Martin Niemöller

Martin Niemöller

Martin Niemöller, the son of a pastor, was born in Lippstadt, Germany, on 14th January, 1892. At the age of eighteen Niemöller became an officer-cadet in the German Navy. Niemöller was assigned to the training vessel Hertha and eventually graduated to the battleship Thuringen.

By the time the First World War began in 1914, Niemöller had reached the rank of Sub-Lieutenant. It was decided that the Thuringen was too old and was retired from active service. Niemöller was now assigned to a mine-laying submarine (U73). This was followed by spells as an officer on the U39 and the U151. In 1918 Niemöller took command of the UC67. Later that year he was responsible for laying mines off Marseilles. This operation resulted in sinking three enemy ships totalling 17,000 tons. By the end of the war Niemöller was seen as one of Germany's most successful U-boat captains and was awarded the Iron Cross (first class).

After the war Niemöller became active in German politics. Senior officers in the German Army began raising private armies called Freikorps. These were used to defend the German borders against the possibility of invasion from the Red Army. Niemöller joined this group and took part in the attempt to stop a socialist revolution taking place in Germany.

In March, 1919, General Franz Epp led 30,000 soldiers to crush the Bavarian Socialist Republic. It is estimated that Epp's men killed over 600 communists and socialists over the next few weeks. The following year Herman Ehrhardt, a former naval commander and Wolfgang Kapp, a right-wing journalist, led a group of soldiers to take control of Berlin. Niemöller supported this Kapp Putsch and commanded a battalion of Freikorps in Munster. The right-wing coup was eventually defeated by a general strike of trade unionists.

After the establishment of the Weimar Republic Niemöller decided to study theology. He remained interested in politics and became a supporter Adolf Hitler and in the 1924 elections voted for the Nazi Party. Even after he was ordained in 1929 and became pastor of the Church of Jesus Christ at Dahlem he remained an ardent supporter of Hitler. In 1931 Niemöller made speeches where he argued that Germany needed a Führer.

In his sermons he also espoused Hitler's views on race and nationality. In 1933 he described the programme of the Nazi Party as a "renewal movement based on a Christian moral foundation". The following year Niemöller published his autobiography From U-Boat to Pulpit. This right-wing nationalist view of the war and its aftermath made it a popular book with party members and sold 90,000 copies in the first few weeks after it was published.

In 1933 Niemöller complained about the decision by Adolf Hitler to appoint Ludwig Muller, as the country's Reich Bishop of the Protestant Church. With the support of Karl Barth, a professor of theology at Bonn University, in May, 1934, a group of rebel pastors formed what became known as the Confessional Church.

When the Nazi government continued with this policy Niemöller joined with Dietrich Bonhoffer to form the Pastors' Emergency League and published a major document opposing the religious policies of Adolf Hitler. Niemöller was particularly concerned by Hitler's decision that Jews should be expelled from the Church. He argued that once Jews had been converted to Christianity they should be allowed to remain in the Church. As Bonhoffer pointed out at the time, although Niemöller was critical of Hitler he remained a committed supporter of the Nazi Party. Niemöller was later to admit that his group "acted as if we had only to sustain the church" and did not accept that they had a "responsibility for the whole nation".

Niemöller therefore did not criticize the Nazi Party for putting its political opponents into concentration camps. However, he spoke out when members of the Protestant Church were arrested. In his sermon on Sunday 27th June 1937, Niemöller pointed out that on: "On Wednesday the secret police penetrated the closed church of Friedrich Werder and arrested at the altar eight members of the Council of Brethren."

The following month Niemöller was himself arrested. He was held eight months without trial and when his case eventually took place he was found guilty of "abusing the pulpit" and was fined 2,000 marks. As he left the court he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp to be "re-educated". Niemöller refused to change his views and was later transferred to Dachau.

George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, took up Niemöller's case. He had a series of letters published in the British press about the arrest and imprisonment of Niemöller. Bell argued that Hitler's treatment of Niemöller illustrated the attitude of the German state to Christianity. Bell's campaign helped to save Niemöller's life. It was later discovered that in 1938 Joseph Goebbels urged Adolf Hitler to have Niemöller executed. Alfred Rosenberg argued against the idea as he believed it would provide an opportunity of people like Bishop Bell to attack the German government. Hitler agreed and Niemöller was allowed to live.

