Pastor Martin Niemöller’s confession, heard anew amid climate crisis


Pastor Martin Niemöller’s confession, heard anew amid climate crisis[1]


Pastor Martin Niemöller is a complex figure. A German nationalist, militarist, and anti-Semite who voted for the Nazis, he was also the most famous German opponent of the Nazis. He stood for an independent German Protestant Church and opposed its subordination to Nazi ideology. Arrested and jailed on July 1, 1937, he was found guilty of misusing the pulpit in March 1938, after which he was imprisoned, first at Sachsenhausen, later at Dachau, as Hitler’s “personal prisoner” until the end of the war. By 1954, having met Mahatma Gandhi, who he regarded as a prophet, Niemöller had become a pacifist who, in the words of Matthew Hockenos, his most recent biographer, “made it his primary goal to expand the circle of pacifists, person by person, through example and education.”[2]

Soon after the war, Niemöller became vice chairman of a new organization called the Protestant Church in Germany. In October 1945, at an international conference of Protestant leaders at Stuttgart, “he atoned,” according to Hockenos, “for German crimes, specifically those of the German Protestants.”[3]

“Our guilt as Christians,” Niemöller declared, “is much greater than the guilt of the Nazis, the German people, and the military because we knew which way was false and which was right…. We are guilty of having been silent when we should have spoken.”[4]

Although he may never have actually said what are considered his most famous words—the “Niemöller confession”—he repeatedly stated variations of it in a series of speeches in 1946 and 1947[5]:

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—because

I was not a Communist.

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.[6]

These words are a legacy of the Holocaust. For some time now they have been haunting me, reverberating in my mind because of the spectre of future climate refugees, those coming after the ones we have already seen from the Middle East, Africa, Central America, and elsewhere. Instead of Nazis coming in waves for communists, trade unionists, Jews, Gypsies, gays, etc., another progression of sacrificial victims is gathering just around time’s corner until it is their turn to traverse history’s stage. What we have experienced so far is a mere trickle compared to the flood threatened by a future of increasingly extreme environmental conditions.

If I were a climate refugee, I’d certainly want others to help me. But to date the refugee problem—the problem of unfortunate, needy strangers we’d rather not acknowledge—has not brought out the best in us, although there have been many notable exceptions. This problem confronts us with the Golden Rule, which underpins most religions.[7] It confronts us with delinquent aspects of our progress on this planet. It confronts us with our complacency.

Will we remain silent or will we speak for the coming ranks of climate refugees, who in the end could also include ourselves?

This confrontation with ourselves tells us—and will continue to tell us more and more loudly—that, even though it is not our intention, we are in danger of becoming annihilators.

During the period between the world wars, in other times of challenge and desperation, T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway wrote words that speak to us now about our dilemma. Eliot, the author of the “The Waste Land,” writes in “The Hollow Men”:

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

Hemingway, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, maintains: “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for.”[8]

The climate change bell is tolling for all of us: for me and thee, for our children and grandchildren, and especially for the too easily forgotten others, the refugees.

Although it is late in the day, there is still time to summon our better angels and to create a newer world, one in which environmental stewardship and sustainability are core watchwords, social and income inequality are radically reduced, and democratic institutions are restored to health.

An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

  1. This commentary first appeared in the Victoria Times Colonist on Sunday, September 29, 2019, p. A14.
  2. Matthew D. Hockenos, Then They Came For Me: Martin Niemöller, The Pastor Who Defied the Nazis, Basic Books, 2018, 123-124 (arrested and jailed), 135-136 and 148 and 160 (misusing the pulpit, personal prisoner, Sachsenhausen, Dachau, freed), 231-233 (Gandhi, prophet, pacifist, his primary goal).
  3. Ibid., 177.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 179-182, 200-202.
  6. Ibid., 1.
  7. ZOROASTRIANISM: ”Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself.” JAINISM: “One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated.” JUDAISM: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary.” ISLAM: “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.” BAHÁ’Í: ”Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself.” HINDUISM: “This is the sum of duty: do not do unto others what would cause pain if done to you.” BUDDHISM: “Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” CONFUCIANISM: “One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct … loving kindness. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” CHISTIANITY: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
  8. Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Scribner’s paperback, 467.


This entry was posted in Histories, Commentaries, Commemorations. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *