Rewriting What Was: Distorting Pastor Niemoller’s Words


We live in a time of historical amnesia with glittering generalities used to mask a lack of understanding of what brought us to the point where we now stand. As an example, Pastor Martin Niemoller’s injunction to defend others to defend oneself, is often quoted, as it should be for it has relevance to the challenges we now face. But in the process of being popularized it has been changed. The change, accepted without correction or challenge, has now become commonplace. To understand the significance of what at first glance might appear insignificant requires moving from generalities to specifics.

By way of background, Niemoller, like most German Protestant theologians, welcomed Hitler’s accession to power. Unlike most, he soon became a determined opponent of fascism, and was imprisoned in a concentration camp in 1937 where he remained until World War II’s closing days. Soon after his release he wrote the following lines:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

Before he died in 1984 Niemoller reworked and modified his poem a number of times — sometimes including those in German-occupied territories, the disabled, and others to his list of victims whose victimization too many ignored or wished away. Yet there was some consistency in his words too — for he began with Communists and ended with Jews, a bookend to a list that becomes a lie if forgotten.

Yet at the Holocaust museum and elsewhere, the word “Communist” has been dropped, replaced with “socialists,” as though Niemoller had written so, though he did not (for in 1945, even anti-communists recognized that communists were targets of fascism). This might seem like a quaint point in our post-Cold War time. Perhaps the change was made by those who fear the word might “confuse” those who equate Communism with fascism, Nazi Germany with the Soviet Union, thereby ignoring a truth, also widely accepted in 1945 and not by the left alone, the intimate connection between fascism and capitalism. Although “socialists” might seem to simply indicate a more commonly recognized left radicalism, its use removes the specificity of Niemoller’s original. Distortion, after all, distorts meaning.

The change in language contributes to the sense that social conflicts past and present are morality plays: good people on one side, bad people on the other, and never the twain shall meet. The air of self-satisfaction embedded in such simplifications reduces political questions then to an easily ignored morality, much like the Christian injunction to “love thy neighbor,” repeatedly uttered without context by those whose deeds condemn countless to hunger, illness and the ravages of war (unlike Martin Luther King’s same use of that phrase which had meaning for it was always and explicitly tied to context and content).

Chronology Behind Words

Thus it might be useful to recall certain facts about Hitler’s rise to power to remember why Niemoller said what he said. Although volumes could be written on this, the chronology below should be sufficient:

1932 —

November 6: second national elections of the year, fails to produce a stable government of center, right, left in any combination. The vote totals for the Nazis, Social Democrats, Communists (the three largest of the nearly dozen parliamentary parties) were as follows:

NSDAP — 11,737,010 votes — 196 delegates — 33.1% (6% decline from previous vote)
SPD — 7,247,956 votes — 121 delegates — 20.4% (1% decline from previous vote)
KPD — 5,980,162 votes — 100 delegates — 16.8% (2% increase from previous vote)

1933 —

January 30: German President Hindenburg appoints Hitler Chancellor with parliamentary support of other conservative, business-backed parties. Nazis begin to work with and within police forces in actions directed at Communist public events and in attacks against those working-class communities in which Communists or Social Democrats were dominant politically and part of the fabric of social life. Hundreds of anti-fascists were killed in resulting street fighting; storm troopers kill about 1,000 Jews in vigilante assaults.

Feb. 27: Reichstag Fire — Approximately 10,000 KPD members and other anti-fascists arrested throughout Germany. Although the Communist party was itself still technically legal, its publications were suppressed, its public meetings repressed, and open activity all but ended.

March 5: Elections — Despite repression the KPD receives 4,800,000 votes, 12.3% of total. The SDP’s vote dropped only slightly, receiving 7,100,000 votes, 18.3% of those cast. Meanwhile the Nazi’s use of government power enabled them to grow, though they still lacked a majority — they received 43.9% of the vote (17.200,00). Even with the support of other conservative parties, they were unable to attain the two-thirds parliamentary majority required to change the Constitution.

March 6: De Facto ban on KPD, all its remaining buildings, offices, presses occupied or destroyed. No parliamentary party protested, mainline Catholic and Protestant churches support the measures.

March 9: Arrest orders for 81 Communists elected to parliament, their seats declared vacant. Thousands more Communist leaders and activists (local, regional or national) arrested; others forced into hiding or exile. Concentration camps quickly built for political opponents (more than 100 by year’s end) and filled up, again, no parliamentary protest. With the KPD removed, Hitler now has his two-thirds majority.

