A quotation for all seasons
I started to read—at Language Hat’s suggestion—Victor Klemperer’s diaries, a remarkable account of the everyday life of a Jew living in Hitler’s Germany from 1933 to 1945.
In early February 1945, Klemperer was one of 198 registered Jews in Dresden, having thus far escaped being deported to Riga, Auschwitz, or Theresienstadt because, like all the remaining Jews in the city, he had a non-Jewish spouse. If his wife, Eva, had died or had divorced him, Klemperer’s name would have been instantly placed on the list for deportation. In fact, on Tuesday 13 February 1945, all physically fit Jews were ordered to report on the following Friday. Klemperer was headed for a death camp.
But on the night of Tuesday 13 February 1945, RAF Bomber Command launched a twin attack on Dresden: an initial raid, which marked the target area and set it alight, was followed by a much heavier raid three hours later, when the German fighter defence had run out of fuel and the firefighters and rescue workers were struggling to contain the fires that had already taken hold in the center of the city. The resulting firestorm was responsible for most of the estimated 35,000 fatalities. On the following two days the US Eighth Air Force launched further attacks on the beleaguered city and in the ensuring confusion Victor Klemperer and his wife fled across Germany for the next three months “until finally the village they had reached in southern Bavaria was overrun by American forces.”
A couple of months ago, in an post titled Provocation and Retribution, I wrote:
As I continue to read books and watch films about the persecution and extermination of the Jews and the annihilation of German civilians in the Allied bombing raids, it’s difficult not to imagine one as retribution for the other.
The cover photographs of the two volumes of Klemperer’s diaries illustrate this cause and effect relationship with great economy: firstly, the enforcement of a boycott against Jewish shops; and then, two women moving rubble in the ruins of Dresden’s Frauenkirche.
I’d read less than a hundred pages of the first volume before realizing that I know too little of the history of the Third Reich to understand many of Klemperer’s references. So I went back to a book I’d bought around the same time, Robert Gellately’s Backing Hitler. I’ve already quoted a conversation Klemperer had with two of his students who, despite being anti-Nazi, had no sympathy for two young women executed for allegedly spying for Poland:
They saw no fault in the procedures of the secret trial, nor were they troubled in the least that the accused had been denied essential legal rights.
Klemperer’s first diary entry is for 14 January 1933. Hitler became Chancellor on 30 January 1933. Two months later to the day, on March 30, Klemperer writes:
Frau Dember related the case of the ill-treatment of a Communist prisoner which had leaked out: torture, with castor oil, beatings, fear—attempted suicide. Dr Salzburg’s second son, a medical student, has been arrested—letters from him had been found in the home of a Communist.
The same entry ends:
In a toyshop a children’s ball with a swastika.
Gellately describes the ease with which the German people relinquished their civil liberties:
Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor on 30 January 1933 was followed next day by the dissolution of the Reichstag. His slogan for the elections called for 5 March, “Attack on Marxism”, was bound to appeal to solid citizens and property owners. Hermann Göring, one of the few Nazis in Hitler’s Cabinet, took immediate steps to introduce emergency police measures. Over the next weeks the Nazis did not need to use the kind of massive violence associated with modern takeovers like the Russian Revolution. There was little or no organized opposition, and historian Golo Mann said of those times that “it was the feeling that Hitler was historically right which made a large part of the nation ignore the horrors of the Nazi takeover…. People were ready for it.” To the extent that terror was used, it was selective, and it was initially aimed mainly at Communists and other (loosely defined) opposition individuals who were portrayed as the “enemies of the people”.
By mid-February 1933, Göring had replaced numerous police chiefs throughout Prussia because they belonged to the Social Democratic party.
Reading about the tacit complicity of ordinary Germans in Hitler’s rise to power, one is inevitably reminded of Martin Niemöller’s warning about the consequences of capitulation in the face of tyranny:
First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I said nothing.
Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing.
Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist.
And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did little.
Then when they came for me, there was no one left to stand up for me.
