nthposition online magazine

Martin Niemoller's famous statement

by Harry Reynolds

[ opinion - october 04 ]

When Martin Niemoller died in 1984, aged 92, he was internationally known as an extraordinary personality in 20th-century Christianity. As a German U-boat commander he had been a hero in World War I. Thereafter, he became a Christian minister and, as a popular preacher in Berlin-Dahlem, he held one of Germany's most prestigious pulpits. He is often described as a "leader in the church struggle with Nazism." His confinement as Hitler's "personal prisoner" from 1937 until 1945, first in prison and then in a concentration camp, is a dramatic fact known to many familiar with modern German history. After World War II, he became president of the World Council of Churches, and he was a prominent spokesman for civil rights and peace. Indeed, as early as October, 1945, within months of the war's end, Niemoller participated in a meeting that framed the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt. It was during his post-World War II tour of the United States that, in speaking before many audiences, he concluded his addresses with the famous statement that has ever since been attributed to him as the words of a typical victim of Hitler.

"First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me."

In fact, however, when in 1937 the Nazis came for Niemoller, he was opposed to any political resistance to Hitler. He simply saw Hitler as an intruder into that part of German life reserved for the church. In fact, as Harold Marcuse's Legacies of Dachau shows, Niemoller tried to avoid arrest by assuring the Gestapo that he was an antisemite.Thus Professor Franklin H Littell in Exile in the Fatherland writes of Niemoller:

"By the time he was arrested and imprisoned, first in Moabit and later in Sachsenhausen and Dachau, where he was held without trial or charge on direct order of the Führer, the basic lines of the Christian resistance were set: the Nazi regime was resisted for invading the church's area of competence and for idolatry - not for breaking the law or for its brutal breach of the rights of human beings. Niemoller, who was at the time a religious and political conservative, was in any case opposed to political resistance."

What Exile in the Fatherland does not tell us is that Niemoller, even as a Christian minister imprisoned by the Nazis, was probably an anti-Semite as he sat there in his cell. For example, in 1935 Niemoller, then 43 years old, delivered a sermon that described his conception of a Jew. James Bentley writes :

"For centuries Christian churches had dedicated the tenth Sunday after Trinity to remembering the destruction of the Jewish temple and the fate of the Jewish people. Niemoller habitually preached on this theme on the appointed day, introducing into his sermon such notions as that of the 'Wandering Jew', who has no home and cannot find peace. He spoke (in 1935) of a 'highly' gifted people which produces idea after idea for the benefit of the world, but whatever it takes up changes into poison, and all that it ever reaps is contempt and hatred. The reason, he explained, was not hard to find. The Jew was cursed for crucifying Jesus, and Jews since then have carried about with them as a fearsome burden the unforgiven blood-guilt of their fathers. The assumptions behind this thinking not only offered no practical guidance for coping with the Jewish question during the Third Reich but actually played into Hitler's hands."

Bentley's scholarly biography is not hostile to Niemoller. It is dedicated to members of Niemoller's family and Bentley himself had a long, friendly relationship with Niemoller. These facts are to be kept in mind because Bentley reports Niemoller in 1933 as a Christian minister who, in an accommodation of Nazi Aryan belief, actually suggested the idea of separate congregations for Jews who had converted to Christianity. Of this corrupt idea Bentley writes:

"It is [..] important to realise that Martin Niemoller was prepared to contemplate such proposals. This makes all the more impressive his development as a defender of the Jews - a development that was not complete until the end of World War II."

Surely, it is a curiously compassionate thing to congratulate a 53-year-old Christian minister for his impressive achievement in 1945 in having finally developed into a defender of Jews at the end of the Holocaust.

Last, and most tellingly, Niemoller was in prison on Kristallnacht, that November 9th day in 1938 when, among other appalling anti-Semitic acts, Stormtroopers set afire 119 synagogues, 91 Jews were killed, and more than 20,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Niemoller admitted to his biographer, Bentley, that "It became clear only then that the Jews were to be eliminated not simply from the church but from human society." Now, although Niemoller saw in Kristallnacht the death of all Jews, knew of Germany's anti-Semitic laws that preceded and followed Kristallnacht, and was aware of the overwhelming evidence of public Nazi barbarity towards Jews that accompanied Hitler's exercise of power, Niemoller nevertheless, upon Hitler's invasion of Poland in September, 1939, and the ensuing declaration of war between Britain and Germany, volunteered "to fight for Adolph Hitler's Germany". In that September, Niemoller, a 47-year-old Christian minister, who was then still Hitler's "personal prisoner", wrote to Grand Admiral Raeder, "offering, as a reserve officer, to serve his country 'in any capacity'". His letter was released by the Nazis to the world's press.

This offer to serve the Nazis was made by a man whose famous words, uttered after the defeat of Germany, so appeal to us. This offer to serve the Nazis "in any capacity" was made by a man who, when "they came for the Jews", failed to speak out because he was a common variety of anti-Semite. This offer to serve Hitler "in any capacity" was made by the man who, "after they came for me", spoke out for himself by offering to bear arms for them, for those who, had they won the war, would have searched the earth to kill every Jewish man, woman, and child. What darker example of the power of nationalism is there than Niemoller, a Christian minister, ready in the name of Germany to drink from the cup of genocide?