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.
It is a reference to the Holocaust. It is also, however, a warning about the ease with which such an event could occur again, if we of the present allow ourselves to become ignorant of the lessons of the past. Niemöller, born in 1892, was German, and a Protestant. Initially a supporter of Hitler’s rise to power, Niemöller came to oppose him in the years leading up to the war: In 1933, he became the head of a group of opposition clergy members, the Pfarrernotbund, or the Pastors’ Emergency League. For that, in 1937, he was arrested and sent to the concentration camps—first to Sachsenhausen and then to Dachau. He survived until the end of the war, when the Allies liberated him and his fellow prisoners. Niemöller returned, after that, to the clergy—and he focused, for the rest of his life, on reconciliation as both a political and a theological aspiration. “First They Came” emerged from that effort.
Niemöller himself resisted the notion that the lines constitute a poem; instead, he said, their ideas came gradually, and organically, through a series of speeches he delivered after the war. One scholar, UC Santa Barbara’s Harold Marcuse, who has studied Niemöller’s diaries, suggests that “First They Came” might have crystallized during a visit Niemöller took to Dachau in November of 1945, mere months after his liberation from the camp. The quotation itself, as it’s used today, Marcuse notes, “most likely emerged in 1946, and it definitely took on the well-known poetic form by the early 1950s.”
And it quickly became popular, from there, as a lyrical argument for civil rights and collective action—and, more broadly, for simple empathy. The quote was that rarest of things: a political argument grounded in religious tradition. As Niemöller explained of the origin of the lines, in 1976 [translated from the German]:
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 ….
In 1933, Niemöller added, he and his fellow clergy members included in the founding documents of the Pfarrernotbund the idea that any action made against a minister of Jewish heritage would be considered an action against the collective. As he put it: “That was probably the first anti-antisemitic pronouncement coming from the Protestant Church.”