Martin Niemoller and the Lessons for this Moment

by Toby O'Ryan

Revolution #020, October 30, 2005, posted at revcom.us

"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 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."

Regular readers of this paper, and many more besides, are familiar with this little poem. The author was Martin Niemöller, a German pastor imprisoned by Hitler from 1937 to 1945. But how did Niemöller "become" Niemöller?When did he make this famous remark? And what became of him? The story of Martin Niemöller is itself fascinating and sheds more light on the meaning of the poem--then and now.

"From U-Boat to Pulpit"

Niemöller first came to German public awareness in 1933 with his book From U-Boat to Pulpit, outlining his journey from a U-Boat commander in World War 1 to a pastor in a Protestant church. But his was no tale of a warrior-turned-pacifist--Niemöller maintained pride not only in his U-Boat career, but also his post-war activity in the Freikorps, a group of counter-revolutionary veterans which did battle with the revolutionary workers' movement in post World War 1 Germany. Not for nothing, as they say, was his book praised in the Nazi press, and it went on to become a bestseller in the early days of Nazi rule. Indeed, Niemöller celebrated the Nazi assumption of power in the conclusion to his book for bringing about a "national revival."

Niemöller was hardly unique in this--according to William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, most Protestant clergy welcomed the "advent" of Hitler. But in 1934 Hitler attempted to forcefully bring the many Protestant sects into one "Reich Church" and to somewhat transform their ideology along Nazi lines. Niemöller led the Confessing, or Confessional, Church, and he opposed this move against its autonomy; in May 1934 the Confessional Church declared itself to be the legitimate Protestant Church of Germany, effectively in opposition to Hitler's bid for religious hegemony. Several years of skirmishes alternating with uneasy truces ensued, with the level of friction steadily escalating, but most of this friction focused on Hitler's moves against the church. For instance, Niemöller opposed Hitler's measures forbidding converted Jews from being ministers in Protestant churches, and the later Nazi mandates confining such converts to segregated worship, away from ethnically German Protestants; but the larger measures against the Jews--and others--went unopposed.

Even as Niemöller came increasingly into conflict with the Nazis, he carefully kept within certain bounds. He even attempted to out-do the Nazis in patriotism at one point, and at other times claimed to friends that Hitler was an intelligent man, surrounded by fools and charlatans. And when Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant theologian and fellow minister in the Confessional Church, demanded that Christians not just help the Jews but take direct action against their persecution, Niemöller himself opposed Bonhoeffer. He told Bonhoeffer that before standing up for others, the Church must first secure its own safety.

In the end, none of this did Niemöller or the Confessing Church any good. In May of 1936, when the Confessional Church dissented from elements of the government's anti-Semitism and again demanded an end to its interference in church affairs, the Nazis arrested hundreds of pastors, murdering one of the most prominent, and confiscated church funds. Then on July 1, 1937, Niemöller himself--the former U-Boat commander, the bestselling author, the famous minister to a wealthy congregation and one-time darling of the Nazi press--was arrested for treason. He spent the next eight years in prison and, later, concentration camps, including four years in solitary confinement.

But by 1937 Niemöller and the pastors arrested with him were essentially alone--the vast majority of the Protestant Church had already bent to the government's will. And even the Confessional Church itself came around after Niemöller's imprisonment, voting in 1937 to begin closer cooperation with the state church and thanking the government for its revitalization of German life! Niemöller, for his part, only gained his release upon Germany's loss in the war in 1945.

"What Would Have Happened?"

In January 1946, representatives of the Confessional Church met in Frankfurt to discuss reconstitution. Niemöller again mounted the pulpit to give a sermon, this time of a most different character. He spoke first of the rationalizations that he, and by implication, others had had for not stepping forward. Yes, Hitler went after the communists, but weren't they after all atheists and revolutionaries? And yes, he went after the disabled and the sick, but weren't they really a burden? And the Jews, yes, Hitler came for the Jews, and that was deplorable, but the Jews were not Christian, were they? And the Occupied Countries, it was a shame, but still, that was not Germany, was it?

