I almost have a definitive answer to the first question, as well as some preliminary answers to the other two.
|FAQ (back to top)
1. What did Niem himself say?
2. Which groups did he name? In what order?
3. What version of the quotation is the most accurate?
|Most Recent News (back to top)
I am a professor of German history a the University of California, Santa
Barbara, where I've been teaching since 1992.
In November 1945 German Pastor Martin Niemöller visited the former Dachau concentration camp, where he had been imprisoned from 1941 to April 1945. His diary entry about that visit and some subsequent speeches he gave imply that that visit triggered the thought that became this famous quotation. Since discovering the diary entry in the late 1980s I've tried to find out when Niemöller first said that quotation in its poetic form, but I have not been able to document it with a published source. Thus I can't say what the original version was. However, the quotation most likely emerged in 1946, and it definitely took on the well-known poetic form by the early 1950s.
News and announcements (back to top)
I am often asked "What
is the correct sequence and groups in the quotation?"
Yes, I think Niemöller did say something to this effect, or he
would certainly have denied it during his lifetime [in 1976 the 84 year
old N. indeed afirmed that he said it]. Sibylle Niemöller's
1986 letter (and Franklin Littell's claim) that Niemöller did not
include the Catholics is almost certainly true, in my opinion. I personally
think Niemöller may himself have used
different versions of these words in different speeches/sermons, and
he may not have hit upon the particular most-quoted formulation all
at once. I know that he varied his anecdote about his November 1945
Dachau visit subtly at different venues.
Milton Mayer's book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1955, 1966), p. 168f quotes a German professor in "Kronenburg" (probably Mainz--its population was about 42,000 at the time) whom Mayer interviewed between 1950 and 1954, as follows:
The 1968 rendition of the quotation
in the Congressional
Martin Niemöller (1892-1984): biographical sketch (back to top)
German theologian and Protestant (Lutheran) pastor, founder of the anti-Nazi Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church) in 1934, and a president of the World Council of Churches from 1961 to 1968.
Niemöller was a commander of a German U-boat in World War I. A seminal incident in his moral outlook, as he related in many public speeches later in his life, occurred when he commanded his submarine crew not to rescue the sailors of a boat he torpedoed, but let them drown instead. Niemöller began studying theology in Münster in the 1920s. At this time, and at least until the mid-1930s, Niemöller was a typical Christian antisemite who openly professed his belief that the Jews had been punished through the ages because they had "brought the Christ of God to the cross." [See Niemöller, First Commandment (London, 1937), 243-50; reference provided by Werner Cohn. See also my discussion of Niemöller's antisemitism with Prof. Cohn, and this exchange with Harry Reynolds.] [added Nov. 6, 08: Article on antisemitism vs. anti-Semitism in Haaretz, Nov. 6, 2008; see also this 1989 article from the Vidal Sassoon Center newsletter]
In 1931 Niemöller became a pastor in a wealthy Berlin suburb. As a German nationalist he initially supported Hitler, but as the Nazis began to interfere in church affairs, he moved into opposition. In 1934 Niemöller founded first the Pfarrernotbund (Pastors' Emergency League), then the Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church), a branch of the German Protestant (Lutheran) Church. In 1937 he was arrested because of his outspoken sermons, and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In 1941 he was moved to Dachau, where he stayed until the end of the war.
After the war, he helped to rebuild the reputation of the German Protestant Church, and was one of its leading officials until well into the 1960s. In 1947 his reputation was challenged because he devoted substantial energy to protecting Nazi war criminals from the death penalty, and because of some pro-German things he had said in his own defense while on trial by the Nazis in 1937. However, during the 1950s and 1960s he refused to join in the dominant anticommunist sentiment in the West, which earned him the respect of the left again. His uncompromising stance allowed him to remain a figurehead of the German peace movement into the 1980s. He died in 1984.
Shortly after the end of the war Niemöller became convinced that the German people had a collective responsibility (he often used the word Schuld, guilt) for the Nazi atrocities. In October 1945 Niemöller was the the prime mover behind the German Protestant Church's "Confession of Guilt" ("Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis")(see this quotation from Oct. 1945). In later speeches Niemöller claimed that a November 1945 visit to Dachau, where the crematorium was being kept as a memorial site, began that process of recognition. (I tell his story of that visit in detail in my book Legacies of Dachau, excerpted here: Niemöller's postwar Dachau anecdote.)
was clearly in this Oct/Nov 1945 context that Niemöller's most quoted
saying began to evolve. This early statement implies that he may have
thought first of the Communists, then the disabled, then Jews, and finally
countries conquered by Germany. However, it is also likely that he modified
what he said for different audiences, perhaps including other groups,
or changing the order depending on his goals. (I am suggesting that there
may not be ONE SINGLE master quotation, but several versions used by Niemöller himself.)
|Als Pastor Niemöller ins
Konzentrationslager kam, schrieben wir 1937, als das Konzentrationslager
aufgemacht wurde, da schrieben wir 1933, und die damals in die Konzentrationslager
kamen, waren Kommunisten. Wer hat sich darum gekümmert? Wir
haben es gewußt, es stand in den Zeitungen. Wer hat die Stimme erhoben,
etwa die Bekennende Kirche? Wir haben gedacht: Kommunisten, diese Religionsgegner,
diese Christenfeinde - "soll ich meines Bruders Hüter sein?"
Dann hat man die Kranken, die sogenannten Unheilbaren beseitigt.
