Correspondence about Niemöllerís Antisemitism
Werner Cohn and Harold Marcuse, April 2003

prepared for the web by Harold Marcuse, April 21, 2003, links updated 6/25/05
back to H. Marcuse's Niemöller Antisemitism page, Niemöller Quotation page

Note: Prof. Cohn was a Jewish German who lived near Niemöller's church in Berlin in the early 1930s.
See Prof. Cohn's biographical note, below.


From: Werner Cohn <wernerco@worldnet.att.net>
To:
marcuse@history.ucsb.edu
Subject:
Martin Niemöller
Date:
Tuesday, April 08, 2003 11:26 PM -0400

Dear Professor Marcuse,

I have looked at your Niemöller materials with great interest, but found it distressing that you make no reference to N's rather vicious anti-Semitism, at least until at least 1935.
The following is part of note 42 of my 1988 article "Bearers of a Common Fate ....", Yearbook of the Leo Baeck Institute, vol 33, pp. 327ff. The note is on page 337.

42) One of the most striking exemplars of the pervasive anti-Semitism of the non-Nazi right wing is a man whose record is nowadays often whitewashed. Pastor Martin Niemöller, later himself to be persecuted by the Nazis, never made a secret of his strong, racial anti-Semitism. In his Sätze zur Arierfrage in der Kirche ('Theses on the Aryan Question in the Church') of November 1933, he opposed the introduction of the "Aryan paragraph" in the Protestant church on doctrinal grounds, but takes care, nevertheless, to opine that Jews had done great harm to Germany; he also indicates that the baptized Christians of Jewish origins are personally distasteful to him (text in Günther van Norden, Der Deutsche Protestantismus im Jahr der nationalsozialistischen Machtergreifung, Gütersloh, 1979, pp. 361-363). As late as 1935, Niemöller goes out of his way to preach hatred against the Jews: "What is the reason for [their] obvious punishment, which has lasted for thousands of years? Dear brethren, the reason is easily given: the Jews brought the Christ of God to the cross!" The text of this sermon, in English, is found in Martin Niemöller, First Commandment, London, 1937, pp. 243-250. .... On the attitude of the Bekennende Kirche to the Jews see also the revealing essay by Uriel Tal, 'On Modern Lutheranism and the Jews,' in LBI Yearbook XXX (1985), pp. 203-213.
Werner Cohn


From: Harold Marcuse <marcuse@history.ucsb.edu>
To: Werner Cohn <wernerco@worldnet.att.net>
Subject: Re: Martin Niemöller's early antisemitism
Date:
Wednesday, April 09, 2003 10:13 AM -0700

I can understand your distress, but I do not feel it myself. In fact, I admire N. all the more because he had the stature to overcome the strong German nationalism, antisemitism, and anti-communism that he endorsed early in life. I do not know how much he overcame it emotionally, but in public life he certainly became a defender of Jews and Communists, for the rest of his life, often under the most trying circumstances. I think that this should be regarded much more highly than people who were either never anti-, or who were pro, but did little or nothing, certainly nothing in public.

Sort of like the parable of the prodigal son [whose return gave the father more joy than the obedient son who remained at home].

What I think we need more of is people who are willing to admit their mistakes, learn from them, and work to reverse the adverse effects their behavior may have caused.

In any case, thank you very much for your comments and the information you sent me.

Sincerely,
Harold Marcuse


From: Werner Cohn <wernerco@worldnet.att.net>
To: Harold Marcuse <marcuse@history.ucsb.edu>
Subject: Re: Martin Niemöller's early antisemitism
Date: Wednesday, April 09, 2003 8:34 PM -0400

I am sorry that I did not make myself clear. What I find distressing, at this stage, is not really what N. did do or not do, or what he thought at different periods of his life. All that is obviously water under the bridge. I am concerned about the here and now. The distressing part is that N's vicious anti-Semitism is being suppressed and/or ignored by those who profess to give information about him now.

Of course you can reasonably think as you do. That is not the question. The question is why, to be very specific, a visitor to your site will not learn about the anti-Semitic nature of N's activities in Nazi Germany.

Sincerely,
Werner Cohn


From: Harold Marcuse <marcuse@history.ucsb.edu>
To: Werner Cohn <wernerco@worldnet.att.net>
Subject: Niemöller's antisemitism/sentence added
Date: Wednesday, April 09, 2003 9:15 PM -0700

I have no interest in suppressing information about N.'s life. Even though my meagre page has a very different purpose, I suppose I could add some mention of this to the short biographical sketch I offer.

In fact, I have just done this, based on the information you provided.

However, I still differ in interpretation: you write that he was a RACIAL antisemite; the material you provide indicates that he was a RELIGIOUS antisemite.

Regards,
Harold Marcuse


From: Werner Cohn <wernerco@worldnet.att.net>
To: Harold Marcuse <marcuse@history.ucsb.edu>
Subject: Re: Niemöller's antisemitism/sentence added
Date:
Thursday, April 10, 2003 1:37 AM -0400

Thank you for adding this information to your website.

My comments concerning his RACIAL anti-Semitism are based on the sources that I quoted to you, in particular the following:

... he also indicates that the baptized Christians of Jewish origins are personally distasteful to him (text in Günther van Norden, Der Deutsche Protestantismus im Jahr der nationalsozialistischen Machtergreifung, Gütersloh, 1979, pp. 361-363)....

Over and above this specific indication of what he thought about the baptized former Jews, his milieu would hardly have allowed him to think differently. He supported the Nazis early on, and he surely would not have done this without partaking of their racial attitudes. He seems to have been close in his thinking to the DNVP (Deutschnationale Volkspartei), whose racism during Weimar times is well documented. On the other hand, of course, N was not an "eliminationist" anti-Semite as far as we know, i.e. I don't think that that he would have approved of the mass killings.

What upsets me most of all about the Niemöller hagiography is that it fails to judge him by appropriate standards. In a word, that standard would be Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While Niemöller supported the Nazis in word and deed, denouncing Jews from his pulpit, Bonhoeffer was, from the very beginning, a true anti-Nazi hero. It is he, not N., who represents the honor of German Christianity. Popular writings often link the two, but this practice is a grave injustice to the memory of B.

Finally, it seems obvious to me that the posthumous popularity of N. owes a great deal to N.'s anti-Americanism after the war. After the war he was politically correct to leftists here and abroad. Those who agree with those positions can honor him; fine. But they should not obscure N's role as a Nazi supporter, more or less up to the time of his imprisonment.

Kindest regards,
Werner Cohn


From: Harold Marcuse <marcuse@history.ucsb.edu>
To: Werner Cohn <wernerco@worldnet.att.net>
Subject: Re: assessing Niemöller's evil
Date:
Thursday, April 10, 2003 9:11 PM -0700

--On Thursday, April 10, 2003 Werner Cohn <wernerco@worldnet.att.net> wrote:
> Thank you for adding this information to your website.
> My comments concerning his RACIAL anti-Semitism are based on the sources
> that I quoted to you, in particular the following:
> ... he also indicates that the baptized Christians of Jewish origins are
> personally distasteful to him (text in Günther van Norden, Der Deutsche
> Protestantismus im Jahr der nationalsozialistischen Machtergreifung,
> Gütersloh, 1979, pp. 361-363)....

I still don't take this as conclusive on "racial," at least not as I understand the term. N. might have disliked or distrusted converted Jews out of general snobbery. And even if he did find Jews "distasteful" (whatever that means) because of stereotypical behaviors or even ethnic characteristics, I still wouldn't be convinced that he subscribed to the Nazi racial antisemitism. But that isn't really the point.

