Niemoeller as Martyr of the Year, Dec. 1940
Martin Niemoller: Martyr of the Year 1940
"In Germany only the cross has not bowed to the swastika" (religion)
TIME Magazine, Dec. 23, 1940

Martin Niemöller was antisemitic-- does it matter?

An article and two dialogs

Part of the Martin Niemöller Quotation Site

by Professor Harold Marcuse (homepage)


page created Jan. 11, 2004; updated 6/25/05, 7/20/2016

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Since the 1980s Martin Niemöller is best known for the quotation "First they came for the Communists ...". However, during the 1930s and 1940s he was best known as an outspoken resistor against Hitler. Those who know his biography know that prior to the Nazi period he was an ardent German nationalist and an antisemite. Initially he even supported Hitler.
However, by the time of his imprisonment in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1937, he had overcome his antisemitism.

Several visitors of my Niemöller quotation site have remarked that I ignore or overlook his antisemitism. My response is that I don't think that is what we should remember him for. Rather, the what is important is that he was one of the few Germans who was personally able to overcome it and admit his past error--that is what his famous quotation is all about.

This page offers several documents about this question:

  • A May 1941 biographical article about Niemoeller by Leo Stein, who spent 22 months in the same concentration camp as MN. Stein published it in the B'nai Brith magazine National Jewish Monthly. He documents N's turn away from antisemitism. A year later Stein published a book-length account of his own arrest and meeting with Niemoeller: I was in Hell with Niemoeller (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1942).
  • My April 2003 e-mail exchange with Prof. Werner Cohn on this issue
  • A January 2004 blog entry/article, and e-mail correspondence with Harry Reynolds (below). Update: In Dec. 2015 Henry republished an edited version (with mention of Marcuse) on another blog, see: "Martin Niemoeller's Famous Statement."

From: harryreynolds [xxx]
Subject: Niemoller/marcuse
Date-Sent: Sunday, January 11, 2004

I entered in my blog yesterday a piece that I had written years ago concerning Niemoller's statement. I thought that you would be interested in it. I have not read your comprehensive looking internet article, though I have just printed it for future reading.

You certainly seem to have devoted considerable time and effort to Niemoller's quotation. A classically German looking work.
My blog address is [most recent enry: March 2009]

I am an attorney. I live [...] Scarsdale, New York [...]. I was born in the United States and I am a citizen of the Repulic of Ireland. By a confluence of lineages, I am an Irish-Ukrainian.

Good luck to you in your work. You must be an excellent history professor.
Harold (Harry) Reynolds

I reqeusted permission from Harry Reynolds to archive a copy of his blog entry on this site:

From: Harold Marcuse
To: harryreynolds
Subject: Re: Niemoller/marcuse/archive copy?
Date-Sent: Sunday, January 11, 2004

Thanks for sending me the reference. Basically, I agree with what you write. As in my discussion with Prof. Werner Cohn
I think it may be more important to emphasize that Niemoeller is someone who was able to learn from his mistakes, rather than emphasize his awful failings in the first half of his life. Still he should not be unduly heroized.
I've added a link to your blog. I wonder if I could create an archive page with your text on my site? I'd use this e-mail and your e-mail below (without address, e-mail, or tel.-nr.) as the introduction.
Please let me know.
Harold Marcuse

Harry Reynold's response indicates the troubling moral issues raised by Niemoeller's life story. Where do we start when challenging injustice?

From: harryreynolds
Subject: Re: Niemoller/marcuse/archive copy?
Date-Sent: Monday, January 12, 2004

Dear Professor Marcuse,

Granted, but I ask that you remove as well the sentence in which I refer to my children and grandchildren.
Actually, I have always been somewhat ambivalent about the piece I wrote precisely because of the moral point you make concerning judging the totality of Niemoller's life. On the other hand, the daunting enormity of the slaughter of Jews and others evokes in me a silence so great that I find it hard to travel across that silence in order to fraternally embrace Niemoller. There are actions in life beyond any redemptive utterance. In those cases, I find it best to say nothing and leave the matter to God, if indeed he has a personal interest in the slaughter. Indeed, in view of this country's conscious abandonment of 800,000 Rwandans in their Holocaust, I consider that my interest in fixing Niemoller's guilt entitles me to a free ticket in the theatre of the absurd.
Harry Reynolds

blog entry by Harry Reynolds, posted Jan. 10, 2004,
[in June 2005 the blog only went back to June 2004; on 7/24/2016 I found a link to the original entry; Reynolds reposted this entry, slightly edited, on December 20, 2015 at:]

On August 20, 2004, Reynolds published
this blog entry in the New York weekly Forward:
"When They Came For Him:
A Reconsideration of Martin Niemoller's
Life and Philosophy"Martin Niemoller in Forwards, H. Reynold, 8/04
(online version of Aug. 20, 2004 article).
In this article Reynolds cites Marcuse:

"In 1937, when the Nazis came for Niemoller, he was opposed to any political resistance to Hitler. He simply saw Hitler as an intruder into that part of German life reserved for the church. In fact, as noted by Harold Marcuse in "Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp, 1933-2001" (Cambridge University Press, 2001), Niemoller tried to avoid arrest by assuring the Gestapo that he was an antisemite."

