Martin Niemöller was born in the Westphalian town of Lippstadt, Germany, on January 14, 1892. In 1910 he became a cadet in the Imperial German Navy. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Niemöller was assigned to a U-Boat, of which he was eventually appointed the commander. Under the stipulations of the armistice of November 11, 1918, that ended hostilities in World War I, Niemöller and other commanders were ordered to turn over their U-Boats to England. Along with many others, Niemöller refused to obey this order, and was, as a consequence, discharged from the Navy.
In 1920, he decided to follow the path of his father and began seminary training at the University of Münster.
Niemöller enthusiastically welcomed the Third Reich. But a turning point in Niemöller's political sympathies came with a January 1934 meeting of Adolf Hitler, Niemöller, and two prominent Protestant bishops to discuss state pressures on churches. At the meeting it became clear that Niemöller's phone had been tapped by the Gestapo (German Secret State Police). It was also clear that the Pastors Emergency League (PEL), which Niemöller had helped found, was under close state surveillance. Following the meeting, Niemöller would come to see the Nazi state as a dictatorship, one which he would oppose.
Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation1:
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.
The quotation stems from Niemöller's lectures during the early postwar period. Different versions of the quotation exist. These can be attributed to the fact that Niemöller spoke extemporaneously and in a number of settings. Much controversy surrounds the content of the poem as it has been printed in varying forms, referring to diverse groups such as Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, Trade Unionists, or Communists depending upon the version. Nonetheless his point was that Germans had been complicit through their silence in the Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and murder of millions of people. He felt this was true in particular of the leaders of the Protestant churches (of which the Lutheran church was one denomination).
A Controversial Figure
In the wake of Nazism, Niemöller's prominence as an opposition figure gave him international stature though he remained controversial. Not until 1963, in a West German television interview, did Niemöller acknowledge and make a statement of regret about his own antisemitism.2 He was nonetheless one of the earliest Germans to talk publicly about broader complicity in the Holocaust and guilt for what had happened to the Jews. In his book Über die deutsche Schuld, Not und Hoffnung (published in English as Of Guilt and Hope)—which appeared in January 1946—Niemöller wrote:
"Thus, whenever I chance to meet a Jew known to me before, then, as a Christian, I cannot but tell him: 'Dear Friend, I stand in front of you, but we can not get together, for there is guilt between us. I have sinned and my people has sinned against thy people and against thyself.'"
Critical Thinking Questions
- This famous sentiment was spoken after World War II. What were Niemöller’s opinions about the Nazis and antisemitism earlier in his career?
- Why do you think this quotation resonates long after the Holocaust?
- How have you seen it used and modified for recent issues?
Bentley, James. Martin Niemöller: 1892–1984 . NY: Macmillan Free Press, 1984.
Barnett, Victoria. For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler. NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Gerlach, Wolfgang. And the Witnesses were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Jews . Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.