I have an almost definitive answer to the first question, as well as clear answers to the other two.
|January 9, 2021 editorial: I'm Pissed (back to top)
|FAQ (back to top)
(updated July 14, 2020)
1. What did Niemöller himself say?
2. Which groups did he name? In what order?
3. What point did Niemöller want to make?
4. What version of the quotation is the most accurate?
5. Is the poem/quotation copyrighted? Do I need permission to use it?
|Recent News (back to top)
About the Author (back to top)
I am Harold Marcuse, a professor of German and public history at the University of California, Santa
Barbara, where I've been teaching since 1992.
How did I get interested in this famous quotation? Niemöller was imprisoned in the Dachau camp, and shortly after World War II formulated this saying based on an experience had when going back for a visit.
In November 1945 German Pastor Martin Niemöller and his wife visited the former Dachau concentration camp, where he had been imprisoned from 1941 to April 1945. His diary entry about that visit and some subsequent speeches he gave show that that visit triggered the thought that became this famous quotation. Since discovering the diary entry in the late 1980s I've tried to find out when Niemöller first said that quotation in its poetic form, but I have not been able to document it with a published source linked directly to him. Thus I can't say what his original version was. However, the quotation most likely emerged in 1946, and it took on the well-known poetic form in the early 1950s, by 1955 at the latest.
Old News/Site History (back to top)
Biography of Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) (back to top)
German theologian and Protestant (Lutheran) pastor, founder of the anti-Nazi Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church) in 1934, and a president of the World Council of Churches from 1961 to 1968.
Niemöller was a commander of a German U-boat in World War I. A seminal incident in his moral outlook, as he related in many public speeches later in his life, occurred when he commanded his submarine crew not to rescue the sailors of a boat he torpedoed, but let them drown instead. Niemöller began studying theology in Münster in the 1920s. At this time, and at least until the mid-1930s, Niemöller was a typical Christian antisemite who openly professed his belief that the Jews had been punished through the ages because they had "brought the Christ of God to the cross." [See Niemöller, First Commandment (London, 1937), 243-50; reference provided by Werner Cohn. See also my discussion of Niemöller's antisemitism with Prof. Cohn, and this exchange with Harry Reynolds.
According the Niemöller quotation article on the USHMM website, Wolfgang Gerlach, in his And the Witnesses Were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Jews (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), p. 47, says that Niemöller first made a "statement of regret" about his own antisemitism in a 1963 TV interview. This is in my opinion clearly incorrect, since Niemöller's 1945 diary entry and use of the quotation in subsequent speeches expresses regret about his earlier antisemitism.
In 1931 Niemöller became a pastor in a wealthy Berlin suburb. As a German nationalist he initially supported Hitler, but as the Nazis began to interfere in church affairs, he moved into opposition. In 1934 Niemöller founded first the Pfarrernotbund (Pastors' Emergency League), then the Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church), a branch of the German Protestant (Lutheran) Church. In 1937 he was arrested because of his outspoken sermons, and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In 1941 he was moved to Dachau, where he stayed until the end of the war.
After the war, he helped to rebuild the reputation of the German Protestant Church, and was one of its leading officials until well into the 1960s. In 1947 his reputation was challenged because he devoted substantial energy to protecting Nazi war criminals from the death penalty, and because of some pro-German things he had said in his own defense while on trial by the Nazis in 1937. However, during the 1950s and 1960s he refused to join in the dominant anticommunist sentiment in the West, which earned him the respect of the left again. His uncompromising stance allowed him to remain a figurehead of the German peace movement into the 1980s. He died in 1984.
Shortly after the end of the war Niemöller became convinced that the German people had a collective responsibility (he often used the word Schuld, guilt) for the Nazi atrocities. In October 1945 Niemöller was the the prime mover behind the German Protestant Church's "Confession of Guilt" ("Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis")(see this quotation from Oct. 1945). In later speeches Niemöller claimed that a November 1945 visit to Dachau, where the crematorium was being kept as a memorial site, began that process of recognition. (I tell his story of that visit in detail in my book Legacies of Dachau, excerpted here: Niemöller's postwar Dachau anecdote.)
was clearly in this Oct/Nov 1945 context that Niemöller's most quoted
saying began to evolve. This early statement implies that he may have
thought first of the Communists, then the disabled, then Jews, and finally
countries conquered by Germany. However, it is also likely that he modified
what he said for different audiences, perhaps including other groups,
or changing the order depending on his goals. (I am suggesting that there
may not be ONE SINGLE master quotation, but several versions used by Niemöller himself.)
Versions in Niemöller's Publications (back to top)
|Als Pastor Niemöller ins
Konzentrationslager kam, schrieben wir 1937, als das Konzentrationslager
aufgemacht wurde, da schrieben wir 1933, und die damals in die Konzentrationslager
kamen, waren Kommunisten. Wer hat sich darum gekümmert? Wir
haben es gewußt, es stand in den Zeitungen. Wer hat die Stimme erhoben,
etwa die Bekennende Kirche? Wir haben gedacht: Kommunisten, diese Religionsgegner,
diese Christenfeinde - "soll ich meines Bruders Hüter sein?"
Dann hat man die Kranken, die sogenannten Unheilbaren beseitigt.
- Ich erinnere mich eines Gespräches mit einem Menschen, der Anspruch
darauf erhob, ein Christ zu sein. Er meinte: Vielleicht ist es ganz richtig,
diese unheibaren Menschen kosten den Staat nur Geld, sie sind sich und den
andern nur zur Last. Ist es nicht das Beste für alle Teile, wenn man
sie aus der Mitte schafft? -- Dann erst ist es an die Kirche als solche
herangekommen. Dann haben wir einen Ton geredet, bis er dann in der Öffentlichkeit
wieder verstummt ist. Können wir sagen, wir sind nicht schuld? Die
Judenverfolgung, die Art und Weise, wie wir die besetzten Länder
behandelten, oder die Dinge in Griechenland, in Polen, in der Tschechoslowakei
oder in Holland, die doch in der Zeitung gestanden haben.
wir Bekennende-Kirche-Christen haben allen Anlass, zu sagen: Meine Schuld,
meine Schuld! Wir können uns mit der Entschuldigung, es hätte
mich ja den Kopf kosten können, hätte ich geredet, nicht herausreden.
Wir haben es vorgezogen, zu schweigen. Ohne Schuld sind wir gewiss nicht, und ich frage mich immer wieder, was wäre geworden, wenn im Jahre 1933 oder 1934 - es muss ja eine Möglichkeit gewesen sein - 14 000 evangelische Pfarrer und alle evangelischen Gemeinden, die es in Deutschland gab, die Wahrheit bis in den Tod verteidigt hätten? Wenn wir damals gesagt hätten, es ist nicht recht, wenn Hermann Göring 100 000 Kommunisten einfach in die Konzentrationslager steckt, um sie umkommen zu lassen. Ich kann mir denken, dass dann vielleicht 30 000 bis 40 000 evangelische Christen um einen Kopf kürzer gemacht worden wären, kann mir aber auch denken, dass wir dann 30-40 000 Millionen [sic] Menschen das Leben gerettet hätten, denn das kostet es uns jetzt.
|When Pastor Niemöller was put in a concentration
camp we wrote the year 1937; when the concentration camp was opened we wrote
the year 1933, and the people who were put in the camps then were Communists.
Who cared about them? We knew it, it was printed in the newspapers. Who
raised their voice, maybe the Confessing Church? We thought: Communists,
those opponents of religion, those enemies of Christians - "should
I be my brother's keeper?" Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called
incurables. - I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed
to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it's right, these incurably sick people
just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others.
Isn't it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of
society]? -- Only then did the church as such take note. Then we started
talking, until our voices were again silenced in public. Can we say, we
aren't guilty/responsible? The persecution of the Jews, the way we
treated the occupied countries, or the things in Greece, in Poland,
in Czechoslovakia or in Holland, that were written in the newspapers.
I believe, we Confessing-Church-Christians have every reason to say: mea
culpa, mea culpa! We can talk ourselves out of it with the excuse that it
would have cost me my head if I had spoken out.