Niemöller remained a German nationalist and on the outbreak of the Second World War he wrote to Admiral Erich Raeder offering to serve in the German Navy. The letter was passed to Joseph Goebbels who dismissed the idea as he believed it was an attempt by Niemöller to save his life. Goebbels now leaked the latter to undermine Niemöller's credibility. Niemöller's supporters retaliated by claiming the letter was a forgery. This version was believed and Niemöller became a symbol in Britain of resistance in Nazi Germany.

While he was in Dachau his youngest daughter Jutta died of diphtheria. On 28th February his eldest son was killed in battle in Pomerania. Another son was captured by the Red Army while fighting on the Eastern Front.

In 1945, with the Allies moving in on Germany, Niemöller, Alexander von Falkenhausen, Kurt von Schuschnigg, Leon Blum, and other political prisoners were transferred to Tirol in Austria by the SS. The original plan was to execute them but they were rescued by the Allies just before the end of the Second World War.

On 5th June 1945 Niemöller gave a press conference in Naples. He admitted that he had offered to join the German Navy in 1939. He also confessed that he had "never quarrelled with Hitler over political matters, but purely on religious grounds". This resulted in a savage attack on Niemöller from those newspapers that had presented him as a symbol of resistance to Hitler's government. It was now pointed out that Niemöller had never opposed the Nazi racial theories, but merely the suppression of the Church in Germany.

Martin Niemöller
Martin Niemöller

When it was suggested that Niemöller wanted to visit Britain there was a campaign to keep him out of the country. Tom O'Brien of the TUC General Council wrote: "I sincerely hope he will not be allowed to come. If he is, it will be the first overt move of the Germans to "organise sympathy", as they did so successfully and so hypocritically after the last war. Niemöller commanded a U-boat in the last war and, with his brother commanders, was responsible for the drowning of many unarmed British merchant seamen. In this war he volunteered to serve under Hitler. He was (and may now be) as nationalistic as any of his congregation at the fashionable Berlin church to which he ministered."

The Archdeacon of Lancaster claimed that "the pastor's visit at this time can do nothing but harm". The Daily Telegraph pointed out that Niemöller should be denied entry as there was "no record that he ever denounced Hitler's crimes against humanity or condemned the war". The Home Secretary agreed and announced that Niemöller would not be allowed to visit Britain.

After the war Niemöller became one of the leaders of the Evangelical Church in Germany. After visiting the Soviet Union Niemöller joined the World Peace Movement. On his return to Germany he pointed out: "I cannot accept communism, but I must admit that its ideals are very different from ours, which are all tangled up with the most sordid materialism." Niemöller wrote to his friend Karl Barth explaining that he was gradually being converted to the idea of socialism: "The corner-stone of my thinking is that the root of every evil development is money." Later he wrote that " the rich must be smashed in order to build human brotherhood."

Niemöller also spoke out against the development of the Cold War. In a speech he made in New York he argued: "I am... against the often-heard statement that a war against bolshevism is necessary to save the Christian churches and Christianity. But it is unchristian to conduct a war for the saving of the Christian church, for the Christian church does not need to be saved. The church is not afraid of bolshevism. It was not afraid of Nazism. The church has to serve the communists as well as all human beings. While the church rejects communism as a creed, just as it rejects all other creeds, communism must and can only be fought and defeated with spiritual weapons. All other powers will fail."

Niemöller was a strong opponent of nuclear weapons. He thought the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was immoral. He upset the American government when he stated that after Adolf Hitler, he thought that Harry S. Truman "was the greatest murderer in the world."

In June 1954 Niemöller met Otto Hahn. The two men discussed the latest nuclear developments. Niemöller was shocked when Hahn told him that it was now possible to produce an atomic device that "would end not only all human life on earth, but also the life of every higher organism." That night he re-read the Sermon on the Mount and decided he could no longer justify the use of military force for political ends and became a pacifist.

Niemöller praised the new Japanese Constitution: "The renunciation of war as expressed in the Japanese Constitution has given a first ray of hope to a world in darkness and despair." In April 1958 he travelled to England and took part in the march to Aldermaston that had been organized by the recently formed Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He also campaigned against military alliances such as NATO.

Martin Niemöller
Else and Martin Niemöller in 1961.

