The former Navy officer, parish pastor and church leader Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) ranks among the most prominent and influential German Protestants of the twentieth century. These days, he is often remembered for the so-called Niemöller-‘quotation’, four brief lines that were meant to encapsulate his inaction during the Third Reich.
While the core idea of the quotation goes back to speeches Niemöller delivered in the immediate post-war period, it was only canonized in the 1970s by his close associates. The most accurate rendition of the quotation, which Niemöller himself approved, runs as follows:
‘First they came for the Communists, 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 who could protest.’
In these lines, Niemöller expressed remorse about his lack of empathy with key groups of victims who were persecuted by the Nazi dictatorship. His inability to put himself in their shoes, the quote suggests, displays a lack of courage vis-à-vis a brutal dictatorship.
That, however, is a myth. Niemöller did not only fail to speak out on behalf of Communists, trade unionists or Jews because he lacked empathy with their plight and courage to show solidarity with them. He failed to speak out because he actively resented and hated these groups.
As functionary of the Inner Mission from 1924 to 1931, an organization that was dedicated to a re-Christianization of the working-class, Niemöller was at the forefront of the fight against the secularism of the ‘Godless’ Communists and their freethinker organization. As a pastor in the affluent parish of Berlin-Dahlem, he continued the fight against ‘godless’ Bolshevism and Communism. On this count, he agreed with the German Christians, a pro-Nazi group in the Protestant Churches founded in 1932.
Already as an officer in the Imperial Navy prior to 1914, Niemöller had voiced his resentment against social democracy. In his work for the Inner Mission, he continued to stand in sharp opposition to the social democratic labour movement. His sermons in 1933 praised the Nazi version of the people’s community that had allegedly overcome the notion of class struggle.
From late 1918, Niemöller had adopted a racial antisemitism to cope with the trauma of German defeat. As a student in Münster, he was active in no less than eight radical-nationalist or völkisch groups which all propagated racial antisemitism. As founder of the Pastor Emergency League in 1933, Niemöller fought for the rights of Protestant pastors who were baptized Jews. Yet his antisemitic prejudice against members of the Jewish faith was undiminished even while the Nazis persecuted the Jews.
From 1938 to 1945, Niemöller was detained as Hitler’s Personal Prisoner first in Sachsenhausen and then in Dachau concentration camp. From the moment of liberation, Niemöller made repeatedly headline news on account of his antisemitic statements.
In June 1947, he reprimanded a local official in Hesse who had refused to hand out aid packages for victims of the Nazi regime to his housekeeper with the words: ‘So you only support friends of the Jews [Judenfreunde]?’
In a press conference in Berlin in late 1947, he found the following explanation for a resurgence of antisemitism in Germany: ‘Everywhere in American institutions […] Jews are placed. Let’s be honest and call a spade a spade.’ Reversing the roles of victims and perpetrators – a core element of antisemitic discourse – he gave his explanation why Jewish members of the US military government in Germany would not seek reconciliation with the Germans: ‘If I were a Jew coming from America to Germany after having escaped slaughtering under Hitler, I would also deal in politics of hatred and revenge, provided that I am not a Christian.’
Nowadays, the Niemöller ‘quotation’ seems to encapsulate the historical legacy of a Protestant Christian who tried to make up for his personal guilt during the ‘Third Reich’. Yet when we consider the ‘historical’ Niemöller – to use a formulation by the theologian Karl Barth –, this version of the quotation represents a myth. It is hence time, based on the facts presented in this book, to rephrase the Niemöller ‘quotation’ in a form that bears a closer resemblance to the life of the man:
First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out – because I resented the ‘Godless’ Communists for their attacks on Christianity.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I believed in the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I ‘disliked’ the Jews and denied the legitimacy of their faith.
Then they came for me and detained me for eight long years – yet when I was finally liberated, my views on Communists and Jews had not substantially changed.
Such a rewording of the ‘quotation’ should not be read as an attempt to downplay the historical significance of Niemöller’s work in the Confessing Church during the Third Reich. But it is time to question whether Martin Niemöller can still be seen—as he is often presented—as a beacon of Christian morality in dark times.
This is an edited excerpt from Benjamin Ziemann, Hitler’s Personal Prisoner. The Life of Martin Niemöller, Oxford: OUP, 2024 xvi + 447 pp. To order this book with a discount of 30% go to: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/hitlers-personal-prisoner-9780192862587?cc=gb&lang=en&promocode=AAFLYG6