None of the rationalizations would do, he insisted.

"We can talk ourselves out of [our need for atonement] with the excuse that ‘it would have cost me my head if I had spoken out'," Niemöller said.

"We preferred to keep silent. We are certainly not without guilt or fault and I ask myself again and again, what would have happened, if in the year 1933 or 1934, 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 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 we would have rescued 30 to 40 million people, because that is what it [cost us.]"

Niemöller, with the vantage point of hindsight and with the task of actually getting his countrymen to face their responsibility, put it starkly. It is important for every single progressive person in the U.S. to think about this little-known remark of Niemöller--and think hard about it.

After the War

Oddly enough, Martin Niemöller never wrote down the exact poem for which he became famous. He would speak all over after the war, usually along the lines quoted above, and his poem more or less took shape in the course of his speeches. The version given here is the one that was officially "approved" by his widow. Unfortunately, the "oral tradition" character of the poem has allowed all kinds of forces to play fast and loose with it--including, to take but one significant example, the U.S. Holocaust Museum, which eliminated the whole first sentence about communists in its posting of the poem. This effectively guts Niemöller's meaning and also clearly does violence to his intent, as he almost always began with the communists in his speeches. Besides, the whole thing makes no sense if you cut out the communists who were, after all, the first to be put into the camps! This outrageous rewriting of history, however, apparently poses no problem and raises no fuss if it furthers the political agenda of U.S. imperialism.

Niemöller himself did not stop changing. The one-time U-Boat commander became a passionate opponent of imperialist war generally and especially the post-World War 2 nuclear arms races. In 1965, he visited North Vietnam while it was under U.S. bombardment, and he met with Ho Chi Minh; the fact that Niemöller was president of the World Council of Churches at the time, coupled with his great moral authority, caused no small chagrin to the U.S. government. On his 90th birthday, Niemöller discussed his evolution from an arch-reactionary to what he himself called "a revolutionary," and ironically remarked that if he lived to be 100 he would probably become an anarchist.

And today, Niemöller--has your time come again?

 

"First They Came for the Communists"

It's worth a close look at the first line of Martin Niemöller's famous poem --"first they came for the communists." At the time of the rise of the Hitler, the German communists were the most implacable opposition to the Nazis. Beyond that, though--and related to that--they represented the only force that posed a real path for the German people out of the horror that was looming; they stood for nothing less than a revolution to overthrow German imperialism.

The German communists were identified in the people's minds with the new-born, struggling but very inspiring Soviet Union, which itself had burst out of the imperialist world-system with a revolution after World War 1. There, millions of people were being mobilized to build a whole new world, working to free society of the stamp of class division and exploitation, and the relations, institutions and ideas that went along with it. The Soviet Union was also intent on eradicating the oppression of nations and nationalities and eliminating discrimination; indeed, Hitler intentionally conflated the Soviet Union and the Jews, pointing to the lack of discrimination there as evidence of Soviet degeneracy and danger! Leaving aside whatever shortcomings the German communists may have had in vision and strategy, they stood for something completely different than the Nazis and they also had something of a mass following, receiving nearly 20% of the vote in the last election before Hitler was installed. For all these reasons, they were the first on Hitler's list, and he went after them with a vengeance.

A lesson to be pondered--and applied. During the height of the huge antiwar antiwar upsurge of 2002-03, prominent right-wing commentators called for the prosecution of communist opponents to the war on grounds of treason, and the most vitriolic attacks prominently targeted Revolutionary Communist Party Chairman Bob Avakian. At the same time, a number of left-liberal commentators also attacked the participation of communists, including the RCP, in the antiwar movement, slandering the Party and pressuring prominent individuals to distance themselves from it. And we are now seeing attacks in the mainstream media, and elsewhere, on the role of communists in the battle to drive out the Bush regime.

Niemöller, anyone?


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