On 7th August, 1961 Niemöller was involved in a car crash. His wife, Else Niemöller was killed but as soon as he recovered from his injuries he returned to his campaign for world peace. He became an active member of the World Peace Committee and was for seven years president of the World Council of Churches. He also published a book on his political views entitled One World or No World (1964).

In 1965 Niemöller upset the United States by visiting North Vietnam and meeting Ho Chi Minh. Afterwards he commented: "One thing is clear, the president of North Vietnam is not a fanatic. He is a very strong and determined man, but capable of listening, something that is very rare in a person of his position." Niemöller won several awards for his work for world peace including the Lenin Peace Prize (1967) and the Grand Cross of Merit (1971). He married his second wife, Sybil von Sell, in 1971.

Martin Niemöller
Martin Niemöller, Linus Pauling and Sybil Niemöller in 1983.

On his 90th birthday in 1982 Niemöller stated that he had started his political career as "an ultra-conservative who wanted the Kaiser to come back; and now I am a revolutionary. I really mean that. If I live to be a hundred I shall maybe be an anarchist." Martin Niemöller died in Wiesbaden, Germany, on 6th March, 1984.

Since his death Martin Niemöller has achieved a great deal of fame for a poem entitled First they Came for the Communists. However, there is some dispute about when Niemöller wrote the poem and whether it has been altered by others over the years.

Niemöller's biographers, Dietmar Schmidt (1959) and James Bentley (1984) do not mention the poem. When it appears in books the origins of the poem are rarely given. A couple of sources claim that according to Niemöller’s wife, Sybil Niemöller, the poem dates back to a meeting with a group of students in 1946. One student asked: “How could it happen?” The story claims that Niemöller answered the question with the poem. The fact that Sybil Niemöller is quoted as the source of the story suggests that the poem emerged after the death of Martin Niemöller. This also helps to explain why it is not included in the books by Schmidt and Bentley.

The impression is given that his wife was at the meeting. This may have been true but that would have been Else Niemöller, his first wife. Else was killed in a car crash in 1961. Martin Niemöller did not marry Sybil von Sell until 1971. She was only a child at the time and was obviously not at the meeting she refers to in 1946. Research carried out by Harold Marcuse suggests that the poem was indeed written in 1946.

Primary Sources


(1) Martin Niemöller, From U-boat to Pulpit (1934)

The only thing we could not grow accustomed to was the fact that half the ship's company were sea-sick and the remainder had to clean up all day long.

(2) On 25th January 1918, Martin Niemöller's submarine sank a French destroyer. A second destroyer arrived to pick up survivors. N decided to take action to prevent this rescue mission to take place. He explained his motives in his book, From U-boat to Pulpit (1934)

What should we do? We have no wish to interrupt the destroyer's work of saving lives... But war is war and the people being picked up out of the water are soldiers bound for the front; soldiers who are to shoot at our German brothers... The question whether we are to perish in despair or defiance, or survive all trails with a live conscience, depends wholly and solely on whether we believe in the forgiveness of sins. This 25th January was the turning point in my life, because it opened my eyes to the utter impossibility of a moral universe.

(3) Martin Niemöller, sermon (1928)

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-concious 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!’

(4) Statement made by Martin Niemöller and fellow leaders of the Confessional Church (July, 1936)

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.

(5) Martin Niemöller, sermon (27th June, 1937)

On Wednesday the secret police penetrated the closed church of Friedrich Werder and arrested at the altar eight members of the Council of Brethren. ... I think how yesterday at Saarbrucken six women and a trusted man of the Protestant community were arrested because they had circulated an election leaflet of the Confessing church. . . . And we recall today how the pulpit of St Anne's church remains empty, because our pastor and brother Muller, with forty-seven other Christian brothers and sisters of our Protestant church, has been taken into custody.

(6) Dr. Reinhard Becker, letter to Martin Niemöller (November, 1937)

You suppose that Christianity is oppressed in Germany and that there is a rule by force and secret trial. Though this is not the case, the German State cannot be expected to tolerate incessant attacks, open or veiled, by ministers of the Christian faith upon its very foundations. There are recalcitrant pastors who seem to be unaware of the fact that they would have been shot, hanged or burned long ago if it had not been for the gigantic and successful struggle of Adolf Hitler to safeguard civilization in this country against the horrors of Communism. Therefore by attacking National Socialism, they are striking at themselves.

