Martin Niemöller and "The Bystander's Credo"

 Pastor Martin Niemöller at his desk in his home. Berlin, ca. 1936.  United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Sibylle Niemoeller.

Pastor Martin Niemöller at his desk in his home. Berlin, ca. 1936. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Sibylle Niemoeller.

Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) was a Lutheran pastor who initially supported Hitler and the Nazis but later became their outspoken foe.  Arrested in 1937, he spent eight years in the concentration camps of Sachsenhausen and Dachau before being liberated by the U.S. Army in May 1945. 

After the war, Niemöller repeatedly told his fellow Germans that all of them, including himself, bore a measure of guilt for the evils of National Socialism, maintaining in lectures and sermons that Germans’ silent acquiescence to Nazi crimes amounted to complicity therein. 

It is for this view, often expressed in the form of a poem, that Niemöller remains widely known and admired. Many people--and many who don't know its precise origin--are familiar with what in English has come to be called "The Bystander's Credo."

First, they came for the Communists, but I wasn't a Communist, 

so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the "incurables," but I wasn't an "incurable,"

so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the Jews, but I wasn't a Jew,

so I did not speak out.

Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak out for me.

 

 This 1946 booklet includes remarks by Niemöller on the enabling silence with which many Germans responded to official campaigns against Communists, disabled people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews,  et al .      

This 1946 booklet includes remarks by Niemöller on the enabling silence with which many Germans responded to official campaigns against Communists, disabled people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, et al.

 

 

Research has shown that over his three decades of public speaking, Niemöller used various versions of the above "Credo,” his choices depending on his audience as well as the political context in which he spoke. It is not uncommon to find him mentioning different groups—socialists, for example, or trade unionists, or Jehovah’s Witnesses—targeted by the Nazis. However, all of the versions convey Niemöller's urgent conviction that if you know that a group of people is being persecuted, it is wrong to simply stand by doing nothing. 

In this spirit, we have adapted Niemöller’s words to fit our current situation: that of citizens whose government is rounding up and mistreating large numbers of powerless refugees and immigrants, most of whom have committed no crime except seeking refuge and hoping for a better life. 

 

For more information:

Niemöller, Martin. Über die Deutsche Schuld, Not und Hoffnung. Zurich: Evangelischer Verlag,1946.

Harold Marcuse. "The Origin and Reception of Martin Niemöller's Quotation 'First They Came for the Communists...'," in: Michael Berenbaum et al. (eds.), Remembering for the Future: Armenia, Auschwitz, and Beyond (Paragon, 2016),173-199. 

Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Martin Niemöller: Biography.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007391. Accessed on 26 July 2018.

Martin Niemöller Stiftung: http://martin-niemoeller-stiftung.de/martin-niemoeller/als-sie-die-kommunisten-holten.