Marcuse responds: While this is true, Niemöller had also been helping Jews in his Berlin parish prior to that time (after 1934). And I think that what a man says when attempting, in a dictator's court, to avoid imprisonment, torture and possibly worse, should not be held against him.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

When at the age of ninety-two Martin Niemoller died in 1984, he was internationally known as an extraordinary personality in twentieth- century Christianity. As a German U-boat commander he had been a hero in World War I. Thereafter, he became a Christian minister and, as a popular preacher in Berlin-Dahlem, he held one of Germany’s most prestigious pulpits. He is often described as a "leader in the church struggle with Nazism." His confinement as Hitler’s "personal prisoner" from 1937 until 1945, first in prison and then in a concentration camp, is a dramatic fact known to many familiar with modern German history. After World War II, he became president of the World Council of Churches, and he was a prominent spokesman for civil rights and peace. Indeed, as early as October, 1945, within months of the war’s end, Niemoller participated in a meeting that framed the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt. It was during his post-World War II tour of the United States that, in speaking before many audiences, he concluded his addresses with the famous statement that has ever since been attributed to him as the words of a typical victim of Hitler.

"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 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."

In fact, however, when in 1937 the Nazis came for Niemoller, he was opposed to any political resistance to Hitler. He simply saw Hitler as an intruder into that part of German life reserved for the church. Thus Professor Franklin H. Littell in Exile in the Fatherland writes of Niemoller:

"By the time he was arrested and imprisoned, first in Moabit and later in Sachsenhausen and Dachau, where he was held without trial or chargeon direct order of the Fuhrer, the basic lines of the Christian resistance were set: the Nazi regimwas resisted for invading the church’s area of competence and for idolatry - not for breaking thelaw or for its brutal breach of the rights of human beings. Niemoller, who was at the time a religious andpolitical conservative, was in any case opposed to political resistance." [1]

What Exile in the Fatherland does not tell us is that Niemoller, even as a Christian minister imprisoned by the Nazis, was probably an anti-Semite as he sat there in his cell. For example, in 1935 Niemoller, then forty-three years old, delivered a sermon that described his conception of a Jew. James Bentley writes [2] :

"For centuries Christian churches had dedicated the tenth Sunday after Trinity to remembering the destruction of the Jewish temple and the fate of the Jewish people. Niemoller habitually preached on this theme on the appointed day, introducing into his sermon such notions as that of the ‘Wandering Jew’, who has no home and cannot find peace. He spoke(in 1935) of a ‘highly’ gifted people which produces idea after idea for the benefit of the world, but whateverit takes up changes into poison, and all that it ever reaps is contempt and hatred. The reason, he explained,was not hard to find. The Jew was cursed for crucifying Jesus, and Jews since then have carried about with them as a fearsome burden the unforgiven blood-guilt of their fathers. The assumptions behind this thinking not only offeredno practical guidance for coping with the Jewish question during the Third Reich but actually played into Hitler’s hands."

Bentley’s scholarly biography is not hostile to Niemoller. It is dedicated to members of Niemoller’s family and Bentley himself had a long, friendly relationship with Niemoller. These facts are to be kept in mind because Bentley reports Niemoller in 1933 as a Christian minister who, in an accommodation of Nazi Aryan belief, actually suggested the idea of separate congregations for Jews who had converted to Christianity. Of this corrupt idea Bentley writes [3]:

"It is...important to realize that Martin Niemoller was prepared to contemplate such proposals. This makes all the more impressive his development as a defender of the Jews - a development that was not complete until the end of World War II.’

Surely, it is a curiously compassionate thing to congratulate a fifty-three year old Christian minister for his impressive achievement in 1945 in having finally developed into a defender of Jews at the end of the Holocaust.

Last, and most tellingly, Niemoller was in prison on Kristallnacht, that November 9th day in 1938 when, among other appalling anti-Semitic acts, Stormtroopers set afire 119 synagogues, 91 Jews were killed, and more than 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Niemoller admitted to his briographer, Bentley, that "It became clear only then that the Jews were to be eliminated not simply from the church but from human society."[4] Now, although Niemoller saw in Kristallnacht the death of all Jews, knew of Germany’s anti-Semitic laws that preceded and followed Kristallnacht, and was aware of the overwhelming evidence of public Nazi barbarity towards Jews that accompanied Hitler’s exercise of power, Niemoller nevertheless, upon Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September, 1939, and the ensuing declaration of war between Britain and Germany, volunteered "to fight for Adolph Hitler’s Germany".5 In that September, Niemoller, a forth-seven year old Christian minister, who was then still Hitler’s "personal prisoner", wrote to Admiral Raeder, "offering, as a reserve officer, to serve his country ‘in any capacity’ ".6 His letter was released by the Nazis to the world’s press.

This offer to serve the Nazis was made by a man whose famous words, uttered after the defeat of Germany, so appeal to us. This offer to serve the Nazis "in any capacity" was made by a man who, when "they came for the Jews", failed to speak out because he was a common variety of anti-Semite. This offer to serve Hitler "in any capacity" was made by the man who, "after they came for me", spoke out for himself by offering to bear arms for them, for those who, had they won the war, would have searched the earth to kill every Jewish man, woman, and child.

Harry Reynolds

prepared for the web by Harold Marcuse, Jan. 11, 2004; updated 6/25/05
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