Martin Niemöller's Bitter Lesson For the Movement Today

by Toby O'Ryan | January 6, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


Editors' note: The following article is adapted from a similar piece Revolution printed in 2004, during the presidency of George W. Bush. Among other things, Bush was infamous for the severe intensification of state repression during his administration. Today, at the dawn of 2013, Obama has actually ratcheted up this repressiona fact that is ignored, excused, or wished away by all too many people who at one time opposed Bush.
     This article helps speak to a very important question: what kind of standards will set the terms in the movements against the repression that has in fact been ratcheted up by Obama? An ad placed in the November 5 issue of The Nation magazine called out the repressive moves by Obama. That ad included an explicit stand against the dangerous singling out of Bob Avakian and the RCP, USA in an overall positive court decision that has since been overturned. Over 750 people have signed it.
     We will, in the future, update our readers on further developments. Meanwhile, we are reprinting this article, as adapted, with its very important lessons.


"First they came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

"Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

"Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

"Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.

"Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up."


Regular readers of this paper, and many more besides, may recognize this little poem. The author was Martin Niemöller, a German pastor imprisoned by Hitler from 1937 to 1945.

Niemöller's poem summed up a very hard-learned lesson. Niemöller had originally supported Hitler and the Nazis, when they came to power in Germany. Once in power, the Nazi regime did not actually institute an all-at-once, blanket repression. Instead, they went after groups one by one. Each group in turn was isolated, then peeled off and put away. Then, on to the next.

Niemöller actually supported the Nazis at first. But in 1934 Hitler attempted to forcefully bring the many Protestant sects into one "Reich Church" and to somewhat transform their ideology along Nazi lines. Niemöller led the Confessing, or Confessional, Church, and he opposed this move against its autonomy; in May 1934 the Confessional Church declared itself to be the legitimate Protestant Church of Germany, effectively in opposition to Hitler's bid for religious hegemony. Several years of skirmishes alternating with uneasy truces ensued, with the level of friction steadily escalating, but most of this friction focused on Hitler's moves against the church. For instance, Niemöller opposed Hitler's measures forbidding converted Jews from being ministers in Protestant churches, and the later Nazi mandates confining such converts to segregated worship, away from ethnically German Protestants; but the larger measures against the Jews—and others—went unopposed.

Even as Niemöller came increasingly into conflict with the Nazis, he carefully kept within certain bounds. He even attempted to outdo the Nazis in patriotism at one point, and at other times claimed to friends that Hitler was an intelligent man, surrounded by fools and charlatans. And when Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant theologian and fellow minister in the Confessional Church, demanded that Christians not just help the Jews but take direct action against their persecution, Niemöller opposed Bonhoeffer. He told Bonhoeffer that before standing up for others, the church must first secure its own safety.

Note well Niemöller's excuse to Bonhoeffer. How often are similar things said, and done, today? Let's be as blunt here as Niemöller was when he summed up his errors at the end of the war. He turned a blind eye toward the repression of other groups; ultimately, he threw them to the wolves for the sake of his own safety.

In the end, none of this did Niemöller or the Confessing Church any good. In May of 1936, when the Confessional Church dissented from elements of the government's anti-Semitism and again demanded an end to its interference in church affairs, the Nazis arrested hundreds of pastors, murdering one of the most prominent, and confiscated church funds. Then on July 1, 1937, Niemöller himself was arrested for treason.

But by 1937 Niemöller and the pastors arrested with him were essentially alone—the vast majority of the Protestant Church had already bent to the government's will. And even the Confessional Church itself came around after Niemöller's imprisonment, voting in 1937 to begin closer cooperation with the state church and thanking the government for its revitalization of German life! Niemöller, for his part, only gained his release upon Germany's loss in the war in 1945. He spent the eight years in prison and, later, concentration camps, including four years in solitary confinement.

"What Would Have Happened?"

In January 1946, representatives of the Confessional Church met in Frankfurt to discuss reconstitution. Niemöller again mounted the pulpit to give a sermon, this time of a most different character. He spoke first of the rationalizations that he, and by implication, others had had for not stepping forward. "Yes, Hitler went after the communists, but weren't they after all atheists and revolutionaries? And yes, he went after the disabled and the sick, but weren't they really a burden? And the Jews, yes, Hitler came for the Jews, and that was deplorable, but the Jews were not Christian, were they? And the Occupied Countries, it was a shame, but still, that was not Germany, was it?"

None of the rationalizations would do, he insisted.

"We can talk ourselves out of [our need for atonement] with the excuse that ‘it would have cost me my head if I had spoken out,'" Niemöller said.

"We preferred to keep silent. We are certainly not without guilt or fault and I ask myself again and again, what would have happened, if in the year 1933 or 1934, 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 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 we would have rescued 30 to 40 million people, because that is what it [cost us.]"

Niemöller, with the vantage point of hindsight and with the task of actually getting his countrymen to face their responsibility, put it starkly. It is important for every single progressive person in the U.S. to think about this little-known remark of Niemöller—and think hard about it.

"First They Came for the Communists"

Let's return to Niemöller's famous poem, and its first line—"first they came for the communists." The communists had formed the most implacable opposition to the Nazis. Beyond that, though—and related to that—they represented the only force that posed a real path for the German people out of the horror that was looming; they stood for nothing less than a revolution to overthrow German imperialism.

The German communists were identified in the people's minds with the newborn, struggling but very inspiring Soviet Union, which itself had burst out of the imperialist world-system with a revolution after World War 1. There, millions of people were being mobilized to build a whole new world, working to free society of the stamp of class division and exploitation, and the relations, institutions, and ideas that went along with it. The Soviet Union was also intent on eradicating the oppression of nations and nationalities and eliminating discrimination. Leaving aside serious shortcomings the German communists had in vision and strategy, they stood for something completely different than the Nazis and they also had something of a mass following, receiving nearly 20 percent of the vote in the last election before Hitler was installed. For all these reasons, they were the first on Hitler's list, and he went after them with a vengeance.

Again, a lesson that should be pondered—and applied.

Oddly enough, Martin Niemöller never wrote down the exact poem for which he became famous. He spoke all over the world after the war, usually along the lines quoted above, and his poem more or less took shape in the course of his speeches. The version given here is the one that was officially "approved" by his widow. Unfortunately, the "oral tradition" character of the poem has allowed all kinds of forces to play fast and loose with it—including to take out the whole first sentence about communists. This effectively guts Niemöller's meaning and also clearly does violence to his intent, as he almost always began with the communists in his speeches. Besides, the whole thing makes no sense if you cut out the communists who were, after all, the first to be put into the camps! This outrageous rewriting of history, however, apparently poses no problem and raises no fuss if it furthers the political agenda of U.S. imperialism.

It is another thing, though, when people within the movement effectively ignore the point of that poem. It is very important—it is crucial—that the message be clear: nobody in the movement must allow any group to be sacrificed in the name of protecting some. The lesson taught by Niemöller must be learned.

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.