Rarely has any important figure in the history of Christianity been as ignorant of theology as Martin Niemöller. Even his friend and political ally Karl Earth commented on the fact. It was Niemöller’s single-minded courage and patriotism that made him important. In the Great War he was a U-boat commander. Disgusted with what he viewed as Germany’s betrayal, he became a Protestant minister. Although he voted for Hitler, he soon found that the National Socialist Party wanted to make the Church into a mere extension of itself, and this he denounced. He spent the war years in a concentration camp. The decades after World War II he devoted to trying to get Germany accepted again by other nations as an equal, working especially through the World Council of Churches. In all this he acted as a loyal German. He had even volunteered for active service when war broke out in 1939. He detested Adenauer as a liberal out of touch with Germany’s real traditions and as a Catholic who would not work for a German reunification that might threaten Christian Democratic (Catholic) rule. (Americans do not appreciate how many Germans vote Socialist because it is perceived as the Protestant party.)
But before his death in March 1984, Niemöller had spent the last two decades of his life as a loyal worker in the Marxist-Leninist opinion factory, dutifully punching his time card in at Hanoi, or Moscow, or wherever else he was told to go. James Bentley’s clear and sympathetic biography does something to unravel the tangled skeins of this mysterious change. Until the end of World War II, the story is told with exemplary clarity, profiting from Niemöller’s own autobiography. From U-Boat to Pulpit, and many years of interviews with Niemöller. The chronological clarity breaks down after the war, though. During the account of Niemöller’s last two decades, Bentley regularly interpolates stories, remarks, and letters from the 15 years directly following the war. Bentley does present the facts, however, although on occasion he confuses the issues, e.g., by putting the Lenin Peace Prize on the same level and in the same sentence as an honorary doctorate from NYU.
In 1962 Niemöller’s beloved wife died. In 1964 he went on a World Council of Churches’ trip to Russia, where he was seduced by his “interpreter.” From that time forth, Niemöller never wavered in his loyalty to international Communism. Bentley does not have a single public statement after 1964 in which Niemöller refers to Christ. This seems to be no accident.
This is a clear and moving story. That the biographer should have tried to cover up the sorry story of his subject’s last years is understandable, but in so doing he has obscured the tragedy of Niemöller’s life, the tragedy of a great man whose faith failed.
[Martin Niemöller, by James Bentley; The Free Press; New York]
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