Special Guest Blog: Michael Martin on Bonhoeffer, Niemöller, and Speaking Out Against the Nazis

(Editor’s note: On April 6, author Michael Martin was presented the 2012 Wilbur Award for Best Book: Youth from the Religion Communicators Council for his book, Champion of Freedom: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Today, in honor of his achievement, and also of Holocaust Remembrance Day (which began April 7, and ends tonight, the 8th, at sundown), we present a special guest blog written by Mr. Martin, shedding light on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s acquaintance  Martin Niemöller, and the origin of one of the most famous quotes to come out of the World War II era.)

Michael Martin

Michael Martin

One of the more famous quotes to come out of the police state that was Nazi Germany has often been attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There are numerous variations but a typical one goes as follows:

First they came for the communists,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for Jews,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me,

and there was no one left to speak for me.

Besides Jews, communists and socialists, the quote sometimes includes the disabled and Jehovah’s witnesses, other groups of people considered inferior and therefore expendable by Hitler and his cronies. In truth, the real author of the quote was not Bonhoeffer but a fellow pastor, Martin Niemöller.

It’s understandable why people would think Bonhoeffer was the quote’s author: it sounds like something he would have said. In speeches and sermons, he railed against Nazi attempts to co-opt the church. An implacable foe of the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer believed it was a true Christian’s duty to stand up against persecution of any group—even if its members were not Christian.

Niemöller, on the other hand, came by the wisdom of that quote through painful experience. He was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Adolf Hitler—both before and after he became a Lutheran pastor. A highly decorated U-Boat captain during World War I, Niemöller initially let his patriotism, his concern for order and his anti-Semitism—which he expressed regret for only much later in life—blind him to the more sinister aspects of Nazism.

Martin Niemöller

Martin Niemöller

As late as 1933, Niemöller described the Nazi party as a “renewal movement based on a Christian moral foundation.” Niemöller was not alone in that sentiment. If fact, most Christians in Germany welcomed the rise of the Nazi Party as a return to a strong government that would restore the country’s national honor after the loss of World War I and the economic and social chaos that followed in its wake.

Many were persuaded that they had nothing to fear from the Nazis by a statement on “positive Christianity” in Article 24 of the Nazi Party Platform which read:

We demand the freedom of all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not jeopardize the state’s existence or conflict with the manners and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The Party as such upholds the point of view of a positive Christianity without tying itself confessionally to any one confession. It combats the Jewish-materialistic spirit at home and abroad and is convinced that a permanent recovery of our people can only be achieved from within on the basis of the common good before individual good.”

Despite the racism and anti-Semitism self evident in that statement, many Christians, Niemöller among them, saw it as an affirmation of Christian values and a promise not to interfere in church business. Many were also heartened when, in a March 23, 1933 speech, Hitler described Christianity as the “foundation” for German values.

Bonhoeffer had no such illusions. He knew instinctively that the racism at the core of Nazism was completely incompatible with the Gospel and Jesus’s message of love and tolerance. “Church and unchurch,” Bonhoeffer said, “can not come to terms.”

Unlike Bonhoeffer, Niemöller was slow to speak out against the persecution of those outside Germany’s Christian community. His attitude changed when the Nazis attempted to take over the nation’s Protestant churches and use Nazi racial dogma to dictate church membership (so-called non-Aryans were barred from the ministry or from teaching). Even the bible itself was under attack as demands were made that the Old Testament be excluded from theology because it had too many “Jewish elements.”

That was too much even for Niemöller and he joined Bonhoeffer and 7,000 other pastors in the Pastor’s Emergency League, a group opposed to the German Christians (the group backed by the Nazi Party). The PEL was the forerunner of the Confessing Church, a group that set itself in opposition to the German Christians.

For Niemöller, a turning point came in January of 1934 when he and two other prominent Protestant bishops were called into Hitler’s office and warned to stop opposing Nazi influence in church affairs. Following the meeting the other two bishops signed a statement of unconditional loyalty to the Führer, but Niemöller reportedly held his ground. “But we too as Christians have a duty and neither you nor any power in the world is in the position to take it away from us,” he said.

That courageous statement infuriated Hitler and would not go unpunished. Niemöller’s home was bombed later and he would eventually be arrested by the Gestapo in 1937 and spend all of World War II in concentration camps.

Bonhoeffer and Niemöller, both of them charismatic speakers, were the Confessing Church’s most famous members—another reason the Niemöller quote is mistakenly attributed to Bonhoeffer. But while Bonhoeffer would have wholeheartedly agreed with the thrust of the quote—that by their silence to injustice, people enabled the crimes of the Nazis—he came to that conclusion much, much earlier than Niemöller did (the quote was first made by Niemöller during postwar lectures).

Unfortunately, during the 1930s the general attitude of both Protestant and Catholic clergy

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

toward the Nazi leadership was compromise whenever possible. For Bonhoeffer, however, compromising the imperatives of the Gospel led to a church that was Christian in name only. He was once asked why he did not join the German Christians in order to be an influence for good from within.

Bonhoeffer said: “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.”

– Michael Martin

To learn more about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his struggles against the Nazi party, please check out the 2012 Wilbur Award winning Champion of Freedom: Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Michael Martin (ISBN # 978-1-59935-169-8) from your local library, or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing.

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