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.
The words above are displayed at the United States Holocaust Museum. This week, amid outrage over President Trump’s rhetoric about the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who clashed with counterprotesters in Charlottesville, they have been recited around the world as a simple, haunting warning.
But the lineage of those words is more complicated, beginning with Martin Niemöller, the German Protestant pastor who originally spoke them.
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Niemöller supported Adolf Hitler and Jewish hatred — until he was sent to a concentration camp.
“In my native Teklenburg, there were many farmers who were in debt to Jewish moneylenders and livestock traders,” he told a German TV host in 1963. “At that time, the mood in this area was not systematically anti-Semitic, but it was intuitively and traditionally so, and I never questioned it.”
In 1920, at age 28, he belonged to the Academic Defense Corps, a group of right-wing students with nationalist, hateful ideologies. His beliefs found their way into his calling, according to a Holocaust Museum biography:
Niemöller’s sermons reflected his strong nationalist sentiment. He felt that reparations, democracy and foreign influence had led to damaging social fragmentation and an overemphasis on the individual in German society. Niemöller believed that Germany needed a strong leader to promote national unity and honor.
Niemöller cheered the rise of the National Socialist Party, voting for Hitler and openly echoing his nationalistic, pro-Christian, exclusionary rhetoric. “Niemöller remained an outspoken anti-Semite throughout the 1930s, justifying his prejudices by referring to Christian teachings that the Jews were guilty of deicide, the killing of Jesus,” the Holocaust Museum says.
Niemöller was a complicated guy.
Pressured by other German Christians, he became concerned that the Nazis were politicizing the church, excluding non-Aryans. In 1933, he founded the Pastors Emergency League (PEL) to address the issue. A year later, he and two Protestant bishops met with Hitler to discuss their concerns — “a turning point in Niemöller’s political sympathies,” the Holocaust Museum said, explaining why:
At the meeting it became clear that Niemöller’s phone had been tapped by the Gestapo (German Secret State Police) and that the PEL was under close state surveillance. Following the meeting, the two bishops signed a statement of unconditional loyalty to the Führer. In contrast, Niemöller had come to see the Nazi state as a dictatorship, one which he would oppose.
Niemöller’s sermons attacked the Third Reich’s attempts to control the church. The Nazis obviously didn’t like this very much. They sent him to Dachau, a German concentration camp, where the intolerant ideology of his earlier years continued dissipating, as he recounted in the 1960s TV interview:
… it was not at all clear to me what only dawned upon me later in the concentration camp: that, as a Christian, I must conduct myself not according to my sympathies or antipathies, but must see in each human being, even if he is unsympathetic to me, the fellow human being for whom Jesus Christ hung His cross as much as for me. This simply precludes any form of rejection and action against a group of human beings of any race, any religion, any skin color.
After he was liberated by U.S. troops in 1945, Niemöller publicly advocated for German Christians who continued supporting Hitler to acknowledge their guilt. However, as the Holocaust Museum points out, Niemöller initially “failed to explicitly repudiate Hitler’s political aims, condemning unequivocally only Nazi interference in religious matters.” He also criticized Allied forces.
Then, in 1946, he published a memoir, writing:
Thus, whenever I chance to meet a Jew known to me before, then, as a Christian, I cannot but tell him: ‘Dear Friend, I stand in front of you, but we can not get together, for there is guilt between us. I have sinned and my people has sinned against thy people and against thyself.’
In his public speeches and sermons — including a speaking tour of 52 cities in the United States — Niemöller began saying the things for which he is now remembered.
In examining interviews, speech transcripts and other documents, University of California at Santa Barbara history professor Harold Marcuse concluded that Niemöller didn’t quite say things as he’s been quoted. The persecuted groups he cited sometimes changed for his audience. So did the order in which he listed them. Sometimes he spoke as “we.” Other times, it was “I” and “me” — as in, “When they came for me, there wasn’t anyone left who protested.”
Even today, there is no one correct version, no exact replica of his words.
But there is the spirit.
In 1958, at the end of a paperback issue of “The Play of the Diary of Anne Frank,” schoolchildren found it put like this:
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.
— (Pastor Niemoeller, Victim of the Nazis in Germany)
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