Martin Niemöller’s stand against Hitler

  • Themes: The Holocaust

Forty years after his death, the Lutheran pastor's opposition to the Nazis continues to symbolise the power, bravery – and rarity – of citizens who resist dictatorship.

A commemorative stamp of Martin Niemöller
A commemorative stamp of Martin Niemöller: Neftali / Alamy Stock Photo

Virtually every schoolchild has heard Martin Niemöller’s quote about cowardice in the face of evil. In it, the Protestant pastor portrays himself as a fearful citizen who did too little to protest against the Nazis’ brutality. In reality, he was one of the first to do so, and he spoke out so consistently and fearlessly that the Nazis locked him away in a concentration camp. Almost exactly 90 years ago, Niemöller bravely voiced opposition when Adolf Hitler demanded acquiescence from Germany’s Lutherans.

‘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.’

Countless people have seen Niemöller’s quote on posters, screensavers, or at the International Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, where it occupies a whole wall. It describes painfully the attitude of countless Germans in the Third Reich – and countless others living under dictatorships. Though we all like to imagine we’d be brave dissidents if we had the misfortune of living under oppressive rulers, when put to the test most people are cowards.

Niemöller was far from a coward. This was obvious already during the First World War, in which he served (and gained fame) as a submarine commander, a highly dangerous position as submarines were still decidedly experimental. Like many soldiers, Niemöller felt let down when the war ended. Upon returning home, he joined the Freikorps, a paramilitary outfit comprising former soldiers that functioned as an unofficial arm of the state. The pastor’s son’s involvement with the Freikorps, though, didn’t last long. Instead, he completed his studies in theology; in 1924 he was ordained as a Lutheran pastor.

Niemöller’s first job as a pastor was as a regional director of the Innere Mission, a Lutheran social-welfare organisation. Seven years later he followed the call to be pastor in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem. These were turbulent years in Weimar Germany. First in Bavaria and then across the rest of the country, the Nazis had been gaining strength. Niemöller quickly realised that the Nazis wanted to take over not just Germany’s state institutions: they wanted to permeate every aspect of society. Letting Nazis rule over what belonged to God was anathema to upstanding Christians.

Within months of the Nazis’ takeover, Niemöller and some 70 other Lutheran pastors had formed the Pfarrernotbund (pastors’ emergency association) to fight against the dismissal of pastors of Jewish ancestry and against the Nazis’ usurpation of German Lutheranism by means of the German Christians, a Lutheran ‘state church’. Soon after that, the Pfarrernotbund elected Niemöller its leader.

The Führer was outraged. On 25 January 1934, he summoned a group of Lutheran bishops to the chancellery. Niemöller was invited, despite only being a parish pastor, because by now his Pfarrernotbund had grown to include thousands of Germany’s Lutheran pastors. It wasn’t what one would call a meeting: the Führer held a dialogue and issued instructions. By the end of the meeting he’d strong-armed most of the bishops into working with ‘Reich Bishop’ Ludwig Müller, but Niemöller stood firm. When the audience ended, he spoke his mind to the dictator: ‘Mr Reich Chancellor, you said, “leave the care of the German people to me”. But I tell you: neither you nor any other power in the world is in a position to relieve us, the church, of the responsibility God has placed on us for the people and the fatherland.’

The seminal meeting is documented by Martin Niemöller Jr, Pastor Niemöller’s son, in Evangelische Kirchenführer bei Hitler: Der Kanzlerempfang vom 25. Januar 1934, published in 2024. Niemöller Jr, who was nine years old at the time and went on to become a distinguished jurist in West Germany, has painstakingly assembled all the documents relating to the gathering, which became an inflection point for Germany’s Christian resistance to the Nazis.

Indeed, even though several bishops disowned Niemöller, the audience with Hitler convinced the pastor from Dahlem that resistance was the only moral option. He publicly denounced the Nazis’ newly introduced ‘Aryan paragraph’, which banned Jews from the civil service, even though this led to Niemöller being relieved of his job. He did not relent: with other dissident pastors, he founded the Confessional Church, composed of clergy and others opposed to Nazi interference. And, despite having lost his job, he kept preaching in Dahlem. With Nazi opponents being detained in newly erected concentration camps, just one of these acts required extraordinary courage. But Martin Niemöller kept going, and people kept coming to hear him. By 1937, well over a thousand people would turn up to hear his sermons each week. This resistance resulted in captivity, as Niemöller knew it would. From 1937, he was kept in Sachsenhausen; four years later, he was taken to Dachau and liberated at the end of the war.

In hindsight, resistance to dictatorships always looks straightforward, because at some point a dictatorship is bound to collapse. Those living under it, though, can’t know whether that collapse will occur ten years later, 15 years later – or generations later. In the meantime, a few brave citizens have to keep risking their lives to show the regime and their fellow citizens that a different kind of society is worth fighting for.

Who are those brave citizens going to be? Martin Niemöller, whose well-known quote disguises his phenomenal courage, remains such a source of inspiration that to this day people journey to Dahlem to visit his grave. On 1 March, thousands of Russians showed similar courage when they turned up to bid farewell to Alexei Navalny. How would we behave if we lived in an autocracy?


Elisabeth Braw