> Over and above this specific indication of what he thought about the
> baptized former Jews, his milieu would hardly have allowed him to think
> differently. He supported the Nazis early on, and he surely would not
> have done this without partaking of their racial attitudes. He seems to

Many, many Germans from all social strata supported the Nazis without necessarily sharing their racial attitudes. Which were all fuzzy pseudoscience anyway. I think of our own (US) racial legislation of the 20s and 30s.

> have been close in his thinking to the DNVP (Deutschnationale
> Volkspartei), whose racism during Weimar times is well documented. On
> the other hand, of course, N was not an "eliminationist" anti-Semite as
> far as we know, i.e. I don't think that that he would have approved of
> the mass killings.
> What upsets me most of all about the Niemöller hagiography is that it
> fails to judge him by appropriate standards. In a word, that standard
> would be Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While Niemöller supported the Nazis in
> word and deed, denouncing Jews from his pulpit, Bonhoeffer was, from the
> very beginning, a true anti-Nazi hero. It is he, not N., who represents
> the honor of German Christianity. Popular writings often link the two,
> but this practice is a grave injustice to the memory of B.

I don't like to set up absolute hierarchies of good and evil. For me, they depend on the context, both at the time of commission, and at the time of memory. Bonhoeffer may have been a better man during his lifetime, but that does not mean that we/everyone can learn more, or more important things, from the way he conducted his life.

In fact, I think it is crucial to study and understand perpetrators. If we can learn what makes them tick, indeed, what makes them abandon their perpetratorhood, then we have learned something very important. We need to know not only how and why good people have become good, but how bad people have become good. Of course, you are right, this should not be hagiography in N's case. But his early evil should not, in my mind, disqualify him from later praise. There were millions of Germans after the war who had done great evil. How many of them so much as thought the "mea culpa" that N. expressed publicly?
He isn't a model of a "good German," but of a "reformed German."

> Finally, it seems obvious to me that the posthumous popularity of N. owes
> a great deal to N.'s anti-Americanism after the war. After the war he was
> politically correct to leftists here and abroad. Those who agree with
> those positions can honor him; fine. But they should not obscure N's
> role as a Nazi supporter, more or less up to the time of his imprisonment.

I don't think N. was anti-American after the war. Even if he did not embrace all US policies (with good reason), I wouldn't say he was anything near anti, nor that he stood by leftists only because it was expedient (p.c.). He went out of his way to help communists, even after they had burned him.
But I will tell you something about his postwar conduct that truly disturbs me: He devoted substantial time and effort to save the heinous Nazi perpetrators who were put on death row during the various Nuremberg trials. I can understand his Christian anti-death-penalty stance, but of all the people in the world in need of an advocate, why he chose exactly them... [is beyond me]

Just to sum up where I see your and my difference: my "distaste" (or rejection) of N's earlier or later behavior does not, for me, detract from the principled stances he often took in other situations. I do not want to obscure the bad, but neither am I that interested in it. In this case, at least, I don't see that there is much to learn from it. More important, in my opinion, is that he was a model who was willing to admit and learn from his mistakes. I understand that you do not agree, and I respect your opinion.

Sincerely,
Harold Marcuse

PS. I wonder if you would be willing to let me put your and my entire correspondence onto one web page that would be linked to my Niemoeller page?

I would delete your e-mail address, and identify you as Werner C., or W.C., if you want.


From: Werner Cohn <wernerco@worldnet.att.net>
To: Harold Marcuse <marcuse@history.ucsb.edu>
Subject: Re: assessing Niemöller's evil
Date:
Friday, April 11, 2003 1:44 AM -0400

I'd be happy to have you reproduce this correspondence. By all means use my real name. Since my website has some material that is also relevant, you might mike reference to that as well (see below).

BTW, which wing of the Marcuse family are you related to? There was of course the very famous Herbert Marcuse. But there was also another Marcuse, a distant relative, who was teaching psychology at Washington State University (Pullman) when I met him some twenty or thirty years ago. Would you be his son ?