- Ich erinnere mich eines Gespräches mit einem Menschen, der Anspruch
darauf erhob, ein Christ zu sein. Er meinte: Vielleicht ist es ganz richtig,
diese unheibaren Menschen kosten den Staat nur Geld, sie sind sich und den
andern nur zur Last. Ist es nicht das Beste für alle Teile, wenn man
sie aus der Mitte schafft? -- Dann erst ist es an die Kirche als solche
herangekommen. Dann haben wir einen Ton geredet, bis er dann in der Öffentlichkeit
wieder verstummt ist. Können wir sagen, wir sind nicht schuld? Die
Judenverfolgung, die Art und Weise, wie wir die besetzten Länder
behandelten, oder die Dinge in Griechenland, in Polen, in der Tschechoslowakei
oder in Holland, die doch in der Zeitung gestanden haben.
wir Bekennende-Kirche-Christen haben allen Anlass, zu sagen: Meine Schuld,
meine Schuld! Wir können uns mit der Entschuldigung, es hätte
mich ja den Kopf kosten können, hätte ich geredet, nicht herausreden.
Wir haben es vorgezogen, zu schweigen. Ohne Schuld sind wir gewiss nicht, und ich frage mich immer wieder, was wäre geworden, wenn im Jahre 1933 oder 1934 - es muss ja eine Möglichkeit gewesen sein - 14 000 evangelische Pfarrer und alle evangelischen Gemeinden, die es in Deutschland gab, die Wahrheit bis in den Tod verteidigt hätten? Wenn wir damals gesagt hätten, es ist nicht recht, wenn Hermann Göring 100 000 Kommunisten einfach in die Konzentrationslager steckt, um sie umkommen zu lassen. Ich kann mir denken, dass dann vielleicht 30 000 bis 40 000 evangelische Christen um einen Kopf kürzer gemacht worden wären, kann mir aber auch denken, dass wir dann 30-40 000 Millionen [sic] Menschen das Leben gerettet hätten, denn das kostet es uns jetzt.
|When Pastor Niemöller was put in a concentration
camp we wrote the year 1937; when the concentration camp was opened we wrote
the year 1933, and 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.
|In that same book, on. p. 43, Niemöller explained
in an interview with a US army chaplain why, while he was in Dachau, he
offered to serve in the German navy. You can take his explanation or leave
it - it sounds apologetic to me! Here it is:
" Niemöller said he saw three possibilities: 1) if Germany lost the war, it would have been very bad for the country; 2) if the Nazis had won the war, it would have been even worse for Germany; 3) if fighting continued in the hope of pushing the Nazis out of the government and a negotiated peace might have come about. If that last possibility came true, he didn't want to be in prison, but wanted to contribute to the future of his country in freedom. also, his three sons had been drafted into the army, and he felt that in those circumstances a father's place was with his sons. "
|On July 3, 1946, in another presentation that he held in Stuttgart, Niemöller said again, in a much longer formulation, something resembling the quotation (extended summary and analysis). The relevant passage begins with his description of his November 1945 visit to Dachau with his wife (see my book excerpt). His wife fainted at the sight of a sign proclaiming that 238,000 people were killed in Dachau between 1933 and 1945 [note: that number was actually an estimate of the number of people who had been imprisoned in the camp; "only" ca. 35,000-40,000 are known to have been killed there]. While his wife fainted at the huge number, the dates were what shocked him:|
|[p. 19] Hier, du wirst gefragt: "Wo warst
du 1933 bis zum 1. Juli 1937?" Und ich konnte dieser Frage nicht mehr
ausweichen. 1933 war ich ein freier Mann. 1933 -- in dem Augenblick, dort
im Krematoriumshof fiel es mir ein --, ja 1933, richtig: Hermann Göring
rühmte sich öffentlich, dass die kommunistische Gefahr beseitigt
ist. Denn alle Kommunisten, die noch nicht um ihrer Verbrechen willen hinter
Schloss und Riegel sitzen, sitzen nun hinter dem Stacheldraht der neu gegründeten
[p. 20] Als Christ hätte ich 1933 wissen dürfen und wissen müssen dass aus jedem dieser Menschenbrüder -- mochte man sie Kommunisten heissen oder sonstwie -- Gott in Jesus Christus mich fragte, ob ich ihm nicht dienen wollte. Und ich habe diesen Dienst verweigert
[p. 19] Now, you're being asked: "Where
were you from 1933 until July 1, 1937?" And I couldn't avoid this
question any more. In 1933 I was a free man. 1933 -- at that moment I
realized --, yes, 1933, indeed: Hermann Göring bragged publicly that
the communist danger was eliminated. Because all communists who weren't
already under lock and key because of their crimes, were now sitting behind
the barbed wire of the newly established concentration camps.
|I am still obtaining other published versions of the speeches and sermons Niemöller gave during that time (updates added in the next section, below), since I think the famous quotation evolved in them.|
|In May 1941 the B'nai Brith publication National Jewish Monthly published an article about Niemoeller by Leo Stein, who had been imprisoned with him in Sachsenhausen. The famous quotation is not to be found there, either, although one can see that the thought processes that led to it were already present in 1941! I have scanned and made the entire text of the May 1941 National Jewish Monthly article on Niemoeller available.|
Niemöller's published speeches and sermons, 1946-54 (back to top)
Here is a list of published speeches Niemöller gave around the same time (based on the online version of the Biographisch-Bibliographischen Kirchenlexikon at www.bautz.de/bbkl/, with additions from the research libraries database RLIN, June 2002). As I obtain these materials, I add my comments, analysis and links to my longer discussions.
Other discussions of the origins of the quotation (back to top) [updated 11/22/07]
Other discussions of Niemöller (back to top)
Other Quotations by Niemoeller (back to top)
and Articles about Niemöller
(back to top)
Other excerpted works
page created Sept. 12, 2000
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[used on Desp. Housewives]
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14,590 counter; 23,547 server
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2007: 23,547 page views=64.5/day; 19,897 entry - 19,109 exit = 788
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2015: 39,329 page views= 107.7/day; 48,121 entry - 44,556 exit = 3,565