiant courage of the Jehovah Witnesses not highly praised in post-war Germany? Were not the post-war generations desperate to find something good in those times? Somehow the courage of the Jehovah Witnesses or the steady, but quiet faith of the Bruderhof did not appeal to them.
Greater than any mere action
Could it be that such groups are guilty of a greater crime than any mere action? That is, their crime lay in a fundamental realm, nearly unforgivable (it seems)—not submitting to the authority of the government. That crime remains even though it was an evil government passing evil laws, carrying out evil policies, and waging aggressive, brutal warfare. Can we now say in retrospect that they merit inclusion in the “true elite” President Hirsch noted in his famous speech?
“Let me conclude these explanations by quoting what Golo Mann said about forgetting and suppressing the men and women of the resistance, the “true elite” of Germany, in the post-war era: “Thus they were ignored and forgotten twice… The indifference of the nation strangled the living and forgot the dead.”
Also in that 2002 speech, he put the matter in legal terms. He noted how cleverly injustice can be made to take the form of law.
“The majority of the judges did not pervert justice, but many gave in to a formal law, even though materially it was injustice. The danger of a lawless state is not so much that it frontally causes judges to break the law, but that it lays down injustice in statutory form, assuming that judges will stop asking about what is right once they have a law handy.”
With such governments God has no connection, just as His word says:
Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who frame injustice by statute? (Psalm 94:20)
Many brave individuals could not stand idly by without making some protest against unjust laws and acts (such as not enlisting in the Army as all men were required to). Did not these men insist on listening to something more precious than life itself, as the eminent legal philosopher Gustav Radbruch put it: “to the voice of God, which speaks to the conscience of the individual“?
Really, the question must be faced by all who claim to believe in the Savior: “Is it important what Jesus Christ said?”
Before you answer in your own heart, consider whose words have been (and are) more important in Germany: Luther’s or Christ’s? Luther taught:
- “Christianity consists entirely in the belief in Christ; the substance of Christ’s teaching is unimportant:“
- “The Gospel does not teach us what we must do or leave undone, but says: God has done this for you, has made the Son flesh for you, has had Him done to death for you.”
Indeed, according to Luther, obeying “all earthly law and order” is how one obeys God! Obviously, this, in the earthly realm of daily life, is more important than keeping God’s word:
- “For we should fear all earthly law and order as God’s will and law. As Solomon says, Proverbs 16, A divine sentence is in the lips of the king.”
So Romans 13 is where Luther stumbled, and where Germany still falls down to this day:
- “All established power whose orders have the force of law is instituted by God, and it is this power which gives effect to His commandments.”
That is any government whatsoever and any law or command of that government.
Understanding this is why every government makes sure that all its dictates, however evil or ungodly, are law. As astute modern observers like Professor Schirrmacher have noted, all the evil the Nazi government did was legal. As far as the Jews, Luther and Hitler had no quarrel.
So everything Hitler did, whether moral or not, was legal — he made sure of that. Therefore, according to Luther, it had the power of God behind it. His legacy lives on: even today Germany can outlaw the Word of God (Proverbs 13:24) and strip parents of their God-given authority to train up their children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6), and there is very little fuss. God can evidently outlaw His Word through “established power whose orders have the force of law.” It has certainly happened before.
There was very little room in life, according to Luther, to judge that the government was leading you to disobey God. That is why historians speak of the effects of his reformation as establishing “princely absolutism.” He “freed religion from one captivity to subject it to another enslavement.“
Groups such as the Jehovah Witnesses and the Bruderhof were not blinded by such teachings. They did not think the Word of God could be set aside to obey earthly rulers unconditionally, but that it stood rather over and above them — at least as far as their own lives and souls were concerned. To them earthly rewards were not worth the eternal peril of disobedience to conscience and disobedience to the Word of God.
We are finding the same exchange offered to us today: eternal peril for earthly acceptance. That acceptance includes the return of our children. . . if we but deny our faith. But by our Teacher and by His apostles, we are obligated to obey God rather than men, just as the apostle Peter taught. Our consciences and our hearts demand it, and so does the Word of God. Here we stand. We can do no other.