Martin Niemöller, “First They Came…” – Quote or No Quote?

Usually, on these Quote or No Quote episodes, we analyze things attributed to famous people that they didn’t say at all. Sometimes there are famous quotes that have been mangled, changed, or so greatly taken out of historical context that they might as well be considered misquotes. And occasionally, we talk about quotes that are genuine, but whose background illuminates a great deal more about the quote author, and the times in which they lived, than is usually realized.

Today I’d like to talk about a quote, a kind of poem, that has become very famous since the end of World War II and the Holocaust. It’s often employed in circumstances when there has been a violent outrage against a minority group, while the majority either stood around and did nothing, or looked the other way and more or less let it happen.

That’s why we’ve seen the poem used and posted so often on social media here in the United States in these past few weeks. You probably know it well. It’s Pastor Martin Niemöller’s “First They Came….”

First 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 for me.

That’s the most well-known version and construction of this statement about the consequences of standing by while something immoral is happening, of the responsibility of the bystanders. And it implies the burden of guilt that these bystanders live with in the wake of such events.

Pastor Martin Niemöller was a German Lutheran pastor, and a theologian, who had a very intriguing and complex life. Born in 1892, the son of a Lutheran pastor, Niemöller’s first career was as a submarine commander for the German Navy during World War I. Apparently, he was a pretty good sub commander, and was awarded the Iron Cross at the end of the war.

Rather than stay in the Navy, he decided to become a pastor in the Lutheran church after the war, and was ordained in 1924. Given that he was the author of the famous “First they came…” “poem,” it will probably surprise many of you that he was an early supporter of Hitler and the National Socialists (the Nazis). Like a great many Lutheran pastors and churchmen, Niemöller was a social and political conservative, and was greatly distressed by what he saw as the decline in German prestige in Europe after World War I. He thought that Hitler’s emphasis on German national pride and his promises to bring about a recovery of its national pride and respect among other European countries was what was needed.

As the 1930s progressed, however, Niemöller became worried about the extremism that Hitler and the Nazis were displaying. Along with some other German Protestant leaders such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he founded the Confessional Church in 1934. Its goal was to try to prevent German Protestant churches from becoming “Nazified,” that is, taken over by Nazi ideology. At this stage, however, Niemöller’s worries mainly centered around the Nazis taking over these churches. He had yet to become disillusioned with Nazi “secular” government goals and their ideas of “national rebuilding.”

It took until 1936 for that to start to change, however. He gradually became more vocal and direct about his opposition to Nazi Aryanism. Consequently, he was arrested in 1937, and was sent Dachau concentration camp in 1938. He stayed there until the end of the war, when Dachau was liberated by the Allies in 1945.

It’s probably too much to say that the “first they came…” idea was a product of Niemöller’s arrest and imprisonment. But as far as we can tell, Dachau eventually had a lot to do with it. While driving with his wife near Dachau just after the war, she asked to see his former cell. He took her there. After seeing the cell, they were shown the crematorium by an American officer. As Niemöller said in a 1946,

I stood with my wife in front of the crematorium in Dachau, and on a tree in front of this building was a white-painted board with black lettering… There one could read: “Here in the years 1933-1945 238,756 people were cremated.” While I read it, not aloud, I noticed that my wife fainted and sank trembling into my arms. I had to support her and noticed how, at that moment, a cold shudder ran down my spine. I think my wife fainted when she read the quarter-million number. That hadn’t moved me. Because it didn’t tell me anything new. What ran through me hot and cold at that moment was something else. That was the other two numbers: “1933-1945.” I groped for my alibi and knew that the two numbers were the wanted poster for the living God for Pastor Niemöller. My alibi reached from 1937 to 1945. Yes, I know, from 1937 until the end you had an alibi. Here you’re being asked, “where were you from 1933 until 1937?” And I couldn’t avoid this question any longer.

“Where were you from 1933 until 1937?” — a very powerful message to get from his own conscience, and this is where he obviously began to develop his idea of being responsible for rationalizing his own inaction in the face of an advancing menace. Effectively, he was asking himself how he could morally justify standing by while other groups were taken.

