A Dangerous Religious Service

by Paul Kuttner

Perhaps the most prominent German anti-Nazi Protestant clergyman in the Third Reich, a man who also helped German Jews during the Nazi period, was Dr. Martin Niemoller. His autobiography “Vom U-Boot zur Kanzel” (From U-boat to Pulpit) was banned in Nazi Germany but after World War II became a bestseller in West Germany.

In the summer of 1937, he preached at a divine service in Berlin’s Hohenzollernplatz Kirche, a reasonably new church a couple of blocks from where I lived with my mother and sister, and since we knew that he always gave sermons critical of Hitler, my mother, sister and I tried to attend the well-publicized church service. But because of the overflow of worshippers we could not get into the church and were told that he would repeat the sermon later that afternoon. When we came back at the appointed hour for the repeat sermon, the crowd was even larger. Still, we struggled our way through the throng outside and managed to end up at the foot of the staircase leading into the church. And since (for this second sermon) somebody had meanwhile installed a public address system outside the entrance of the church, his sermon could be heard on the sun-drenched Berlin street. Seconds after Dr. Niemoller had ended his second sermon, a few trucks loaded with dozens of Hitler Youth members came to a screeching halt in front of the house of worship and the uniformed teenagers jumped out, raced up the church steps, and just as Dr. Niemoller emerged from the church, grabbed him by the arms and arrested him for his anti-Hitler “diatribe.”

Sometimes it is reported that he was arrested by the Gestapo at his own church in the Dahlem suburb of Berlin, but it was actually here that he was arrested and never again released by the Nazis from the Sachsenhausen and (later) Dachau concentration camps until the Allies liberated him there in 1945.

One interesting sidelight is that the Hitler Youth member who grabbed him by one of his arms and steered him to the waiting police car was a former classmate of mine, Alfred Perschke. Eight years later, Perschke was killed in the Volkssturm by the Russians while defending the Nazi capital. Dr. Niemoller had been arrested earlier in 1937 and fined 2000 marks for “Underhand attacks against the state,” even spending a few months at that time already in a concentration camp. It was only after the Hohenzollernplatz church service, however, that Martin Niemoller ended up in Dachau and was liberated there eight years later. Until 1964, he was the president of the Protestant church in Hessen and Nassau, Germany.

Another anti-Nazi Protestant clergyman, who actually was the regular pastor at the Hohenzollernplatz church and had also been arrested by the Gestapo for his sermons critical of Hitler, Eduard Lindenmeyer, and who was liberated by the Allies in Dachau at the end of the war, evidently wanted desperately the Western powers to liberate and occupy West Germany, but when he realized at the end of the war that the atheistic Soviets had captured Berlin (not aware that a short time later the British would occupy his district in Berlin), he went to the top of the church’s squarely built steeple and hurled himself to this death.