German naval officer Martin Niemöller (top, foreground) commands a U-Boat during World War I. Flensburg, Germany , ca. 1914-1917. — USHMM, courtesy of Sibylle Niemoeller
Martin Niemöller had at one point in the early 20th Century been in the military and was a strong supporter of German Nationalism. After WW I there was mass poverty and social unrest. There were many attempts to settle Germany and return to a nation of power and pride. There were many failed attempts at taking over the German government. Enter into the world scene one Adolf Hitler. Hitler had enough military power behind him because he had a charismatic persona. His ideas and ultimate goals were to take advantage of the crises sweeping across the nation of Germany. The crises of spiritual and political unrest after the carnage of a plummeting economy brought on by the ravages of defeat in WW I. The crisis that Hitler was able to take advantage of most effectively was the political vacuum that arose between WW I and WW II.
After leaving the military Niemöller attended seminary and went into service as a Protestant pastor.
As Hitler began to gather strength, he began manipulating the church in Germany. He convinced many church leaders, like Niemöller, that Nationalism and utter commitment to the flag of Germany was of utmost importance and should be a rallying cry of the church in Germany. When Hitler stressed the importance of Christianity to German nationality and Christianity’s role in the renewal of national morality and ethics, Niemöller enthusiastically welcomed the Third Reich.
In early 1934 Niemöller and two Protestant Bishops met with Hitler to discuss what Hitler saw as the role of the German Protestant church (the only true church according to the Nazi party). The two Bishops signed the statement giving unconditional loyalty to the Führer.
By 1934 Niemöller and a few others, had begun to see how Hitler and the growing Nazi party had been taking advantage of Church leaders who were passionate about their country. Many Gestapo agents had infiltrated churches to help lead them in the right direction and to monitor them and encourage others to spy on their own families and friends. By this point, many who had not previously seen the evil behind the mask of German Nationalism were now too afraid to stand up and voice the truth.
Niemöller refused to bow to the coming tide of evil. Between 1934 and 1937 he was arrested by the State Police many times for speaking out against the growing influence of neo-paganism and the growing evil of anti-Semitism (At one point late in life, Niemöller admitted that Hitler’s own anti-Semitic viewpoints were similar to his own if not more extreme). This caused Niemöller and a few others to create the Confessing Church in May 1934. This group declared itself the one true Lutheran Church in Germany, only deriving inspiration from God himself (Not Adolf Hitler).
Niemöller became well known in Berlin. He was warned constantly by police for his critical sermons against the growing neo-paganism of the Nazi movement. He was repeatedly arrested between 1934 and 1937.
In the summer of 1937, Niemöller was arrested by the Gestapo. He was charged with “treasonable utterances”. He was in a Berlin prison for seven and a half months, until his trial where he was put in solitary confinement.
In early 1938, he was convicted under the law “For the Prevention of Treacherous Attacks on State and Party and the Law for the Maintenance of Respect for Party Uniforms”. He was sentenced to pay 2,000 Reichsmarks, and serve seven months detention (which he had more than already served while awaiting trial).
The Gestapo placed him under Protective Detention, and placed him in the Sachsenhausen (Saxxon’s Houses) concentration camp of Kristallnacht fame (or infamy).
Sachsenhausen prisoners from Laborcamp
After a few years in Sachsenhausen, Niemöller wrote a letter to an old acquaintance from his military experience, an Admiral of the German fleet. He asked for liberation so he could return to service. Awhile after, he was removed from one of the worst hellholes filled with psychotic, sadistic, murderous Nazis, and moved to Dachau.
After approximately seven years of imprisonment, for merely standing up for his belief in what is right, and against evil…
Niemöller was sent by German troops to Austria and during the transfer by freight train with other prisoners, he was set free by American Occupation forces.
Despite the hardships, and attrocities perpetrated on him and those around him in the concentration camps, despite his notoriety from the pulpit, he was virtually unknown and unheard of until the 1950’s. In the 1950’s, Niemöller returned to the very concentration camps he was forced to survive in, and it is reported that while facing Dachau from outside the old gates,
Dachau from the outside
that Niemöller began the thought which has become one of the most far reaching quotes in all of free humanity.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist …
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a trade Unionist …
Then they came for Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew …
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me…