An intellectual freedom blog with an emphasis on libraries and technology

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Who was Martin Niemöller and why should you care?

Mini-Biography and Bibliography

   In Germany they came first for the Communists and I didn't speak up
because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then the came for me--and by that time no one was left to speak up. *

Martin Niemöller 1892-1984.

I have noticed that this quote comes up frequently in discussions about Intellectual Freedom issues and therefore provide this background:

The son of a pastor, a U-Boat Captain (WWI) and later a pastor in a comfortable Berlin Suburb in the 1930s Niemöller did not start out as a great advocate for intellectual freedom. He initially supported Hitler but quickly grew disillusioned. Although arrested by the Gestapo in 1937 for his open opposition to Hitler and incarcerated in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps, he nonetheless berated himself for not doing more, as in the quote above.

His accomplishments include:

  • Founded "Confessing Church" part of the larger Lutheran Reformed Church of Germany.
  • Founded the Pfarrernotbund (Pastors' Emergency League) During the 1930s.
  • Partly responsible for the "Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis"
    ("Stuttgart Confession of Guilt") acknowledging the German People's collective guilt for the Holocaust
  • President of the World Council of Churches (1961-1968)

He became unpopular with many Western political leaders for his outspoken pacificism: he preached reconciliation and disarmament throughout the post-war years.

The quote above serves as a rallying cry for intellectual freedom advocates and the most eloquent justification for defending the free speech rights individuals and groups that many in society regard with contempt (i.e.: the KKK, Larry Flynt, Oliver North, to name a few).

A further note about the quote: This quote appears in a number of wordings in various sources. Niemöller gave hundreds of speeches and talks in his post-war travels and often concluded his speaking engagements in the United States with these words. Thus, he may have changed the wording somewhat from one speech to the next. I have yet to find an original source for any of Niemöller's exact wordings. Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (from which I derive the wording above) does not cite an exact source, but renders the note: "attributed."

Yet another note about the quote: several people have e-mailed me with the citation from the Congressional Record. This is the only instance of Niemöller's name occuring in that source. I checked the reference. Unfortunately, Niemöller never addressed the U.S. Congress. The quote comes from a Representative parapharasing Niemöller and not the man himself and thus an authoritative "single, correct" version of these famous words continues to elude us.


Bartlett, John, 1820-1905. Familiar quotations : a collection of passages, phrases, and proverbs traced to their sources in ancient and modern literature / John Bartlett ; Justin Kaplan, general editor. 16th ed. (Boston : Little, Brown, 1992) p.684:19

Vom U-Boot zur Kanzel (1934; From U-Boat to Pulpit). [His Autobiography]

Exile in the Fatherland : Martin Niemöller's letters from Moabit Prison / Translated by Ernst Kaemke, et al (Grand Rapids, MI : Eerdmans, 1986)

D. Schmid. Pastor Niemöller (Eng. trans., 1959)

C. Start-Davidson God's Man (1959).

"Niemöller, (Friedrich Gustav Emil) Martin" Encyclopedia Britannica Online

William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall the Third Reich (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1960) p.234-239.

Many thanks to Ann Hotta of Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley, CA) for her asssistance in the research for this page.

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