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Remembrance Day – Martin Niemoeller


1892 – 1984

I: — For years I have arrived at church on Remembrance Day Sunday with my heart in my mouth. For years I have wondered what our service has said to people of German ancestry. Have we implied, however unintentionally, that German people are the ogres of the world? that they are people of impenetrable hardness and incorrigible cruelty? To be sure, we in Streetsville are orthodox enough to say we agree with the prophet Jeremiah that the heart of everyone — without exception — “is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt, beyond understanding”.(Jer. 17:9) But even as we say we agree with the prophet do we quietly qualify the statement so as to suggest that the hearts of one nation in particular are exceedingly deceitful, corrupt and ununderstandable? The last thing I want to do today is foster the myth of superiority; namely, that some of us are superior inasmuch as our hearts are more benign than the hearts of others.

Yes, the two major wars of this century found Germany our enemy and France our ally. If we were to push back one century earlier, however, we should find the situation reversed: France was the enemy and Germany the ally. Following the Battle of Waterloo, where the Duke of Wellington defeated the French forces, Wellington remarked, “Never have I come so close to losing.” He would have lost for sure had the British troops not been supported by German forces. In other words, labels like “enemy” and “ally” change in a twinkling.

Think of the United States. We Canadians have been allies of the US throughout this century, as have the British. But the British and the Americans haven’t always been allies; there were slaughters in 1776 and 1812. The Citadel, that massive fortress in Quebec City, was constructed in the last century to protect you and me against the Americans. Around the turn of the century British and American navies vied for superiority just in case the two countries went to war; and in fact the US had on file plans for war against Great Britain as late as 1932.

The expression “concentration camp” has been especially ugly in the past one hundred years. Who invented the concentration camp? Not the Germans; the British developed concentration camps in their war against the Dutch in South Africa. The Dutch suffered more fatalities in the camps than they suffered through enemy fire. Jeremiah is correct. Human sinnership is universal.

Nonetheless, while all hearts are alike deceitful and corrupt, there do occur in history particular concentrations of evil which are to be resisted unremittingly. We cannot use our common sinnership as an excuse for not resisting the appearance of a particular evil, a concentration of evil. Naziism was such an appearance.

II: — Today we are honouring a German pastor who resisted. His name is Martin Niemoeller. Born in 1892 into the home of a Lutheran clergyman, N. insisted throughout his boyhood that all he wanted to do was go to sea. Having finished first in his highschool class he was accepted into the Naval Academy (a most prestigious institution) and entered as an officer-cadet. Quickly he established his reputation: academically brilliant, and brazenly impudent (at least to the extent that naval regulations permitted.) Both qualities would stand him in good stead when he came to defy naziism. Further training qualified him as a submarine officer. Throughout World War I he served on several submarines, narrowly escaping death twice: once when his boat was depthcharged while submerged and once when rammed while on the surface. In between sea-duties he was appointed to naval headquarters in Berlin, an experience he treasured in that it taught him how bureaucracies work.

Niemoeller maintained that the turning point in his life came on the 25th January, 1918, as he and his fellow-officers huddled in the claustrophobic confines of their underwater death-trap. They were debating the horrors of warfare. Niemoeller insisted that he saw at that moment that the world is not a morally tidy place; the world is not guided by moral principles; neutrality in the world’s struggle is not possible; at the same time, those who uphold the right are scarcely without fault themselves. He jotted in his diary, “Whether we can survive all trials with a clear conscience depends wholly and solely on whether we believe in the forgiveness of sins.”

In March, 1918, he resigned from the navy; on Easter Sunday of the same year he married his best friend’s sister, Else Bremer. Soon he was a theology student at the University of Munster. Needing money (by now he and his wife had one child; eventually they had seven) he found work as a plate-layer on the state railways. At this point he was a full-time railway labourer, a full-time student, and a husband and father. “As a young fellow you can take it”, he was heard to comment years later.

