Martin Niemöller - an uncompromising theologian
Prof. Dr. Alf Christophersen / Protestant Theology
Photo: Astrid Padberg

Martin Niemöller: an uncompromising theologian

Prof. Dr. Alf Christophersen on the controversial German theologian Martin Niemöller and his notes "Thoughts on the Way of the Christian Church".

He is considered one of the most controversial theologians in the Protestant Church. His speeches polarize Christians all over the world: Martin Niemöller, theologian, concentration camp prisoner and figurehead of the Confessing Church. Born in Lippstadt, Niemöller spent his school years at the Evangelisches Gymnasium, today's Wilhelm-Dörpfeld-Gymnasium in Elberfeld. At an early age, he voted for the NSDAP and supported the Führer state. When he became increasingly reserved about the ideology of the National Socialists, he was arrested in 1937 and subsequently spent eight years as Adolf Hitler's "personal prisoner" in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps until 1945. In Sachsenhausen, while in solitary confinement, he handwrote his "Thoughts on the Way of the Christian Church," which Wuppertal theologian Prof. Dr. Alf Christophersen co-edited and published for the first time in 2019.

When the state becomes encroaching

Alf Christophersen had already dealt extensively with the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, and National Socialism from political, ethical, and historical perspectives when historian Benjamin Ziemann approached him for his theological expertise on a new book about Marin Niemöller. "He was looking for someone at his side who was versed in the history of theology not least in exegetical questions, grounded in the New Testament. The New Testament had been my original subject, and so it came to teamwork. The historian on the one hand and the theologian on the other," explains Christophersen, who teaches systematic theology at Bergische Universität.

Niemöller's attitude toward the Fuehrer state and his turn toward resistance cannot be understood without a close look at the continuities and discontinuities, and Christophersen says, "It is the big question whether his attitude really changed. In any case, the form of action has changed. Niemöller was always someone who rejected the Weimar Republic, voted for the NSDAP from the beginning, who also joined forces with various associations that fought the Weimar Republic." Niemöller had been a submarine commander and had been very skeptical about the beginning of the Weimar Republic after the end of the Empire, he said. "On the other hand, he also always insisted that the church as an institution and as the community in which one knows oneself to be united in a shared faith after all, must not be treated encroachingly by the state in such a way that it is no longer clear who is actually in charge in it." The introduction of the so-called "Aryan paragraph," which was part of the "Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service" in 1933 and which stated that "civil servants who are not of Aryan descent are to be retired," was the straw that broke the camel's back for Niemöller - because this was then to be applied to the churches as well, which, according to Christophersen, "was perceived by Niemöller as an inadmissible encroachment."

The Barmen Confession Synod was explosive for the National Socialists

In May 1934, the Barmen Theological Declaration was adopted at the First Confessional Synod of the German Protestant Church in Barmen. It formed the theological foundation of the Confessing Church. One of its core statements was: 'Jesus Christ, as testified to us in the Holy Scriptures, is the one Word of God, which we must hear, trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine as if the church could and must recognize as the source of its proclamation, apart from and in addition to this one Word of God, other events and powers, figures and truths as God's revelation.` "This was a frontal attack," Christophersen explains, "because a sore point of National Socialist ideology is hit: in the people and in the leader the whole essence of the German is embodied. The emphasis on Christology, which says: Jesus Christ alone is Lord and nothing else, because he has a claim on our whole life, is then an attack on all those who think they can bring other powers into play." You can't know God from the workings of history, you can't know him in the order of nature, the theologian explains. "All of that is ruled out. Even more so the reference to Adolf Hitler as a leader figure who considers himself an extended arm of God under the aspect of providence." It was in this constellation of conflict, he said, that the Confessing Church was then launched. Although Niemöller had not actively participated in the drafting of the text of the Barmer Declaration, he embodied, so to speak, these resolutions, which he categorically implemented in his congregation in Berlin-Dahlem during the church struggle at that time.

Special prisoner of Adolf Hitler writes down his "Thoughts...

During his imprisonment in Sachsenhausen, Niemöller recognized the churches' share of responsibility in the Nazis' seizure of power and wrote his "Thoughts on the Way of the Christian Church." "It is first of all a very peculiar phenomenon that someone sits in a concentration camp and devotes himself to a text that deals with the church," Christophersen says, explaining his interest in publishing these notes. "People were dying all around, he was witnessing how the executions were taking place, was also close to it himself at first. But then he focuses and asks himself the question: what is actually my ecclesiastical and theological identity?" A contributing factor, he says, was surely his disappointment with the behavior of his own national church, the Old Prussian Union, by which he felt abandoned and which wanted to put him on so-called "waiting status," which was tantamount to kicking him out. Niemöller seriously considered switching to Catholicism. "The 'Way of the Christian Church' is basically an attempt to figure out whether Protestantism is really the hip denomination," Christophersen says. Niemöller was credited with some books. "He then sat quietly with those for a few months and worked. He used that time to knock Protestantism down and make it out to be highly abysmal. The whole system with bishops that prevailed, he considers an absolute failure, because they take themselves more important than the broad church mass, feel outstanding without really being so. Then, compared to Catholicism, he lacks unambiguity. He found the papacy highly attractive because at least you knew where you stood. That is missing in Protestantism. Niemöller sees the Protestant Church, precisely because of its fragmentation into regional churches, as a shadowy entity that is not capable of providing any concrete information, let alone orientation. For him, this church runs into secularism, that is, pure secularization, and one loses all principles," Christophersen explains. The question for Niemöller was not "What is the church?" but "Where is the church?" and his answer is clear. "It is with the people themselves, it is also in the concentration camp, it is in the congregations and where people are pressed, where people align themselves with Christ, as the central guiding figure, and enter into serious discipleship. So very, very decidedly." He soon discarded his idea of conversion. Says Christophersen: "Niemöller had some Catholic priests around him in Dachau during his imprisonment, with whom he lived and shared daily life, also had devotions, and he realized that this was not his world. The whole habitus did not suit him. In 1963, in an interview with the journalist Günter Gaus, he said: 'The misjudgment in the whole story is always that one compares the ideal of another greatness with the practical experiences of a greatness to which one belongs oneself. Then it is very easy to come to this judgment: the others are better! Aren't they?'"

