Today in history, Martin Niemöller died in 1984. Niemöller was an early supporter of Adolf Hitler and anti-Semite. When the Nazis worked to take over the churches in Germany, he became a founder of the Confessing Church in Germany which opposed the Nazification of the churches. He was outspoken against the so-called Aryan Paragraph which was an explicitly anti-Semitic rule the Nazis implemented in the state church.
He was imprisoned by the Nazis, and during his imprisonment at two different concentration camps, he came to deeply regret his earlier beliefs. Some have tried to lionize him as a hero of the Jews in Germany, but this is false. He himself never denied his guilt for his early support of the Nazis and his anti-Semitism.
He penned the famous “first they came” statement, which is featured at the United States Holocaust Memorial: “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.”
After the War, he committed himself to pacifism, he helped develop the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, in which the Evangelical Church in Germany confessed its guilt for not resisting the Nazis. One part of that Declaration reads:
“Through us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and countries. That which we often testified to in our communities, we express now in the name of the whole church: We did fight for long years in the name of Jesus Christ against the mentality that found its awful expression in the National Socialist regime of violence; but we accuse ourselves for not standing to our beliefs more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.”
The Declaration did not, however, explicate the specific wrongs the church had done, and was seen by some Germans as a gesture to capitulate the Allied powers after the War.
Niemöller’s life is a complex study in how Christians participate in horrible atrocities. It is also a study for how Christians can confess their guilt and come to throw themselves on grace. Niemöller remains an important figure for understanding the Church Struggle in Germany.
More on his life at the Holocaust Encyclopedia.