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“First they came …” is a famous statement and provocative poem attributed to pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis' rise to power and the subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group. There is some disagreement over the exact wording of the quotation and when it was created; the content of the quotation may have been presented differently by Niemöller on different occasions.
The best-known versions of the speech are the poems that began circulating by the 1950s. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum quotes the following text as one of the many poetic versions of the speech:
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.
Niemöller created multiple versions of the text during his career. The earliest speeches, written in 1946, list the communists, incurable patients, Jews or Jehovah's Witnesses, and civilians in countries occupied by Nazi Germany. An English translation of Niemöller's speech for the Confessing Church in Frankfurt on 6 January 1946 is as follows:
When Pastor Niemöller was put 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 put in the camps then were Communists. Who cared about them? We knew it, it was printed in the newspapers.
Who raised their voice, maybe the Confessing Church? We thought: Communists, those opponents 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's right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn't 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 aren't guilty/responsible? The persecution of the Jews, the way we treated the occupied 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 and published in English in 1947, but was later retracted when it was alleged that Niemöller was an early supporter of the Nazis. The "sick, the so-called incurables" were killed in Action T4. A 1955 version of the speech, mentioned in an interview of a German professor quoting Niemöller, lists communists, socialists, schools, Jews, the press, and the Church. An American version delivered by a congressman in 1968 anachronistically omits the Communists and includes the industrialists, who were not persecuted by the Nazis.
In 1976, Niemöller gave the following answer in response to an interview question asking about the origins of the poem. The Martin-Niemöller-Foundation considers this the "classical" version of the speech:
There were no minutes or copy of what I said, and it may be that I formulated 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 at that time, and it shouldn't have anything do with them either. In the Confessing Church we didn't want to represent any political resistance per se, but we wanted to determine for the Church that that was not right, and that it should not become right in the Church, that's why already in '33, when we created the pastors' emergency federation (Pfarrernotbund), we put as the 4th point in the founding charter: If an offensive is made against ministers and they are simply ousted as ministers, because they are of Jewish lineage (Judenstämmlinge) or something like that, then we can only say as a Church: No. And that was then the 4th point in the obligation, and that was probably the first contra-anti-antisemitic pronouncement coming from the Protestant Church.
Martin Niemöller was a German 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 statement was published in a 1955 book by Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free, based on interviews he had 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.
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 (depending on which speech), and people in occupied countries, the 1955 text, a paraphrase 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 the explanation given by Niemöller himself in 1976, this refers to the German Protestant ('Evangelische') Church, and not to the German Catholic Church.
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 the famous words but, if people insist upon citing them, he preferred a version that listed 'the Communists', 'the trade unionists', 'the Jews', and 'me'." However, historian Harold Marcuse could not verify that interview. Rather, he found a 1976 interview in which Niemöller referred to a 1974 discussion with the general bishop of the Lutheran Church of Slovakia.
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