Martin Niemöller, one of the founders of the Confessing Church, was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau from 1938 to 1945. As a staunch German nationalist and decorated veteran of World War I, he had initially supported Hitler, but soon changed his position. In November 1933 he formed the "Pastors Emergency League," which founded the Confessing Church at a synod in Barmen the following year. That organization soon became an island of resistance to Nazism.
Although Niemöller was not typical of mainstream Protestant commemoration in Germany, his example bridges the gap of silence between one exceptional early postwar initiative and the 1960s revival of recollective interest among a younger generation. His case thus illustrates some of the important features of Protestant recollection.
After his arrest in 1937 because of his oppositional activities, Niemöller spent the rest of the Nazi period in prisons and concentration camps. In Dachau he was kept as a "special prisoner" in an individual cell in the bunker behind the service building, where he could converse with other "special prisoners" such as Neuhäusler.
After liberation Niemöller resumed his critical work within the mainstream of the German Protestant Church (Evangelische Kirche Deutschlands, EKD). With other leading figures from the Confessing Church, Niemöller lobbied the EKD leadership intensively for a public statement of the Church's complicity. This statement, known as the Stuttgart Confession of Guilt (Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis), was accepted and published by the executive council of the EKD in October 1945.
This statement should be seen in connection with Niemöller's first return visit to Dachau after his liberation. In early November 1945, on his way home to Munich from a speaking engagement in Stuttgart, Niemöller drove past Dachau. He wanted to show his wife the place of his imprisonment, so they sought out the former concentration camp. A US Army officer showed them Niemöller's former cell, then led the couple to the crematory, where they saw a sign reading "In the years from 1933 to 1945 238,756 people were cremated here" (ill. 6).
According to an anecdote he included in numerous sermons in 1946 and 1947, this sign disturbed Niemöller deeply. Prior to his arrest in 1937, he told many audiences in Germany and the United States, he had done nothing to defend the communists and other regime opponents who were sent to concentration camps. "From that moment on," Niemöller said, "for me the question of guilt was no longer theoretical."
Niemöller probably used the anecdote so often in 1946-47 because the Stuttgart Confession had unleashed a storm of protest from officials of the German Protestant Church. They mobilized the three myths in defense of their denial. First, they claimed that National Socialism had been brought about by the victimization of Germany in the Versailles Treaty after World War I. Second, they said that even if some Protestants were guilty, others had indeed resisted. Finally, they turned around and attacked their detractors, claiming that since wars were made by elites, not common people, whoever claimed otherwise was only interested in victimizing the common people.
Later in 1947, however, Niemöller ceased to mention German responsibility for the brown-collar crimes. He was under attack from other camp survivors because he was accused of having CARE packages from the United States sent to privileged elites who had suffered minor losses under the Nazis, but not to camp survivors who had lost far more. In that controversy Niemöller's testimony during Gestapo interrogation in 1937 surfaced. Niemöller had tried-unsuccessfully--to portray himself as an antisemite in order to ingratiate himself with the Nazis and thus avoid arrest. At the end of the 1940s he became an activist in the movement to grant clemency to the brown-collar criminals on death row. That engagement, too, was incompatible with the public proclamation of German responsibility. Thus for almost a decade beginning in the late 1940s, there was no one in the EKD leadership to endorse the 1945 admission of guilt, and it was temporarily expunged from official Protestant memory.
In the late 1950s, after initial hesitation, Niemöller responded positively to Otto Kohlhofer's request to support the creation of a documentary memorial site in Dachau. At that time a younger cohort of Protestants was rediscovering the burden of responsibility they had inherited. One indication that things were changing was the establishment of a Protestant youth group, the "Action Sign of Atonement" (Aktion Sühnezeichen) in 1958. It was committed to performing volunteer work abroad and at home in order to make amends for their country's past misdeeds. In fact, in 1966 volunteers from the Action Sign of Atonement helped to build a Protestant church in the Dachau memorial site.
Even in the broader EKD establishment, things were beginning to change, as a commemorative ceremony during the annual convocation of Protestant groups (Evangelischer Kirchentag) in Dachau in August 1959, indicates. In the 1960s Niemöller returned to Dachau several times to hold commemorative speeches. He exhorted his listeners to look inside themselves, recognize the ways in which they had avoided responsibility for others, and work towards promoting peace and brotherhood in the world.
prepared for the web in March 2001 by Harold Marcuse
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