(7) William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of he Third Reich (1964)

The Reverend Martin Niemoeller had personally welcomed the coming to power of the Nazis in 1933. In that year his autobiography, From U-boat to Pulpit, had been published. The story of how this submarine commander in the First World War had become a prominent Protestant pastor was singled out for special praise in the Nazi press and became a best seller. To Pastor Niemoeller, as to many a Protestant clergyman, the fourteen years of the Republic had been, as he said, "years of darkness'' and at the close of his autobiography he added a note of satisfaction that the Nazi revolution had finally triumphed and that it had brought about the "national revival" for which he himself had fought so long - for a time in the free corps, from which so many Nazi leaders had come.

(8) Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich: The Memoirs of Albert Speer (1970)

He (Hitler) had another such fit of rage at Pastor Niemöller in 1937. Niemöller had once again delivered a rebellious sermon in Dahlem [as had many other of the more evangelistic and conservative Lutheran Pastors and Priests]; at the same time transcripts of his tapped telephone conversations were presented to Hitler. In a bellow, Hitler ordered Niemöller to be put in a concentration camp and, since he had proven himself to be incorrigible, kept there for life. Pastors and Priests were then sent to camps for their dissidence and by 1938 the country had been declared free of the church.

(9) Martin Niemöller, letter to France Hildebrandt (1945)

Towards evening that day we came upon a German divisional HQ, and some of the officers amongst us found that they were acquainted with officers there. Immediately they telephoned the German HQ. After a horrible night, during which two of us were posted on guard behind every SS man, German officers and soldiers came, put the execution squad in a truck and sent them on their way, guarded by machine guns. The Germans brought us to a hotel in Bergen, where we were very well fussed over and fed and looked after. That lasted three days, when one morning an American company arrived, disarmed the Germans and took us into their care.

(10) Martin Niemöller, statement at a press conference in Naples (5th June, 1945)

No honest man or woman in Germany feels responsible for these things. Good Germans took Nazism as a new religion. These people are shocked by the revelations which have shown that Nazism was not idealism, but a means to the performance of criminal acts...In war a German feels bound to join the ranks without question. Three of my sons were called up. I could not hold back. I wrote from the concentration camp to Admiral Raeder, C. in C. of the Navy, asking to be allowed to return to the submarine service or to do any other service in the Navy. I heard nothing for several months, and then a reply came, not from Raeder but from Keitel, head of the Wehrmacht. He thanked me, but regretted I could not be employed on active service.

(11) Dietmar Schmidt, Pastor Niemöller (1959)

During the next few years (after 1945) he was to attempt to explain from pulpit and platform to Evangelical Christians in all four Occupation Zones what the Stuttgart Declaration was, and was not, intended to convey. He called on the people to show a sense of responsibility towards their fellow-men, he abjured them not to forget the lessons of the past and, above all, he reminded them constantly of the burden of guilt which had to be redeemed before a new life could begin. In so doing he was at pains not to exclude himself from a like responsibility, and told in this connexion the story of the visit which he and his wife paid to Dachau in the autumn of 1945. "After showing her the cell in which he had been confined for so many months, they passed the crematorium. A great white-painted board had been affixed to a tree and on it, in black letters, they read: "Here between the years 1933 and 1945 238,756 human beings were incinerated." At that moment, Niemoller told his audience, the consciousness of his own guilt and his own failure assailed him as never before. "And God asked me - as once He asked the First Man after the Fall, Adam - Man, where wast thou in those years 1933 to 1945? I knew I had no answer to that question. True, I had an alibi in my pocket, for the years 1937 to 1945, my identity disc from the concentration camp. But what help to me was that? God was not asking me where I had been from 1937 to 1945, but from 1933 to 1945, and for the years 1933 to 1937 I had no answer. Should I have said perhaps: 'As a pastor in those years I bore courageous witness to the Faith; I dared to speak, an'd risked life and freedom in doing so?' But God did not ask about that. God asked: 'Where were you from 1933 to 1945 when human beings were incinerated here? When, in 1933, Goering publicly boasted that all active Communists had been imprisoned and rendered harmless - that was when we forgot our responsibility, that was when we should have warned our parishioners. Many a man from my own parish, who went and joined the National Socialist Party and who is now to do penance for his act, could rise up against me today and say that he would have acted differently if I had not kept silence at that time. ... I know that I made my contribution towards the enslavement of the German people."

