Above: Martin Niemöller commanding a U-Boat 1914.
Below: Martin Niemöller at his desk, 1936
Both images curtesy of Sibylle Niemöller.
Martin Niemöller was born in Germany on January 14th 1892. After being discharged from the German Navy during WWI for disobeying orders, Niemöller began training to become a priest, got married and had six children.
Like majority of the German population, Niemöller believed that Germany needed a strong leader, therefore he supported Hitler.
In 1934, Niemöller had a change in political stance, after meeting with Hitler and realising that Germany was under a dictatorship. Niemöller then began to openly oppose the Nazis. This resulted in him being arrested several times (1934-1937), being charged with treason and thrown into a concentration camp (1937). Niemöller spent 7 years in concentration camps, until US Troops liberated Tirol in Austria, where Niemöller was imprisoned.
After being liberated, Niemöller became president for the Hessen Nassau Lutheran Church (1947) and began preaching on collective German guilt. By the mid 1950s Niemöller had become a pacifist and was working for peace with international groups. He died on March 6th 1984, aged 92.
Martin Niemöller’s poem ‘First they came for the Communists’ clearly describes to the reader the steps the Nazis took to “purify the German race”. In his poem, Niemöller writes about how the Nazis came for certain groups in society like Jews, communists and trade unionsts and how nobody tried to stand up for them. People stayed quiet because they were afraid or thought the Nazis were doing Germany a favour. Alfons Heck, a former Hitler Youth described this in his autobiography A Child of Hitler, ‘Unless one was Jewish, a gyspy, a homosexual or a political opponent of Nazism, Germany had become a land of promise.”
A concentration camp in Buchenwald, where prisoners, like Niemöller and other groups described in the poem would have been sent.
Image curtsey of jewishgen.org
In his poem, First They Came for the Communists, Martin Niemöller conveys the theme of the Holocaust and discrimination, through repetition of both words and themes, and also creates a sense of detachment from the victims.
Throughout the poem, Niemöller uses repetition to describe the Nazis actions. He creates a list-like feel, emphasising the repetition of the killing of minority groups, until they came for him. As Martin Kitchen, historian and author, wrote in his book, Nazi Germany- A Critical Introduction, “The Nazis first decided what was ‘normal’ and then set about destroying everything that didn’t match these criteria. Although Jews were seen as the greatest danger, other groups were also singled out for exclusion. These included the mentally and physically handicapped, psychiatric patients, male homosexuals, gypsies, habitual criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts and other ‘asoicals’.” The list of ‘abnormalities’ kept on getting bigger until even showing dislike to the Nazis could get you killed. Niemöller conveys this through the repetition of, “First they came for the Communists” and then proceeds to repeat that phrases with different minority groups until it reaches him.
Niemöller also repeats “and I did not speak out because I was not [one of them]”. This creates a sense of detachment and makes the action seem irrelevant, because it wasn’t affecting most of the community so there was no need to do anything. However, as the poem progresses and more people get captured, it starts to affect more people, with still no one standing up for each other, until it is too late, and they too are captured. As Kitchen writes, “Some were concerned about this reaction from abroad. Precious few helped the unfortunate victims of this outrage.” This was because the public knew if they spoke up, they were next.
In conclusion, similar to Alexander Kimel, poet who wrote I Cannot Forget, Martin Niemöller uses repetition to emphasis the horrors of the Holocaust, but also creates a sense of detachment to the victims until it is too late.
Scottish actress Andrea McKenzie reading out Niemöller's poem. Published 2012.
Curtsey of Youtube.