17 September 2018

The day there was no one
left to speak up for me

Martin Niemöller’s cell in Sachsenhausen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A moving moment during my visit to the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin, last week was my visit to the cell where the Lutheran pastor and theologian Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) was held in isolation.

Our guide last Wednesday [12 September 2018] quoted a version of Niemöller’s statement, found in different versions, that begins ‘First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out –because I was not a Communist,’ and that concludes, ‘Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.’

It is sometimes said that the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was hanged at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, but he was executed in Flossenburg, near the Bavarian border with Czechoslovakia, on 9 April 1945.

The prisoners held in isolation in Sachsenhausen included Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) and Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law Hans von Dohnányi (1902-1945), who is now remembered in the name of the street leading from the centre of Oranienburg into Sachsenhausen.

Between 30,000 and 70,000 prisoners died in Sachsenhausen from exhaustion, disease, malnutrition, pneumonia, and the poor living conditions. Many were executed or died in brutal medical experimentation, and many Russian prisoners of war were executed.

The statement attributed to Martin Niemöller has become a legendary expression of the Holocaust. It is quoted in many forms, including:

They came first 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 trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

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 no one was left to speak up.

Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) was a German theologian and Lutheran pastor.

At an early stage he was a conservative and initially supported Hitler. But he became one of the founders of the Confessing Church, which opposed the Nazification of the German Protestant churches. He vehemently opposed the Nazis’ Aryan Paragraph, but he made remarks about Jews that some scholars regard as antisemitic.

Martin Niemöller was born in Lippstadt, then in the Prussian Province of Westphalia (now in North Rhine-Westphalia), on 14 January 1892, a son of Heinrich Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor and his wife Pauline (Müller), and grew up in a very conservative household. In 1900, the family moved to Elberfeld where he finished school.

During World War I, he was an officer in the German Imperial Navy. In 1915, he was assigned to U-boats, fighting in the Mediterranean, on the Thessaloniki front, in the Strait of Otranto, planting mines at Port Said and attacking ships at Gibraltar and in the Bay of Biscay, Marseille and other places.

Niemöller was decorated with the Iron Cross First Class, but at the end of World War I resigned his commission, rejecting the new democratic government after the abdication of Wilhelm II.

In 1919, he married Else Bremer (1890-1961), and that year began working on a farm before studying theology at the Westphalian Wilhelms-University (1919-1923).

He was ordained on 29 June 1924, and worked first as a curate in Münster's Church of the Redeemer, and then superintendent of the Inner Mission in Westphalia, and a pastor in Dahlem, an affluent suburb in Berlin.

Niemöller welcomed Hitler’s coming to power in 1933, believing that it would bring a national revival. However, he opposed the Nazis’ ‘Aryan Paragraph.’

In 1933, Niemöller founded the Pfarrernotbund, an organisation of pastors to ‘combat rising discrimination against Christians of Jewish background.’ By the autumn of 1934, Niemöller joined other Lutheran and Protestant church leaders, including Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in founding the Confessing Church, which opposed the Nazification of the German Protestant churches.

However, Niemöller only gradually abandoned his Nazi sympathies and even made pejorative remarks about Jews of faith while protecting – in his own church – baptised Christians, persecuted as Jews by the Nazis, due to their or their Jewish descent.

In 1936, he signed a petition by a group of Protestant church figures who sharply criticised Nazi policies and declared the ‘Aryan Paragraph’ incompatible with the Christian virtue of charity. The Nazi regime reacted with mass arrests and charges against almost 800 pastors and church lawyers.

Niemöller was arrested on 1 July 1937. On 2 March 1938, he was tried by a ‘Special Court’ for activities against the State. He was fined 2,000 Reichmarks and jailed for seven months imprisonment. He was released after sentencing, but was immediately rearrested by the Gestapo and was interned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau for ‘protective custody’ from 1938 to 1945.

He narrowly escaped execution, and in April 1945, Niemöller and 140 other high-ranking prisoners were sent to the Alpenfestung, possibly to be used as hostages in surrender negotiations. The SS guards had orders to kill everyone if liberation by the advancing Western Allies became imminent. The entire group was eventually liberated by US troops.

Niemöller never denied his own guilt in the time of the Nazi regime, and for the rest of his life he expressed deep regret that he had not done enough to help the victims of the Nazis. In 1959, he said his eight-year imprisonment by the Nazis became the turning point in his life, after which he viewed things differently.

Niemöller was president of the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau from 1947 to 1961. He was one of the initiators of the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, signed by leading figures in the German Protestant churches, who acknowledged that the churches had not done enough to resist the Nazis.

Niemöller’s own account of his popular, poetic quotation changed many times between 1946 and 1979. In prose versions, he named different groups on different occasions. In speeches, the middle groups often varied, but he always began with the Communists and ended with me.

He always included the Jews, and usually named Social Democrats and or trade unionists. Sometimes, he also included disabled people, whom he called’'the sick, so-called incurables’ (Kranke, sogenannte Unheilbare). At other times, he quoted the Nazi term, ‘lives unworthy of life,’ referred to ‘occupied countries,’ or named Jehovah's Witnesses (ernste Bibelforscher) or Catholics.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum quotes one of the many poetic versions of the speech:

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.

This version is inaccurate because Niemöller frequently used the word ‘communists’ and not ‘socialists.’ The substitution of ‘socialists’ for ‘communists’ is an effect of anti-communism in the US, and most ubiquitous in the version that has proliferated in the US.

Professor Harold Marcuse of the University of California Santa Barbara points out, ‘Niemöller’s original argument was premised on naming groups he and his audience would instinctively not care about ... The omission of Communists in Washington, and of Jews in Germany, distorts that meaning and should be corrected.’

After meeting Otto Hahn, the ‘father of nuclear chemistry,’ in 1954, Niemöller became an ardent pacifist and campaigner for nuclear disarmament. He became a leading figure in the post-war German peace movement and was charged in 1959 when he spoke critically about the military.

His visit to North Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh at the height of the Vietnam War was controversial. He became president of the World Council of Churches in 1961, and was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1966.

He built a small chapel at Dachau that was turned into a museum by the German government. He would greet visitors and discuss his time in the camp as well as hand out copies of his poem. He emphasised that his time in the camp was less important than the lesson he learned in the poem and urged visitors to always speak out for their brothers and sisters.

Martin Niemöller died at Wiesbaden in West Germany on 6 March 1984, at the age of 92.

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