(12) Dorothy Thompson, The Observer (June, 1945)

He is a man from whom fear has forever flown. Boyishly slim, wiry, nervous but disciplined, he is full of simplicity and humility. His brown eyes look steadily at you as he speaks, and when he smiles his face lights up with kindness and peace.

(13) Tom O'Brien, TUC General Council (1945)

I sincerely hope he will not be allowed to come. If he is, it will be the first overt move of the Germans to "organise sympathy", as they did so successfully and so hypocritically after the last war. Niemoller commanded a U-boat in the last war and, with his brother commanders, was responsible for the drowning of many unarmed British merchant seamen. In this war he volunteered to serve under Hitler. He was (and may now be) as nationalistic as any of his congregation at the fashionable Berlin church to which he ministered.

(14) William Hickey, Daily Express (1945)

The admiration expressed by some people for this vigorous critic of Hitler who has spent eight years in a concentration camp, is offset by others who are wholly allergic to the idea of any "good" Germans, and recall with some venom Niemoller's first-war role of U-boat commander.

(15) Archdeacon of Lancaster, The Daily Telegraph (31st May, 1946)

In my opinion the pastor's visit at this time can do nothing but harm, for the one thing needful is to present a united front to the German people, and to demand proofs of repentance from the whole nation before we can enter into any fraternal relationships.

(16) Martin Niemöller, sermon (January, 1946)

We must openly declare that we are not innocent of the Nazi murders, of the murder of German communists, Poles, Jews, and the people in German-occupied countries. No doubt others made mistakes too, but the wave of crime started here and here it reached its highest peak. The guilt exists, there is no doubt about that - even if there were no other guilt than that of the six million clay urns containing the ashes of incinerated Jews from all over Europe. And this guilt lies heavily upon the German people and the German name, even upon Christendom. For in our world and in our name have these things been done.

(17) Martin Niemöller, sermon at Rendsburgh Church (23rd September, 1946)

If we had then recognized that in the communists who were thrown into concentration camps, the Lord Jesus Christ himself lay imprisoned and looked for our love and help, if we had seen that at the beginning of the persecution of the Jews it was the Lord Christ in the person of the least of our human brethren who was being persecuted and beaten and killed, if we had stood by him and identified ourselves with him, I do not know whether God would not then have stood by us and whether the whole thing would not then have had to take a different course.

(18) Martin Niemöller, speech in New York (1947)

To reproaches that I have described Russian occupation (of East Germany) as bearable, I say: I am only against the often-heard statement that a war against bolshevism is necessary to save the Christian churches and Christianity. But it is unchristian to conduct a war for the saving of the Christian church, for the Christian church does not need to be saved. The church is not afraid of bolshevism. It was not afraid of Nazism. The church has to serve the communists as well as all human beings. While the church rejects communism as a creed, just as it rejects all other creeds, communism must and can only be fought and defeated with spiritual weapons. All other powers will fail.

(19) Martin Niemöller, letter to Dr. Alfred Wiener (1956)

I have never concealed the fact... that I came from an anti-Semitic past and tradition... I ask only that you look at my life historically and take it as history. I believe that from 1933 I truly represented the Lutheran-Christian outlook on the Jewish question - as I revealed before the court - but that I returned home after eight years' imprisonment as a completely different person.

(20) Martin Niemöller, speech (1982)

I am now convinced that the Reformation of the church will come from the east. In the west there is no spiritual life. (I'm speaking of the Protestant church and not the Roman Catholic church.) We have civilisation and we try to keep up culture, but we have no spiritual life. The east has a spiritual life. They know that colour influences the spirit more than black lines. In Russia there is still the notion that art is nearer religion than thinking in lines and logic. All abstract rationalising needs to be filled out with sensual thinking and feelings. In Russia there is still a strong impression of colour.

(21) Poem by Martin Niemöller that was said to have been written in 1946.

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist;

Then 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 out for me.

(22) Franklin H. Littell, Christian Ethics Today (February, 1997)

After the war, active in international church affairs, he (Martin Niemöller) made preaching trips across the United States. At that time he brought the message of concern for others, often driving the point home with a confession of his own blindness when the Nazi regime rounded up the communists, socialists, trade unionists, and, finally, the Jews. The quotation is now famous, but often in corrupted form. In a recent bulletin of the Social Studies School Service, a 23" by 161/2" poster is advertised for $4.95. It begins, "First they came for the Jews...." A beautiful new folder from Yad Vashem, featuring "The World Center for Teaching the SHOAH," has the Niemoeller statement on page 2 as the banner opening; it uses the same corrupted form.

