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Memories of Martin Niemöller

by Ewart E. Turner

A retired United Methodist minister, Ewart E. Turner was a Century correspondent during Hitler’s rise to power. This article appeared in the Christian Century April 25, 1984, p. 445. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A chief reason that the U.S. War Department immediately after World War II granted accreditation to a special correspondent for religious affairs was the desire to find and support the Christian leaders who had resisted Hitler and survived. Thus I was offered accreditation as a correspondent for Religious News Service. Funding was provided by the American Conference of the World Council of Churches.

One of my most urgent priorities was to locate and aid Martin Niemöller, who had been freed by U.S. forces after eight years in Nazi concentration camps. I found him and some of his family in cramped quarters at Leoni on the Starnberger See, Bavaria. We talked far into the nights. We took long walks. I was able to “liberate” food for them from the kitchen of an American Air Force weekend recreation hotel, where I was given a room. The cooks didn’t dare give Germans, even the resistance hero Niemöller, any provisions. But I hung my greatcoat, with its roomy pockets, near the kitchen, and several times a day they were filled with cheese, butter and meat. Jeeps were plentifully available at the motor pool. A signal corps facility was nearby. I had a mini-press camp at my disposal.

I had gotten to know Niemöller when I had come to the American Church in Berlin in 1930; he to the prestigious Berlin-Dablem Church in 1931. After 1933 I had frequently been asked to take ecumenical visitors to meet with him. Within a year he had organized the church opposition to Hitler, enlisting 5,500 of the 15,000 Evangelical (Protestant) pastors in the Pastors’ Emergency League. He knew some English (as every German navy officer would), but he refused to use it. I had to serve as translator.

After leaving the American Church in Berlin in 1934, I returned annually for two months; I was frequently in the Niemöller parsonage after his imprisonment in 1937. On one occasion we were trying to talk above the noise of the seven children -- a violin was being played in one room, a piano in another. Else Niemöller said with a wan smile, “As a group they are simply impossible, but individually they are very nice.” Another time Helmut Gollwitzer, Martin’s successor at the Berlin-Dahlem Church, was holding the infant Martin, Jr., on a pillow. ‘Tini,” the child of the church struggle, as he was called, was swinging Gollwitzer’s big watch on its chain, while the young pastor waxed ever more anxious.

When I found them at Leoni, Else told me that Martin was deeply depressed. “Er sieht alles schwarz,” she said. “He sees everything black.” The joy of liberation had been smothered for him by the harsh treatment of the “Morgenthau clique,” who wanted a hard peace which would reduce Germany to its preindustrialized, agricultural status. Twice he protested with hunger strikes. For months he had not been allowed to be reunited with his family. Furthermore, the devastation of his country and the unrepentant nature of many clergy and laity left him in despair. Bolshevism was flooding in from the East.

During our long walks I used every appeal of the gospel. Yet his gloom persisted. Probably the fact that I was in a U.S. Army uniform didn’t help. No Americans were allowed to be stationed in occupied Germany in civilian dress, however.

One day in early October I appealed to Mutti, as we all called Else. “You must save him. He can do more than any living person to cleanse Germany and restore her through reconciliation to a positive place in the community of nations.”

“How?” she asked.

“By blowing on the coals of the gospel. At the end of World War I he was disillusioned and wanted to flee to sheep farming in Argentina. You encouraged him; do it again. Germany -- and the world -- needs the gospel: repentance, forgiveness, united Christians, trust in the grace and mercy of God, the power of the resurrection -- all the great things he has been preaching. You can do it.’’

She went to work on him. There was not much time, for the first meeting of German church people with world Christian leaders was scheduled soon in Stuttgart. After World War I had taken four years before German church leaders were invited to ecumenical fellowship; this time it took only four months.

The Berlin-Dahlem parish was pleading for a reunion with its beloved pastor. Further, the Niemöllers’ son Hermann had escaped the Soviets, trying to make his way through Czechoslovakia to reach Berlin. (Germans were forbidden to travel, especially in the Soviet Zone.) A good friend of mine in the American Military Government, Captain C. H. Bischoff, secured a Mercedes-Benz, painted on it the official AMG emblems and gave Martin written authorization to drive to Stuttgart, then on through the Soviet Zone. The document, dated October 14, 1945. read:

An Authorization from the Commanding Officer of Detachment H291, Company F. Third Military Government Regiment, Wolfratshausen, Oberbayern. Signed by Capt. C. H. Bisehoff.

Certified that Pastor Niemöller, Martin, is attached to the USA High Command in Frankfurt AM., and is travelling to Berlin and return, on an official mission, and that every courtesy and facilities are to be given him on the way.

Any discourtesies are to be reported immediately to American High Command to this office. or to any other AMO officer and to be forwarded to General EISENHOWER,

Off we went to Stuttgart, enjoying a good meal at a U.S. airfield on the way. In a suburb of Stuttgart, Martin stopped at the parsonage of a resistance pastor who had been released from prison. He returned to the car in a state of mild shock. “He told me that I was to give the opening sermon [at the Christian leaders’ gathering], and that it would be broadcast. Oh, well, if I get through the sermon I guess I will get through the broadcast.”

