Friday, February 10, 2017

Niemöller, "First they came for the Communists..."

Sanity for Superheroes: Niemöller, origin of quotation "First they came for the Communists..."

Niemöller, origin of quotation "First they came for the Communists..."

In November 1945 German Pastor Martin Niemöller visited the former Dachau concentration camp, where he had been imprisoned from 1941 to April 1945. His diary entry about that visit and some subsequent speeches he gave imply that that visit triggered the thought that became this famous quotation. Since discovering the diary entry in the late 1980s I've tried to find out when Niemöller first said that quotation in its poetic form, but I have not been able to document it with a published source. Thus I can't say what the original version was. However, the quotation most likely emerged in 1946, and it definitely took on the well-known poetic form by the early 1950s.

  • I began the research for this page by obtaining published speeches Niemöller gave in the period 1945-1954, and searching in them for this or similar statements (jump to discussion, below). Below (and on separate pages) readers will find passages from these published speeches, with English translations, and some interpretative discussion, including a list of other sources I obtain and examine as time permits.
  • I have also examined other researchers' discussions of the origins of this quotation (jump to section, below).
  • Finally, I have a section with other versions of the quotation I found on the web (jump to section).
  • As usual with websites, this page is continually being expanded, and I welcome your comments mailto:>.

News and announcements (back to top)
  • Feb. 24, 2012:
  • Jan. 26, 2012: Florida governor Rick Scott, speaking to the Board of a state business group, used his own interpretation of Niemöller's quotation to defend Mitt Romney. He began by saying that he had a poster of the quotation on his walls (beginning with "... the Jews ..."), then said other Republican candidates shouldn't attack Bain Capital.
    • Miami Herald blog post; Local channel 10 news blurb;
    • One of the responses to the Herald blog post was this adaptation:
      First Rick Scott came for the teachers, but I said nothing as my kids were nearly out of school.
      Then he came for the university professors, but my kids don't take anthropology so I said nothing.
      Then he came for the prisons and handed those over to corporations. And still I said nothing because I hadn't broken any laws.
      "Then he came for the writers and thinkers and the political activists, and I thought, serves those people right for being so mouthy.
      Then he came for our county commissions, our school boards, he wanted it all. And since I had said nothing all through this, there was no one left to help me.
      Now I am in corporate jail raising tilapia in a fish pond for 25 cents a day."
  • 4/22/11 (updated 9/12/11): I added 13 pages scanned from a 1986 German book composed of 15 biographical interviews upon which a film about his life was based. In one interview Niemöller talks in 1976 about a 1974 event in which he resurrected the quotation. The book is titled Was würde Jesus sagen? -- What would Jesus say?
    • Note that the book is in German. The German Niemöller Foundation uses this passage (Niem. Found. quotation page), in which Niemöller refers to what the Niemöller Foundation dates as a 1976 event, to call this the "classical" version. However in this 1976 interview Niemöller no longer remembered the version he had used in the late 1940s. When he gave the interview in the 1976 he was 84 years old (born in 1892), so it is understandable that he might better remember something he said a few years earlier than an even earlier use 30 years before that..
    • Note further that the separately printed version on p. 71 of that book does not include the Jews (!), as if Niemöller himself had not mentioned them. However, since the interview question was about Jews, the fact that N. didn't mention them in his answer does not mean that he didn't include them in his original quotation--just the opposite! This adds another point of confusion to the already murky lineage of the quotation.
    • Finally, I've included extra pages in the pdf, namely the prefaces, the table of contents, and a timeline of Niemöller's life (final pages). I added asteriks in the margin to indicate where, in his answer, he mentions the Communists, Trade Unions, and Social Democrats, in that order (see p. 69).
  • 12/13/10: A video version of the quotation is embedded on, Dec. 2, 2010; originally by karmic courage on youtube (5:20), uploaded Feb. 15, 2008 [14,488 views on 12/12/2010].
  • 5/20/10: Another flagrant misappropriation of the quotation (see 12/16/09 announcement, below), this time by Glenn Beck, as shown on the 5/13/20 Daily Show ( page "Lewis Black tells Glenn Beck a thing or two about Nazism" with embedded youtube clip; the references come at 4:30 and 5:15 into the clip):
    • "You ever heard of the old poem 'first they came for the Jews'? Well, first they came for the banks, then it was the insurance companies, then it was the car companies." (Black: difference "they came for the Jews to kill them, but to the companies give the $700 billion.)
    • Beck: "First they came for the Jews and I stayed silent----next I'll show you the very latest attacks on me ..."
    • Update 4/22/11: See also this 10/14/2009 article "Glenn Beck compares Fox News to the Persecution of the Jews"
  • 5/2/10: I received an inquiry about how to teach this quotation in a high school class:
    • I am a teacher for the City of Boston, high school special education; I taught a unit on the Holocaust, and will introduce the famous passage, First they came, and have my students analyze this quote.
      I am in need of your help as I wish to teach my students how to effectively analyze this quote. Any suggestions?
    • Here is what I answered:
      As a historian at the college level, I'd probably say have students compare the original texts on my website with the "poem" version. Especially for a special ed class it might be of interest that in the earliest versions Niemöller definitely included the disabled (which is historically correct and logical), but none of the later poem versions do.
      Since this may be too advanced for high school, here is a site with a lesson plan for high school that I think is very good: 6-page lesson plan "Exploring Personal and Collective Responsibility in WWII" by the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans.
      I'd give the students a little more biography of Niemoeller than that site offers. An excellent primary source is this Feb. 1938 Time magazine article that talks about what he did in WWI and how close he had been to the Nazis at the outset, and how he got into trouble with them.
      In addition, if I recall correctly, Niemöller later often told an anecdote about how his sub sank a ship off Greece, and although international law required the rescue of drowning passengers, he did not do that, which later came back to haunt his conscience.
  • 3/05: I've added a translation of the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt (Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis)
  • 1/29/07: Another quotation of mysterious origin: "One man with courage makes a majority"--is often attributed to US president Andrew Jackson, but he never said it. In fact, it was penned by an 1860 biographer who was critical of Jackson. See Daniel Feller, "The greatest thing Andrew Jackson never said," LA Times, Jan. 26, 2007. (hi-res printable scan)
  • 2/13/07: rendition of the Niemöller quotation published in 1955 by Milton Mayer added. The quotation was clearly circulating before 1951, when Mayer conducted that interview. The importance of this publication is that it sets a so-called terminus ante quem--a date before which Niemöller must have said whatever version(s) he used.
  • 10/29/07: Images of Quotation page added.
  • 8/19/08: Discussion of false attribution to Bertolt Brecht added, below.
    YouTube clips:
    • 1:11 by nyprogressive, added 9/27/06; text montage a la Star Wars; 1946: Communists, Socialists, trade unionists, me; 2006: foreigners
    • 2:07 by Michelle Malkin, added 12/31/06; montage of news photos; about violence after Danish Mohammed cartoons
    • 5:30 by Kate Chaplin, added 2/15/08; recited by a professional with a gas-guzzling Hummer: Jews, gays, Muslims, me.
  • 12/16/09: a reader of this page sent me a link to Jon Stewart's persiflage of one of the Republican speakers' bowdlerization of the quote at a recent "tea party" in Washington D.C. Fox News star and talk radio host Laura Ingraham said (roughly) the following (note: this was not very articulate, although she appears to be reading from a script):
    First they came for the rich, and I did not speak out because I was not rich,
    Then they confiscated the property owners,
    Then they took away our right to bear arms, but I didn't speak out because I wasn't armed.

    (This segment starts about 3 mins. into the full episode, but do watch from the beginning.)


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