MARTIN NIEMOELLER'S SON REMEMBERS HIS FATHER'S COURAGE
Lutheran Nazi resister ended up in jail for a while.
On February 10, National Public Radio broadcast the results of a survey of attitudes of young people in Germany today. Among other things, the study revealed that one in ten young Germans believes “Naziism was a good idea.”
The percentage of German youth who agreed with that idea in the 1930s, when Adolph Hitler was running the country, was far higher. But not all young people were buying “Der Führer’s” propaganda. One who disagreed was Heinz Niemoeller, who was nine years old in 1933, when the Nazis took control of the government.
Heinz’ father, Martin Niemoeller, was a Lutheran pastor in an upscale Berlin suburb, serving a congregation with a baptized membership of 12,000 and making an average of 1,000 home visits each year.
Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his contemporary and friend, Martin Niemoeller stood up to Hitler and took him on publicly. His courageous preaching against the German government’s policy of extermination of Germany’s Jews got immediate attention from the government. But, says Heinz Niemoeller, “the government decided not to move against my father, at least not at first, because he had a following, and he had credibility.”
Heinz Niemoeller was in the Twin Cities in early February, accepting a posthumous award on behalf of his father, who died in 1984. The “Prize for Humanity” was presented by The Immortal Chaplains Foundation, at a February 4 ceremony at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
While in the Twin Cities, the younger Niemoeller also spoke at North Heights Lutheran Church in Arden Hills, and at St. Olaf College in Northfield.
Two days after the award ceremony, 77-year-old Heinz, a retired medical doctor, spoke at length with the editor of Metro Lutheran about his recollections of his father, and the terrors of the Nazi period in Germany.
“I suppose,” he admitted, “that my father, my family and the members of our congregation had a special appreciation for the Jewish people. After all, we had many members in the congregation who were partially Jewish. I remember, as a nine-year-old in school, that there were two Jewish boys in my class. They sat behind me. Both were very bright. We liked and respected one another.”
He admitted that many young people in Germany “fell for” the Nazi slanders against the Jews. He said, “For youngsters like me, Naziism caused two feelings. We loved our country, but we also loved Christ and the church. We all belonged to some kind of youth club. One boys’ club in Berlin had 2,000 members. Some of the clubs were for ‘Bible Youth.’ But the Nazis infiltrated these groups. In December, 1934, all youth movements were incorporated into the ‘Hitler Youth’.”
Cleverly, he said, the Nazis kept some of the more appealing elements of the youth groups in order to entice more young people to come over into the new program.
“And yet, as late as 1939, when the war broke out, Bible youth groups still managed to meet. These groups helped create a post-war nucleus for the church in Germany.”
While many Germans claimed, after the war, that people didn’t really know what the government was doing to the Jews, Heinz said, “They could hardly have been in the dark about it. In 1935, sterilization of Jews was begun. Intermingling with Jews was forbidden. The government tried to dissolve marriages already existing between Jews and non-Jews. Those who resisted any of this lost their jobs.”
He added a chilling observation: “There was surprisingly little outcry from people, even in the Church.”
Not so with Martin Niemoeller, however. “My father helped organize the Pastor’s Emergency League in 1933. The members signed a document condemning removal of pastors of Jewish descent.”
Said Niemoeller, “My father was dissatisfied with the role of the Church under Hitler. He and others promulgated a Declaration of Guilt, applying especially to the Church, for complicity by the German people. Most people didn’t accept it. This disappointed my father profoundly.”
As the Nazi program advanced, and Martin Niemoel-ler’s fiery sermons escalated, his family, and members of his congregation, became aware he was in increasing danger.
“Some of our church members would come to my father and say, ‘Oh, please, Pastor Niemoeller, be careful. There is such important work to be done here, and we need you. Don’t do something to give ‘them’ an excuse to arrest you.”
Heinz remembered the risky situation and how it felt. “My father was aware that he was in danger of being imprisoned — or worse. There was a law at the time that forbade ‘using the pulpit for political purposes.’ But he knew he had to take the risks he did.
“I was convinced my father would end up in prison. With each sermon he became more outspoken. The Nazis would imprison pastors all over Germany as soon as they heard any criticism of their program.
“We knew they wouldn’t arrest my father without being able to create the impression of a ‘fair trial.’ So they waited quite a long time. In the meantime, my mother encouraged my father to take his stand. She would have hated him giving way to [the Nazis]. She didn’t speak of God too often, but she would always defend his views and actions.”
Said Heinz, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer would come to visit in our home, often at Christmas time. He’d bring presents to my mother. He told her he admired her courage and stamina.”
The net fell, finally, in 1937. The Gestapo came for Martin while Heinz was away, staying with friends in Munich.
“I was 13 years old. I remember this enormous outpouring of support from our congregation. They made sure we were never in need, physically, as a family. But my mother carried a heavy burden during the imprisonment. She could only visit my father twice a month.”
In 1938, Martin Niemoeller went on trial and was transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin.
“He was in prison eight years. I saw him four times during that period. The waiting room in the prison in Alexanderplatz could be compared to Dante’s Inferno. People waited there to receive the urns with ashes of their relatives who had died in the camp. My visits there were a privilege, but also a nightmare.”
The Nazis planned to kill both Bonhoeffer and Niemoeller at the end of the war. While they succeeded with Bonhoeffer, circumstances conspired to save Niemoeller. It may have been a combination government bungling and the courage of his sympathizers that permitted the Lutheran pastor’s friends to get him safely out of the country. He lived to see the collapse of the Third Reich.
Heinz said, “The destruction of Berlin and Germany was a sad sight. But the feeling of a new beginning reminded me that the physical destruction was really less important than something else: now we had a chance for something better.”
When the war ended, Heinz Niemoeller was 21. He went on to study medicine in the United States and establish a successful practice in post-war Germany. Today he lives in retirement south of Munich. He has three children and several grandchildren.
What should the modern church learn from what happened during the Hitler period?
“It’s a fair criticism that there weren’t more of us Christians who resisted more forcefully. We need to have a clear understanding of our shortcomings — and a determination to avoid such developments in the future.”
Incredibly, some today deny the holocaust ever happened. Today in Germany, Heinz says, it’s a crime to deny it publicly.