Matthew D. Hockenos is the author of the new biography Then They Came for Me: Martin Niemöller, the Pastor Who Defied the Nazis. He also has written A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past. He is the Harriet Johnson Toadvine '56 Professor of 20th Century History at Skidmore College, and he lives in Round Lake, New York.
Q: Why did you decide to write this biography of Martin Niemöller?
Today few Americans recognize the name Martin Niemöller (1892-1984). Many people, however, are aware of the German pastor’s famous post-World War II poetic confession:
First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Communist.
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.
I wanted to take a closer, more critical look at the man behind the celebrated quotation.
Then They Came for Me tells the whole story of Niemöller’s life: his conservative Protestant upbringing in Germany; his experience commanding German U-boats in World War I; his animosity toward liberals and Jews; his initial support for Nazism; his later struggle with Hitler; his incarceration in Nazi concentration camps; and finally, his embrace of pacifism and peace movements during the Cold War.
On a lighter note, the book also portrays Niemöller as a loving father of seven children (two of whom died in World War II), a caring husband, a devoted pastor, and a charming albeit stubborn man. Despite his blemished past, I found him likable, and I wanted to explore what was behind his contradictory actions/positions.
Q: You describe the book as "a revisionist biography." How does your view of Niemöller differ from those of other scholars, and what would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions of him?
A: The biographies of Niemöller that exist are flawed—they treat him as a hero of the resistance to Hitler, which he was not. I seek to revise this common misconception by showing that Niemöller’s opposition to Hitler was directed solely at the Nazi’s policy toward the Protestant Church, not Hitler’s persecution of Jews and others.
Into his 40s, Niemöller was a supporter of right-wing causes, casting his vote for the Nazi Party in 1924 and again in 1933. Niemöller’s opposition to Hitler’s persecution of the Protestant Church was courageous but his resistance should not be exaggerated. Right-wing anti-Semitic Germans like Niemöller were responsible for aiding Hitler’s rise to power.
Although we cannot call Niemöller a hero because of his limited opposition, we can applaud his political and moral evolution after World War II from right-wing conservative nationalist to left-wing humanitarian pacifist.
Q: How did you research this book, and what did you learn that especially surprised or intrigued you?
A: I conducted research in multiple archives in Europe and the United States, including years of research in the archive that houses Niemöller’s vast correspondence located in Darmstadt, Germany.
What intrigued me the most about Niemöller was the extent to which he was an active and prominent participant in so many of the dramatic events and changes that marked German history in the 20th-century: the First World War, the Weimar Republic, the Second World War, and the Cold War.
The popular Protestant weekly The Christian Century captured this aspect of Niemöller’s persona perfectly: “Martin Niemöller seems always to live at the center of a storm. That’s because he says and does what his conscience approves without bothering too long about consequences.”
Q: You write, "Niemöller's legacy to the twenty-first century is mixed." What are some examples of his legacy today?
A: I say that Niemöller’s legacy to the 21st century is mixed because what we need today more than ever are inspiring examples of men and women whose compassion and benevolence helped to improve the lives of the less fortunate and persecuted peoples of the world. Niemöller failed on this account during the first half of his life.
However, his legacy also includes the inspiring example of his willingness to change: Niemöller the U-Boat commander became Niemöller the Lutheran pastor; Niemöller the Nazi voter became Niemöller the Nazi resister; Niemöller the ultra-nationalist became Niemöller the world Christian leader; Niemöller the anti-Semite became Niemöller the critic of racism and apartheid; Niemöller the anti-Communist became Niemöller the left-wing activist.
Perhaps Niemöller’s greatest legacy to this century is his poetic confession that encourages us to take a firm stance against racism and injustice.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: In truth, I’m taking a much-needed break from researching and writing. I am a full-time college professor with teaching responsibilities. I want to spend less time in an archive or hunched over a computer and more time with my family and students.
That said, I have plans to write a short reader-friendly monograph on the history of the Church Struggle in Nazi Germany.
With few exceptions, the available monographs on this topic are big detailed tomes written for fellow church historians and other academics. It is unlikely that the average reader or an undergraduate student interested in how the German churches responded to Hitler’s regime would get past the first few pages of these texts.
The topic deserves an accessible monograph in narrative form that could be assigned in undergraduate courses on the Nazi era and the Holocaust and would be appealing to a lay audience.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I felt an enormous burden of responsibility while writing Then They Came for Me because I wanted to get Niemöller’s biography right. Scrutinizing a person’s life and laying it out for others to see carries with it the obligation to treat the subject accurately, fairly, and humanely.
I think this book strikes the right balance between criticism of Niemöller’s early intolerance and praise for his later humanitarianism.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb