“It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of His enemies.”

The late Martin Niemöller said these words after eight years of concentration camp imprisonment, and friend Kirsten Mebust reminded me of them on a facebook post of hers on September 11th.

He’s also the gentleman who wrote (some version of) the following poem:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a communist.

Then 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.

And then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.


In the last several days, I have been ruminating on the Events of September 11th, and all that has transpired since.  I didn’t want to write about it before 9-11, or on 9-11, but after, sifting and mulling what I read and what I heard and what I saw.

Turns out that lots of people have turned to Niemöller for their own ruminations.

So I figured I should poke around to learn more about him.

His words seem to be more famous than his story is.

In a nutshell, Niemöller was a German navy officer-turned-Nazi-supporter-turned-militiaman-turned-pastor-turned-supporter-of-Hitler’s-politcal-agenda-turned-imprisoned-protestor-turned-pacifist.

His story is worth teasing out, particularly in light of these two quotes above.

In World War I, Niemöller was a celebrated commander of the German navy.  In a relatively rickety vessel, he sailed deceptively under a French flag, thereby torpedoing two Allied ships and one British man of war, not to mention laying German mines in the harbor of Valletta.  For his efforts he was rewarded with an upgrade of status and ship, and continued to kill and destroy with distinction.  In an amusing sentence describing a swath of death, the February 21, 1939 Time Magazine article on him wrote that once Commander Niemöller found himself on a fancy-dancy  U-151, “this submarine on a single marauding 114-day voyage hung up a record of 55,000 tons of Allied shipping gesunken.” He wasn’t done, however, being given another reward with the UC-67, which he led to such destruction around Marseilles that they had to close the port.

After the Germans lost that war, Niemöller remained committed to the military, and joined the Freikorps, a “private army” bent on protecting the Germans from the Reds…and communists and socialists of any ilk inside or outside the borders. One site indicates that in 1919 over 600 of said groups were killed by the Freikorps in a Bavarian purge.

The trade unionists finally quashed this right-wing revolt.

And then he studied theology.

Before you leap to all sorts of cracks that are screaming to be made about a marauding commander in the navy becoming a commander of a nave, in point of fact, he wanted to be a farmer.  But German inflation forced the uncle who had promised Niemöller the farm to instead sell it.

So, logically, he became a pastor, a choice that if nothing else promised security.

In the end, he was probably safer in the navy than the nave.

In that same year that he was ordained, 1924, he cast his first vote for the National Socialists. He eventually supported Hitler with vim, believing that he would restart not only the German economy but the German spirit.

Hitler and Niemöller had each other’s ears.

In the end, neither had each other’s backs.

By 1933, he was concerned about Hitler’s designs on the churches with the appointment of one of his cronies (albeit an ordained pastor) as the bishop of the Protestant Church.  He spoke out publicly against the Nazis’ attempt–and success–at making the Churches serve Hitler, rather than God.  He worked with Dietrich Bonhoeffer to create the Confessing Church, a group of pastors who stood against Hitler.

It was for this, for Hitler’s evil cadence to be joined–albeit with some coercion–by the German Lutheran Church, and not for Hitler’s policy against the Jews, that Niemöller found himself under lock and key.  He never stood up against Hitler’s political policies, but only his meddling in the Church.

Niemöller was arrested in July 1937 for speaking out against Hitler from the pulpit, was imprisoned for eight months, fined after a trial, and then immediately re-arrested as a “personal prisoner of Hitler.”  He was sent to Sachsenhausen for “re-education.”  Because he was a poor student and refused to learn the new ways, he was then sent to Dachau, where he was to spend the next eight years of his life.  For all he knew, it was where he would die.

Still, in a bizarre twist, even in 1939 he volunteered to command a ship in Hitler’s army.

Niemöller was freed by the Allies in 1945, and soon after gave a press conference admitting his support of the Nazi agenda, his silence in the face of Jewish suffering, and his offer to lead a German ship.

And then his transformation began.

He preached a sermon in 1946, in which he stated:

We must openly declare that we are not innocent of the Nazi murders, of the murder of German communists, Poles, Jews, and the people in German-occupied countries. No doubt others made mistakes too, but the wave of crime started here and here it reached its highest peak. The guilt exists, there is no doubt about that – even if there were no other guilt than that of the six million clay urns containing the ashes of incinerated Jews from all over Europe. And this guilt lies heavily upon the German people and the German name, even upon Christendom. For in our world and in our name have these things been done.

It was in this same year that he is purported to have written the words to “First they came…”

For the remainder of his life, he was committed to pacifism (After the bombs were dropped in Japan, he called Truman the second most murderous person in the world, following Hitler) and to socialism.  In 1982, he stated that when young, he was “an ultra-conservative who wanted the Kaiser to come back; and now I am a revolutionary. I really mean that. If I live to be a hundred I shall maybe be an anarchist.”  He didn’t live to be 100.  Instead, he died at age 92.

So, per 9-11.  Or 9-16, rather.

Niemöller screwed up.  He made dastardly decisions that caused untold pain and trouble.  His nationalism fueled by his fear and self-protection blinded him to the deathly consequences of his political and militaristic fervor.

Until they came for him.

Niemöller’s metanoia, his change of heart, his repentance, came only after he suffered as a result of persecution the likes of which he had imposed on others.

And he didn’t grasp the pain he caused others until he experienced it himself.

It’s like imposed, experiential empathy.

An Irish proverb goes like this:  “The full person does not understand the needs of the hungry.”  Studies document that one’s capacity to empathize with another’s suffering corresponds to an ability to identify with the experience of the sufferer.[1]

Nothing that Niemöller could ever do could ever take back the unspeakable trauma that he caused or remedy the deep betrayals that he inflicted, trauma and betrayal that occurred largely because he was afraid.

That said, suddenly he who had been full was hungry, to borrow from the Irish. And full Niemöller suddenly found himself around a lot of other hungry people.

He learned what it’s like to have friends in low places, because he himself, astonishingly, had been brought low.

And so he spent the rest of his life as a convert: a convert trying to convert the stuffed.

And it took him a long time.

So Niemöller leaves a conflicted legacy.

He wronged.  There was nothing doing undoing the wrong: it’s an impossible goal.  And he acknowledged that reality, and yet stewarded the rest of his life in pursuit of the hope that he could lead others from committing the same sort of wrongs.

Perhaps, in the end, what catches my imagination about Niemöller is the fact that he lived his life in fear: Fear first of his enemies, and then fear that he would become like them.

And maybe that’s our own conflicted legacy too, post-9-11.

My fear?

It might just take us longer than it took Niemöller to learn that God doesn’t hate.


[1] George Loewenstein and Deborah A. Small, “The Scarecrow and the Tin Man: The Vicissitudes of Human Sympathy and Caring,” Review of General Psychology, 2007 11:2, 112-126.  115.For further reading, and sites from which some of the above information came: