Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps, despite his ardent nationalism. Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out…”
In the wake of Nazism, Niemöller’s prominence as an opposition figure gave him international stature though he remained controversial. In Germany, he quickly became unpopular because of his call for acknowledgment of collective German guilt. He emphasized the particular guilt of the German churches for their support of Nazism. Niemöller’s political discourse, however, continued to display some of the prejudices that led him to welcome the Nazi rise to power in 1933. He blamed the weakness of the parliamentary Weimar Republic for the rise of Hitler and failed to explicitly repudiate Hitler’s political aims, condemning unequivocally only Nazi interference in religious matters.
Niemöller created multiple versions of the text during his career. The earliest speeches, written in 1946, list the communists, incurable patients, Jews or Jehovah’s Witnesses, and civilians in countries occupied by Nazi Germany. In all versions, the impact is carefully built up, by going from the “smallest, most distant” group to the largest, Jewish, group, …. and then finally to himself as a by then outspoken critic of Nazism. Niemöller made the cardinal “who cares about them,” clear in his speech for the Confessing Church in Frankfurt on 6 January 1946, of which this is a partial translation:
When Pastor Niemöller was put in a concentration camp we wrote the year 1937; when the concentration camp was opened we wrote the year 1933, and the people who were put in the camps then were Communists. Who cared about them? We knew it, it was printed in the newspapers. Who raised their voice, maybe the Confessing Church? We thought: Communists, those opponents of religion, those enemies of Christians – “should I be my brother’s keeper?”
Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. – I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it’s right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn’t it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]? — Only then did the church as such take note. Then we started talking until our voices were again silenced in public. Can we say, we aren’t guilty/responsible? The persecution of the Jews, the way we treated the occupied countries, or the things in Greece, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia, or in Holland, that were written in the newspapers. … I believe, we Confessing-Church-Christians have every reason to say: mea culpa, mea culpa! We can talk ourselves out of it with the excuse that it would have cost me my head if I had spoken out.
We preferred to keep silent. We are certainly not without guilt/fault, and I ask myself again and again, what would have happened, if in the year 1933 or 1934 – there must have been a possibility – 14,000 Protestant pastors and all Protestant communities in Germany had defended the truth until their deaths? If we had said back then, it is not right when Hermann Göring simply puts 100,000 Communists in the concentration camps, in order to let them die. I can imagine that perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 Protestant Christians would have had their heads cut off, but I can also imagine that we would have rescued 30-40,000 million [sic] people because that is what it is costing us now.
God didn’t ask me where I was from 1937 to 1945, he asked me where I was from 1933 to 1937. From 1933 to 1937 I didn’t have an answer. Maybe I should have said: I was a brave pastor of the Confessing Church in those years, I risked speaking critically and thus risked freedom and my life? But God didn’t ask me about all that. God asked: Where were you from 1933 to 1937, when human beings were being burned here? Those weren’t my Christian brothers, who were burned there, those were Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. That’s why I didn’t do anything.
Here is the basis of our Christian recognition of guilt in consideration of what happened. We did not recognize the Lord Christ when he came into our lives in the form of a suffering brother. I didn’t recognize him when he was put in the camp as a Communist, nor did I recognize him, when he was murdered as an incurably ill person, nor did I recognize him, when he was gassed and burned as the poor victims of his own people. Here I became guilty in my very personal responsibility and I cannot excuse myself, neither before God, nor before humanity.
“The trouble with Martin Niemoeller’s “famous quotation” is that he never wrote it down – which enabled so many hitchhikers over the years to “put themselves on the wagon”. In his “Confession of Guilt” (as he called it himself: Schuldbekenntnis in German) the Communists came first, then the Trade Unionists and then the Socialists and then the Jews. NO ONE ELSE.” – Sibylle von Sell, 23.4.2000