From nationalist to pacifist

Niemöller the militarist eventually becomes Niemöller the pacifist, a metamorphosis that Christophersen finds difficult to explain. "He is an incredibly unwieldy person, very driven by his own convictions. And he was also able to change those convictions," he says. "Niemöller was of the firm opinion that the way of dealing with atomic bombs, for example, which can contribute to this world being completely annihilated, represents such an encroachment also on God's sovereignty of creation and the existence of the world that a Christian, from his perspective, who sees himself as a follower of Jesus, actually can't help but become a pacifist." He then followed through on that, he said, with exactly the same ambition as he had in supporting the NSDAP in the 1920s. "This is a kind of ethic of attitude that we also know from other areas. From one's own attitude, one decides what is right. And there is no compromise. He also only knew friend or foe." That, he said, made him attractive to left-wing Protestantism because it was a real offer. It started with the theology of revolution in the 1960s, and in the 1970s it combined with the disarmament debate and flowed into the ecological crisis. "More left-leaning Protestants found him fascinating, of course, because there was someone marching ahead and not being vague. He massively rejected the deliberative and pragmatic."

Confessing Church does not mean 'resistance at any price'

When one speaks of the Confessing Church, one cannot avoid the person Niemöller. From the Pfarrernotbund (The Pfarrernotbund was founded in 1933, consisted of Protestant theologians, pastors and other church officials who opposed the Aryan Paragraph in the German Protestant Church (DEK). Editor's note) gave rise to the Confessing Church, in which Niemöller stands out as a central figure, even from his imprisonment. This ecclesiastical resistance pathos was then gradually lost again after 1945, however, because "it was realized that this form of resistance spirit could not actually be used well for regional churches and for the Protestant Church in Germany," says Christophersen. Even after 1945, he says, the church continued to maintain an image of itself that simplistically reduced the Confessing Church to the epitome of resistance against everything hostile to humanity. "This does not do justice to the range at all," emphasizes the theologian, "there were fluid transitions between German Christians and the Confessing Church, there was a large part that was neither one nor the other. Some also changed positions several times. There were people in the Confessing Church who were definitely National Socialists. The Confessing Church did not aim to overthrow the whole regime, but rather had the impulse to secure the church within the totalitarian. And that is much more multifaceted than people thought in the first decades after 45." What remains of the Confessing Church, however, from a Christian perspective, is the abiding desire to rebel against any political appropriation.

Only gradually did people come to ask critical questions and also recognize the complexity of Niemöller's person. "With Niemöller, we have the problem of this lack of ability to compromise and really stylize one's own person with an authoritarian gesture. That is no longer communicable today. He has initiated many topics, he has also brought the church into the global context, he has already thought about questions of colonialism or about the distribution of wealth on earth. He has taken up all these questions, but in the end he has been decidedly self-focused." And yet we need people like that to look to for guidance. "So someone like Niemöller, in his relentlessness, is of course a permanent reminder that one must not make things too easy for oneself, that one must not throw everything overboard that one considered important for good reasons. A figure to work off of is worth its weight in gold, because many today miss that in turn. How often do we hear that we had central figures back then? Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Franz Josef Strauß, no matter what you think of them politically, who definitely said what they thought."

Pace-setter of ecumenism

Martin Niemöller, as controversial as he is discussed, also freed the Protestant Church from international isolation after World War II. With the Stuttgart Confession of Guilt, for which he was jointly responsible, the Protestant Church acknowledged in October 1945 that Protestant Christians were complicit in National Socialist crimes. "By taking action here," Christophersen says, "Niemöller made the Protestant Church presentable again for the integration of German Protestantism into the worldwide ecumenical movement. And that also had a political dimension." Niemöller undoubtedly helped to reintegrate Protestantism and also the Federal Republic into the world community through his decades of worldwide contacts in ecumenism. "This cannot be appreciated highly enough."

Book tip: Thoughts on the Way of the Christian Church, Alf Christophersen (ed.), Benjamin Ziemann (ed.), Martin Niemöller (author), Gütersloher Verlagshaus 2019


Uwe Blass

Alf Christophersen has been teaching as Professor of Systematic Theology in the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies at Bergische Universität since 2018.

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