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Martin Niemöller, the German Church Struggle, and English Opinion

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011

Keith Robbins
Lecturer in History, University of York


The Gestapo arrived at Martin Niemöller's rectory in Berlin-Dahlem on the morning of 1 July 1937. He was taken away for questioning and remained a prisoner for nearly eight years. His detention came as no personal surprise since he had been aware of his perilous existence. Ever since Hitler's accession to power in January 1933, the uneasy relations between Church and State had received a certain amount of attention abroad. The precise issues at stake were, however, difficult to grasp. This complexity remained, but as the struggle appeared to centre on the fate of one man—Niemöller—interest became more widespread. Thirty years later, in England, whenever the Church Struggle is mentioned, the name of Niemöller most readily comes to mind.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1970

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page 149 note 1 Schmidt, D., Pastor Niemöller, London 1959Google Scholar.

page 149 note 2 Equally, there were few who possessed an accurate knowledge of the administrative and financial structure of the various Landeskirchen. There was an almost complete lack of studies of nineteenth and twentieth century German Evangelical church life by English writers.

page 150 note 1 See Mehnert, G., Evangelische Kirche und Politik, 1917–19, Dusseldorf 1959Google Scholar.

page 150 note 2 For a brief discussion see Rupp, G.. The Righteousness of God, Luther Studies, London 1953. 4955Google Scholar.

page 150 note 3 Greaves, R. W., ‘The Jerusalem Bishopric, 1841’, English Historical Review, lxiv (1949), 328–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar

page 150 note 4 Latourette, K. S., Christianity in a Revolutionary Age, London 1960, ii. 75Google Scholar.

page 150 note 5 For a useful discussion of various interpretations of Luther see Sanders, T. G., Protestant Concepts of Church and State, New York 1964, 2375Google Scholar. See also Thompson, W. D. J. Cargill, ‘The “Two Kingdoms” and the “Two Regiments”: some problems of Luther's ZWEI-REICHE-LEHRE in Journal of Theological Studies, N. S., xx (1969), 164–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

page 150 note 6 Niemöller, M., From U-boat to Pulpit, London 1936, 147–8.Google Scholar

page 151 note 1 M. Niemòller, From U-boat to Pulpit, 160–5.

page 151 note 2 Bell, G. K. A., Randall Davidson, 3rd ed.London 1952, 961–7.Google Scholar

page 151 note 3 See Currie, R., ‘Power and Principle: the Anglican Prayer Book Controversy, 1927–30’, Church History, xxxiii (1964), 192202CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

page 151 note 4 For a useful discussion of the problems of Church and State in the British context, see the introduction to Nicholls, D., Church and State in Britain since 1820, London 1967.Google Scholar

page 151 note 5 Jordan, E. K. H., Free Church Unity, London 1956, 77126Google Scholar.

page 151 note 6 Ibid., 168–79.

page 152 note 1 Kent, J. H. S., The Age of Disunity, London 1966, 1314Google Scholar. The importance of this analysis is that it became logically impossible for Free Churchmen of this persuasion to object to a structure of church government in Germany embodying the virtues of the führerprinzip.

page 152 note 2 See, e.g., Kemp, E. W., The Life and Letters of Kenneth Escott Kirk, London 1959, 33–4.Google Scholar

page 152 note 3 Barth's reactions to the war can be seen in Revolutionary Theology in the Making: Barth-Thumeysen Correspondence, 1914–25, trans, by Smart, J. D., London 1964.Google Scholar

page 152 note 4 Zipfel, F., Kirchenkampf in Deutschland, 1933–1945, Berlin 1965, 1820Google Scholar.

page 153 note 1 Herman, S. W. (It's Your Souls We Want, London 1943Google Scholar) reported that in his experience, in 1935 and 1936, the professors of theology at German universities were chiefly interested in mental gymnastics. The students who graduated were learned but illprepared for practical church-work and the problems of their parishioners.

