Martin Niemöller: "First they came for..."
Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent Lutheran pastor in Germany. In the 1920s and early 1930s, he sympathized with many Nazi ideas and supported radically right-wing political movements. But after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Niemöller became an outspoken critic of Hitler’s interference in the Protestant Church. He spent the last eight years of Nazi rule, from 1937 to 1945, in Nazi prisons and concentration camps. Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for his postwar statement, which begins “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out…”
The quote that begins with the words “First they came for…” continues to be used today in popular culture and public discourse. It has often been adapted to reflect current social issues and debates across the world.
There are different versions of the quotation because it originated from Martin Niemöller’s impromptu public speeches.
The quotation expresses Niemöller’s belief that Germans had been complicit through their silence in the Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and murder of millions of people. He felt this was especially true of the leaders of the Protestant churches, which were made up of Lutheran, Reformed, and United traditions.
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.
This quote is attributed to the prominent German pastor Martin Niemöller. It is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a poem.
After World War II, Niemöller openly spoke about his own early complicity in Nazism and his eventual change of heart. His powerful words about guilt and responsibility still resonate today.
Niemöller’s Quote at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The quote “First they came for…” has been part of the permanent exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum since its opening in 1993. Initially, Niemöller's words were part of a text panel. Today, they are prominently featured on a wall as the final words of the exhibition. They serve as an indictment of passivity and indifference during the Holocaust.
Origins of the Quote
This Martin Niemöller quote originated after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. After the war, Niemöller was well-known for his opposition to the Nazi regime and as a former victim of Nazi persecution. In 1946, he traveled on a lecture tour in the western zones of Allied-occupied Germany. In his lectures, Niemöller publicly confessed his own inaction and indifference to the fate of many of the Nazis’ victims. He used phrases such as “I did not speak out…” or “we preferred to keep quiet.” He explained that in the first years of the Nazi regime he had remained silent as the Nazis persecuted other Germans, especially members of leftist political movements with whom he disagreed.
Niemöller considered his fellow Germans as the primary audience for his confession. In his lectures, he lamented that individual Germans failed to accept responsibility for Nazism, German atrocities in German-occupied countries, and the Holocaust. According to him, individual Germans were passing the blame onto their neighbors, superiors, or Nazi organizations like the Gestapo. Through his confession, he wanted to show Germans how to accept personal responsibility for complicity in the Nazi regime.
Why are there multiple versions of Niemöller’s quote?
There are multiple versions of the quote “First they came for….” Some versions include a different list of victims. This is because Niemöller often presented his lectures impromptu and changed the list of victims from lecture to lecture. At different times and in different combinations, Niemöller listed: communists, socialists, trade unionists, Jews, people with mental and physical disabilities, and Jehovah's Witnesses.
Some printed versions of the quote include Protestants and Catholics in the list of victims.1 Given the history of the Nazi regime and Niemöller’s personal experiences, it was highly unlikely that he included either group in his confession of complicity. In his post-war lectures, Niemöller specifically focused on groups that the Nazis targeted prior to his arrest in 1937, and for whom he could have advocated in the 1930s, but did not.
Regardless of his exact words, Niemöller’s message remained consistent: he declared that through silence, indifference, and inaction, Germans had been complicit in the Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and murder of millions of people. He felt that it was particularly egregious that he and other German Protestant church leaders, whom he believed had positions of moral authority, chose to remain silent.
Today, the quote has entered public discourse and popular culture. It is variously referred to as a poem, a confession, or an aphorism. The quote is also frequently adapted and rewritten as a political tool, often in ways that are not in keeping with Niemöller's original intentions.
Who was Martin Niemöller?
Martin Niemöller was born the son of a Lutheran pastor in the German Empire on January 14, 1892. At age 21 he started his career in the Imperial German Navy as an officer. During World War I (1914–1918), Niemöller served as an officer on a U-Boat (a submarine). For his role in sinking Allied ships he earned the high honor, the Iron Cross First Class, in 1917.
Niemöller was a fervent nationalist and anti-communist. He was devastated by Germany’s defeat in World War I and the collapse of the German Empire. He also strongly opposed the new postwar German government called the Weimar Republic (1918–1933). Unwilling to serve the new government, Niemöller resigned from the Navy in 1919.
In 1920, Niemöller began seminary training at the University of Münster. He was ordained as a Lutheran pastor in 1924. During the 1920s and early 1930s, he participated in right-wing and antisemitic political parties and organizations.
How did Niemöller react to the Nazi regime?
In keeping with his right-wing, antisemitic outlook, Niemöller enthusiastically welcomed the Nazi regime in 1933. He voted for the Nazi Party in March of that year.
Niemöller’s enthusiasm for the new government led by Adolf Hitler quickly waned, however, when the Nazi regime began to interfere in church policy. In 1933, Hitler threw his support behind a radical faction within the Protestant churches known as the Deutsche Christen (in English, the German Christians). The German Christians portrayed Jesus as an Aryan and denied that he was Jewish. They rejected the authority of the Old Testament and sought to alter parts of the New Testament. Their goal was to remove what they called “Jewish elements” from Christianity. This included prohibiting pastors with Jewish ancestry from serving in the Protestant church. Niemöller led the opposition to the German Christians and Hitler’s church policy.
Niemöller's attitude toward the Nazi regime further transformed in January 1934 after a meeting with Adolf Hitler. Niemöller and other prominent Protestant church leaders met Hitler to discuss the relationship between church and state. At this meeting, it became clear that the Gestapo (the Secret State Police) had tapped Niemöller's phone. The Pastors Emergency League (Pfarrernotbund), which Niemöller had helped found in 1933, was also under close state surveillance. Hitler's hostility made it clear to Niemöller that the Protestant Church and the Nazi state could not be reconciled unless Protestants were willing to compromise their faith. Niemöller was not willing to do this.
As a result, Niemöller became an outspoken critic of Nazi church policy. On July 1, 1937, the Gestapo arrested and imprisoned him as a political prisoner for the next eight years. A number of international religious leaders made calls for his release. However, Niemöller was not freed until May 1945, when the Allies defeated Nazi Germany and liberated him and other concentration camp prisoners.
An Enduring yet Controversial Legacy
After the end of World War II, Niemöller's prominence as an opposition figure gave him international stature. He was often at the center of controversy for his outspoken views. For example, he opposed the postwar denazification policies of the Allied powers. He believed these policies caused more harm than good. He also refused to side unequivocally with the United States in the Cold War. As a result, some of his critics called him a communist.
Despite these controversies, Niemöller is remembered as one of the more prominent Germans to publicly acknowledge his moral failures committed during the Nazi era, as well as the moral failures of his nation and church. And he continued to speak publicly about the relationship between inaction and Germans’ responsibility for the persecution and murder of Jews in the Holocaust.
Critical Thinking Questions
- This famous sentiment was spoken after World War II. What were Niemöller’s opinions about the Nazis and antisemitism earlier in his career?
- Why do you think this quotation resonates long after the Holocaust?
- How have you seen it used and modified for recent issues?
Hockenos, Matthew D. Then They Came for Me: Martin Niemöller, The Pastor who Defied the Nazis. New York: Basic Books, 2018.
This is the case, for example, in the editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations published since 1980, as well as The Yale Book of Quotations (2006) and The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (2004).