I picked up the latest biography of Martin Niemöller the other day, by Matthew Hockenos. Niemöller is a fascinating figure; a Lutheran pastor, formerly a WW1 U-Boat captain, a fiercely nationalistic German who reluctantly came to the conclusion Hitler was not the saviour of the German people.
He teamed up with the likes of Barth and Bonhoeffer to help the German church be true to Jesus Christ, in the midst of strong societal pressure to conform the church to the path being offered by the National Socialists.
He offered this famous quote after the war:
“First they came for the socialists, and 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 was 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.”
The biography shows Neimöller “warts and all”; his struggle to come to terms with the deeply rooted anti-Semitism in his life and his strong nationalism. Yet it also shows his readiness to struggle with what the gospel is, what it meant in that time and place, and it shows a man ready to pay the price for being faithful to Jesus.
Barth and Bonhoeffer are probably more famous and popular figures in the church regarding the resistance to totalitarianism, yet Niemöller presents to me as someone I can more practically look to; someone at home in his culture, a recipient of all its benefits, yet working to come to terms with its shadow—letting the gospel shine a light in to some dark places.
The German church struggled mightily with this; not many saw the issues as clearly or as early as people like Bonhoeffer; he, Barth and Neimöller worked together even though they disagreed about quite a number of political issues.
Niemöller survived a concentration camp and gave leadership in the peace and nuclear disarmament movement during the Cold War.