When he began ministerial work in an inner-city parish he was not paid enough to support his family. Inflation was skyrocketing in Germany. Carefully his wife picked the gold lace off his submarine-commander’s uniform and sold it to a jeweller. The money didn’t last long. He was unemployed several times. His naval officer’s monthly pension, greatly devalued on account of the collapsing German economy, purchased half a loaf of bread. Years later he wrote, “I discovered and still know what it feels like to have no fixed employment and means of existence and sustenance.”

His ministerial training concluded in 1924, N. was ordained, even preaching at his own ordination service. The text was Philippians 3:12: “I press on to make [the power of his resurrection] my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Within a few years (1931) he was pastor of St. Anne’s church, Dahlem, a suburb of Berlin.

Hitler took the nation by storm. It is easy to understand how. Following World War I Germany was in economic ruins. The people were humiliated by the defeat of 1918, impoverished, confused, lost. Hitler promised to rebuild the economy, restore the people’s pride, overturn their national humiliation and eliminate the rampant immorality in the larger cities. Hitler seasoned his public speeches with religious references. He talked about the blessing of Almighty God, a necessary pillar in the new state. He handed out pious stories to the press. He showed a tattered bible to some deaconesses and declared that he drew strength from the Word of God. When speaking to religious people he imported an unctuous note into his voice. Then he announced, “Today Christians, not international atheists, stand at the head of Germany.” It is little wonder that people came on board.

It is greater wonder, then, that Niemoeller did not. He discerned that Hitler was distorting the Christian faith in order to use it in the service of political power. The state church, known as “German Christians” (to be distinguished from the Confessing Church, confessing that Jesus Christ is the one Word of God) published manifestos boasting of national superiority. Pastors were ordered to read out a proclamation of thanksgiving, praising the state “for assuming, in addition to all its other tasks, the great load and burden of reorganizing the church”. Niemoeller refused to read it. Already he realized that Hitler merely wanted to use the church politically, thereafter leaving it to “rot like a gangrenous limb”, in the words of the Fuehrer himself.

In 1932 nazi leaders ordered a boycott of Jewish shops and businesses. To his horror Niemoeller saw that his theology professors, together with thousands of other academicians, supported this move; worse, they wrote and spoke vigorously in behalf of the ideology. Soon a nazi decree appeared which targeted pastors of Jewish ancestry. They were to be ousted from their pulpits. Of 18,000 Protestant pastors in pre-war Germany, only 23 were of Jewish ancestry. Yet so very intense was the anti-semitic hatred that the machinery of the state was mobilized to eliminate a trace element.

The pseudo-faith of the state church was labelled “Positive Christianity”. “Positive Christianity” gathered up rabid nationalism, racial purity and military superiority. N. denounced “Positive Christianity” passionately, insisting that the gospel permits the church to preach Christ-crucified only. At the same moment Hitler announced, “If you are a nationalist you are already a Christian”. N. replied that the Fuehrer’s fulmination was mere neo-paganism.

When N. noticed that most pastors promoted “Positive Christianity” in order to save their skin he stated publicly that there was “a shameful faintheartedness among many ministerial brethren”; furthermore, any clergyman who took refuge in being “politically correct”, waiting for the storm to pass, was “a traitor to Jesus Christ”. Of the 18,000 pastors only 7036 sided with Martin.

From 1933 on N. was aware that the Gestapo (secret police) was shadowing him wherever he went. And then on 11th November (Armistice Day!) the government informed him that he had been “permanently retired”. Whereupon the congregation of Dahlem, as resolute as their pastor himself, informed the government that their pastor would continue to shepherd them. Two days later a huge rally in a sports stadium featured a speaker who shouted, “If we are ashamed to buy a necktie from a Jew, we should be absolutely ashamed to take the deeper elements of our religion from a Jew”. “Positive Christianity” had clearly repudiated Jesus Christ.

