March 6th. Anniversary of his death.
First they came for the Communists,
but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists,
but I was neither, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Jews,
but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out.
And when they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out for me.
Martin Niemöller is, probably, the most emblematic figure of the German underground to the Third Reich. He was born in Lippstadt, Westphalia, on January 14th, 1892. He was a lieutenant of a submarine during the First World War and due to his services he was awarded with the Pour le Mérite condecoration.
When the war was over he dedicated his time to the study of Theology.
In 1924 he was named reverend. Between 1931 and 1937 he was in charge of the Berlin-Dahlem Church, and like many other German Protestants, he welcomed Nazism when it took the government in 1933. He thought, as most thought at the beginning, that Hitler was the personification of the German nationalism revival, a mythology devalued by the defeat and the Versailles agreement.
His early autobiography, ‘From the submarine to the pulpit´ (‘Vom U-Boot zur Kanzel’), in 1933, was profusely praised by the press due to its ideas and patriotic prose.
Niemöller shared with the Nazi regime the dislike for communists and the Republic of Weimar about which he said that it had given Germany ´fourteen years of darkness’.
Disenchantment and disobedience
However, very soon, at the beginning of 1934, Niemöller’s illusion disappeared when Hitler subordinated the German Evangelic Church with the collaboration of Ludwig Müller, bishop of the Reich. Some kind of neopaganism was established. The Old Testament was abandoned. All pastors were forced to swear loyalty to the Reich under the saying ‘One People, One Reich, One Faith’. Those who opposed the aberration were arrested and many died in the gas chambers. ‘National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable’, repeated Martin Bormann, Hitler’s shadow.
With the aim of maintaining the independence of the Lutheran church from the advances of the totalitarian power, Niemöller founded in 1934 the Emergency Pastoral League (Pfarrernotbund) and assumed the direction of the Confessional Church (Bekennende Kirche), an opposition movement that clearly differentiated from Christians who supported Nazism.
Within the general Sinod of May 1934, the Confessional Church declared itself as the legitimate representative of Protestantism in Germany and attracted more than seven thousand pastors. Being aware of the plans that the authority had for him, Niemöller said in one of his last sermons in the Reich: ‘We must use our powers to free from the oppressive hand of the authority like the Apostholes of old did. We are not willing to remain silent by decision of man when God commands us to speak.’
Hitler, furious by the attitude of open uprising of the once praised pastor, ordered his arrest on July 1st 1937. Tried in March 1938, Niemöller was found guilty of subversive actions against the State and was condemned to seven months of imprisonment and to pay a fine of two thousand Marks.
After doing his term, Niemöller continued practicing his tenacious disobedience and was arrested again. This time the sentence resulted more severe and he had to spend seven years at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp under the legal figure of ‘protective custody’ and, on Hitler’s command, as ‘personal prisoner of the Führer’. The allied troops liberated him in 1945. The same year and during one of his classes, back in the academic life, a student, astonished by Niemöller’s narration about what had happened in Germany, asked him how all of that had been possible. After thinking for a few seconds, he answered him with the famous poem that starts this article.
In 1947 he was chosen president of the Protestant Church in Hessen and Nassau, a charge he took until his retirement in 1964, at the at age of seventy-two.
A consummated pacifist, he dedicated the last years of his life to preach about the danger of nuclear weapons, an activity which drove him to many meetings with politicians and organizations of the Soviet bloc. He died in Wiesbaden, on March 6, 1984.
Buenos Aires and Berlin, brother cities
The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation reminds Niemöller and his life example. Apart from the worldwide known figures of the German underground there were many other people who, in a way or another, flagrantly disobeyed the command of the Third Reich. Together with the Center of Studies about Anti-Semitism of the Berlin University of Technology, directed by Professor Wolfgang Benz and Dr. Beate Kosmala, we promote the product of a research that until now has collected real facts about more than three thousand people, mostly from Berlin, who helped Jews and other persecuted during the empire of the National Socialism.
For its part, the Evangelic Church of Germany, in an unprecedented decision, has decided to place in the Church of Our Father in the German capital (Vaterunser Kirche) a replica of the Commemorative Mural to the Victims of the Holocaust. This symbol of reconciliation was installed in 1997 at the Chapel of the Luján Virgin at the Metropolitan Cathedral by Cardinal Antonio Quarracino, on a request by our organization. Thus, Berlin will be the second metropolis in the world in placing a reminder of the murders of the Shoah within a Christian temple, a privilege until now only kept by the city of Buenos Aires.
* Baruch Tenembaum Founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.