The Rev. Dr. Martin Niemöller and his wife, Else, visited Silver Bay on at least two occasions.
Niemöller was one of the most famous religious figures in Nazi Germany, and embodied all the paradoxes and ironies of the time. During the first World War, he served as an officer on a U-boat, sank Allied shipping and was decorated with the Iron Cross. After the war, he studied theology and became a minister. Very much a nationalist, he supported Hitler in the early years of his rise to power. But in July of 1936, Niemöller added his signature to this statement from the clergy of Germany:
“Our people are trying to break the bond set by God. That is human conceit rising against God. In this connection we must warn the Führer that the adoration frequently bestowed on him is only due to God.”
Niemöller’s criticisms became more pointed. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and confidant, later recalled:
“He (Hitler) had another such fit of rage at Pastor Niemöller in 1937. Niemöller had once again delivered a rebellious sermon in Dahlem; at the same time transcripts of his tapped telephone conversations were presented to Hitler. In a bellow, Hitler ordered Niemöller to be put in a concentration camp and, since he had proven himself to be incorrigible, kept there for life.”
Niemöller was arrested and held in a Berlin prison for eight months awaiting trial. When his case took place, he was found guilty of “abusing the pulpit” and fined 2,000 marks. As he left the courtroom, he was met by the Gestapo and taken to “protective detention” at the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, to be “re-educated.” But he refused to change his views. In 1938, Joseph Goebbels urged Hitler to have Niemöller executed, but Alfred Rosenberg argued that it would provide an opportunity for public figures in other countries to attack the German government.
Even in prison, Niemöller insisted his differences with Hitler were religious and not political; once war broke out he offered to serve again in the German navy, an offer which was declined. In 1941, he was transferred to Dachau. In all, Niemöller was imprisoned for eight years. In 1945, with the Allies closing in, Niemöller and other political prisoners were moved to the Tirol province in Austria by the SS, for execution.
In a 1945 letter, Niemöller wrote:
“After a horrible night… German officers and soldiers came, put the execution squad in a truck and sent them on their way, guarded by machine guns. The Germans brought us to a hotel in Bergen, where we were very well fussed over and fed and looked after. That lasted three days, when one morning an American company arrived, disarmed the Germans and took us into their care.”
After his release, Niemöller took his wife to Dachau and showed her his cell there. And passing the crematorium, they saw a white-painted board nailed to a tree and on it, in black letters, “Here between the years 1933 and 1945, 238,756 human beings were incinerated.” At that moment, Niemöller said, the consciousness of his own guilt and his own failure assailed him.
“And God asked me… where wast thou in those years 1933 to 1945? I knew I had no answer to that question. True, I had an alibi in my pocket, for the years 1937 to 1945, my identity disc from the concentration camp. But what help to me was that? God was not asking me where I had been from 1937 to 1945, but from 1933 to 1945, and for the years 1933 to 1937 I had no answer. Should I have said perhaps: ‘As a pastor in those years I bore courageous witness to the Faith; I dared to speak, and risked life and freedom in doing so.’
“But God did not ask about that. God asked: ‘Where were you from 1933 to 1945 when human beings were incinerated here?’ When, in 1933, Goering publicly boasted that all active Communists had been imprisoned and rendered harmless, that was when we forgot our responsibility, that was when we should have warned our parishioners. Many a man from my own parish, who went and joined the National Socialist Party and who is now to do penance for his act, could rise up against me today and say that he would have acted differently if I had not kept silence at that time.”
A free man and back in the pulpit, Niemöller admitted his guilt in sermon after sermon:
“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.”
“If we had then recognized that in the communists who were thrown into concentration camps, the Lord Jesus Christ himself lay imprisoned and looked for our love and help, if we had seen that at the beginning of the persecution of the Jews it was the Lord Christ in the person of the least of our human brethren who was being persecuted and beaten and killed, if we had stood by him and identified ourselves with him, I do not know whether God would not then have stood by us and whether the whole thing would not then have had to take a different course.”
Niemöller spent the rest of his life speaking the truth as a pastor and working for peace all over the world.
His first visit to Silver Bay came in 1950. After a meeting of the World Council of Churches in Toronto, Martin and Else Niemöller spent three days at the Lutheran Summer Conference, giving “informal talks” and relaxing. In 1958, Martin returned to Silver Bay for a Christian World Mission meeting, and speaking of a divided Europe he said:
“When churches fail to be ‘merciful neighbors,’ they misunderstand vast social changes… The churches ought to have shown a Christian and human way of dealing with the growing crisis of coexistence between East and West. But they were and are hopelessly linked to the bourgeois world. They did not even see the travail of those who needed them.”
Today, Martin Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for this piece of verse, written in 1946:
“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;
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.”