March 20: Germany’s Central Trade Union organization (ADGB) declares that unions must be “apolitical.” It cuts all ties or associations with the SPD and declares its willingness to work with the new Nazi government.

March 23: Enabling (Emergency Powers) Act passed. This was the legal fig leaf used by the Nazis to end Germany’s federal system and allow Hitler to rule by decree. Although Germany’s parliament was thereby rendered without power, it was twice more brought into session to renew this Act through to World War II. Catholic parliamentary parties support the Act as do the main Lutheran and Evangelical churches. The SPD was the only party in Parliament to vote against the measure.

April 1: Nazis declare national boycott of all Jewish-owned businesses and stores.

April 7: First anti-Semitic laws promulgated excluding Jews from civil service and many professions, restricting access to schools. Laws followed prohibiting religious Jewish food preparation (animal slaughtering).

April 30: ADGB begins discussions with smaller Catholic and Liberal (Protestant) union centers about possible merger.

May 1: ADGB agrees to participate in Nazi sponsored May Day celebrations.

May 2: Nazis occupy all national, regional and local trade union offices, union funds confiscated, union leaders arrested, the ADGB dissolved by government decree. No protests issued by other still legal unions

May 9: SPD offices closed, its newspapers banned, its property confiscated.

May 19: SPD votes in Parliament to support Hitler’s foreign policy

May 23: Government outlaws all collective bargaining.

June 19: SPD elects new Executive Committee, removing Jews from national leadership.

June 22: SPD banned — National leaders and parliamentary delegates arrested. No parliamentary party raises any objection.

July 4 & 5: Catholic Parties (Bavarian People’s Party and Center Party) dissolve themselves under pressure. No mainline church offers any opposition. Soon thereafter Pope signs concordat (recognition agreement) with Nazi government similar to one previously signed with Mussolini’s fascist government in Italy.

July 26: Law of Revocation of Naturalization and Annulment of German Citizenship promulgated. As all Eastern European Jews were deemed politically suspect (irrespective of whether they were politically active or not), citizenship was revoked to all who had been granted it during the Weimar Republic. Another spate of anti-Semitic laws followed, taking away land ownership rights, discriminating against non-Jews married to Jews and further restricting employment.

The above chronology is not meant to provide an analysis of who did what and why, or to assign praise or blame. Communists, Social Democrats, and unionists made many mistakes and paid for those mistakes dearly. Much of what was done that failed took place out of a misconceived attempt at preservation of some working-class space by organizational leaders unable to see a way out of the morass other than by narrowing their vision. Throughout all this, many acted heroically, including some who acted so short-sightedly in 1933. Many acted with insight, resistance never abated, and working-class opposition was never wholly overcome. That said, internal resistance within Germany was unable to overcome fascism through its own actions.

Niemoller’s words live on because they express the human cost of self-focus at the expense of mutuality”

Content of a Loss

The pattern of developments noted above was familiar to Niemoller and others of his generation. The attacks on Communists, Social Democrats, unions, attacks on working-class institutions and communities, led each to be isolated. This was interwoven with attacks on populations (Jews, later Roma, Slavs, the disabled, gays and others) that were even more vulnerable. In the process, civil liberties were lost (including liberty of conscience) which finalized his fate and that of may others who spoke up too late.

Most people today are unfamiliar with this history except in the most general terms. Niemoller’s words live on because they express the human cost of self-focus at the expense of mutuality; they are meaningfully changed and altered over time as a reminder of the need to stand in solidarity with groups or segments of the population under attack at any given time. To the extent that this is done with a real specificity of who is named, who is under threat, so much to the good.

But when “communists” are removed by those who otherwise quote Niemoller as he wrote because they are “unwanted” victims, then a sign is given of a partial solidarity that fails the test of solidarity altogether. Perhaps an analogy can be made when defenders of vulnerable populations ignore the plight of a vulnerable population closer to hand – such as those who are (or have been) in prison, for it means the support that is given is itself contingent upon impression and circumstance. Moreover, eschewing Communists as victims is part of the process of separating defense of liberties — freedom of speech, assembly, press — from active use of liberties to create more social justice, to make use of democracy to advance popular power, social justice, and freedom through equality. Niemoller never abandoned his rejection of anti-Communism, even when it quickly resurfaced in Germany during his lifetime.