Imagine the scene amid the ruins of Stuttgart as leaders from “enemy” countries -- from the West, W. A. Visser ’t Hooft, Samuel McCrea Cavert, G. K. A. Bell. and the highest church people from France, Norway. Sweden; and from Germany. such men as Otto Dibelius, Gustav W. Heinemann, H. Meiser, Theophilus Würm, Hans Lilje and Niemöller -- met after years of separation.

Else and I told Martin that the issue at Stuttgart would be guilt: not sins in general, but confession of one’s own sins. We listened with some trepidation, wondering what he would say in his opening sermon.

I wrote in a dispatch on October 18:

The need is for German Christians to testify before the world to the guilt of the Fatherland in invading and despoiling Holland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Russia, France, etc. So far the German church leaders have only expressed general guilt, but that isn’t enough. The Bible says, before you go to pray go to your brother; if he feels you have wronged him, first get right with your brother, then come and pray. Last night Pastor Niemöller rose to heights in laying this out in just this concrete way, exactly as he used to before the Nazis imprisoned him. . . . This may be the turning point in the postwar world.

It was indeed a turning point for world opinion, foreshadowing Douglas MacArthur’s policies in Japan and the Marshall Plan in Europe. Dr. Cavert’s comment on the sermon was, “If Christians the world over could achieve such humility and repentance, a new world would be born.” In his sermon Martin had said:

We have no right to pass off all guilt on the evil Nazis. We have done little to stop the corruption and, above all, we the church failed. For we knew which way was false and which right, yet [we] let people run unwarned into ruination. I do not exclude myself from this guilt, for I too have kept silent when I should have spoken.

On October 20, 1945, we set off for the Soviet Zone and Martin’s first reunion with his parish since 1937. We carried an illegal passenger: a young physician with two enormous suitcases of medicines, bound for Magdeburg in the Soviet Zone. Also illegal were two great cartons of personal mail for Berliners.

At the Helmstedt border crossing the U.S. officer asked who those people were in the car. I said, “Pastor Niemöller.” Martin and Else charmed him a bit, and although he questioned the doctor and the mail, he waved us through. At the turn-off to Magdeburg the doctor left us, trudging through the fog.

When we arrived in the rubble city, West Berlin, Martin did not go first to find his son, but to the home of Ludwig, Bartning, the architect who as chairman of the board of Jesus Christ Church had, resisted brutal Nazi pressures and had housed Else and the children in the Dahlem parsonage. There the Niemöllers later found son Hermann --  in the bomb-damaged parsonage.

We left for Berlin-Spandau and the first postwar meeting of the resistance Brotherhood Council (Brüderrat), which had inspired the anti-Nazi church leaders. It was in session in the Johannes Stift, the great cluster of buildings of the Inner Mission. “We must pause here,” Martin said as we passed a hospital. Their daughter Jutta, who had died during the war, had served there as a nurse’s aide. Martin entered, returning with a serious look on his face.

“What happened?” Else asked him.

“I met the head nurse. She told me that one Sunday she had lost her temper with an inexperienced nurse and had reproached her harshly. As she was putting on her bonnet to go to church, Jutta Niemöller said she had better not go to divine worship. For the Bible says, first be reconciled to any person you have injured. The head nurse sought to defend herself by saying that the nurse had been repeatedly stupid beyond forgiveness. Jutta replied, “My father was put in a concentration camp by Adolf Hitler, but he has forgiven Hitler.”

Arriving at the building where the surviving Brüderrat members were meeting in an upper room, Martin bounded up the outside stairs. Not one of his old comrades knew he was back in Berlin. Martin flung open the door. Every one of the survivors had been in prison or a concentration camp. After a stunned moment they slowly rose, joined hands in a circle with Niemöller and his wife, and the famous sculptor from Sachsenhausen, the layman Wilhelm Grosz, started the hymn “Nun danket alle Gott.”

On the return trip we almost lost the Niemöllers to the Russians. Approaching Helmstedt, we came to the Soviet Zone border. The British control post was within sight, down the Autobahn. There was no Russian frontier shack of any kind, only a barrier across the road. A few armed guards emerged from the woods. One of them took our papers and passports.

He asked who those three were in the car. “Deutsche” he yelled, “Heraus.” The guards hauled the Niemöllers out. “Verboten,” he shouted.

Then he fingered our papers. I pointed to the Russian-language authorization from the Soviet authorities. To my horror, I saw that the guard was holding it upside-down: he was illiterate. “Come, come,” the guard said, and tried to push Martin and Else into the woods.

I knew that in confrontational situations one’s best chance was to issue bold counterorders. Speaking a mishmash of German, English and Russian, I demanded to see his captain. The guard hesitated, then disappeared into the woods. He finally came back with a lieutenant. Next a captain was summoned, and the harangue began all over again.

At that moment a big U.S. Army truck rolled by. A GI yelled, “Having trouble? Ivan is in a mean mood today.” I called back, “I have German civilians on an MG mission. Get help for me.”

I saw the truck pause at the British control post. A British officer strolled toward us, swinging a cane airily and whistling. The Russians paused to eye him. The officer ceremonially lifted a whistle to his lips and blew a blast. What that meant to the Soviet border patrol, I will never know. But the Russian captain barked an order and the bar was raised.

We hopped in -- and the car refused to start. We ground away -- and the welcomed roar finally assailed our ears. Thus we crossed over into freedom land before the Russians changed their minds.


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