Martin Niemöller Biography

(German Theologian and Pastor Known for His Most Famous Poem 'First They Came...')

Birthday: January 14, 1892 (Capricorn)

Born In: Lippstadt, Germany

Martin Niemöller was a decorated World War I submarine captain; a leading pastor who emerged as an outspoken opponent of Adolf Hitler and his racist ideology in the 1930s; and an ardent pacifist in the later part of his life. His poem ‘First they came…’ is a widely quoted piece of literature by peace activists and anti-occupation voices the world over. Surprisingly, he started off as someone who was sympathetic towards Adolf Hitler and his racist propaganda, owing to his nationalist conservative leaning, and even voted for the Nazi Party in two separate elections. However, all that began to change with Hitler’s attempts to racialize the church and Christian faith. For his outspoken remarks and activities, he was arrested and served seven years in concentration camps until he was rescued by American troops in 1945. Niemöller was transparent about his early nationalistic beliefs and expressed deep regret for his ineptitude to help victims of Nazi atrocities, for which he faced his fair share of criticisms. Nevertheless, he devoted the later part of his life towards promoting world peace and nuclear disarmament. He was especially vocal against the Cold War, American war on Vietnam and formation of NATO.
Quick Facts

German Celebrities Born In January

Also Known As: Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller

Died At Age: 92


Spouse/Ex-: Else Bremer (m. 1919–1961)

father: Heinrich Niemöller

mother: Pauline Müller

Born Country: Germany

Writers Pastors

Died on: March 6, 1984

place of death: Wiesbaden, Germany

Notable Alumni: Westphalian Wilhelms-University

More Facts

education: Westphalian Wilhelms-University

Childhood & Early Life
Martin Niemöller was born on 14 January 1892 in Lippstadt, Germany to Pauline (nee Muller) and Heinrich Niemöller. His father was a Lutheran pastor, so naturally he grew up in a conservative household.
His family moved to Elberfeld in 1900, where he finished his schooling and sat for his ‘abitur’ (pre university qualification) examination eight years later.
In 1910, he became an officer-cadet in the German Imperial Navy. He was initially assigned to the training vessel, ‘Hertha’, and later graduated to serving on the warship, ‘Thuringen’. By the time World War I began in 1914, he was already a sub-lieutenant.
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Martin Niemöller commanded the UC67 submarine in 1918, and successfully oversaw the mine laying operation off the coast of Marseilles. By the end of the war, he had become one of the country’s most successful U-boat captains.
Post war, he resigned his commission and instead decided to pursue a career as a Lutheran pastor. In 1919, he enrolled at the Westphalian Wilhelms-University in Münster to study Lutheran theology.
Equally interested in German politics, he joined the ‘Freikorps’ – a private army raised by senior officers. During the March 1920 ‘Kapp Putsch’ (a failed coup d’état to overthrow the democratic German government), he commanded a Freikorps battalion in Münster.
After his ordination, Martin Niemöller initially served as curate of the Church of the Redeemer in Münster before becoming a pastor of the Berlin based Jesus Christus Kirche in 1931.
Like most Protestant pastors in Germany at the time, he supported any conservative movement against the democratic government, and therefore welcomed Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power, and even voted for the Nazi Party in the 1924 and 1933 elections.
However, the first signs of dissent surfaced when he opposed the ‘Aryan paragraph’ by the Nazis, as he and other Protestant churchmen felt it was incompatible with core Christian values of charity. This led to organization of the ‘Pfarrernotbund’ (Emergency Covenant of Pastors) in 1933 and ‘The Confessing Church’ a year later.
Arrested in 1937, he was tried by a ‘Special Court’ a year later. Found guilty, the verdict was a fine of 2,000 Reichmarks and time already served. But, immediately after, he was rearrested by the Gestapo and condemned to a concentration camp, first in Sachsenhausen and later in Dachau, a sentence he served from 1938 to 1945, when he and many other political prisoners were finally freed by the advancing unit of U.S. Seventh Army in South Tyrol.
In 1945, he and many other important German Protestant church figures signed the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, a document that basically accepted responsibility of inaction of church bodies in resisting the Nazis.
Soon after his meeting with German scientist, Otto Hahn, in July 1954, he became the foremost figure of post-war German peace movement campaigning for disarmament, and against NATO and the Cold War.
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Around 1961-62 he became an active member of the World Peace Committee, and served as the World Council of Churches’ president for seven years.
He travelled to North Vietnam to meet Ho Chi Minh in 1965 during the height of the Vietnam War and later spoke of him in positive light, which greatly irked the United States.
Major Works
Apart for his stoic opposition to the Nazi regime’s interference in church activities, he is best known for his poem, titled ‘First they came…’, which was both an admission of his guilt and his condemnation of being a bystander to Hitler’s atrocities.
As a pacifist, he opposed every major militaristic activity of the Western world after the Second World War, including the formation of NATO; the Cold War and America’s war on Vietnam.
Awards & Achievements
For his exploits in the First World War as a U-boat captain, Martin Niemöller received the Iron Cross First Class.
He received many awards for his work in the advancement of world peace, prominently the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967, and Grand Cross of Merit in 1971, which at the time was West Germany’s highest honor.
Family & Personal Life
Martin Niemöller married his first wife on 20th July 1919 and had six children together. The couple were involved in a car crash in 1961 and while he survived, she sadly did not. He later married Sybil von Sell in 1971.
A string of family tragedies unfolded while he was serving sentence at Dachau concentration camp. His youngest daughter died of diphtheria, while his eldest son was slain in battle. Yet another son was captured by Soviet troops while fighting on the Eastern Front.
His meeting with Otto Hahn in July 1954 left a lasting impression on him, following which he became a fervent pacifist and a staunch supporter of nuclear disarmament for life.
He passed away on 6 March 1984, at the age of 92, in Wiesbaden, West Germany.

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