First they came …

”  First they came …  ” is a poem written by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984). It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis ‘ course of power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group. Many variations and adaptations in the spirit of the original have been published in the English language. It deals with themes of persecution , guilt and responsibility .

The text

The best-known versions of the speech are circulating by the 1950s.  [1]  The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum quotes the following text as one of the many poetic versions of the speech:  [2]

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for 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.

Niemöller created multiple versions of the text during his career, but evidence identified by Professor Harold Marcuse at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says that the Holocaust Memorial Museum is inaccurate because Niemöller frequently used the word “communists” and not “socialists.”  [1]  The substitution of “socialists” for “communists” is an effect of anti-communism, and most ubiquitous in the version that has proliferated in the USA . According to Marcuse, “Niemöller’s original argument was premised on naming groups he and his audience would be instinctively not care about … The omission of Communists in Washington, and of Jews in Germany, distorts that meaning and should be corrected.”

Niemöller’s Earliest Speeches, written in 1946, List the Communists , Incurable Patients, Jews or Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Civilians in Countries by Nazi Germany . In all versions, the impact is carefully built up, by going from the “smallest, most distant” group to the largest, Jewish, group, and then finally to one of the outspoken criticism of Nazism. Niemöller made the cardinal “who cares about them” in his speech for the Confessing Church in Frankfurt on 6 January 1946, of which this is a partial translation:  [1]

When Pastor Niemöller was in a concentration camp we wrote the year 1937; When the concentration camp was opened we wrote the year 1933, and the people who were in the camps were then  Communists  . Who cared about them? We knew it, it was printed in the newspapers.
Who’s getting their voice, maybe the Confessing Church? We thought: Communists, those enemies of religion, those enemies of Christians – “Should I be my brother’s keeper?”
Then they got rid of the  sick, the so-called incurables . – I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it is right, these incurably sick people are just a burden to themselves and others. Is it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]? – Only then did the church as such take note. Then we started talking, until our voices were again silenced in public. Can we say, we are not guilty / responsible? The persecution of the  Jews  , the way we treated the  countries  , or the things in Greece, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia or in Holland, that were written in the newspapers
I believe, we Confessing Church-Christians have every reason to say: mea culpa, mea culpa! We can talk ourselves out of it with the excuse that it would have cost me my head if I had spoken out.

This speech was translated into English in 1947, but was later retracted when it was claimed that Niemöller was an early supporter of the Nazis.  [3]  The “sick, so-called incurable” were killed in the euthanasia program ” Action T4 “. A 1955 version of the speech, mentioned in an interview with a German professor quoting Niemöller, lists Communists, socialists, schools, Jews, the press, and the Church. An American version delivered by a congressman in 1968 includes the industrialists, who were not persecuted by the Nazis, and omitted the Communists.

In 1976, Niemöller gave the following answer in response to an interview question about the origins of the poem.  [1]  The  Martin-Niemöller-Stiftung  (“Martin Niemöller Foundation”) considers this the “classical” version of the speech:

There were no words, and I could only formulate it differently. But the idea was anyhow: The  Communists  , we still let that happen calmly; and the  trade unions  , we also let that happen; and we even let the  Social Democrats  happen. All of that was not our affair. The Church did not concern itself with politics at all, and it should not have anything to do with them. In the Confessing Church we Did not want to Represent Any political resistance  per se  , we wanted to determine purpose for the Church That That Was not right, and That It shoulds not Become right in the Church, that’s why already in ’33, When we created the pastors’ emergency federation ( Pfarrernotbund), we can not be more than a little under the charter: If they are offensive against the rule of law, they are of  Jewish lineage  (Judenstämmlinge) or something like that, then we can only say a Church : No. And that was the 4th point in the obligation, and that was probably the first contra-anti-Semitic pronouncement coming from the Protestant Church.  [4]

Niemöller at The Hague ‘s Grote of Sint-Jacobskerk in May 1952


Main article: Martin Niemöller

Martin Niemöller was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian born in Lippstadt , Germany, in 1892. Niemöller was an anti-Communist and supported Adolf Hitler’s rise to power at first. But when Hitler insisted on the supremacy of the state over religion, Niemöller became disillusioned. He became the leader of a group of German clergymen opposed to Hitler. In 1937 he was arrested and eventually confined in Sachsenhausen and Dachau . He was released in 1945 by the Allies . He continued his career in Germany as a clergyman and as a leading voice of penance and reconciliation for the German people after World War II. His statement, sometimes presented as a poem, is well-known, frequently quoted, and is a popular model for describing the dangers of political apathy .


The report was published in a book by Milton Mayer ,  They Thought They Were Free  (1955), based on interviews conducted in Germany several years earlier. The quotation was circulated by civil rights activists and educators in the United States in the late 1950s. Some research traces the text to several speeches given by Niemöller in 1946.  [1]

Lt. Dennis Kelly reads an excerpt of Niemöller’s poem during a Holocaust Days of Remembrance Observance Service in Pearl Harbor ; 27 April 2009

Nonetheless, the wording remains controversial, both in terms of its provenance, and the substance and order of the groups that are mentioned in its many versions. While Niemöller’s published 1946 speeches mention Communists, the incurably ill, Jews or Jehovah’s Witnesses , and people in occupied countries, the 1955 text, paraphrased by a German professor in an interview, lists communists, socialists, “the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on “, and ends with” the Church “. Based on Niemöller himself in 1976, this refers to the German Protestant (‘Evangelische’) Church, and not to the German Catholic Church.  [1]

However, as claimed by Richard John Neuhaus in the November 2001 issue of  First Things  , when “asked in 1971 about the correct version of the quote, Niemöller said he was not quite sure when he had said quoting them, he preferred the ‘Communists’, ‘the trade unionists’, ‘the Jews’, and ‘me’. ”  [5]  However, historian Harold Marcuse could not verify that interview.  [1] Rather, he found a 1976 interview in which Niemöller referred to a 1974 discussion with the general bishop of the Lutheran Church of Slovakia .  quote needed  ]


At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, the quotation is on display in a variation that substitutes “Socialists” for “Communists”. The Holocaust Museum website has a discussion of the history of the quotation.  [6]

A version of the poem is on display at Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem in Jerusalem . The poem is also presented at the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond, Virginia , the New England Memorial Holocaust in Boston, Massachusetts , and in The Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida .

See also

  • After Saturday Comes Sunday
  • And Then They Came for Me
  • Creeping normality
  • Foot-in-the-door technique
  • New England Holocaust Memorial
  • ” Not My Business “
  • “The Hangman” (poem)
  • Slippery slope
  • Then They Came for Me : A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival



  1. ^ Jump up to: h   Marcuse, Harold. “Martin Niemöller’s famous quotation:” First they came for the Communists … ” ” .  University of California at Santa Barbara  .
  2. Jump up^   Niemöller, Martin. “First they came for the Socialists ..”  Holocaust Encyclopedia  . United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  3. Jump up^   Marcuse, Harold; Niemöller, Martin. “Of Guilt and Hope” .  University of California at Santa Barbara  .
  4. Jump up^   Niemöller, Martin. “Was sagte Niemöller wirklich?” .  Martin Niemöller Foundation  .
  5. Jump up^   Neuhaus, Richard John Neuhaus. “September 11-Before and After” . First things . Retrieved 19 June 2014 .
  6. Jump up^   Niemöller, Martin. “First They Came for the Socialists … ” ” .  United States Holocaust Memorial Museum  . Retrieved February 5, 2011 .

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