Martin Niemöller: analysis of a famous quote

I looked up this quote for an upcoming blog post:

First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.

(Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, reflecting on the lack of public resistance to Naziism in the mid-1930s)

The exact wording of the quote is unclear. In fact, it’s doubtful that Niemöller said precisely this on any one occasion.

Niemöller expressed the above sentiment repeatedly in the post-war years. The “quote” is actually more of a paraphrase, and the details change from one citation to the next.

Which groups did Niemöller refer to? The wording used above (from this site) is a minimalist version. Communists, socialists, trade unionists, and Jews are a safe bet. Jehovah’s Witnesses, the incurably ill, Roman Catholics, and homosexuals are also candidates.

Roman Catholics:

A common version of the quote includes a reference to Catholics, but such a reference is highly unlikely. Niemöller felt that Catholics had compromised the resistance to Hitler by signing a Concordat with the Nazis in 1933. According to a contemporary cardinal:

“The spiritual welfare of 20 million Catholic souls in Germany was at stake, and that was the first and, indeed, only consideration …. [The Vatican] had to choose between an agreement on [Nazi] lines and the virtual elimination of the Catholic Church in the Reich.”
(Cardinal Pacelli, August 1933)

Despite the Concordat, a minority of Catholic leaders spoke out against Hitler (see below) and suffered the inevitable consequences. But I don’t believe Catholics as such were ever persecuted by the Nazis.

The incurably ill:

The standard version of the Niemöller quote lacks any reference to the incurably ill. But sick and disabled people were victimized by the Nazis in large numbers:

In October of 1939 amid the turmoil of the outbreak of war Hitler ordered widespread “mercy killing” of the sick and disabled.

Code named “Aktion T 4,” the Nazi euthanasia program to eliminate “life unworthy of life” at first focused on newborns and very young children. Midwives and doctors were required to register children up to age three who showed symptoms of mental retardation, physical deformity, or other symptoms included on a questionnaire from the Reich Health Ministry.

A decision on whether to allow the child to live was then made by three medical experts solely on the basis of the questionnaire, without any examination and without reading any medical records. …

The Nazi euthanasia program quickly [by October 1939] expanded to include older disabled children and adults.

A Roman Catholic bishop, supported by three priests, was bold enough to condemn the Nazi policy:

On August 3, 1941, a Catholic Bishop, Clemens von Galen, delivered a sermon in Münster Cathedral attacking the Nazi euthanasia program calling it “plain murder.” … The Nazis retaliated against the Bishop by beheading three parish priests who had distributed his sermon, but left the Bishop unharmed to avoid making him into a martyr.

Niemöller spoke of the incurably ill in early post-war interviews (January to May, 1946), along with Communists, Jews, and sometimes Jehovah’s Witnesses:

Here is the basis of our Christian recognition of guilt in consideration of what happened. We did not recognize the Lord Christ when he came into our lives in the form of a suffering brother. I didn’t recognize him when he was put in the camp as a Communist, nor did I recognize him, when he was murdered as an incurably ill person, nor did I recognize him, when he was gassed and burned as the poor victims of his own people [i.e., the Jews]. Here I became guilty in my very personal responsibility and I cannot excuse myself, neither before God, nor before humanity.

(Emphasis added. Niemöller presumes our familiarity with a text in Matthew 25.)

Niemöller(Niemöller is too hard on himself here. He is rightly lauded for being one of the few German leaders to publicly oppose Hitler. The risk was enormous, of course, and indeed Niemöller spent seven years in concentration camps in “protective custody”.)

It is lamentable that people with disabilities are always overlooked in the Niemöller paraphrase. Our society would do well to remember! The West’s progressive initiatives are offset by our practice of aborting or euthanising the disabled. For example:

A 2002 literature review of elective abortion rates found that 91–93% of pregnancies with a diagnosis of Down syndrome were terminated. Physicians and ethicists are concerned about the ethical ramifications, with some commentators calling it “eugenics by abortion”. Many members of the disability rights movement “believe that public support for prenatal diagnosis and abortion based on disability contravenes the movement’s basic philosophy and goals.” (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia suggests that the disabled were overlooked in the Niemöller quote because fewer than 23 doctors were brought to justice for the murders of 75,000 to 250,000 disabled people. But perhaps that isn’t the whole explanation. The reality is, disabled people have always been marginalized and easily forgotten.

Social considerations have led people to censor the quote in the past. Specifically, Communists were dropped from the quote in the USA in the 1950s:

Ironically, when the poem was recounted in the United States in the 1950s, the first stanza, referring to communists, was often omitted, due to the rise of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. (Wikipedia)

I don’t imagine that the disabled were deliberately omitted. The point is, our social blindspots tend to assert themselves.


Homosexuals were another Nazi target. This is the origin of the pink triangle, later co-opted as a symbol of gay pride:

Homosexuals were regarded as diseased and in need of treatment. As a result, thousands were subjected to torture, often ending in death, in an attempt to deter them from being gay. …

When homosexuals first began arriving in prisons and concentration camps, they were marked out with ‘Paragraph 175’ written on their backs. As hundreds of inmates turned into thousands, this badge was changed to a pink triangle, in the same way that the label Juden (‘Jew’) was changed to a yellow Star of David. Pink triangles were also used for sex offenders such as paedophiles, further associating gays with ‘perverts’. …

posterResearchers estimate that some 50,000 men were convicted for committing homosexual acts, and that 15,000 gays died in Auschwitz alone, often as a result of being worked to death.

A reference to homo- sexuals is sometimes included in the Niemöller quote, as in the image on the right. However, I found no evidence that Niemöller actually included such a reference.

Another Niemöller quote:

Finally, note that I have added a related quote to my sidebar:

We will not stop watching over our entire people, and no one, not even you, will be able to take this responsibility from us.”

(Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller to Adolph Hitler, Jan. 25, 1934)

“Watching over” — an oblique reference to the vocation of a pastor, who shepherds his or her flock. “Our entire people” — all individuals and groups were deemed equally worthy of Pastor Niemöller’s care.

The ideal warrants emphasis in an era when some people are, once again, being denied equal protection under the law.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Anonymous
    May 27, 2007 @ 20:42:00

    Interesting…. what do you think of the meaning of the poem? Perhaps an analysis or a summary.


  2. Stephen
    May 27, 2007 @ 21:47:52

    The poem exhorts us to rise to the defence of others in their hour of need; it tells us not to abandon those others merely because we perceive them to be different from us.

    It reminds us that citizens have a duty to be vigilant, to watch each other’s backs when Government begins to overstep its proper boundaries.

    Frankly, I think the poem is relevant to the Bush Administration, and the general drift of the Republican Party in the USA since 9/11. Not that I think the Bush Administration has sunk to the depravity of the Nazis — I wouldn’t say that! But you might consider the argument I make in a comment on this blog.


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