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August 19, 2010

Rev. Martin Niemöller: First they came for the Communists….

Americans today love to quote the famous words of the Rev. Martin Niemöller who spoke frequently after World War II about the failure of the German people, including himself, to stop Hitler and the Nazis before it was too late.  Just this week, Keith Olberman quoted Niemöller on his MSNBC  TV show; you can read about it here.

Here is an early version of Niemöller’s poem:

“When the Nazis arrested the Communists, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Communist.
When they locked up the Social Democrats, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Social Democrat.
When they arrested the trade unionists, I said nothing; after all, I was not a trade unionist.
When they arrested the Jews, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Jew.”

Here is the quote in the original German:

Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Kommunist.
Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat.
Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter.
Als sie die Juden holten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Jude.
Als sie mich holten, gab es keinen mehr, der protestieren konnte.

There are many versions of this famous quote; Niemöller himself tailored the quote to his audience. For example, when Niemöller spoke before the American Congress after the war, he mentioned the Jews first. Time magazine printed Niemöller’s quotation with the Jews in first place,  but didn’t include the Communists and the Social Democrats. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC  includes the Social Democrats, but not the Communists. Former Vice-President Al Gore used to quote Niemöller, but he always dropped the trade unionists and mentioned Catholics instead. In Boston, Catholics are included in the quotation which is inscribed on the Holocaust memorial.  Sometimes disabled people and homosexuals are included in the famous quotation.

As interpreted by people today, Niemöller seems to be saying that innocent people were arrested in Nazi Germany for no reason at all, and because he did nothing about it, he was eventually arrested himself for no reason at all.  But is this really what happened?

There were prison cells on both sides of the bunker at Dachau

The bunker at Dachau, on the left, had a courtyard on the right side where prisoners could walk around when they were not in their prison cells

Niemöller’s famous quote gives no hint as to why he was not arrested for four years after Hitler came to power, nor why he was eventually imprisoned at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin and then transferred to the Dachau concentration camp where he was set free just before the camp was liberated.

Niemöller had a private cell in the bunker, the building on the right

Door into a cell in the Dachau bunker

Niemöller was a German citizen and a Protestant minister in a country that was predominantly Protestant.  The quotation is repeated today to show that innocent people were sent to concentration camps by the Nazis for no reason at all, but good people did nothing, and this resulted in a good person (Niemöller) being wrongly imprisoned.  But is this the whole story?

The National Socialist (Nazi) political party was democratically elected in Germany in 1932 and on January 30, 1933, Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany because he was the leader of the National Socialist party.  There were more than two political parties in Germany, so a party did not have to get 51% of the votes to be elected.

The Communists and Social democrats were accustomed to gaining power through revolution, not a democratic vote. The German state of Bavaria was taken over by Communist revolutionaries on November 7, 1918, just four days before the Armistice which ended World War I was signed on November 11, 1918.  In the “November Revolution,” the Social Democrats overthrew the imperial government of Germany and proclaimed a Republic on November 9, 1918.

The Nazis knew that, if they wanted to stay in power, they would have to do something to eliminate the Communists and Social Democrats.  That’s why these two parties were banned after the Nazis were elected; political dissidents were locked up and that put an end to bomb throwing and revolutionary fighting in the streets.

Germany had been forced to ask for an Armistice in World War I because the trade unions called for a general strike of all the workers so that the  whole country of Germany came to a total stop. Germany lost World War I, even though the country was never invaded and the German Army was not defeated in the field.  After the Nazis took over, there were no more crippling general strikes because the trade unions were banned by Hitler.

The three major camps, in the Nazi concentration camp system in Germany, were Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. Dachau was in Bavaria, where the Communists had taken over in a revolution in 1918; the Dachau camp was opened on March 22, 1933, less than two months after Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, and the first prisoners were Communists, just as Niemöller said.

Also in 1933, another camp was opened in an old brewery at Oranienburg, 35 kilometers north of Berlin. The Oranienburg camp was rebuilt in 1936 and named Sachsenhausen.

Buchenwald was built just outside the city of Weimar in 1937, and its first prisoners were transferred there from Sachsenhausen.  All three of the first camps were opened to imprison the opponents of Fascism and all three were located in areas which were hotbeds of Communist and Social Democrat political activity.

Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald were originally set up because the Nazis wanted to stay in power after they were elected.