Kindest regards,
Werner Cohn
Professor Emer. of Sociology, Univ. of Brit. Columbia
website: http://www.wernercohn.com/
mail: wernerco@interchange.ubc.ca
mailing address: PO Box 021591, Brooklyn NY 11202


From: Werner Cohn <wernerco@worldnet.att.net>
To: Harold Marcuse <marcuse@history.ucsb.edu>
Subject: More on Niemöller
Date: Monday, April 14, 2003 10:32 PM -0400

A friend of mind was kind enough to steer me to the excellent biography by Jürgen Schmidt ("Martin Niemöller im Kirchenkampf," Hamburg, 1971), so I took a trip up to Columbia Univ. and had a look.

It's true that N. had some sort of epiphany once he was in the concentration camp. But before that, though differing from the Nazi rulers, there is no doubt that he stoked the fires of hatred against the Jews in the early years of Nazi rule. And there is no doubt that this was a racial hatred (as well as religious agitation). Schmidt makes this abundantly clear on p. 136 and 317ff.

I lived as a Jew under the Nazis in the very years that he told his Dahlem congregation that we Jews were race aliens, and also that we deserved what we got, having murdered Christ. I lived not too far from his church, and his name was mentioned in my home. [back to top]

Kindest regards,
Werner


From: Harold Marcuse
To: Werner Cohn
Subject: a clarification on N's "racism"
Date: Monday, April 21, 2003 1:49 AM -0700

Thank you for allowing me to publish our exchange.
Here is the URL of the page I've created (there are no links to it yet):
http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/[projects/niem]NiemAntisemCohnHMCorresp034.htm
If there is anything you'd like to add, please let me know.

I don't know the psychologist Marcuse who was at Pullman, but Herbert Marcuse was my grandfather. I created and maintain a detailed web site about him:
http://www.marcuse.org/herbert/index.html.

Regarding the "racial" aspect of N's antisemitism: I think it is a matter of semantics. You are absolutely correct in what you say, and in that sense N. was certainly a racist antisemite. However, I think the Nazi understanding of race went a step (or several) further: it meant not just the differences of an ethnic group, but subsumed a whole world view of "races" in a Darwinian competition for world domination. In all honesty I do not know enough about N. to really know what I'm talking about, but I doubt that in his own racist views he subscribed to the Nazi racist conception of humanity. That is what I mean when I say that I think that his antisemitism was more religiously motivated than the racist antisemitism of the Nazis, even if it was permeated by the pseudo-scientific notions of race that were pervasive at the time.

Sincerely,
Harold Marcuse


Two additional documents on this site may be of interest in regard to Niemoeller's antisemitism:

  • A May 1941 article in the National Jewish Monthly, by Leo Stein, who had been imprisoned with N. in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Stein relates his conversations with N. about N.'s feeling towards Jews prior to his arrest.
  • A January 2004 e-mail exchange I had with Harry Reynolds, who wrote in his blog and then published an article about N.'s antisemitism.
    In Nov. 2004 I expanded that exchange into a "Niemöller's Antisemitism Page."

Postscript, June 25, 2005

Reader Joe Keysor e-mailed me that he cited this correspondence in his on-line essay "Why the Shoah? A Conservative Christian Looks at the Holocaust," which prompted me to reread the exchange after 2 years. I must admit that Werner Cohn makes an important point, and I was perhaps too strident in defending my own position. If Niemöller's not only having overcome his early antisemitism, but also having learned to defend Jews is the core lesson we can learn from his life, then it is absolutely essential that we point out and understand the strength of his antisemitism--not ignore it, as my page up to the time of the above correspondence had done.
So: my thanks to Mr. Cohn for reasoning so gently with me, and my apologies for my at times rather strident tone.


prepared for the web on April 21, 2003 by H. Marcuse, links added 9/17/04, last updated 12/11/05
back to top, Harold Marcuse's Niemöller Antisemitism page, Niemöller Quotation page