Berlin, Germany July 1, 1937

On this date in 1937 the Gestapo (German secret police) arrested out­spoken Lutheran theo­logian and pastor Martin Nie­moeller. The next year Nie­moeller, still incar­ce­rated, was tried by a three-judge “special court” (a Nazi Sonder­gericht) for acti­vi­ties against the State. Nie­moeller’s court-appointed defense coun­sel defended the cleric, insisting Nie­moeller had raised only religious com­plaints. Acquitted of charges, fined a hefty 2,000 Reich­marks any­way, and released, Nie­moeller was imme­di­ately rearrested by the Gestapo, presum­ably because Deputy Fuehrer Rudolf Hess decided to take “merci­less action” against Nie­moeller when the court wouldn’t. Niemoeller spent the next eight years in soli­tary con­fine­ment in Oranien­burg’s Sach­sen­hausen con­cen­tra­tion camp, 22 miles north of the Nazi capital, and in Dachau, 10 miles north of Munich, as a “personal prisoner” of Adolf Hitler.

An early supporter of Hitler (he had voted for Hitler in 1933), Nie­moeller became (like his colleague-in-faith, theo­logian Dietrich Bon­hoeffer) one of the founders of Ger­many’s Con­fessing (or Confessional) Church (German, Beken­nende Kirche). The break­away Protes­tant church arose in the 1930s in oppo­si­tion to state-spon­sored efforts to both Nazify Ger­man churches (some pastors took to wearing SS uni­forms in the pulpit) and “dejudaize” Jesus and the New Testa­ment in an effort to pro­mote a “racially pure” form of Christi­anity. Nie­moeller opposed the Nazis’ Aryan Para­graph, which first appeared in the April 1933 Reich Civil Ser­vice Law but found its way into all sorts of public and eccle­si­as­tical sta­tutes that stig­matized and mar­gin­alized non-German Volk and Ger­mans of Jewish descent. For instance, the Aryan Para­graph removed “non-Aryan” clergy from offi­cial church posi­tions and rosters lest their theology undermine the nation’s Christian faith and family life.

The 1930s “Deutsche Christen” movement of clergy and lay people pro­pa­gated anti-Semitic, voelkisch (chau­vinist) ideas in Ger­man schools, on church councils, and in other social arenas. Few cleri­cal or lay leaders departed from the Nazi Party line that a Jewish “prob­lem” existed and that it required restric­tions on the “exces­sive” influ­ence of German Jews. In this way the Ger­man church both reflected and con­tri­buted to the poli­tical, social, and racial milieu that made the Holocaust possible.

Niemoeller is best known for penning the provoca­tive poem “First they came …” (see below), an indict­ment of Ger­man intel­lec­tuals like him­self for not doing enough to stop Hitler and the Nazis from liqui­dating their oppo­nents from Ger­man society. (The sub­stance and order of the groups men­tioned in the poem vary from version to version, as Nie­moeller for­mu­lated them differ­ently depending on his audi­ence.) Released from impri­son­ment in 1945 by the Allies (he narrowly escaped execution), Nie­moeller con­tin­ued his career in Ger­many as a clergy­man and as a leading voice of penance and recon­ci­liation for the German people after World War II.

“First They Came . . . ” by Martin Niemoeller

First they came for the socialists
And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews
And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
And there was no one left to speak for me.

German Stamps Commemorating Anti-Nazi Theologians Martin Niemoeller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Niemoeller (1892–1984) 1996 stampBonhoeffer (1906–1945) 1964 stamp

Left: Martin Niemoeller, 1892–1984. After his imprison­ment Nie­moeller often spoke of his deep regret about not having done enough to help the vic­tims of the Nazis. In the 1950s he became a vocal paci­fist and anti­war acti­vist and a com­mitted cam­paigner for nuclear dis­arma­ment. From 1961–1968 he served as Presi­dent of the World Council of Churches. In 1966 he was awarded the Soviet Union’s Lenin Peace Prize.

Right: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906–1945. Unlike Niemoeller, who was impri­soned from 1937 to 1945, Bon­hoeffer was free to en­gage in anti­state acti­vi­ties while serving in the Ger­man Ab­wehr (Mili­tary Intelli­gence) under the pro­tec­tion of its chief, Adm. Wil­helm Cana­ris, right up to his impri­son­ment in April 1943. Both Cana­ris and Bon­hoeffer were impli­cated in the July 20, 1944, bomb plot to kill Hitler and both were exe­cuted at Flossen­buerg Prison on April 9, 1945, two weeks before the Allies arrived in the area.

Biography of Martin Niemoeller. (Amateur production but worth watching.)

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