Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent Lutheran pastor in Germany. He emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. He is perhaps best remembered for his postwar words, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out…”
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
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.
Black History of Holocaust
The most famous Holocaust poem, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out” was written by Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor who was born in Germany in 1892. At one time a supporter of Hitler’s policies, he eventually came to oppose the Nazis and as a result was arrested and confined to the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1938 to 1945. After narrowly avoiding execution, he was liberated by the Allies in 1945. Niemöller was not a Holocaust denier, nor did he deny his own personal guilt. After Niemöller’s cellmate Leo Stein was released, he wrote an article for The National Jewish Monthly, in which Stein asked Martin Niemöller why he had ever supported the Nazi Party. Niemöller replied: “I find myself wondering about that too. I wonder about it as much as I regret it. Still, it is true that Hitler betrayed me. I had an audience with him, as a representative of the Protestant Church, shortly before he became Chancellor in 1932. Hitler promised me, on his word of honor, to protect the Church and not to issue any anti-Church laws. He also agreed not to allow pogroms against the Jews, assuring me as follows: ‘There will be restrictions against the Jews, but there will be no ghettos, no pogroms, in Germany.’ I really believed … Hitler’s assurance satisfied me at the time … I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.” After the war, Martin Niemöller was one of the initiators of the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, which acknowledged that German churches had not done enough to resist the Nazis. Martin Niemöller also became an ardent pacifist and campaigner for nuclear disarmament. He died in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1984.