When they came for the Communists… What Martin Niemoeller’s statement was really about

*25 years ago I did research on Martin Niemoeller & his famous statement: “First they came…” Though people in America who don’t bother to read German sources deny this, Niemoeller’s original text does not mention the Jews. It was: “First they came for the Communists, but I was not … Then they came for the Socialists, but… Then they came for the Trade Unionists…”

There are several reasons for this, Niemoeller at one point said that he was in prison before Kristallnacht, which is true as far as it goes. Another reason, and I only say this because I came to love Niemoeller through this, is that Niemoeller was just as antisemitic as the rest of his conservative upper middle class German milieu. His first career was as a naval officer, he was a monarchist, then quite right wing. By the 1930s he had become a prominent suburban pastor at an important church–thing was, he was conservative enough to distrust the modernist manipulations of the Deutsche Christen-the pro National Socialist faction that came to dominate the German Church-and the Aryan Paragraph was hurting people he knew, Christians who had a Jewish background or who were converts. Thus he formed the Pastors Emergency League, to help them–this formed into a broader resistance within the church called the Confessing Church.

The thing I love about Niemoeller is that he had enough of a conscience to evolve over his very long life, from right wing monarchist to leader of the left-wing peace movement in the church by the 1960s-70s. Also, from narrow bourgeois antisemitism to real seeking for interreligious understanding and compassion by the end of his life.

I regard his antisemitism much as I regard our racism–something that perhaps will never be completely eradicated, but which can be brought to the surface and resisted. Also, the worst of German inhumanity manifested in antisemitism, and the worst of American inhumanity manifests in racism and other bigotries. BUT…

There is a huge place in which the direct political fears of the fascists and those with power that fall in with them has to do with their control of social & economic organization: as Niemoeller put it: the Communists, the Socialists, the Trade Unionists–the religious, racial & group bigotries and pressures are real on their own, but the push and the power that keep this going are the fears of those in economic & political control. There was a recent Rolling Stone article, where K-Street Republican consultants were interviewed off the record. These are the urbane, polite, well-dressed types who would mingle in all manner of polite society beside the Democratic party establishment quite comfortably. But while disliking & disdaining Trump personally, they do everything they can to help maintain his power & the power of his party–hating most of all “those Lincoln Project motherfuckers” who they will make sure never work again.

You are right, the bigotries are intertwined–antisemitism and anti-black racism are two aspects of the same phenomenon. But the thing that stokes up the flames & keeps the temperature high, are the desires of those in power to continue to exercise control.

*The text above comes from a Twitter Direct Message I sent to a very insightful, compassionate person the other day. He is Jewish and had been tweeting about the need for Jews to realize that it is unwise to regard antisemitism as so unique that they ignore anti-black racism and other bigotries in the process. (I’m sure I don’t give his message justice here—I wrote this in a personal message, because it could so easily be misunderstood or sidetrack the discussion. He suggested I share this on Twitter-it’s too long for a thread, so here it is as a blogpost.)

This is the original article documenting my research:

“Martin Niemoeller: Transformation of an Oral Text” Journal of Religious & Theological Information 2:2 (1996) pp. 49-58.

My translation of the text in question, as published in a 1979 article written by Niemoeller:

When the Nazis came for the Communists, I kept silent;

after all, I wasn’t a Communist.

When they locked up the Social Democrats, I kept silent;

after all, I wasn’t a Social Democrat.

When they came for the Trade Unionists, I did not protest;

After all, I wasn’t a Trade Unionist.

When they came for me,

there was no one left,

who protested.

[My own German is not very good, but for that article I asked a doctoral student from Germany, Susanne Scholz, to look at the texts I wanted to include in the article. She read my translations then made copious suggestions which made the translations quite accurate. Because the original article was going to be a bit controversial in our little corner of the world, and the selections and interpretations were all mine, I did not mention her in that article since it would have more likely ended up more as blame than credit to be associated with the article. This translation of the text from Niemoeller’s article is thus quite correct and the variations and nuance in the language are there in the German.  Dr. Scholz is now Professor of Old Testament at Southern Methodist University.]

Twenty-five years after writing this article, I only begin to realize that Niemoeller was referring to groups that challenged the underlying economic and power basis which allowed the Nazis to come to power and thrive. Fascism, racism and bigotry have always been among us. When those with economic and political power give up on the pretense of democracy and power sharing, those forces dominate the landscape. It was only years after spending World War 2 and the years leading up to it in prison, that Niemoeller realized how his “moderation” in the early 1930s had enabled this.

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