Berlin, Germany · July 1, 1937

On this date in 1937 the Gestapo arrested outspoken Lutheran theo­logian and pastor Martin Nie­moeller. The next year Nie­moeller was tried for acti­vi­ties against the State. Released after the trial, Nie­moeller was rearrested—presumably because Deputy Fuehrer Rudolf Hess decided to take “merci­less action” against him when the court didn’t. Nie­moeller spent the next eight years in Sach­sen­hausen and Dachau concen­tra­tion camps as a “per­sonal pri­soner” of Adolf Hitler. Initially a sup­porter of the Hitler, Nie­moeller became (like his col­league-in-faith, theo­logian Dietrich Bon­hoeffer) one of the founders of Ger­many’s Con­fessing Church (Beken­nende Kirche), which arose in the 1930s in oppo­si­tion to state-spon­sored efforts to Nazify Ger­man churches and “dejudaize” Jesus and the New Testa­ment. He 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 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 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 poem “First they came for…” (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, 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 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 anti-war 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 Lenin Peace Prize.

Right: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906–1945. Unlike Niemoeller, who was impri­soned from 1937 to 1945, Bon­hoeffer was free to en­gage in anti-state 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.)