Thursday, November 30, 2023



Yesterday I posted Pastor Niemoller’s famous poem ”First They Came For” and I gave some brief facts about both the poem and the pastor.

It occurred to me later that there was some interesting information about Pastor Niemoller’s writing of it that was worthy of a further post, as below.

It is noted again that Niemoller was initially a supporter of Adolf Hitler and a self-identified antisemite. He became one of the founders of the Confessing Church, which opposed the Nazification of German Protestant churches, became an opponent of the Nazi policies and was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1938 to 1945. He narrowly escaped execution.

After his imprisonment, he expressed his deep regret about not having done enough to help victims of the Nazis.

The poem:

Here is the poem again:


Martin Niemoller (1892 – 1984):

Portrait of Martin Niemoeller as a young cadet in the Flensburg-Muerwik Naval Academy, c 1910

Martin Niemoller as a German naval officer
German naval officer Martin Niemöller (top, foreground) commands a U-Boat during World War I. Flensburg, Germany , ca. 1914–17.

Born a pastor's son in a conservative family, he first joined the Navy after passing his school leaving exams (Abitur). He was assigned to the submarine service, where in August 1917 he became executive officer of U-151, which set a record of 55,000 tons of ships sunk in 151 days. He then became commanding officer of UC-67, where he served until war's end. He received the Iron Cross First Class for his service.

Due to his conservative opposition to the Weimar Republic, he left the navy in 1919 and decided to become a pastor rather than become a farmer. He studied Lutheran theology from 1919 to 1923 at the University of Münster. During this time he served as a Freikorps commander during a revolt in that city.

He was ordained in 1924 and became pastor of the Church of the Redeemer in Münster. In 1932 he was given the pastorate of the Lutheran church in Dahlem, a Berlin suburb, where he became friends with future German Field Marshal Model. When the Nazis took power he was at first in favor, as he thought they would bring a return to conservatism. But he stood directly opposed to the "Aryan Paragraph" (1933) as inimical to Christianity. He did at first try to form a compromise with the so-called "German Christians", but then formed with Barth and Bonhoeffer the Confessing Church in 1934 in opposition to the Nazi-controlled "German Church".

He spent the war interned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps until war's end in 1945. The time in prison changed him. He had been anti-Semitic, but his experiences gave him a great compassion for people of all walks and beliefs.

Post-release from the German concentration camps:

He delivered the opening address at the 1946 meeting of the Federal Council of Churches in the United States and traveled widely speaking about the German experience under Nazism.

In 1947, he was elected as president of the Hessen-Nassau Lutheran Church and began a world tour preaching collective guilt for Nazi persecution and crimes against humanity. His ideas are best reflected in the Stuttgart Confession of Guilt (Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis), written mainly by Niemöller in October 1945 and issued in the name of the German Evangelical Church.

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.

By the mid-1950s, Niemöller had become a pacifist. He worked with a number of international groups, including the World Council of Churches, for international peace.

Niemöller died on March 6, 1984 at the age of 92.

Niemöller made confession in his speech for the Confessing Church in Frankfurt on 6 January 1946, of which this is a partial translation:
... 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.
This speech was translated and published in English in 1947, but was later retracted when it was alleged that Niemöller was an early supporter of the Nazis.

We can still learn a lot from his words and life.

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