Martin Niemöller was antisemitic-- does it matter?
An article and two dialogs
Part of the Martin Niemöller Quotation Site
by Professor Harold Marcuse (homepage)
page created Jan. 11, 2004; last updated 6/25/05
Since the 1980s Martin Niemöller
is best known for the quotation "First they came for the Communists
...". However, during the 1930s and 1940s he was best known as an
outspoken resistor against Hitler. Those who know his biography know that
prior to the Nazi period he was an ardent German nationalist and an antisemite.
Initially he even supported Hitler.
Several visitors of my Niemöller quotation site have remarked that I ignore or overlook his antisemitism. My response is that I don't think that is what we should remember him for. Rather, the what is important is that he was one of the few Germans who was personally able to overcome it and admit his past error--that is what his famous quotation is all about.
This page offers several documents about this question:
From: harryreynolds [xxx]
I entered in my blog yesterday a piece that I had written years ago concerning Niemoller's statement. I thought that you would be interested in it. I have not read your comprehensive looking internet article, though I have just printed it for future reading.
You certainly seem to have devoted considerable time and effort to Niemoller's
quotation. A classically German looking work.
I am an attorney. I live [...] Scarsdale, New York [...]. I was born in the United States and I am a citizen of the Repulic of Ireland. By a confluence of lineages, I am an Irish-Ukrainian.
Good luck to you in your work. You must be an excellent history professor.
I reqeusted permission from Harry Reynolds to archive a copy of his blog entry on this site:
From: Harold Marcuse
Thanks for sending me the reference. Basically, I agree with what you
write. As in my discussion with Prof. Werner Cohn
Harry Reynold's response indicates the troubling moral issues raised by Niemoeller's life story. Where do we start when challenging injustice?
Dear Professor Marcuse,
Granted, but I ask that you remove as well the sentence in which I refer
to my children and grandchildren.
blog entry by Harry
Reynolds, posted Jan. 10, 2004,
Saturday, January 10, 2004
When at the age of ninety-two Martin Niemoller died in 1984, he was internationally known as an extraordinary personality in twentieth- century Christianity. As a German U-boat commander he had been a hero in World War I. Thereafter, he became a Christian minister and, as a popular preacher in Berlin-Dahlem, he held one of Germany’s most prestigious pulpits. He is often described as a "leader in the church struggle with Nazism." His confinement as Hitler’s "personal prisoner" from 1937 until 1945, first in prison and then in a concentration camp, is a dramatic fact known to many familiar with modern German history. After World War II, he became president of the World Council of Churches, and he was a prominent spokesman for civil rights and peace. Indeed, as early as October, 1945, within months of the war’s end, Niemoller participated in a meeting that framed the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt. It was during his post-World War II tour of the United States that, in speaking before many audiences, he concluded his addresses with the famous statement that has ever since been attributed to him as the words of a typical victim of Hitler.
In fact, however, when in 1937 the Nazis came for Niemoller, he was opposed to any political resistance to Hitler. He simply saw Hitler as an intruder into that part of German life reserved for the church. Thus Professor Franklin H. Littell in Exile in the Fatherland writes of Niemoller:
What Exile in the Fatherland does not tell us is that Niemoller, even as a Christian minister imprisoned by the Nazis, was probably an anti-Semite as he sat there in his cell. For example, in 1935 Niemoller, then forty-three years old, delivered a sermon that described his conception of a Jew. James Bentley writes  :
Bentley’s scholarly biography is not hostile to Niemoller. It is dedicated to members of Niemoller’s family and Bentley himself had a long, friendly relationship with Niemoller. These facts are to be kept in mind because Bentley reports Niemoller in 1933 as a Christian minister who, in an accommodation of Nazi Aryan belief, actually suggested the idea of separate congregations for Jews who had converted to Christianity. Of this corrupt idea Bentley writes :
Surely, it is a curiously compassionate thing to congratulate a fifty-three year old Christian minister for his impressive achievement in 1945 in having finally developed into a defender of Jews at the end of the Holocaust.
Last, and most tellingly, Niemoller was in prison on Kristallnacht, that November 9th day in 1938 when, among other appalling anti-Semitic acts, Stormtroopers set afire 119 synagogues, 91 Jews were killed, and more than 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Niemoller admitted to his briographer, Bentley, that "It became clear only then that the Jews were to be eliminated not simply from the church but from human society." Now, although Niemoller saw in Kristallnacht the death of all Jews, knew of Germany’s anti-Semitic laws that preceded and followed Kristallnacht, and was aware of the overwhelming evidence of public Nazi barbarity towards Jews that accompanied Hitler’s exercise of power, Niemoller nevertheless, upon Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September, 1939, and the ensuing declaration of war between Britain and Germany, volunteered "to fight for Adolph Hitler’s Germany".5 In that September, Niemoller, a forth-seven year old Christian minister, who was then still Hitler’s "personal prisoner", wrote to Admiral Raeder, "offering, as a reserve officer, to serve his country ‘in any capacity’ ".6 His letter was released by the Nazis to the world’s press.
This offer to serve the Nazis was made by a man whose famous words, uttered after the defeat of Germany, so appeal to us. This offer to serve the Nazis "in any capacity" was made by a man who, when "they came for the Jews", failed to speak out because he was a common variety of anti-Semite. This offer to serve Hitler "in any capacity" was made by the man who, "after they came for me", spoke out for himself by offering to bear arms for them, for those who, had they won the war, would have searched the earth to kill every Jewish man, woman, and child.