As I implied above, he started talking about this realization in speeches and sermons in the later 1940s, both in Germany and during trips abroad. All the evidence indicates the Niemöller wove this experience and the questions he had asked himself into his speeches and sermons, but he hadn’t turned into the kind of poetic form that we know it today.

That poetic form started to appear in the mid-1950s, and usually when the sentiment was repeated by other people, either in print or in their own speeches and sermons. American journalist Milton Sanford Meyer wrote about it in Harper’s Magazine in 1953. American Communist leader, Claude Lightfoot, paraphrased it in his own book, _Not Guilty_, in 1955, using a kind of poetic structure. And it was adapted in a school play in 1958, based on Anne’s Frank’s Diary.

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out —
because I was not a Jew
Then 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 me
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Very close to the version that’s so well known today. Since then, it has appeared many times, and in many forms. Sometimes groups such as Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled, and many others are used. Indeed, Niemöller would use different groups in different speeches and sermons. But the version that is so frequently heard and read in the United States since the 1960s replaced “Socialists” for “Communists,” as the first group mentioned. And in many German versions, “Jews” are not included. Academics have studied the poem, but Professor Harold Marcuse at the University of California Santa Barbara has done, by far, the most extensive research and analysis of how the sentiment made its way from speech and sermon to poem, and how it has been used and re-worded in different cultures. And I have relied very heavily on his work (and his translations of Niemöller’s speeches) in preparing this show.

Taking “communists” out of the version used in Cold War America is not insignificant. “Socialists” was a less frightening term and a less dangerous group. There were socialists in Western Europe, after all, even in England. They was a strange and vaguely un-American group, but not deadly menace like the Communists. In other cases, it seems as if the poem is adapted or changed to become more relevant, or palatable, to a specific audience. As we’ve seen so often in our Quote or No Quote shows, that’s far more common than not. The use of quotes (like the erection of a statue) usually says more about the people who are saying it in their own time and place than it does about the original historical speaker or original context.

When relating the story of his realization after seeing the dates on the crematorium sign at Dachau, Niemöller mentioned the Communists first, because they were the first group rounded up by the Nazis in 1933. Again, rhetorically referring to himself being questioned by God, Niemöller said:

In 1933 I was a free man. 1933 — at that moment in the crematorium yard it occured to me — yes, in 1933, that’s right: Herman Göring boasted publicly that he gotten rid of the Communist danger… Hey, Martin Niemöller, where were you then, asked God. And on that day, when we got home, I read the chapter Matthew 25 with new meaning: “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink; I was sick and in prison and you did not come to me.” As a Christian I could have known and should have known in 1933 that in each of these human brothers — may they be called Communists or whatever — God in Jesus Christ was asking me whether I wouldn’t want to serve him.

So that was the first expression of this sentiment which is still so powerful today.

It’s still so powerful today because the problems of abuse and oppression are still with us today. And, when moral outrages happen, I wonder whether we aren’t doing what Niemöller said he did over and over from 1933-1937. That is, “groping for alibis,” when we retreat into the comfort of expressions of shock, of thoughts and prayers, and then, doing nothing effective to try to stop these horrors from happening again.

Have we created a culture where Niemöller’s “First they came…” poem is so well known because it has to be?

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Matthew D Hockenos, Then They Came for Me: Martin Niemöller, the Pastor Who Defied the Nazis (2018).

Few today recognize the name Martin Niemöller, though many know his famous confession. In Then They Came for Me, Matthew Hockenos traces Niemöller’s evolution from a Nazi supporter to a determined opponent of Hitler, revealing him to be a more complicated figure than previously understood.

Born into a traditionalist Prussian family, Niemöller welcomed Hitler’s rise to power as an opportunity for national rebirth. Yet when the regime attempted to seize control of the Protestant Church, he helped lead the opposition and was soon arrested. After spending the war in concentration camps, Niemöller emerged a controversial figure: to his supporters he was a modern Luther, while his critics, including President Harry Truman, saw him as an unrepentant nationalist.

A nuanced portrait of courage in the face of evil, Then They Came for Me puts the question to us today: What would I have done?


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