Who Was Martin Niemoller?

Unknown Author

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.

by Rev. Martin Niemoller, 1945

A few weeks ago, someone on alt.activism asked who said these words and what had happened to him. First, the version above is taken from an article on the 50th anniversary of the beginning of WW II that appeared in TIME Magazine, Aug 28, 1989. There are many versions of this poem floating around… by no means is this the authorative one. Similarly, the author of the poem is often not mentioned. On one level, that is not important. Indeed, Martin Niemoller was an outspoken advocate for accepting the burden of collective guilt for WW II as a means of atonement for the suffering that the German nation (through the Nazis) had caused before and during WW II.

On the other hand, I think that something is missed if one doesn’t understand that the words come from a man who also declared that he “would rather burn his church to the ground, than to preach the Nazi trinity of ‘race, blood, and soil.’”

Niemoller was tainted. He had been a U-boat captain in WW I prior to becoming a pastor. And he supported Hitler prior to his taking power. Indeed, initially the Nazi press held him up as a model… for his service in WW I. [Newsweek, July 10, 1937, pg 32]

But Niemoller broke very early with the Nazis. In 1933, he organized the Pastor’s Emergency League to protect Lutheran pastors from the police. In 1934, he was one of the leading organizers at the Barmen Synod, which produced the theological basis for the Confessing Church, which despite its persecution became an enduring symbol of German resistance to Hitler.

From 1933 to 1937, Niemoller consistantly trashed everything the Nazis stood for. At one point he declared that it was impossible to “point to the German [Luther] without pointing to the Jew [Christ] to which he pointed to.” [from Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict]

He rejected the Nazi distortion of “Positive Christianity” (postulating the ‘special virtue’ of the German people), as opposed to “Negative Chistianity” which held that all people regardless of race were guilty of sin and in need of repentance. An excerpt from a sermon of his printed in TIME Magazine [Feb 21, 1938, pg 25-27]:

“I cannot help saying quite harshly and bluntly that the Jewish people came to grief and disgrace because of its own ‘Positive Christianity!’ It [the Jewish people] bears a curse throughout the history of the world because it was ready to approve of its Messiah just as long and as far as it thought it could gain some advantage for its own plans and its own aims for Him, His words and His deeds. It bears a curse, because it rejected Him and resisted Him to the death when it became clear that Jesus of Nazareth would not cease calling [the Jews] to repentance and faith, despite their insistence that they were free, strong and proud men and belonged to a pure-blooded, race-concious nation!

“‘Positive Christianity,’ which the Jewish people wanted, clashed with ‘Negative Christianity’ as Jesus himself represented it!… Friends, can we risk going with our nation without forgiveness of sins, without that so-called ‘Negative Christianity’ which, when all is said and done, clings in repentence and faith to Jesus as the Savior of sinners? I cannot and you cannot and our nation cannot! ‘Come let us return to the Lord!’”

And in a celebrated manifesto, produced and smuggled out of the country in classic Charter-77 style, and reprinted in the foreign press just prior to the 1936 Olympics, he along with 9 other pastors wrote to Hitler:

“Our people are trying to break the bond set by God. That is human conceit rising against God. In this connection we must warn the Führer, that the adoration frequently bestowed on him is only due to God. Some years ago the Führer objected to having his picture placed on Protestant altars. Today his thoughts are used as a basis not only for political decisions but also for morality and law. He himself is surrounded with the dignity of a priest and even of an intermediary between God and man… We ask that liberty be given to our people to go their way in the future under the sign of the Cross of Christ, in order that our grandsons may not curse their elders on the ground that their elders left them a state on earth that closed to them the Kingdom of God.” [from TIME Magazine July 27, 1936]

Rev. Martin Niemoller was protected until 1937 by both the foreign press and influential friends in the up-scale Berlin suburb where he preached. Eventually, he was arrested for treason. Perhaps due to foreign pressure, he was found guilty, but initially given only a suspended sentence. He was however then almost immediately re-arrested on Hitler’s direct orders. From then on until the end of WW II, he was held at the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. Near the end of the war, he narrowly escaped execution. [from Charles Colson’s Kingdoms in Conflict]

After the war, Niemoller emerged from prison to preach the words that began this post, that all of us know… He was instrumental in producing the “Stuttgart Confession of Guilt”, in which the German Protestant churches formally accepted guilt for their complicity in allowing the suffering which Hitler’s reign caused to occur. In 1961, he was elected as one of the six presidents of the World Council of Churches, the ecumenical body of the Protestant faiths.

Niemoller emerged also as an adamant pacifist and advocate of reconciliation. He actively sought out contacts in Eastern Europe, and traveled to Moscow in 1952 and North Vietnam in 1967. He received the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967, and the West German Grand Cross of Merit in 1971. Martin Niemoller died in Wiesbaden, West Germany on Mar 6, 1984, at the age of 92. [from the Encyclopedia Britannica].