page 153 note 2 Forell, B., ‘National-Socialism and the Protestant Churches in Germany’, in The Third Reich (for UNESCO), London 1955, 816Google Scholar.

page 153 note 3 Paul de Lagarde can be seen as a forerunner of such notions in Germany: see Stern, F., The Politics of Cultural Despair, Berkeley 1961.Google Scholar

page 153 note 4 Neill, S. C., The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861–1961, London 1964, 344Google Scholar.

page 153 note 5 Meier, K., Die Deutsche Christen, Göttingen 1955.Google Scholar

page 154 note 1 D. Schmidt, Pastor Niemöller, 83–101.

page 154 note 2 See Borg, D. R., ‘Volkskirche, “Christian State”, and the Weimar Republic’, in Church History, xxxv (1966), 186206CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

page 154 note 3 Conway, J. S., The Nazi Persecution of the Churches, 1933–45, London 1968, 52Google Scholar.

page 154 note 4 The Times, 17 February 1933.

page 154 note 5 The Times, 23 February 1933.

page 155 note 1 Letter to The Times, 14 June 1933.

page 155 note 2 The Times, 21 June 1933.

page 155 note 3 Letter to The Times, 7 July 1933; Carpenter, S. C., Duncan-Jones of Chichester, London 1956, 85–6.Google Scholar

page 155 note 4 Documents on German Foreign Policy (hereafter cited as D.G.F.P.), Ser. C., i. 753.

page 155 note 5 Jasper, R. C. D., A. C. Headlam: life and Letters of a Bishop, London 1960, 292Google Scholar.

page 156 note 1 J. S. Conway, op. cit., 51–4.

page 156 note 2 For a discussion of the background see Dahm, K-W., ‘German Protestantism and Politics, 1918–39’, Journal of Contemporary History, iii (1968), 2950CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

page 156 note 3 D. Schmidt, op. cit., 89–90.

page 156 note 4 Bonhoeffer, D., No Rusty Swords, London 1965, 221–30.Google Scholar

page 157 note 1 D.G.F.P., Ser. C., iii. 39–42.

page 157 note 2 The international ecumenical conference at Fanö in Denmark was due to take place in the late summer.

page 157 note 3 D.G.F.P., Ser. C., iii. 417–19.

page 157 note 4 D.G.F.P., Ser. C., iii. 425–6.

page 157 note 5 Bismarck to Berlin, 8 and 23 October 1934: German Foreign Office Documents, Evangelical Affairs, Serial No. L432, Frames L124006 and 124044.

page 157 note 6 The Times, 8 June 1934.

page 157 note 7 From Baroness von der Goltz, The Times, 8 June 1934.

page 158 note 1 From Dr. Adolf Keller, The Times, 20 June 1934. Keller was an ecumenical pioneer with wide European contacts: see his, Church and State on the European Continent, London 1936.Google Scholar

page 158 note 2 D.G.F.P., Ser. C., iii. 478–80.

page 158 note 3 Ibid., 487–9.

page 158 note 4 Ibid., 546–7.

page 158 note 5 Ibid., 478–80.

page 159 note 1 The Times, 23 March 1935. For Barmen see Wolf, E., Barmen—Kirche zwischen Versuchung und Glaube, Munich 1957Google Scholar. Some Englishmen shared the judgment of S. W. Herman that at this stage, ‘with typical German thoroughness the Confessional leaders proceeded too fast and too far in their attitude of defiance to the touchy Nazi State. Although all of their contentions were correct, their contentious way of presenting them was indiscreet’: Herman, It's Your Souls, 133.

page 159 note 2 Archbishop of York to Lord Robert Cecil, 5 January 1932: Cecil of Chelwood Papers, British Museum Add. MS. 51154.

page 159 note 3 The Times, 24 May 1935.

page 159 note 4 Bishop of Chichester to The Times, 3 June 1935.

page 159 note 5 Bishop of Durham to The Times, 4 June 1935; archbishop of York to The Times, 4 June 1935.

