Last week I began this book by Matthew Hockenos. I have read a little about Martin Niemoller, but nothing of depth. A former German Navy officer turned Christian pastor, Niemoller was a complicated man before and after WWII. For many years he was untroubled by Hitler’s nationalism and persecution of minorities. He agreed with thousands of other pastors that minorities and dissenters were anti-Christian and disloyal to Germany. Looking back he realized that in his younger years he was subtly formed by a cultural system that did not consciously despise Jews, but did so subconsciously. He says, “I had no hatred against Jews but this whole atmosphere of noncooperation with the Jews was just that in which everybody grew up.” (12)
Take that in. It’s how cultural systems work. It’s how family systems work. It’s how ideology works. Subtle. Implicit. Quiet. Formative.
As Hitler’s empire grew and much genocide was dealt, Niemoller awakened to Christ in a deeper way and saw through Hitler’s rhetoric. He recognized his own nationalistic antisemitism and took a stand against Hitler’s nationalistic empire, influencing a Christian movement of protest. He was imprisoned. Following the war he felt great regret for his naive racist, anti Semitic, nationalistic disposition. Hockenos writes:
“Dachau has opened in March 1933, when the Nazis began incarcerating their enemies, just one month after Hitler came to power. Niemoller has been a free man at that time, a prominent pastor of an influential parish, and he remained at liberty until his arrest in 1937. Imprisoned in a Berlin jail and a concentration camp from 1937 to 1941, Niemoller and other famous camp inmates were tranferred by the Nazis to Dachau in 1941. ‘My alibi accounted for the years 1937-45,’ he told a German audience a few months after he and his wife visited Davhau. ‘But God was not asking me where I had been from 1937 to 1945 but from 1933 to 1945. . . and for those [earlier] years I did not have an answer.'” (2)
Niemoller later wrote his confession:
“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.”
In the words of my friend Charvalla, “May the past provoke us to examine our present and inspire us to more intentionally contribute to our future.”
I’ll offer a second reflection mid-week.