Matters came to a head in 1934. Niemoeller courageously appeared at a meeting of nazi officials. Excerpts from a secretly taped conversation exposed him. Hitler, enraged, ordered him to step forward, berating him furiously. “I was very frightened”, N. admitted later. Hitler continued his tirade. “Every time I leave this Chancellery [building] in my car, I am aware that someone might take a revolver and shoot at me.” At this point Niemoeller was bathed in a freedom he had never expected. Listen to him: “I felt absolutely liberated. That was my salvation. I knew that this man was more anxious than I. I felt, ‘You have given yourself away’. If he has more anxieties than I, then I have the courage to face him. His authority was absolutely negated when I felt that he was more governed by fear than I.” Emboldened now, N. spoke into Hitler’s face, “We pastors have a responsibility for the German people laid on us by God. Neither you nor anyone else can take that away from us.” Hitler turned on his heel and stormed off.

When Martin returned home his frightened wife asked him, “Is Hitler a great man?” “He is a great coward”, replied N., and then added that Hitler would certainly brutalize the man who had contradicted him to his face. That evening the Gestapo raided the N. home, taking away the lists of pastors who had joined the pastors’ protest organization. A few days later a bomb exploded in the house, setting it on fire. Immediately thousands of pastors resigned from the protest movement. Niemoeller’s friends offered to smuggle him and his family to Sweden. He turned down the offer.

As a theology student Niemoeller had asked one of his professors, “What is the meaning of the expression ‘the church’? The professor had dismissed the question cavalierly: “Why worry about it? Is it so important?” Now thousands of people throughout Germany were asking N. for an answer. He stated publicly, “It is dreadful and infuriating to see how a few unprincipled men who call themselves ‘church government’ are destroying the church and persecuting the fellowship of Jesus.” And then he reminded his congregation of the conviction of the apostle Paul: it is a privilege to suffer for the sake of the gospel.

On 1st July, 1937, he was eating breakfast with his wife when the secret police arrested him. He had already been to prison five times, had always been released within a day or two, and expected the same quick release this time. His assumption was incorrect. This time he would be in prison for eight years. As he was being admitted to the Berlin prison he was accosted by the prison chaplain, a man whom N. recognized from his naval days, a man who was now a nazi stooge. “Pastor N.”, the chaplain remonstrated, “Why are you in prison?” N. stared at him and replied, “Why are you not?”

During his imprisonment in Berlin N. wrote to his wife frequently, as well as to others. We should listen to excerpts of these letters, for they show us faith refined in the fire of harassment.

In February, 1938, Niemoeller was put on trial. To the surprise of many he was acquitted. Before he could be released, however, Hitler announced that N. was now the personal prisoner of the Fuehrer himself.

Then he was sent to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp, and stripped of his possessions. He asked for, and had returned to him, two items dear to him: his bible and his wedding ring. In solitary confinement now, he was not permitted to converse with anyone. The only sounds he heard were the cries and groans of men undergoing torture. He was spared execution only because nazi authorities did not wish to sully their international reputations. Else suffered a nervous breakdown. Then she and the seven children were expelled from the manse, and were now without accommodation or livelihood.

In 1941 Niemoeller was transferred from Sachsenhausen to Dachau. The years crawled by. Four years later, in April, 1945, together with 150 other prisoners and accompanied by an execution squad, he was taken to northern Italy. His overseers knew, however, that the war’s end was imminent and would be followed by the war crimes trials. They decided not to execute anyone. Three days later American soldiers took Niemoeller into their care.

He was exhausted, scrawny and tubercular. All he wanted was to be reunited with his family. Allied forces detained him, however, and questioned him by the hour, aware that he had vast knowledge of the inner workings of the Third Reich. Niemoeller begged to be allowed to go home. His request was refused. At last the tuberculosis patient went on a hunger strike. Four days later, scrawnier than ever, he was allowed to go home. On 24th June, 1945, he was reunited with his wife. Immediately he was sent to a sanatorium. He did not return to his church in Berlin, certain as he was that the Russians would kidnap him.

After the war he worked tirelessly in behalf of food relief and Germany’s economic reconstruction. A British school principal wrote him telling him how much the schoolboys admired his resistance to Hitler, and asked him to write the boys a line or two telling them how he found the strength to resist. Niemoeller merely quoted our Lord’s words in Matthew 6:34: “Don’t worry at all then about tomorrow. Tomorrow can worry about itself! One day’s trouble is enough for one day.” New York University awarded him its most prestigious recognition, inscribing on the bronze medal which honoured him, “Martin Niemoeller — Courageous Churchman”. Accolades were heaped on him. Nevertheless, whenever dignitaries asked him how he wished to be introduced he invariably replied with transparent simplicity, “I am a pastor”.

He died in 1984, aged 92. A few days before his death he remarked, “When I was young I felt I had to carry the gospel; now that I am old I know that the gospel carries me.”

III: — As often as I reflect on the man whom the gospel carried I ask myself in what way he continues to inspire and nourish and hearten me, and just as often I come back to the matter of courage; simple courage. Niemoeller was intellectually gifted; but so were the many university professors who tested the political waters and decided that their intellectual gifts would be used in the service of self-preservation. Niemoeller’s intellectual gifts were never used in the service of head-game rationalizations and cowardly excuses. All his gifts were vehicles of his courage.

Courage, we must remember, is not the absence of fear. The bravest people are afraid. Courage means that for frightened people their fear has not deflected them from doing what they know they are appointed to do.

Niemoeller frequently quoted a text from the book of Joshua: “Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”(Joshua 1:9) The Israelite people have known the bitter taste of bondage in Egypt and they have endured the hardships of the wilderness; now they are poised to enter the promised land. Then they realize that enemies abound in the promised land. If they are going to possess the promise they cannot avoid conflict. Their spirits sink. “Be strong and of good courage…for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go”. Even when a child of God goes face-to-face with the most powerful and evil man in Europe; even when a child of God goes to prison; even when a child of God goes on a hunger strike he does not do any of this alone!

C.S. Lewis used to say that courage is not one more expression of our Christian obedience, along with patience, faithfulness, honesty, cheerfulness, etc; courage, rather, is every expression of our obedience at the testing point. Generosity, for instance, comes easy when the recipients of our generosity are appreciative; easier still when our generosity is granted public recognition. But when our generosity is met with ingratitude — or worse, ridicule — then courage is simply generosity being tested lest our hearts shrivel.

Truthfulness comes easy except when it doesn’t come easy. A trite remark? Not at all. So un-trite is it that we make excuses for people who are untruthful under pressure; we make even more excuses for people whose untruthfulness varies directly with the price of truthfulness. Courage is truthfulness when the price of truthfulness is staring us in the face.

Yet we must never think of courage only in the sphere of heroism on an international scale. Courage is exemplified every day by the most ordinary people in the most ordinary circumstances. the highschool student who doesn’t “borrow” someone else’s essay when cheating is a way school is survived; the single mother who struggles to see her children arrive at something higher than the lowest common denominator on the street; the person haunted by any of the longterm mental difficulties which have to be contended with every day lest such difficulties be surrendered to; the person with severe arthritis for whom climbing stairs is more arduous than ascending Mt. Everest. The woman who was Maureen’s maid of honour at our wedding; she died slowly, aged 36. Her brother said to me later, “She made it so easy for everyone else in the family.” How much courage it takes to “make it so easy” when capitulation to resentment and envy and petulance and anger can make it wretchedly difficult for everyone else!

Only infrequently has my work as a pastor taken me among heroes. But every day my work as a pastor takes me alongside people whose courage leaves me awestruck. What courage it takes not to let adversity embitter; not to let disappointment sour; not to let sheer bad luck provoke spite and envy! What courage it takes in the most straitened circumstances not to yield to despair.

Courage, as Niemoeller knew, is both a gift and a summons. “Be strong and of good courage… for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go”. Courage is both something God supplies and something we must do.

But of course even our doing, however much it is our doing, is finally that which Jesus Christ forges in us. “When I was young, I felt I had to carry the gospel; now that I am old, I know that the gospel carries me.”


Victor A. Shepherd
November 1991