Martin Niemöller's visit to Dachau

Excerpt from H. Marcuse, Legacies of Dachau
(Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 277f)

Martin Niemöller, one of the founders of the Confessing Church, was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau from 1938 to 1945. As a staunch German nationalist and decorated veteran of World War I, he had initially supported Hitler, but soon changed his position. In November 1933 he formed the "Pastors Emergency League," which founded the Confessing Church at a synod in Barmen the following year. That organization soon became an island of resistance to Nazism.

Although Niemöller was not typical of mainstream Protestant commemoration in Germany, his example bridges the gap of silence between one exceptional early postwar initiative and the 1960s revival of recollective interest among a younger generation. His case thus illustrates some of the important features of Protestant recollection.

Martin Niemöller (1892-1984)

After his arrest in 1937 because of his oppositional activities, Niemöller spent the rest of the Nazi period in prisons and concentration camps. In Dachau he was kept as a "special prisoner" in an individual cell in the bunker behind the service building, where he could converse with other "special prisoners" such as Neuhäusler.[1]

After liberation Niemöller resumed his critical work within the mainstream of the German Protestant Church (Evangelische Kirche Deutschlands, EKD). With other leading figures from the Confessing Church, Niemöller lobbied the EKD leadership intensively for a public statement of the Church's complicity. This statement, known as the Stuttgart Confession of Guilt (Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis), was accepted and published by the executive council of the EKD in October 1945.[2]

This statement should be seen in connection with Niemöller's first return visit to Dachau after his liberation. In early November 1945, on his way home to Munich from a speaking engagement in Stuttgart, Niemöller drove past Dachau. He wanted to show his wife the place of his imprisonment, so they sought out the former concentration camp.[3] A US Army officer showed them Niemöller's former cell, then led the couple to the crematory, where they saw a sign reading "In the years from 1933 to 1945 238,756 people were cremated here" (ill. 6).[4]

According to an anecdote he included in numerous sermons in 1946 and 1947, this sign disturbed Niemöller deeply. Prior to his arrest in 1937, he told many audiences in Germany and the United States, he had done nothing to defend the communists and other regime opponents who were sent to concentration camps. "From that moment on," Niemöller said, "for me the question of guilt was no longer theoretical."[5]

Niemöller probably used the anecdote so often in 1946-47 because the Stuttgart Confession had unleashed a storm of protest from officials of the German Protestant Church. They mobilized the three myths in defense of their denial.[6] First, they claimed that National Socialism had been brought about by the victimization of Germany in the Versailles Treaty after World War I. Second, they said that even if some Protestants were guilty, others had indeed resisted. Finally, they turned around and attacked their detractors, claiming that since wars were made by elites, not common people, whoever claimed otherwise was only interested in victimizing the common people.

Later in 1947, however, Niemöller ceased to mention German responsibility for the brown-collar crimes. He was under attack from other camp survivors because he was accused of having CARE packages from the United States sent to privileged elites who had suffered minor losses under the Nazis, but not to camp survivors who had lost far more. In that controversy Niemöller's testimony during Gestapo interrogation in 1937 surfaced. Niemöller had tried-unsuccessfully--to portray himself as an antisemite in order to ingratiate himself with the Nazis and thus avoid arrest. At the end of the 1940s he became an activist in the movement to grant clemency to the brown-collar criminals on death row. That engagement, too, was incompatible with the public proclamation of German responsibility. Thus for almost a decade beginning in the late 1940s, there was no one in the EKD leadership to endorse the 1945 admission of guilt, and it was temporarily expunged from official Protestant memory.[7]

In the late 1950s, after initial hesitation, Niemöller responded positively to Otto Kohlhofer's request to support the creation of a documentary memorial site in Dachau. At that time a younger cohort of Protestants was rediscovering the burden of responsibility they had inherited. One indication that things were changing was the establishment of a Protestant youth group, the "Action Sign of Atonement" (Aktion Sühnezeichen) in 1958. It was committed to performing volunteer work abroad and at home in order to make amends for their country's past misdeeds. In fact, in 1966 volunteers from the Action Sign of Atonement helped to build a Protestant church in the Dachau memorial site.