We preferred to keep silent. We are certainly not without guilt/fault, and I ask myself again and again, what would have happened, if in the year 1933 or 1934 - there must have been a possibility - 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 the 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 that we would have rescued 30-40,000 million [sic] people, because that is what it is costing us now.
|In that same book, on. p. 43, Niemöller explained
in an interview with a US army chaplain why, while he was in Dachau, he
offered to serve in the German navy. You can take his explanation or leave
it - it sounds apologetic to me! Here it is:
" Niemöller said he saw three possibilities: 1) if Germany lost the war, it would have been very bad for the country; 2) if the Nazis had won the war, it would have been even worse for Germany; 3) if fighting continued in the hope of pushing the Nazis out of the government and a negotiated peace might have come about. If that last possibility came true, he didn't want to be in prison, but wanted to contribute to the future of his country in freedom. also, his three sons had been drafted into the army, and he felt that in those circumstances a father's place was with his sons. "
|On July 3, 1946, in another presentation that he held in Stuttgart, Niemöller said again, in a much longer formulation, something resembling the quotation (extended summary and analysis). The relevant passage begins with his description of his November 1945 visit to Dachau with his wife (see my book excerpt). His wife fainted at the sight of a sign proclaiming that 238,000 people were killed in Dachau between 1933 and 1945 [note: that number was actually an estimate of the number of people who had been imprisoned in the camp; "only" ca. 35,000-40,000 are known to have been killed there]. While his wife fainted at the huge number, the dates were what shocked him:|
|[p. 19] Hier, du wirst gefragt: "Wo warst
du 1933 bis zum 1. Juli 1937?" Und ich konnte dieser Frage nicht mehr
ausweichen. 1933 war ich ein freier Mann. 1933 -- in dem Augenblick, dort
im Krematoriumshof fiel es mir ein --, ja 1933, richtig: Hermann Göring
rühmte sich öffentlich, dass die kommunistische Gefahr beseitigt
ist. Denn alle Kommunisten, die noch nicht um ihrer Verbrechen willen hinter
Schloss und Riegel sitzen, sitzen nun hinter dem Stacheldraht der neu gegründeten
[p. 20] Als Christ hätte ich 1933 wissen dürfen und wissen müssen dass aus jedem dieser Menschenbrüder -- mochte man sie Kommunisten heissen oder sonstwie -- Gott in Jesus Christus mich fragte, ob ich ihm nicht dienen wollte. Und ich habe diesen Dienst verweigert
[p. 19] Now, you're being asked: "Where
were you from 1933 until July 1, 1937?" And I couldn't avoid this
question any more. In 1933 I was a free man. 1933 -- at that moment I
realized --, yes, 1933, indeed: Hermann Göring bragged publicly that
the communist danger was eliminated. Because all communists who weren't
already under lock and key because of their crimes, were now sitting behind
the barbed wire of the newly established concentration camps.
|I am still obtaining other published versions of the speeches and sermons Niemöller gave during that time (updates added in the next section, below), since I think the famous quotation evolved in them.|
|In May 1941 the B'nai Brith publication National Jewish Monthly published an article about Niemoeller by Leo Stein, who had been imprisoned with him in Sachsenhausen. The famous quotation is not to be found there, either, although one can see that the thought processes that led to it were already present in 1941! I have scanned and made available the entire text of the May 1941 National Jewish Monthly article on Niemoeller.|
Niemöller's published speeches and sermons, 1946-54 (back to top)
Here is a list of published speeches Niemöller gave around the same time (based on the online version of the Biographisch-Bibliographischen Kirchenlexikon at www.bautz.de/bbkl/, with additions from the research libraries database RLIN, June 2002). As I obtain these materials, I add my comments, analysis and links to my longer discussions.
Researchers' Claims about the Origins of the Quotation (back to
Other discussions of Niemöller (back to top)
Other Quotations by Niemoeller (back to top)
and Articles about Niemöller
(back to top)
Other excerpted works
page created Sept. 12, 2000
181 on Jan. 6, 2002 (1.7/day 1st 4 mos)
398 on Apr. 16 (2.2/day in next 3 mos)
708 on Aug. 17 (2.6/day next 4 mos)
ca. 800 on Sept. 19, 2002
2nd year: 2.2 hits/day
1117 on 12/18/02 (3.3/day next 4 mos)
2.7/day in 2002
1807 on 4/21/03 (5.6/day next 4 mos)
2076 on 5/31/03 (6.7/day next 1 mo.)