page 159 note 6 The distinguished Swedish theologian, Anders Nygren wrote in one of the first English accounts of the Church Struggle, ‘The carbuncle of Versailles was never lanced; instead internal poisoning ensued’. Despair and an inferiority complex had given rise to a noisy demand for Ehre und Gleichberechtigung: Nygren, A, The Church Controversy in Germany, London 1934, 56Google Scholar.

page 159 note 7 Garvie, A. E., Memories and Meanings of my Life, London 1938, 217Google Scholar.

page 160 note 1 Letter to The Times, 10 June 1935.

page 160 note 2 Letter to The Times, 7 June 1935.

page 160 note 3 S. M. Dawkins to The Times, 7 June 1935.

page 160 note 4 Barth, K., Theological Existence To-day, London 1933, 72–4Google Scholar.

page 161 note 1 Gilbert, M., Plough My Own Furrow, London 1965, 365–6Google Scholar, for the views of Lord Allen of Hurtwood and Lord Lothian.

page 161 note 2 Webb, C. C. J., A Century of Anglican Theology, Oxford 1923, 10.Google Scholar

page 161 note 3 Ramsey, A. M., From Gore to Temple, London 1960, 132Google Scholar.

page 161 note 4 Ramsey, From Gore to Temple, quoted at 160–1. For a somewhat inadequate assessment of Barth's impact on the English theological and ecclesiastical scene see: Keller, A., Karl Barth and Christian Unity, London 1933, 144–71Google Scholar. Very broadly, as far as the Free Churches were concerned, it tended to be the case that the younger generation of theologians were receptive, though not uncritical, whereas the older generation tended to see Barthianism as ‘reactionary’.

page 162 note 1 D. Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords, 282–4.

page 162 note 2 Conway, Nazi Persecution, 204–9.

page 163 note 1 Letter to The Times, 24 February 1937.

page 163 note 2 Jasper, R. C. D., George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, London 1967, 219–20Google Scholar; Church England Council on Foreign Relations, Fourth Survey on the Affairs of the Continental Churches (German Evangelical Church), April 1936 to April 1937, Preface by the bishop Gloucester. Bishop Heckel, Head of the Evangelical Church's Foreign Relations Department, was ‘particularly grateful for the preface … as an attempt to depart from an originally one-sided view’: Heckel to the General Secretary of the Council, 2 July 1937 (seen by courtesy of the late Mrs. Caroline Duncan-Jones).

page 163 note 3 Proceedings of the Church Assembly, xviii. 274–89. Duncan-Jones had shifted from earlier standpoint.

page 163 note 4 A. C. Headlam to Mrs. D. F. Buxton, 29 June 1937: Buxton Papers, Lambeth Palace Library, London. For fuller details of Mrs. Buxton's prominent role in giving publicity to events in Germany see my forthcoming article ‘Dorothy Frances Buxton and the German Church Question’.

page 164 note 1 Letter to The Times, 3 July 1937.

page 164 note 2 Letter to The Times, 7 July 1937.

page 164 note 3 Jasper, Bell, 223.

page 164 note 4 Reported in Manchester Guardian Weekly, 12 April 1935. See also Payne, E. A., James Henry Rushbrooke, London 1954, 60Google Scholar. There is disappointingly little information in this short biography on Rushbrooke's many connexions with Germany.

page 165 note 1 Rev. Dr. M. E. Aubrey, C. H. (General Secretary of the Baptist Union) to Mrs. D. F. Buxton, 13 October 1937: Buxton Papers in the possession of the author. See his views in the Report of the Archbishops' Commission on the Relations between Church and State, 1935, London 1935, 244–8.Google Scholar

page 165 note 2 H. W. Liepmann to N. Micklem, 24 September 1937: Buxton Papers, Lambeth. Micklem, Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, and the author of National Socialism and the Roman Catholic Church, played a leading part on the Free Church side in maintaining contacts with the Confessing Church. See his The Box and the Puppets, London 1957, 104–13Google Scholar. Micklem's ecclesiastical and theological sympathies, however, somewhat estranged him from other leading figures in the Congregational Union.