Until I went searching for the correct wording on the Web—at first I thought that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had made the famous statement—I wasn’t aware that this quotation has, in Gerry Cordon’s words, “a life of its own”, that there is no “master” version.
The version above—the one quoted by Gerry Cordon—mentions Communists, Social Democrats, trade unionists, Jews, and me (Niemöller himself), in that order. A similar version is cited by the Jewish Virtual Library, with the explanation that the “exact phrasing was supplied by Sibylle Sarah Niemöller von Sell, Martin Niemöller’s wife”.
But, as Gerry Cordon points out, different people “use the quotation to imply different meanings—even altering it to suit their purpose”:
- When Time magazine used the quotation, they moved the Jews to the first place, added Roman Catholics, and dropped both the Communists and the Social Democrats—Jews, trade unionists, Catholics, me.
- Former Vice-President Al Gore also added the Catholics, but dropped the trade unionists—Communists, Social Democrats, Catholics, Jews, me.
- In the quotation inscribed on the Holocaust memorial in the heavily Catholic city of Boston, Catholics were added, Social Democrats removed, and Jews moved into second place—Communists, Jews, trade unionists, Catholics, me.
- The US Holocaust Museum includes the Social Democrats but drops the Communists—Social Democrats, trade unionists, Jews, me.
- Bartleby.com omits the Social Democrats and moves the Jews to first place—Jews, Communists, trade unionists, me.
- The version read into the Congressional Record by Congressman Henry Reuss of Wisconsin (14 October 1968, page 31636) omits the Communists, moves Jews to first place, and adds Catholics and industrialists—Jews, Catholics, unions, industrialists, me (and the Protestant church).
- What did Niemöller really say?
- Which groups did he name?
- In what order?
Professor Marcuse describes Martin Niemöller as a Lutheran pastor in a wealthy Berlin suburb—someone who, at least until the mid-1930s, was “a typical Christian antisemite who openly professed his belief that the Jews had been punished through the ages because they had ‘brought the Christ of God to the cross.’” Initially a supporter of Hitler, he became an opponent of the Nazis when they started to interfere in church affairs. As a consequence of his outspoken sermons Niemöller was arrested in 1937 and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, then moved in 1941 to Dachau where he was confined until the war’s end.
Marcuse suggests that the quotation arose from a visit by Niemöller and his wife to Dachau:
Shortly after the end of the war Niemöller became convinced that the German people had a collective responsibility (he often used the word Schuld, guilt) for the Nazi atrocities. In October 1945 Niemöller was the the prime mover behind the German Protestant Church’s “Confession of Guilt” (“Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis”). In later speeches Niemöller claimed that a November 1945 visit to Dachau, where the crematorium was being kept as a memorial site, began that process of recognition.
I think that it was in this context that Niemöller’s most quoted saying evolved. This early statement implies that he may have thought first of the Communists, then the disabled, then Jews, and finally countries conquered by Germany. However, it is also likely that he modified what he said for different audiences, perhaps including other groups, or changing the order depending on his goals. (I am suggesting that there may not be ONE SINGLE master quotation, but several versions used by MN himself.)
In the earliest texts that Harold Marcuse has been able to locate, Niemöller “spoke of the Communists, the disabled, and the Jews, in that order. He also mentioned Jehovah’s Witnesses”. Thus, despite the ambiguity, it seems certain that the Communists were named first—as suggested by Klemperer’s report of the Communist who was arrested and tortured in March 1933.
What is most interesting is not that Niemöller used different versions himself but rather the self-serving way the quotation has been “reworked” by others to suit their own ends: the version in the US Congressional Record being clearly the most egregious example of such distortion, since it replaces “Communists” with “industrialists”.
Ironically, it is just this kind of manipulation and subversion of language that Victor Klemperer exposed in his book The Language of the Third Reich, which describes how “the existing social culture was manipulated and subverted as the German people had their ethical values and their thoughts about politics, history and daily life recast in a new language.”
Happily, that is all in the past. As I recently heard George W. Bush say on television: “These are good days in the history of freedom”.