As I mentioned in another question, I have seen inconsistencies in the recounting of the poem, First They Came .... This led me to look it up and find out that the English poem comes from a collection of interviews. I understand that it is based on speeches, but was it ever delivered as a poem in German? Was that prior to its English publication?

2 Answers 2


I'm not sure whether you'd call it a poem, but Niemöller definitely delivered a version of "First They Came ..." as a speech in German, as early as January 1946, before its translation into English.

Associate Professor Harold Marcuse has made a detailed study of Martin Niemöller and the evolution of "First They Came ...", which you can read about in great length on this page. He describes how Niemöller first began thinking about this issue:

Shortly after the end of the war Niemöller became convinced that the German people had a collective responsibility (he often used the word Schuld, guilt) for the Nazi atrocities. In October 1945 Niemöller was the the prime mover behind the German Protestant Church's "Confession of Guilt" ("Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis")(see this quotation from Oct. 1945). In later speeches Niemöller claimed that a November 1945 visit to Dachau, where the crematorium was being kept as a memorial site, began that process of recognition. (I tell his story of that visit in detail in my book Legacies of Dachau, excerpted here: Niemöller's postwar Dachau anecdote.)

Marcuse goes on to conclude that "First They Came ..." was already beginning to evolve in Niemöller's mind in October and November 1945. There were several versions of it, varying according to his audience, but we have a definite version dating from 6 January 1946, when Niemöller delivered the following speech in German to representatives of the Confessing Church in Frankfurt:

Als Pastor Niemöller ins Konzentrationslager kam, schrieben wir 1937, als das Konzentrationslager aufgemacht wurde, da schrieben wir 1933, und die damals in die Konzentrationslager kamen, waren Kommunisten. Wer hat sich darum gekümmert? Wir haben es gewußt, es stand in den Zeitungen. Wer hat die Stimme erhoben, etwa die Bekennende Kirche? Wir haben gedacht: Kommunisten, diese Religionsgegner, diese Christenfeinde - "soll ich meines Bruders Hüter sein?" Dann hat man die Kranken, die sogenannten Unheilbaren beseitigt. - Ich erinnere mich eines Gespräches mit einem Menschen, der Anspruch darauf erhob, ein Christ zu sein. Er meinte: Vielleicht ist es ganz richtig, diese unheibaren Menschen kosten den Staat nur Geld, sie sind sich und den andern nur zur Last. Ist es nicht das Beste für alle Teile, wenn man sie aus der Mitte schafft? -- Dann erst ist es an die Kirche als solche herangekommen. Dann haben wir einen Ton geredet, bis er dann in der Öffentlichkeit wieder verstummt ist. Können wir sagen, wir sind nicht schuld? Die Judenverfolgung, die Art und Weise, wie wir die besetzten Länder behandelten, oder die Dinge in Griechenland, in Polen, in der Tschechoslowakei oder in Holland, die doch in der Zeitung gestanden haben. … Ich glaube, wir Bekennende-Kirche-Christen haben allen Anlass, zu sagen: Meine Schuld, meine Schuld! Wir können uns mit der Entschuldigung, es hätte mich ja den Kopf kosten können, hätte ich geredet, nicht herausreden.

Wir haben es vorgezogen, zu schweigen. Ohne Schuld sind wir gewiss nicht, und ich frage mich immer wieder, was wäre geworden, wenn im Jahre 1933 oder 1934 - es muss ja eine Möglichkeit gewesen sein - 14 000 evangelische Pfarrer und alle evangelischen Gemeinden, die es in Deutschland gab, die Wahrheit bis in den Tod verteidigt hätten? Wenn wir damals gesagt hätten, es ist nicht recht, wenn Hermann Göring 100 000 Kommunisten einfach in die Konzentrationslager steckt, um sie umkommen zu lassen. Ich kann mir denken, dass dann vielleicht 30 000 bis 40 000 evangelische Christen um einen Kopf kürzer gemacht worden wären, kann mir aber auch denken, dass wir dann 30-40 000 Millionen [sic] Menschen das Leben gerettet hätten, denn das kostet es uns jetzt.

