Martin Niemoeller, born in 1892 in the small Westphalian town of Lippstadt, spent his boyhood as the son of a Lutheran pastor in the industrial town of Elberfeld. At 18 he became a navy cadet, serving on U-boats during World War I, eventually as a commander. After leaving the navy, he followed up on a boyhood sense of vocation to the ministry. In 1920 Niemoeller and his wife, Else Bremer, moved to Muenster, where they stayed during the years of political and economic instability in which the Nazis first emerged. Young Niemoeller was a militant patriot and a leader in the Academic Defense Corps, an armed student nationalist organization which he helped found.
After his ordination, Niemoeller spent seven years as a church administrator. In July, 1931, he accepted a call and moved with his wife and six children to the Dahlem parish in Berlin.
In the November, 1932 Protestant Church elections, the Nazi-steered "German Christians" gained the majority, and in April, 1933, when Hitler's anti-Jewish laws began to eliminate Jews from all levels of society, the churches halfheartedly supported the move.
Although Niemoeller wanted to keep his church work separate from politics, he began to realize that Hitler, despite lavish religious rhetoric, intended to subjugate the official churches to totalitarian Nazi rule. When legislation was adopted by the Protestant Church to remove baptized Jews from the clergy, Niemoeller and a number of other pastors decided it was necessary to act to keep German Christians from adapting Christian doctrine to fit Nazi ideology.