Exile in the Fatherland: Martin Niemöller's Letters from Moabit Prison (Martin Niemöller: Briefe Aus Der Gefangenschaft Moabit)

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Memoir by Martin Niemöller, 1975

In his forward to Exile in the Fatherland: Martin Neimöller's Letters from Moabit Prison (1986), the English edition of Martin Niemöller: Briefe aus der Gefangenschaft Moabit, Franklin H. Littell, the doyen of American Protestant scholars on the Shoah, recognizes Karl Barth and Martin Niemöller as the leading architects of the Confessing Church's resistance to National Socialism and the German Christians' Faith Movement (Reich Church). Niemöller's public activity and sermons support this claim. Reflecting Niemöller's strategic leadership in the church's struggle are these sentiments from his last church sermon in the Third Reich, "We have no more thought of using our own powers to escape the arm of authorities than had the Apostles of old. No more are we ready to keep silent at man's behest when God commands us to speak. For it is, and must remain, the case that we must obey God rather than man" (1937).

Niemöller never saw himself as a theologian nor did he view the church in terms of ecclesiastical structures. Influenced by his father's stern Christian commitment, he saw the Church as a way of life imbued with a Christian philosophy and system of morals circumscribed by the question, Was würde Jesus sagen? ("What would Jesus say?"). The young Niemöller showed hints of anti-Judaism when he declared that the Jews bear the curse of "Positive Christianity," that is to say, "a pure-blooded, race-conscious nation" who rejected and resisted "Negative Christianity," meaning repentance to and faith in Jesus as the savior of all sinners. But he broke from his anti-Jewish feelings, which he never denied and attributed to his home environment and seminary training, beginning in 1933, when he rejected everything that the Nazis stood for, including the persecution of the Jews. This is expressed adroitly and succinctly in his famous "Confession of Guilt," which originated orally in his postwar American travels and became the concluding words of his many addresses to American audiences. "First, they came for the socialists, but I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I as not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me."

On 1 July 1937 Pastor Niemöller was arrested by the Gestapo and confined to Moabit prison in Berlin without the due process of a court trial. His letters from prison during his eight months of confinement bear the testimony of an engaged Christian soul on fire who was sustained by his peace with his Lord. His numerous letters to his wife Else (she died in 1961) reflect the strain and adjustment to the prison stay coupled with concern, devotion, and love for her and his family. He anguished over the insinuation that he was "an enemy of the people" and found comfort in "Give thanks to the Lord, call on His name; make known His deeds among the nations; proclaim that His name is exalted" (Isaiah 12:4). He complained not of his cell of 10 meters by 10 meters—"The Lord is on my side, I have no fear; what can any man do to me?" (Psalm 118:6)—but of his fear that the people on the outside do not keep the faith firmly. By this he meant those members of the German Evangelical Church who bent their knee to Ba'al/Caesar and thus impeded the "spread of confessionalism." Between 10 November 1937 and 4 December 1947, nearly a thousand Confessing Church pastors were arrested or brought in for interrogation by the Gestapo. Nonetheless, Niemöller's letters from prison charged the brethren not to lose hope or direction and to fight the good fight for the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. His popularity and steadfastness irked Adolf Hitler, whose personal order imprisoned and later transferred him to Dachau and parenthetically, "in (to) all the textbooks of church history," according to Bishop Dibelius.

But Niemöller was not one to rest on his laurels readily. He perceived his calling as a servant of the people appointed by a higher power to resist the propaganda of unbelief even when persecution comes. In 1936 he succored Christians who opposed the word of the Führer, "Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they (Jews) persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world" (Matthew 5:12-13a-14a). Admittedly, suggesting that Jews persecuted Christians contributed to the teachings of the Reich Church, but he publicly confessed and begged forgiveness for his part in spreading this teaching of contempt. After his liberation from Dachau, he said, "I knew my alibi was good between 1937 to 1945 [where he spent eight months in Moabit, three years in Sachsenhausen, and four years in Dachau], but here God was asking me: where were you between 1933-1937? And I had no answer. I felt a cold chill creep up my spine and knew that this was God's warrant against the Pastor Niemöller." And later before students at Göttingen, he berated the ineptness of traditional Christian theological anti-Judaism: "Those six millions are a heavy burden on Christendom and on the church and cannot be blamed on the Nazi party, the SS, and the one mass murderer. Yes, the church bears the heaviest burden because it knew what it did when it did nothing. Antisemitism is the one acute threat to the church as a church. An antisemitic church being a contradiction in itself." So spoke Niemöller, a genuine hero of the church struggle, who lived each day as it came to fight evil (Matthew 6:31).

—Zev Garber