page 166 note 1 The archbishop of York expressed himself in these terms to Lord Robert Cecil, 21 July 1932: B.M. Add. MS. 51154.

page 166 note 2 See the volumes on Church, Community and State, London 1938Google Scholar. Horton, W. M., Contemporary Continental Theology, London 1938Google Scholar, elaborates on the theological gulf apparent at the ecumenical conferences of this year between the Continent and England/America.

page 166 note 3 Jasper, Bell, 226–9. Conway (Nazi Persecution, 200) is somewhat misleading in supposing that the disunity among the sects was demonstrated by allowing Melle to go to Oxford and counter the efforts being made on behalf of the Confessing Church. This does not follow at all. Of course, the German Free Churches were so small that Hitler could leave them in relative tranquillity.

page 166 note 4 The Methodist Recorder, 5 August 1937.

page 166 note 5 The Baptist Times, 29 July 1937.

page 167 note 1 Rev. E. A. Payne (later to be General Secretary of the Baptist Union and a leading figure in the World Council of Churches) to the Baptist Times, 29 July 1937.

page 167 note 2 Jasper, Bell, 233. Not, of course, that Confessing Church leaders refrained from expressing gratitude for Hitler's success in banishing Bolshevism and giving new purpose to the nation: see Baumgartel, F., Wider die Kirchenkampflegenden, Neuendettelsau 1959Google Scholar.

page 167 note 3 D.G.F.P., Ser. D., i. 56.

page 167 note 4 The Times, 20 December 1937. The letter was in fact organised by Mrs. D. F. Buxton.

page 167 note 5 Bishop of Chichester to Mrs. D. F. Buxton, 24 January 1938: letter in the possession of Miss Eglantyne Buxton.

page 167 note 6 Duncan-Jones, A. S., The Struggle for Religious Freedom in Germany, London 1938, 149–54Google Scholar. I a indebted to Dr. W. G. Moore, Fellow of St. John's College, Oxford, for discussing his experience with me.

page 168 note 1 Niemöller, W., Macht geht vor Recht: der Prozess Martin Niemöllers, Munich 1953Google Scholar; Zipfel, Kirchenkampf, 99–103.

page 168 note 2 Conway, Nazi Persecution, 214–17.

page 168 note 3 The Manchester Guardian, 3 March 1938.

page 169 note 1 Archbishop of Canterbury to Lord Robert Cecil, 7 March 1938: B.M. Add. MS. 51154.

page 169 note 2 Lord Robert Cecil to archbishop of Canterbury, 8 March 1938: B.M. Add. MS. 51154.

page 169 note 3 Archbishop of Canterbury to Lord Robert Cecil, 9 March 1938: B.M. Add. MS. 51154.

page 169 note 4 A copy of the letter is in some Buxton papers in my possession. It was obviously widely circulated to those known to have an interest in German affairs.

page 169 note 5 Lord Robert Cecil to Lord Halifax, 12 March 1938: B.M. Add. MS. 51084.

page 169 note 6 Gilbert, Plough My Own Furrow, 394–5.

page 169 note 7 Letter to The Times, 14 July 1938. For an explanation of Headlam's attitude see Jasper, Headlam, 300–1.

page 169 note 8 Letter to The Times, 16 July 1938.

page 169 note 9 The Times, 28 July 1938. The letter was again organised by Mrs. D. F. Buxton.

page 170 note 1 See articles by Mrs. D. F. Buxton under pseudonyms in The Spectator, 1 July 1938, and Time and Tide, 5 March 1938.

page 170 note 2 Letter from Sir James Marchant, The Times, 22 July 1938.

page 170 note 3 The author wishes to thank the Rev. Professor W. O. Chadwick, D.D., F.B.A., for his comments on an earlier version of this article, although he is alone responsible for its final form.