Which is, perhaps the final point — Niemoller’s words can be taken as a sentiment of good intentions or a call to action. If the later, than it is best to use it to remind us of how we should defend our rights. Communists, Social Democrats, unions were victimized because they were rooted in working-class communities and, even with all their respective weaknesses, formed the only break on the untrammeled greed of power. The Jewish community was the despised minority, human beings who served as the vehicle for hatred redirected away from the real source of oppression, as a vehicle to be used whenever the powers that be desired to whip up sentiment for war. We are not talking here of some abstract evil, we are talking about particular policies put in place for particular purposes of maintaining and expanding the power of the already powerful — a far more cold-blooded evil for that reason.

… so we see three clear targets of the right inside and outside of government.”

Our Own Time

Today’s equivalents are different from Niemoller’s time — yet the same. The targets are not left-wing groups that lack the roots and strengths they had in 1933 Germany; and though bigotry in all its ugly forms runs rampant through the Trump Administration, it is not bigotry for its own sake, but rather bigotry promoted with clear purposes in mind. If we want to build the mutual support needed to defend ourselves, if we want to build the mutual support needed to create an alternative power for social and economic justice, than we need to be clear about where the mainline of fire is being directed and why, for it is not aimed at the most radical, but at the most rooted.

And so we see three clear targets of the right inside and outside of government. This includes the AFL-CIO because it is an institution of alternative power and alternative thinking within the working class. Federal and other public worker unions are in particular on the chopping block because they represent defense of public programs, defense of the social over the individual. Unions are attacked simply because they exist, irrespective of whether they are weak or strong, conservative or progressive, self-interested or solidaristic.

So too, Planned Parenthood is a target — not because it is the only defender of reproductive justice and abortion rights (there are many others), not because it is the most progressive (it isn’t), but because it is the institution with the most widespread network of clinics for working-class and poor women, the institution able to exercise more power than others to help preserve the bodily independence that is needed to avoid social dependence.

And so is Black Lives Matter, even though it does not have millions of members or institutional strength, but rather because it stands forth as ready and able to mobilize to defend communities facing most directly institutional violence in all its forms, because it has been able to bring into action those most marginalized by the system, and because it has recognized and acted upon the intersections of all layers of discrimination and oppression.

As for the communities themselves at the knife’s edge in Trump Administration rhetoric and policy, we see two: immigrant communities (especially those from Mexico and Central America) because popular discontent over the state of the economy is being misdirected toward them. And Muslims, because attacks on them provide the most direct excuse for suppression of civil liberties, and the most direct excuse for continuation of current wars and preparation for future one.

If the spirit of Niemoller’s injunction is to serve as a warning heeded rather than nice words on a poster then we should never forget why he wrote as he did in 1945. We need to defend those under siege today with equal clarity about who is attacked and why. Opposition to repression must begin with defense of those on the frontlines of resistance to that oppression.


About the author

Kurt Stand

Kurt Stand was active in the labor movement for over 20 years including as the elected North American Regional Secretary of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers until 1997.  That year he was arrested and served 15 years in prison on charges of having committed espionage for the GDR, charges he unsuccessfully contested at trial and upon appeal.  Currently he works at a bookstore, is a member of the Washington Metro DSA, is active in Progressive organizations in his community of Cheverly, Maryland, serves as a Portside Labor Moderator and is the facilitator of a Metro DC Labor/Reentry jobs project. View all posts by Kurt Stand →

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2 thoughts on Rewriting What Was: Distorting Pastor Niemoller’s Words

  1. Thank you for this article. Despite the fact that I am of Jewish ancestory, it always bothers me when the Holocaust is reduced to the persecution of Jews. We were murdered in the millions, but so were communists, socialists, trade unionists, the disabled, gays, the Roma, Slavs, and only God (if there is one) knows who else.

  2. I was unsettled enough by this to google Niemoller. The main Wikipedia article goes along with the Socialists, but other sites do refer to the fact that he evidently first referred to Communists. But yes, the Holocaust Museum itself reprints it as Socialists–although if you read down they admit that there were several versions. So I am left with two questions: (1) I wonder if there is not some German authority who could state for a fact that his earliest known version referred to Communists. And (2): even assuming there are different versions, why has the Holocaust Museum settled on Socialists? Although it is true that Hitler also turned against the true Social Democrats, his major enemy from the outset were the Communists. (The Nazi party itself is an acronym for the National Socialist German Workers Party.) Although Niemoller himself was a somewhat ambiguous figure, I cannot understand why the Holocaust Museum chose the one group over the other.

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