2145 on 6/15/03 [4.7/day]
2286 on 7/27/03 [3.4/day]
ca. 2500 on Sept. 19, 2003
3rd year: 4.5 hits/day
2627 on 10/14/03 [4.3/day]
2749 on 11/10/03 [4.5/day]
3001 on 1/4/04 [4.6/day]
3040 on 1/11 [5.6/day]
3252 on 2/12/04 [6.6/day]
3361 on 3/1/04 [6.4/day]
5,790 on 6/7/04 [24.3/day]
5857 on 6/13/04[11/day]
6071 on 7/10/04 [8/day]
6221 on 8/1/04 [7/day]
6565 on 9/15/04, 6pm [7.5/day]
9/15 early: msg. on H-German]
6586 on 9/17/04, noon [7/day]
6600 on 9/19/04
4th year: 11.2 hits/day
6800 on 10/6/04=7/day
7000 on 10/21/04=13/day
7250 on 11/4/04=18/day
14.2/day in 2004 8180 on 1/6/05=11/day
8800 on 2/8/05=19/day
8989 on 2/20/05=16/day
9100 on 2/26/05=18/day
9290 on 3/11/05=14.5/day
9330 on 3/13/05=13/day
9530 on 3/25/05=16/day
9759 on 4/7/05=17/day
9994 on 4/20/05
10,066 on 4/22/05=20/day
10458 on 5/9/05=23/day
11,090 on 6/15/05=17/day
12,269 ca. 9/1/05=15.5/day
15,883 on 1/1/06=29.6/day
21.5/day in 2005
20,368 on 4/22/06=43/day
25,000 on 9/10/06=38/day
25,850 on 10/3/06=37/day
29,420 on 12/31/06=40/day
37.1/day in 2006
30,500 on 1/28/07=39/day
41,418 on 10/28/07=36.3/day
[used on Desp. Housewives]
42,593 on 11/22/07 [47/day]
44,010 on 12/31/07 [39/day]
40.0/day in 2007
14,590 counter; 23,547 server
62,332 on 1/1/09
86,243 on 1/4/2010
37.7/day in 2009
119,519 on 12/12/10=96/day
120,665 on 1/1/11
95.4/day in 2010
130,395 on 3/15/11=131.5/day
134,976 on 4/22/11=121/day
148,152 on 9/11/11=93/day
172,131 on 2/11/12=156/day
203,860 on 1/3/13=98/day
209,100 on 3/1/13= 94/day
225954 on 10/19/13=72/day
271,457 on 1/1/16=56.7/day
278,945 on 5/8/2016=57.7/day
309,220 on 2/1/2018=
309,400 on 2/6/2018=36/day
319,557 on 8/14/2018=53.7/day
320,580 on 9/5/18=46.5/day
ca. 21 days uncounted
337,590 on Apr. 23, 2019
[can't have been only 100]
337,690 on 1/1/20
350,800 on 7/9/20=68.6/day
355,100 on 9/15/20=63.2/day
362,346 on 1/9/21=62.5/day
[McConnell meme posted]
364,336 on 1/18/21= 222.2/day
366,711 on 2/7/21=119/day
From the LSIT awstats package (not from the counter, as above):
2006: 21,003 page views= 57.5/day; 17,640 entry - 16,982 exit = 658
2007: 23,547 page views= 64.5/day; 19,897 entry - 19,109 exit = 788
2008: 25,144 page views= 68.9/day; 22,398 entry - 21,099 exit = 1,299
2009: 29,768 page views= 81.3/day; 27,158 entry - 25,495 exit = 1,663
2010: 41,378 page views=113.4/day; 37,847 entry - 35,916 exit = 1,931
2011: 54,161 page views=148.4/day; 48,098 entry - 46,352 exit = 1,746
2012: 52,701 page views=144.0/day; 47,651 entry - 45,385 exit = 2,266
2013: 51,351 page views=140.7/day; 38,614 entry - 34,689 exit = 3,925
2014: 30,013 page views= 82.2/day; 27,098 entry - 20,618 exit = 6,480
2015: 39,329 page views=107.7/day; 48,121 entry - 44,556 exit = 3,565
2016: 40,105 page views=109.6/day; 33,229 entry - 32,080 exit = 1,149
2017: 31,382 page views= 86.0/day; 25,852 entry - 24,590 exit = 1,262