Source: Nationaal Archief Author: J.D. Noske / Anefo
There's a quotation which has been floating round the internet a great deal recently. The words are from Pastor Martin Niemöller, and I’m sure you will recognise them. The most common paraphrase is this one:
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.
It has been much-quoted in connection with attitudes to refugees and immigrants. So who was Martin Niemöller,and why have his words struck such a chord with our generation?
Martin Friedrich Gustav Emil Niemöller was born in Lippstadt, Germany in 1892, the son of a Lutheran pastor. Aged eighteen he joined the German Navy, and by the time war broke out four years later, he had risen to the rank of Sub-Lieutenant. By 1918 he was commander of a submarine, responsible for destroying three enemy ships for which he was awarded the Iron Cross.
After the war he developed an interest in politics and also decided to study theology. In 1924 he voted for Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party. Even after his ordination in 1929 he shared Hitler’s views on race and promulgated them in his sermons.
The first signs of unease appeared in 1934 when he joined with Karl Barth, Bonhoeffer and others to form the Confessing Church, opposing particularly Hitler's view that Jews who had become Christians should be expelled from the Church. Despite these differences with the Führer, he remained a Party member.
He was apparently unconcerned at first when opponents of the government were sent to concentration camps, but protested when Protestant pastors were arrested. For speaking out against this in his sermons, he was arrested in 1937 and imprisoned on a charge of abusing the pulpit.
He was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp and then to Dachau. Goebbels wanted him executed, but because his case had been taken up by the bishop of Chichester, Hitler was persuaded that his execution would backfire in bad publicity for the government. During his time in Dachau, Niemöller's daughter died of diphtheria, one of his sons was killed in battle and another taken prisoner by the Russians.
Even after this Niemöller agreed with Hitler’s politics; in fact he tried to rejoin the German Navy in 1939, and claimed he differed from Hitler only on religious matters. This made him a controversial figure, especially in Britain. In the mid-1950s, after re-reading the Sermon on the Mount he realised that he could no longer support military solutions, and became a pacifist and peace campaigner.
Niemöller died in 1984. By then he was about as far from the political beliefs of his youth as it was possible to be. By his own admission he had moved from ultra-conservative to revolutionary. The quotation at the beginning of this article is believed to have been composed in 1946 in response to a student who asked him, “How could it happen?”
Martin Niemöller’s story is a powerful reminder to us as writers of how easy it is for even Christians to be seduced by a charismatic politician, and of the importance of using our gifts to promote peace, compassion and the kind of love for all that Jesus said would characterise His disciples.
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