Born on the 14. January 1892 in the small town of Lippstadt in Westphalia in northern Germany. His father, Heinrich Niemöller, was the local pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Early in life he developed the ambition to go to far away places. It was his dad that then insisted that if he wants to go to sea, than only as an officer of the German Navy.
In 1900 the family moved to Elberfeld, which is a part of Wuppertal in the Rhine-Ruhr area. Here Martin went to the gymnasium ( in Germany at the time a secondary school). His most liked subjects were physics, mathematics and sport; theology was not his favourite. 1910 he obtained his Abitur (equivalent to our matric) as the best in his class.
April 1910 he went to Kiel to become a Seakadett in the Navy. All his exams were passed with excellent. In October 1912 he was placed on the battle cruiser 'Thüringen' and saw the start of the 1st World War on this boat. It took too long, in his view, for the navy to get into action to meet the enemy. Because of this eagerness to see action he applied to serve in the submarines, this wish was granted on the 1 December 1915. He took part in the fight to sink enemy shipping to interrupt their supplies. In July 1918 he got his own command of the UC 67, in which he saw the end of the war. He could not see himself serving the new government of the Weimaer republic and decided to become a farmer. But first he got married to Else Bremer at Easter 1919.
Lack of money prevented him from obtaining a farm of his own, it was now time for a fundamental change, he studied theology in Münster. To make ends meet and to support his growing family he would take on temporary work as a manual labourer. He completed his studies with success and was ordained on the 29 July 1924.
His first 'job' was in the administration of the church as manager of the inner mission (I am not sure what that entails). And finally in 1931 he was called to take up a position as pastor of the congregation of Berlin-Dahlen.
When Hitler took power in January 1933 he was initially a supporter of the new government, but that soon turned into opposition when the Nazis started interfering in church politics, wanting to have more control.
He had a personal confrontation with Hitler at a conference between church and state in 1934. When Hitler told the meeting that the care of folk and nation is his responsibility, to which Niemöller replied,"to that I have to declare that not you, nor any other power in this world will be able to remove from us the God given responsibility as Christians and Church for our folk and nation".
Opposition escalated culminating in his arrest and court appearance in 1937. He was found guilty and sentenced to seven month jail, which was essentially suspended because of the time he already had spent as awaiting trial prisoner. But that didn't help, the same night he was delivered to the concentration camp Oranienburg as Hitler's personal prisoner. Later moved to the concentration camp at Dachau and at the end of the war into Tirol where he was freed by American troops. Not immediately, they kept him imprisoned for some unknown reason until he went on a hunger strike to draw attention and was released on the 12 June 1945 to return to his family.
Straight away he threw himself into reestablishing a position in the church. His basic message, starting with himself was that of repentance, I and we have sinned, I and we did not do enough to stop the human abuses of that time, I and we are guilty, I and we need to repent. One of his well known quote or poem is as follows:
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.
With that message he toured extensively through Germany and the world, visiting all five continents. One of these tours also took him to South Africa, the picture on the left shows him on the veranda of the farm house at Klein Pella. The person in front is Herman Rudolf Niemöller, father of Gert, who took the picture. Luise estimates that the photo was taken around 1960. The pastor is in the middle of the picture, in the suit and holding the cup.
From the anti-fascists activities he became a anti-nuclear weapons activist (see the picture handing out pamphlets in Frankfurt), and was very active in the peace movement. He was very much against the re-militarisation of Germany in the 50th and made himself very unpopular with the West German government.
In Germany he slowly lost support and was eased out of most of his functions in the EKD (Evangelical Church of Germany). The pinnacle of his career must have been when he became president of the World Council of Churches in 1961.
His wife Else died 1961 in an car accident and he lived until 1984.
Luise has come across a number of people in the Northern Cape asking about the pastor, indicating that he had some connection to the area. Could it be through the mission churches? I have searched the Internet and found nothing. When I visited Steinkopf, in the old church of the NG (used to be the sendings kerk) is that old organ (broken, not in use, wish somebody could restore it) with a name plate stating: A.W.Kampmann, Pianoforte, Harmonium & Orgelbau, ELBERFELD. This is the same place where his dad was the minister when he was still very young. Could there possibly be a Niemöller connection?
And here, from memories, my own encounter with the pastor. It was around 1957, when I was a young man, our local church invited us to attend a youth day at a near-by-village. The main speaker at that event was going to be Pastor Niemöller. So we went, and what I have to add, that was in the communist controlled East Germany.
Arriving at the place we were informed of a change of venue, we were going to meet in a nearby disused quarry. Why was that? The communists didn't like the pastor and the church, and had organised a parade with drums and trumpets of the communist youth near the church.
In the quarry, it was somehow romantic, because we sat on rocks or just stood around whilst the pastor stood on a heap of stones with a rock face behind him which gave good acoustics. We could still hear the noise from the parade, but that was in the distance and did not disturb us.
I cannot remember what he was preaching about, but one thing that sticks in my mind was when pointing to the noise he was saying that we have had this before and we need to speak out against intolerance.
Ref 1.: Carl Ordnung,'Martin Niemöller', Union Verlag (VOB) Berlin, 1967
Ref 2.: communication from Luise Niemöller in Pofadder.