Finding Wisdom in the Past: Rev. Martin Niemoeller

In the wake of news that an openly anti-Catholic, misogynist, anti-Muslim and racist man, Stephen Bannon, has been appointed “Chief Strategist” to President-Elect Trump, I felt the urge to reflect on one of the many voices who shape how we now view the horrors of Nazism in the 1930s and 1940s, known as the Holocaust or the Shoah.  At Johann Baptiste Metz argues, we must not just have a faith that believes; we must have a faith that remembers.

Ds. Martin Niemöller neemt deel aan oecumenische samenkomst in de Grote Kert te Den Haag. Vlnr [Vrnl in spiegelbeeld!] . Ds M.N. W. Smitvoors (van de Haagse Oecumenische Raad), ds. Niemöller en prof. P. Kaetske, predikant van de Duitse Evangelische gemeente in Den Haag *27 mei 1952
Rev. Martin Niemöller, 27 May 1952
Rev. Martin Niemoeller was a German Lutheran Pastor who initially supported Adolf Hitler and Nazism.  After witnessing attacks on Jews and then members of Christian Churches who objected to Hitler, Niemoeller was imprisoned in a concentration camp from 1937-1945.  He is most commonly known for the poem:

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.

While he was in one of these horrific death camps, he spoke with a friend who was getting out and moving to America.  This friend, Leo Stein, eventually wrote a book and article about his time with Niemoeller, and included the following reflections:

On Germany in the 1930’s, Niemoeller reflected: “You see…Germany had lost the war; we had an alarming crisis, inflation, an enormous unemployment problem. Certain Russian and Polish Jews had taken refuge in Germany; the great mass of the poor and unemployed believed them to be well-to-do. Envy developed into hatred. Instead of feeling sorry for these miserable refugees, some people begrudged them the little they had. Hitler quickly stimulated these low passions, which finally brought him to power. Today, Hitler persecutes Jews and Christians alike.”

Reflecting upon Judaism: “Jesus Christ, the founder of Christendom, was a Jew. I love the Old Testament more than anything else. Hitler is trying to denounce this Testament as ‘Jewish,’ but there is no Christianity without it. Whoever is an anti-Semite and persecutes the Jews can never be a real Christian. Hitler is the true anti-Christ.”

“In view of that fact,” the interviewer writes, “I once asked him how it had ever been possible for him to become a member of the Nazi party.”

“I find myself wondering about that too,” he answered. “I wonder about it is much as I regret it. Still, it is true that Hitler betrayed me. I had an audience with him, as a representative of the Protestant Church, shortly before he became Chancellor, in 1932. Hitler promised me on his word of honor, to protect the Church, and not to issue any anti-Church laws. He also agreed not to allow pogroms against the Jews, assuring me as follows: ‘There will be restrictions against the Jews, but there will be no ghettos, no pogroms, in Germany’.”

“I really believed,” Niemoeller continued, “…I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while.  I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.”

See the entire article at the National Jewish Monthly archives.

See the book: I Was in Hell with Niemoeller.