‘Then They Came for Me’

The famous quotation came from a German pastor who — until it was too late — supported the Nazis 

By Dan Bryant

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a communist. 

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. 

Then they came for the 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.

The quote is well known, but how many know the story behind it? Martin Niemöller served his country as a U-boat captain during WWI and entered the ministry after the war.  His autobiography, From U-Boat to Pulpit, became a best seller when published in 1933 and received positive reviews in Nazi papers.

A very patriotic German and a religious conservative, Niemöller initially supported Hitler. He believed Hitler would bring a revival to the country and trusted his assurances that he would honor the independence of the church and respect Christian values.

Like most German pastors of the time, Niemöller held anti-Semitic views. Nazi propaganda targeting Jews as the enemy of the Germany did not concern him. He drew the line, however, when it came to Christian converts of Jewish descent. For Niemöller, they were no different from any other member of the church. He therefore opposed the infamous “Aryan paragraph” that would deny Jews the rights of citizenship.

In 1933 Niemöller organized pastors to provide support to the members of their congregations targeted as Jewish. Then working with Swiss theologian Karl Barth, he helped form the Confessing Church movement that stood in opposition to Hitler’s efforts to co-opt the German church into the Nazi program. Though the Confessing Church did not officially oppose Hitler, a few of its members were involved in resistance efforts, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famed Christian martyr executed shortly before the end of the war.

Niemöller’s sermons provide insight into the movement. His criticism of the Nazi regime is very scant at first and often in coded language. But as time went on and more of his colleagues were arrested, you can see his growing concern and anger. Never, however, does he express concern for Jewish citizens. He truly did not speak out.

Nevertheless, Niemöller’s criticism of Hitler was too direct, and he was sent to the concentration camp outside of Berlin in 1937 where he remained until 1945. He escaped execution only because the SS lost control of the concentration camp in the final days of the war.

The experience in that camp was revelatory. For the first time Niemöller could identify with the persecution of Jews and others under Nazi rule. He recognized that his resistance through the church was not enough and that he, and other patriotic citizens like him, had made the rise of Hitler possible. Once freed, he began working for a national confession of guilt, known as the “Stuttgart Confession,” issued by the German church in 1945. He became one of the most widely recognized leaders of the church and an outspoken peace activist. 

What is it they say about those ignorant of history who are doomed to repeat it? Niemöller offers the history lesson that we ignore at our own peril. The greatest threat to democracy comes not from outside our borders, but from within. Niemöller was a good patriot who loved his country, and along with so many others like him, naïvely voted for the man who brought the Holocaust and destroyed much of Europe. When Niemöller realized his error, it was too late. 

From the three years I lived in Germany, I learned that the German people are really not that different from us. And if someone like Hitler could take control of that country in the 1930s, it can also happen here today. Our only hope may be whether or not the Niemöllers of our generation will not be so deceived as he. Sadly, even after the Jan. 6 attack on democracy, too many seem all too willing to keep the blinders on. I fear for our future.

On June 27, 1937, Niemöller told his congregation after speaking of the many colleagues who had been arrested: “It is a case of deciding whether we shall believe or not believe, whether we shall stand or fall, whether we shall choose salvation or perdition, life or death, and this decision must be made not in the future, but here and now.” They came for him four days later, and there was no one left to speak for him. ν

Dan Bryant is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a resident of Eugene since 1991. The opinions of this column are his own and do not represent any organization with which he is affiliated.