Even in the broader EKD establishment, things were beginning to change, as a commemorative ceremony during the annual convocation of Protestant groups (Evangelischer Kirchentag) in Dachau in August 1959, indicates.[8] In the 1960s Niemöller returned to Dachau several times to hold commemorative speeches. He exhorted his listeners to look inside themselves, recognize the ways in which they had avoided responsibility for others, and work towards promoting peace and brotherhood in the world.[9]

  1. Niemöller was a highly decorated submarine officer in World War I. In the 1920s he became theologian, in 1931 an ordained minister. Niemöller retrospectively described his own political position in 1934 as "stocknational." See Hans-Joachim Oeffler (ed.), Martin Niemöller: Reden, Predigten, Denkanstösse 1964-1976, (Cologne: Pahl-Rugenstein, 1977), 258.
  2. See Martin Greschat (ed.), Die Schuld der Kirche: Dokumente und Reflexionen zur Stuttgarter Schulderklarung vom 18./19. Oktober 1945 (Munich: Kaiser, 1982), 91ff, 110ff. Although Dibelius' vague text was chosen as the basis, Niemöller argued successfully that the stronger statements in Asmussen's draft be included in the final version. They are indeed the most cited passages of the text. For historicalical contextualization see Clemens Vollnhals, "Die Evangelische Kirche zwischen Traditionswahrung und Neuorientierung," in: Broszat/Henke/Woller (eds.), Von Stalingrad zur Währungsreform (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1988), 113-69, 132-36; also idem, Evangelische Kirche und Entnazifierung, 1945-1949: Die Last der nationalsozialistischen Vergangenheit (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1989).
  3. The visit took place on 8 Nov. 1945 and was recorded in Niemöller's diary. See Wilhelm Niemöller, Neuanfang 1945: Zur Biographie Martin Niemöllers nach seinen Tagebuchaufzeichnungen aus dem Jahre 1945 (Frankfurt: Stimme, 1967), 64. For the following description of the visit see also the various versions of a speech Niemöller originally held on 3 July 1946 in Stuttgart: Martin Niemöller, Der Weg ins Freie (Stuttgart: Franz Mittelbach, 1946); Martin Niemöller, "Ich-Du-Wir alle", in: Nordwestdeutsche Hefte (Hamburg), 1/8 (Nov. 1946), 58-59. Niemöller also held the speech on 25 Jan. 1947 in New York. See "Pastor Niemöller: Amerikanische Predigt," VVN-Nachrichten (VVNN), 21 June 1947 (complete text), and 16 Aug. 1947 (excerpts).
  4. Niemöller quotes a German text: "Hier wurden / in den Jahren 1933 bis 1945 / 238,756 Menschen verbrannt." Contemporary photographs show a sign with the English text: "This area is being retained as a shrine to the 238,000 individuals who were cremated here. Please don't destroy."
  5. Actually, although in the often repeated speech Niemöller attributed the revelation to his visit in Dachau, he must have "discovered" his personal responsibility before that time. That insight was a prerequisite for the October 1945 "Stuttgart Profession of Guilt."
  6. After Greschat (ed.), Schuld der Kirche, 110f.
  7. See Christoph Klessmann, "Kontinuitäten und Veränderungen im protestantischen Milieu," in Axel Schildt and Arnold Sywottek (eds.), Modernisierung im Wiederaufbau: Die westdeutsche Gesellschaft der 50er Jahre (Bonn: Dietz, 1993), 403-18.
  8. See SZ, 14 Aug. 1959.
  9. Niemöller had a short statement read for him in Dachau on 19 June 1958 (see Der Widerstandskämpfer, June/July 1958); spoke personally on 12 Nov. 1960 in Flossenbürg (see Niemöller papers, Hessisches Evangelisches Kirchenarchiv [HEKA] Darmstadt), and 3 May 1964 in Dachau (Mitteilungen LGD, Dec. 1964), delivered a sermon at the church dedication on 30 Apr. 1967 (Stimme der Gemeinde, clipping in Oskar Müller Papers, DDW Frankfurt), and spoke again on 4 May 1980.

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