An educational video on skinheads and other racist extremists, produced by Jansen Associates, jumbles the sequence of Niemoeller's warning and adds "then they came for the Roman Catholics, and I didn't protest...."In other freely invented materials, we read "Then they came for the gays, and I didn't protest...." The latter corruption of the text was never seen by Niemoller: he died before homosexual exhibitionism became a public spectacle. But when we asked him years ago about the addition of the Roman Catholics, he said, "I never said it. They can take care of themselves." (Not particularly friendly, perhaps, remembered today in the modern climate of Catholic/ Protestant rapprochement; but the report has the virtue of telling the truth.) When asked about the re-arranged order, "First they came for the Jews...," he simply laughed and passed it off.

There is a more than pedantic point to insisting that the Niemoeller quotation be truthfully used, if at all. Through the texts corrupted to promote special interests, literally millions of school children and also adults are being taught lies about the Holocaust. The damage is not as serious, perhaps, as the steady infiltration of "Holocaust revision" (i.e., denial). But it does help to create an atmosphere of playing fast and loose with the facts through intellectually dishonest and self-serving manipulation of the text. Niemoeller knew the sequence of Nazi assault, because he was there. Any average student of the Third Reich should be able to give the record accurately; it is a shocking display of professional incompetence when materials that are supposed to be vetted by specialists can be issued that are simply contrary to the record. Even if a corrupt text appears in print, whether published by an ignoramus or a special pleasure, the literate reader should catch the mistake. As Martin Niemoeller gave the message, it was true to the facts. "They" didn't "come for the Catholics" any more than "they" came for the Protestants. The true historical sequence, which Niemoeller of course followed, was communists, socialists, trade unionists, and Jews. The assault on the Jews was the culmination of the Nazi dictatorship's ruthless elimination of targeted communities and individuals.

(23) D. D. Guttenplan, The Guardian, (15th April, 2000)

The Nazis did not come first for the Jews, as Peter Novick explains in his brilliant and provocative new book, The Holocaust in American Life, "First they came for the Communists" - a circumstance acknowledged by Niemöller, who continued, "but I was not a Communist - so I said nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat - so I did nothing. Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist. And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew - so I did little. Then when they came for me, there was no one left who could stand up for me." The Holocaust Museum in Washington DC is just one of those who, in Novick's phrase "prudently omits" Communists from Niemöller's homily.

(24) Red Action, Volume 4, Issue 7 (June/July 2000)

Put simply, the notion of ethnic slaughter for it’s own sake, precisely because it appears inexplicable, is constantly played up not out any sense of guilt, or out of a loyalty to Israel, but because its serves to conceal the culpability of liberal democracy in the chain of events.

For instance in the USA scores of cities have Holocaust museums, the Holocaust is on the curriculum of thousands of schools, Holocaust films and books, TV series and articles are a staple of American culture. And what are they taught? Of all the “lessons” of the Holocaust, Pastor Martin Niemoller’s litany of indifference, and of his own complicity in the escalating brutality of life in Nazi Germany is most used. “First they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew...” is one of the things everybody ‘knows’ about the Holocaust. Except its not true.Oh, its not that the good pastor is guilty of telling a porky; no, the original version begins “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I said nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats but I was not a Social Democrat -so I did nothing. Then came the trade unionists but I was not a trade unionist. And then the came for the Jews but I was not a Jew - so I did little. Then when they came for me there was no one who could stand up for me.”

As author Peter Novick explains in his widely acclaimed new book The Holocaust in American Life, the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC is one of many, who in Novick’s phrase, “prudently omits” Communists from Niemoller’s homily. When Time magazine quoted Niemoller, they moved the Jews into first place, and dropped the Communists and Social Democrats entirely.

President elect Al Gore dropped the trade unionists for good measure, and substituted, along with Time magazine, and a speaker at the 1992 Republican convention, ‘Catholics’ who hadn’t featured in Niemoller’s account at all. Other versions have added homosexuals, while the US Holocaust Museum, while deleting Communists, retains Social Democrats.

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