The tale of German pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), whose writings have become central documents of liberation theology.
The title of this sometimes-plodding but useful biography derives from Niemöller’s most famous writing, a poem that includes the lines “first they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Communist….Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” As Hockenos (Twentieth Century History/Skidmore Coll.; A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past, 2004) chronicles in the serviceable narrative, Niemöller was a man of contradictions: He commanded a submarine in World War I and was so embittered by Germany’s loss that he refused to deliver his vessel to the Allies to be scrapped. Though a pastor who joined the clergy so that “he could serve God and country with little worry about interference from the state,” he was an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler and the Nazi regime. That changed when Hitler decided to turn the Protestant church in Germany into a Nazified extension of the state; Niemöller objected to the policy but not to National Socialism itself, even as he organized resistance to the Nazified church. He was imprisoned and sent to Dachau, and though treated better than most political prisoners, he would almost certainly have been murdered at the end of the war had his SS jailers not decided to “use their valuable cargo to negotiate their own survival.” By a curious twist, Niemöller was saved from the SS by members of the regular German army, who knew that defeat was at hand. His political evolution occurred after the war, when he condemned anti-Semitism and became a civil rights activist and confidant of Martin Luther King’s. “More and more in the 1950s and ’60s,” writes Hockenos, “he began to draw connections between pacifism, anticolonialism, and racial justice.”
The writing lacks flair, but Niemöller’s story is a valuable study in individual resistance to tyranny.