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, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out…”
The quote “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 to be 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 (USHMM) since its opening in 1993. Initially, Niemöller's words were part of a text panel within the main exhibit. Today, they are prominently featured at the end of the USHMM’s permanent exhibition. They are the final words read by Museum visitors and serve as an indictment of passivity and indifference during the Holocaust. They are also a powerful reminder about the consequences of individual action and inaction more broadly.
Origins of the Quote
In postwar Germany, Martin 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. Niemöller publicly confessed his 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. Many of the Nazi regime’s earliest victims were members of leftist political movements, which Niemöller (who was a conservative) vehemently opposed.
But, Nazi persecution quickly expanded to encompass a variety of other people and groups, including Niemöller himself. Most Germans did not object to Nazi actions. Rather, they either supported the regime or ignored the plight of their fellow citizens.
Niemöller believed that after the war many Germans were reluctant to confront their complicity with Nazism. In his lectures, he bemoaned 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.
Thus Niemöller considered his fellow Germans as the primary audience for his confession. He wanted his words to serve as a model of how to accept personal responsibility for complicity in the Nazi regime.
Why are there multiple versions of Niemöller’s quote?
Multiple versions of the quote “First they came for….” exist 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, Jehovah's Witnesses, and people with mental and physical disabilities.
Some printed versions of the quote include Protestants and Catholics.1 However, Niemöller would not have included Protestants in the quotation. He did not remain silent when Protestant clergy were harassed by the Nazi regime. Unlike members of leftist political movements, Protestant clergy were Germans with whom Niemöller identified and sympathized. It is unlikely that Niemöller would have included Catholics in the list. According to him, the Nazis did not target Catholics for sustained persecution until after his arrest in 1937. However, Niemöller did draw attention in his lectures to the opposition mounted by individual clergy and lay people from these denominations.
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 the silence of Protestant church leaders, including his own, was particularly egregious because they were in positions of moral authority.
Today, the quote has entered public discourse and even 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 always in keeping with Niemöller's original intentions.
Who was Martin Niemöller?
Martin Niemöller was born 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 a U-Boat (submarine) officer. For his role in sinking Allied ships he earned the high honor, 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, he 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?
However, Niemöller’s enthusiasm for the new government led by Adolf Hitler quickly waned when the Nazi regime began to interfere in church policy. In 1933, Hitler threw his support behind the German Christians (Deutsche Christen), a radical faction within the Protestant churches. This faction wanted to fuse Nazism and Christianity. The German Christians portrayed Jesus as an Aryan rather than a Jew. They also sought to alter or discard parts of the Bible. Their goal was to remove what they considered to be “Jewish elements” in Christianity. This included removing pastors with Jewish ancestry from service 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 Niemöller's phone had been tapped by the Gestapo (Secret State Police) and that the Pastors Emergency League (Pfarrernotbund), which Niemöller had helped found in 1933, was 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 Niemöller and imprisoned him as a political prisoner for the next eight years. A number of religious leaders made international calls for his release. However, Niemöller was not freed until May 1945, when the Allies defeated Nazi Germany.
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 those 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).