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Engraving of the poem presented at the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, Massachusetts.

"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' rise to 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 textEdit

The best-known versions of the speech are the poems that began 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]

Niemöller created multiple versions of the text during his career, but evidence identified by professor Harold Marcuse at the University of California Santa Barbara indicates that the Holocaust Memorial Museum version is inaccurate because Niemöller frequently used the word "communists" and not "socialists." [3] 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 instinctively not care about... The omission of Communists in Washington, and of Jews in Germany, distorts that meaning and should be corrected."[4]

Niemöller's earliest speeches, written in 1946, list the Communists, incurable patients, Jews or Jehovah's Witnesses, and civilians in countries occupied 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 himself as a by then outspoken critic of Nazism. Niemöller made the cardinal "who cares about them" clear in his speech for the Confessing Church in Frankfurt on 6 January 1946, of which this is a partial translation:[1]

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.[5] The "sick, the so-called incurables" were killed in the euthanasia programme "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 includes the industrialists, who were not persecuted by the Nazis, and omits the Communists.

In 1976, Niemöller gave the following answer in response to an interview question asking about the origins of the poem.[1] The Martin-Niemöller-Foundation considers this the "classical" version of the speech:[6]


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

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 statement was published in a book by Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free (1955), 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.[1]

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.[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 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'."[7] 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.[citation needed]


Lt. Dennis Kelly reads an excerpt of the Rev. Martin Niemöller's poem during a Holocaust Days of Remembrance Observance service in Pearl Harbor; 27 April 2009

At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., 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.[8]

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

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f Marcuse, Harold. "Martin Niemöller's famous quotation: "First they came for the Communists ... "". University of California at Santa Barbara. 
  2. ^ Niemöller, Martin. "First they came for the Socialists...". Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 
  3. ^ name=quotation>Marcuse, Harold. "Martin Niemöller's famous quotation: "First they came for the Communists ... "". University of California at Santa Barbara. 
  4. ^ name=quotation>Marcuse, Harold. "Martin Niemöller's famous quotation: "First they came for the Communists ... "". University of California at Santa Barbara. 
  5. ^ Marcuse, Harold; Niemöller, Martin. "Of Guilt and Hope". University of California at Santa Barbara. 
  6. ^ Niemöller, Martin. "Was sagte Niemöller wirklich?".  External link in |website= (help)
  7. ^ Neuhaus, Richard John Neuhaus. "September 11-Before and After". First Things. Retrieved 19 June 2014. 
  8. ^ Niemöller, Martin. "First they came for the Socialists…"". United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved 5 February 2011. 

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit