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A drab but competent retelling of a momentous life. NiemÖller (1892-1984) was a WW I U-boat commander who became a Reformed pastor and, after WW II, an out-and-out pacifist; a fire-breathing German nationalist--he read Mein Kampf, and was voting for the Nazis as late as 1933--who ultimately defied Hitler face-to-face and spent 1938-45 in Sachsenhausen and Dachau; an erstwhile anti-Semite who led the way in acknowledging German guilt toward the Jews. There have been earlier lives of NiemÖller, notably those by C. S. Davidson (1959) and Dietmar Schmidt (Eng. tr. 1959); but Bentley, an Anglican priest and historian, provides by far the fullest account to date, thanks especially to his many conversations with NiemÖller from 1979-83. NiemÖller did not quite have the stuff heroes are made of: plucky rather than spectacularly brave, dogged rather than brilliant, he was forever disconcerting people, including his supporters. He founded the Pastors' Emergency League and later the Confessing Church to combat the Nazis; but in the beginning at least he fought from the low ground of traditional church rights, as opposed to a broad humanitarian stance. He went to prison for his efforts, but when war broke out he volunteered to serve in the German Navy. Though interned at Dachau, he much preferred it to Sachsenhausen (where he had been kept 4 years in solitary), and was shocked to hear about the 238,756 persons incinerated there when he revisited it in the fall of 1945. Yet if NiemÖller was a slow learner, he bluntly admitted his mistakes and marshaled an awesome energy to change things once he caught on. In his later years he traveled around the world, working for peace, ecumenism, and nuclear disarmament. Bentley chronicles the career of this tough, authentic character quietly and effectively, though with an almost perverse disregard for its dramatic moments: e.g., he spends far more time on NiemÖller's campaign to help German POWs in England than on his last-minute escape from an SS death squad. Still, an informative view of an impressive figure.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Free Press/Macmillan