Martin Niemöller was a prominent Protestant pastor in Germany who emerged as an outspoken public critic of Adolf Hitler during the early years of the Third Reich.
Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:
First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.
Martin Niemöller was born in Lippstadt, Westphalia, on January 14th, 1892.
He had been commander of a German U-boat during the First World War and earned the nickname of “The Scourge of Malta.” Flying a French flag as deception, the U-73 sailed past British warships guarding Gibralter into the Mediterranean where they torpedoed two Allied troopships and a British man-of-war. He was then transferred to the larger, modern U-151, which then set a record by sinking 55,000 tons of Allied ships in 115 days at sea. Niemöller was then given command of the UC-67 with which he temporarily closed the French port of Marseilles as he sank ships in the area, by torpedoes and by the laying of mines.
Under the stipulations of the armistice of November 11, 1918, that ended hostilities in World War I, Niemöller and other commanders were ordered to turn over their U-Boats to England. Along with many others, Niemöller refused to obey this order, and was, as a consequence, discharged from the Navy.
As inflation and economic and political turmoil increased in Germany during 1922, Niemöller was forced to take on a part-time job laying tracks for the railroads while continuing his seminary studies.
He was ordained on June 29, 1924. In 1931, he became the third and Junior Pastor of Saint Anne’s Church, located in the affluent and much sought-after parish in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem.
Niemöller shared with the Nazi party the dislike for communists and the Weimar Republic about which he said had given Germany ´fourteen years of darkness’ and as pastor, Niemöller’s sermons reflected his strong nationalist sentiment.
He felt that reparations, democracy, and foreign influence had led to damaging social fragmentation and atomization of the individual in Germany. As a monarchist, Niemöller believed that Germany needed a strong leader to promote national unity and honor. When Hitler and the National Socialist Party emerged, touting slogans of strong nationalist leadership and autonomy for private worship of the Christian faith, Niemöller voted for them — both in the 1924 Prussian state elections and in the final national parliamentary elections of March 1933.
At the beginning of 1934, Niemöller’s illusion disappeared when Hitler subordinated the German Evangelic Church and appointed Ludwig Müller as Bishop of the Reich. Some kind of neopaganism was established. The Old Testament was abandoned. All pastors were forced to swear loyalty to the Reich under the saying ‘One People, One Reich, One Faith’. Those who opposed the aberration were arrested and many died in the gas chambers. ‘National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable’, repeated Hitler’s deputy Martin Bormann.
In May 1934, the Confessional Church declared itself as the legitimate representative of Protestantism in Germany and attracted more than seven thousand pastors.
With the aim of maintaining the independence of the Lutheran church from the advances of the totalitarian power, Niemöller founded the Emergency Pastoral League (Pfarrernotbund), an organization of pastors to “combat rising discrimination against Christians of Jewish background” in 1933.
By the autumn of 1934, Niemöller joined other Lutheran and Protestant churchmen like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in founding the Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche), an opposition movement that opposed the Nazification of the German Protestant churches.
Rev. Niemöller was protected until 1937 by both the foreign press and influential friends in the up-scale Berlin suburb where he preached. In that year, he preached his last sermon in the Third Reich knowing that he was soon to be arrested:
“We have no more thought of using our own powers to escape the arm of authorities than had the Apostles of old. No more are we ready to keep silent at man’s behest when God commands us to speak. For it is, and must remain, the case that we must obey God rather than man.”
Hitler, furious by the attitude of the once praised pastor, ordered Niemöller’s arrest on July 1st 1937. Tried in March 1938, Niemöller was found guilty of subversive actions against the State and was condemned to seven months of imprisonment and to pay a fine of two thousand Marks.
After doing his term, Niemöller continued practicing his tenacious disobedience and was arrested again. This time the sentence resulted more severe and he had to spend seven years at the Sachsenhousen concentration camp under the legal figure of ‘protective custody’ and, on Hitler’s command, as ‘personal prisoner of the Führer’. In 1941 he was moved to Dachau, where he stayed until the end of the war.
After the war, Niemöller emerged from prison to preach the words that began this article, that all of us know. It was shortly after the end of the war that Niemöller became convinced that the German people had a collective responsibility for the Nazi atrocities. He often used the word Schuld (guilt).
In October 1945, he was instrumental in producing the German Protestant Church’s “Confession of Guilt” in Stuttgart, in which the German Protestant churches formally accepted guilt for their complicity in allowing the suffering which Hitler’s reign caused to occur.
His November 1945 diary entry and some subsequent speeches he gave imply that a visit that month to Dachau, where the crematorium was being kept as a memorial site triggered the thought that became this famous quotation.
Different versions of the quotation exist. These can be attributed to the fact that Niemöller spoke extemporaneously and in a number of settings. Much controversy surrounds the content of the poem as it has been printed in varying forms, referring to alternating groups such as Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Trade Unionists or Communists depending upon the version.
Nonetheless his point was that Germans — in particular, he believed, the leaders of the Protestant churches — had been complicit through their silence in the Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and murder of millions of people.
At the same time, however, Niemöller, like most of his compatriots, was largely silent about the persecution and mass murder of the European Jews. Only in 1963, in a West German television interview, did Niemöller acknowledge and make a statement of regret about his own antisemitism.