One of the first laws that Hitler put into effect in Germany was known as the “Aryan Paragraph.”  This new rule stated that only Aryans could have positions in the German government; Jews were no longer allowed to have  government jobs.  This rule was soon expanded to ban Jews from becoming Pastors in Christian churches in Germany.

The main opposition to Hitler’s decree came from a group of young pastors led by Martin Niemöller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Heinrich Gruber. Initially, their main complaint was that Hitler had united all denominations of Germany’s Protestant churches under Ludwig Müller as the first Reich Bishop.

When the new law that Jews were not allowed to be Protestant ministers went into effect, Niemöller organized the Pastor’s Emergency League to protect Protestant pastors, who were violating the new law, from the police.

With the support of Karl Barth, a professor of theology at Bonn University, in May, 1934, the rebel pastors formed what became known as the Confessional Church. Over the next few years, hundreds of these pastors were sent to concentration camps; Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed. (Bonhoeffer was involved in the July 20, 1944 plot to kill Hitler, which is why he was singled out to be executed.)

One of the major differences of the teaching of the Confessional Church was that Jews, who had converted to Christianity, could become pastors. Hitler wanted the Christian religion to be for Aryans only with all Jews excluded.

Niemöller objected to the way that a new church, called the German Christians, used the term “Positive Christianity” to mean that the German people had a “special virtue,” as opposed to “Negative Christianity” which held that all people, regardless of race, were guilty of sin and should repent.

The Rev. Martin Niemöller was not arrested until 1937 because he was originally a member of the Nazi party and a war hero.  He had been a U-boat captain in WW I, prior to becoming a pastor; he had supported Hitler prior to the time that Hitler  became the Chancellor of Germany in 1933.

On July 27, 1936, Time Magazine published this letter to Hitler from Niemöller and nine other Protestant ministers in the Confessional Church:

“Our people are trying to break the bond set by God. That is human conceit rising against God. In this connection we must warn the Führer, that the adoration frequently bestowed on him is only due to God. Some years ago the Führer objected to having his picture placed on Protestant altars. Today his thoughts are used as a basis not only for political decisions but also for morality and law. He himself is surrounded with the dignity of a priest and even of an intermediary between God and man… We ask that liberty be given to our people to go their way in the future under the sign of the Cross of Christ, in order that our grandsons may not curse their elders on the ground that their elders left them a state on earth that closed to them the Kingdom of God.”

On February 21, 1938,  Time Magazine printed this excerpt from one of Niemöller’s sermons:

I cannot help saying quite harshly and bluntly that the Jewish people came to grief and disgrace because of its own ‘Positive Christianity!’ It [the Jewish people] bears a curse throughout the history of the world because it was ready to approve of its Messiah just as long and as far as it thought it could gain some advantage for its own plans and its own aims for Him, His words and His deeds. It bears a curse, because it rejected Him and resisted Him to the death when it became clear that Jesus of Nazareth would not cease calling [the Jews] to repentance and faith, despite their insistence that they were free, strong and proud men and belonged to a pure-blooded, race-conscious nation!

“‘Positive Christianity,” which the Jewish people wanted, clashed with “Negative Christianity” as Jesus himself represented it! […] Friends, can we risk going with our nation without forgiveness of sins, without that so-called “Negative Christianity” which, when all is said and done, clings in repentance and faith to Jesus as the Savior of sinners? I cannot and you cannot and our nation cannot! Come let us return to the Lord!

Niemöller was finally arrested for treason.  He had disobeyed the laws of his country and flaunted his disagreement with Hitler.  There was no one left to stand up for him because many of the other pastors in the Confessional Church had already been arrested.

After Niemöller was put on trial and convicted of treason, he was sentenced to time served.  Then he was sent to a concentration camp because the Nazis were sending all convicted criminals to the camps for rehabilitation.

Hitler personally begged Niemöller to recant and go along with the teachings of the regular Protestant church, but Niemöller preferred to stay in a concentration camp.  He was treated very well at both Sachsenhausen and Dachau; he was allowed unlimited books to read; his wife could come and visit him, and he was allowed out of his cell at Dachau so that he could walk around the camp; he was even allowed to receive visitors at Dachau.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested in April, 1943 and was charged with participating in the July 20th plot to assassinate Hitler.  He was executed on April 9, 1945, just before the end of World War II.

Niemöller escaped execution because his old comrade, Adolf Hitler, protected him.  Why didn’t Niemöller tell the true story of what happened to him?  Hitler himself stood up for Niemöller — what was he talking about?