Martin would learn, in time, that being a good nationalist and a good Christian were not the same. There would be times when he would have to choose either one or the other. He would have to choose, like all of us, whether to be loyal either to national leader and nation or to Jesus Christ and his Kingdom.
Happily mixing loyalty to both in 1910, Martin realized his boyhood dream of becoming a cadet in the Imperial Navy. During World War 1, he eventually became captain of his own submarine. He was awarded the Iron Cross for his success in sending enemy ships, military and civilian, people and cargo, to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.
After being discharged from the Navy, he began his study of Protestant theology in Munster (1919). Martin believed his most creative personal response to challenging times was to preach the Gospel and strengthen the Church.
Still, he expressed his loyalty to the German nation by taking time away from his seminary studies to command a battalion in the paramilitary Freikorps in support of the Kapp Putsch (March 1920). This was an armed attempt to overthrow the Weimar government in Berlin. He and the rest of the Freikorps were disarmed the following month.
After graduating from seminary, Martin ministered with marginal people as superintendent of Inner Mission of Westphalia (1924-31). He later served as a pastor of a church in Dahlem, a quiet, affluent, and academic suburb of Berlin (1931-1937).
During the Weimar period, Martin opposed political gains by anti-Christian parties like the Communists. He first began to vote for Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party as the better alternative in 1924. Martin shared Adolf’s belief that Christianity was an important part of German national identity. Martin also affirmed the German cultural belief, emphasized by Adolf, that Judaism undermined the unity of a Christian society and that, consequently, Jews should be excluded from political office. Still, the two men did not think identically. In a personal interview (1932), Adolf had to assure Martin that he would neither interfere with the Church nor actively persecute Jews. Martin later regretted that he had believed Adolf’s lies.
Martin published his first book, From U-boat to Pulpit, in 1933. In it he describes his view of World War 1 and post-war Germany. The German people might recover their lost pride and unity by together committing themselves to duty, honor, and country under a strong leader like Adolf. With Adolf as chancellor in 1933, Martin anticipated a hearty rejuvenation of German culture and society.
A small percentage of Protestant pastors resisted, Martin among them. In September1933, persecution of Jews increased to include Christians who had come from Jewish families. Dietrich Bonhoeffer joined Martin in October to organize the Pastors’ Emergency League to challenge the persecution of these Christians.
As governmental control of Church faith, practice, and organization continued to increase, both Martin and Dietrich participated, with Karl Barth and others, in organizing the Confessing Church and publishing the Barmen Declaration of Faith in 1934. With it, the 150 delegates at Barmen publicly affirmed their loyalty to Jesus Christ and rejected Adolf’s attempts to usurp Christ’s lordship of the Church.
The government's persecution of pastors and participants in the Confessing Church only increased. Martin was arrested and released several times. Local police warned Martin against publicly condemning governmental policies. During his last sermon, Martin said that he spoke out against these policies despite increasing threats because God commanded him to do so and, as in the days of the early Church, it remained more important to obey God rather than man.
Growing Christian opposition to the government finally led to the mass arrest of Christians including Martin (1937). Only protest in the British media by George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, against Martin’s persecution saved him from execution in 1938. He survived as a prisoner in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps until his release in 1945.
By us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and countries. That which we often testified to in our communities, we express now in the name of the whole Church: We did fight for long years in the name of Jesus Christ against the mentality that found its awful expression in the National Socialist regime of violence; but we accuse ourselves for not standing to our beliefs more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.
The following year, Martin personally confessed his sins in this way:
Martin met Otto Hahn in 1954. Ten years earlier, Otto had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of nuclear fission. When Otto heard that the American army had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, he regretted his work and campaigned against the use of atomic and later nuclear weapons. When Otto met Martin, he persuaded Martin to become a conscientious objector to all war and especially to the use of nuclear weapons. Martin subsequently committed himself to opposing the rearmament of West Germany (1955) and to German reunification. For this latter work, he received the Lenin Peace Prize (1966) and West German Grand Cross of Merit (1971).
He served the Church in other ways as well, including as president of the World Council of Churches (1961-68).
died on March 6, 1984 in Wiesbaden, Germany, aged 92.