Martin Niemöller is perhaps best known for the poetic confession attributed to him:

“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.” (Hockenos, Then They Came for Me, 1)

Many throughout the world know this poem, but how much do they know about the controversial figure who confessed it? Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller was an eminent Protestant pastor in Berlin, Germany during the 1920’s and 30’s. A leader in the anti-Nazi Confessing Church, Niemöller spoke out publicly against Adolf Hitler, was arrested, and was held in concentration camps until the end of the Second World War.

Although bold in his criticism of the Third Reich and its Führer, Niemöller is seen by many as a controversial figure.

For some Christians, Niemöller is regarded as a hero and presented as a champion of the faith against a racist and neo-pagan empire of evil. For others, Niemöller remains a tainted figure on account of his nationalism and early support for the Nazis and their anti-Semitism, his compromise of Lutheran theology, and his later pacifism during the Cold War.

How should we regard Niemöller today, thirty-six years after his death? Was he a hero? Was he a villain?

After serving as a submarine officer during the First World War, Niemöller became a Lutheran pastor and served a large and affluent congregation in suburban Berlin. Like many in Germany between the wars, Niemöller rejected the democracy of the Weimar Republic and turned to ultra-nationalist politics as the way in which God’s will for Germany would be realized and her national honor restored. Niemöller voted for the Nazis both in 1924 and 1933, believing Hitler’s promises to return Christianity to the center of national life and to promote the revival of the Protestant churches, which had declined under the secular democracy of Weimar. At first Niemöller welcomed the political triumph of Nazism and Hitler’s persecution of communists, social democrats, and Jews, all of whom he believed to be the enemies of both Germany and Christianity.

It did not take long, however, for Niemöller to abandon the Nazis. Seeing how some of the Führer’s disciples sought to Nazify both the Gospel and the Church, and how others promoted neo-paganism, Niemöller began to realize that Hitler’s promises about respecting Christianity were lies. Within a year of Hitler’s taking office, Niemöller joined a group of pastors who resisted the Nazification of Christianity.

In particular, Niemöller dissented against the new Reich Church’s purge of Christians of Jewish ethnicity from the pastorate. His resistance to the Aryanization of the Protestant clergy brought Niemöller into the leadership of the new Confessing Church, the anti-Nazi alternative to the Reich’s Church. Along with the Reformed theologian Karl Barth, Niemöller wrote the Barmen Confession, the Confessing Church’s statement of faith.

Niemöller’s leadership, however, was marked by controversy. Although a Lutheran himself, Niemöller compromised Lutheranism with Reformed theology. Under Barth’s heavy-handed style, Niemöller gave up the Lutheran distinction between law and gospel for the sake of unity with the Reformed members of the Confessing Church. Many Lutherans consequently viewed Niemöller as a sell-out and the Barmen Declaration as theologically unpalatable.

Even after joining the Confessing Church, Niemöller continued to espouse German nationalism and anti-Judaism. He expressed the view that the early suffering of the Jews under the Nazis was deserved because of the Jewish rejection of Christ as the Messiah. Though he protested the restriction of the rights of Jewish Christians, Niemöller later admitted that he did not speak out on behalf non-Christian Jews.

One thing we can learn from Niemöller is to be wary of mixing nationalism and Christianity. Not every leader who promises to protect religious freedom is to be trusted.

Yet this did not stop Hitler from punishing Niemöller. In 1937, after four years of Niemöller’s visible leadership in the Confessing Church and his preaching of anti-Nazi sermons, Hitler acted. Niemöller was arrested and imprisoned for seven months, convicted of “misusing the pulpit,” fined 1,500 Reichsmarks, and released. Niemöller was immediately rearrested, however, and put into “protective custody” in Sachsenhausen concentration camp (Hockenos, Then They Came for Me, 135). Later, Niemöller was moved to the infamous concentration camp of Dachau and remained there until the end of the war.

After nearly nine years of imprisonment, Niemöller turned his attention to repentance and reconciliation. Niemöller composed the Stuttgart Declaration in which he and other Protestant church leaders acknowledged their personal guilt, and the guilt of the church as a whole, as accessories to the Nazis and their genocide. Many Germans rejected this document because they objected to the idea that they were complicit in the murder of their neighbors. Others thought it too little and too late as a rejection of nationalism and racism from Niemöller.

During the Cold War years, Niemöller raised the ire of fellow Protestants in Germany, by refusing to articulate the strong anti-communist and pro-American views of the new West German government. Condemning both sides, Niemöller met with leaders of both NATO-oriented and communist states. Citing the horrors of the Second World War and the apocalyptic possibility of a nuclear war, Niemöller became a champion for peace and disarmament and dreamed of a united Germany. He died six years before that dream became reality.

What can we learn from Niemöller? How should we judge him?

One thing we can learn from Niemöller is to be wary of mixing nationalism and Christianity. Not every leader who promises to protect religious freedom is to be trusted. Niemöller learned this the hard way.

Judging Niemöller is a more difficult task. Niemöller did support Hitler and espoused anti-Judaism, though he unlearned these views in the hard school of Dachau. Niemöller also compromised his Lutheranism for the sake of unity.

Yet, Niemöller was the first to confess these sins publicly. Given this confession, perhaps it is best to judge Niemöller as God has done: through the cross. We are all sinners, and God grants forgiveness to sinners who repent. Niemöller was not a hero, nor was he a villain. Niemöller, like you and me, was a sinner for whom Jesus died, who is forgiven, and who one day will be raised by Christ to live forever.