Translation into English by Marcuse (emphasis mine):

When Pastor Niemöller was put in a concentration camp we wrote the year 1937; when the concentration camp was opened we wrote the year 1933, and the people who were put in the camps then were Communists. Who cared about them? We knew it, it was printed in the newspapers. Who raised their voice, maybe the Confessing Church? We thought: Communists, those opponents of religion, those enemies of Christians - "should I be my brother's keeper?" Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. - I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it's right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn't it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]? -- Only then did the church as such take note. Then we started talking, until our voices were again silenced in public. Can we say, we aren't guilty/responsible? The persecution of the Jews, the way we treated the occupied countries, or the things in Greece, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia or in Holland, that were written in the newspapers. … I believe, we Confessing-Church-Christians have every reason to say: mea culpa, mea culpa! We can talk ourselves out of it with the excuse that it would have cost me my head if I had spoken out.

We preferred to keep silent. We are certainly not without guilt/fault, and I ask myself again and again, what would have happened, if in the year 1933 or 1934 - there must have been a possibility - 14,000 Protestant pastors and all Protestant communities in Germany had defended the truth until their deaths? If we had said back then, it is not right when Hermann Göring simply puts 100,000 Communists in the concentration camps, in order to let them die. I can imagine that perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 Protestant Christians would have had their heads cut off, but I can also imagine that we would have rescued 30-40,000 million [sic] people, because that is what it is costing us now.

The first published English version I've been able to find was a translation of this speech published by the New York Philosophical Society in 1946. You can read it in full here, along with a short analysis of how this translation differs from the more direct one done by Marcuse. It was withdrawn from publication on 5 Aug 1946 after rumours appeared that Niemöller had supported the Nazis in the 20s.

Niemöller gave another speech a few months later, on 3 July 1946, entitled "Der Weg ins Freie" or "The Path into Freedom", as part of a series organized by the Ministry of the Interior of Württemberg and Baden. You can read it here along with an English translation and some analysis by Marcuse. This speech is sometimes claimed to be the origin of the "First They Came ..." quotation, but those precise words do not in fact appear there. I haven't been able to track down when those exact words were first published, but in any case, the spirit of the poem is there in the speech quoted above, which was delivered in German before it was ever translated to English.

  • 1
    @Benjamin Some of the same sources I've used in this answer could probably be used to create a good answer to your other "First They Came ..." question here. I might try to do that later on if nobody else does (but I hope they do!)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 16:49

You can find all relevant information on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In particular, concerning Martin Niemöller see here.

The text is not a poem (although the rhythm of speech has a resemblance to one), but occured as part of sermons and lectures given by Martin Niemöller.

There are indeed various versions, but this is not an inconsistency in the sense that something has been distorted. Let me quote from the above website:

Origins of the Quote

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.

I also highly recommend to consult the website of the Martin-Niemöller-Stiftung. Quote from here translated into English via DeepL:

What did Niemöller really say?

We quote the version that we consider to be the “classic” one and which was authorized by Niemöller. It was made at Easter 1976 during a discussion in the Kaiserslautern-Siegelbach parish hall with Pastor Hans-Joachim Oeffler. In a conversation with Hannes Karnick and Wolfgang Richter (“Niemöller - Was würde Jesus dazu sagen?”, Frankfurt 1986), Niemöller explains:

"When did this poem come about with the saying: when they picked up the communists, we kept quiet...?

That was not a poem, no. I had once preached in Oeffler's congregation, the general bishop of the Lutheran-Slovak church was there in Siegelbach near Kaiserslautern. Afterwards, we had a meeting with the congregation in a parish hall in the immediate vicinity of the church. The people asked us their questions and let off steam. And then they asked if we hadn't woken up after Kristallnacht in 1938. And I say, for God's sake, so don't ask me about 38, I was imprisoned in 37 and have always been in a solitary cell since then and, by the way, you see, when they first locked up the communists, and we may have heard something about that straight away, I don't remember, but we didn't protest against the communists being locked up, because we lived for the church and in the church and the communists were not friends of the church, but on the contrary, their declared enemies, and that's why we kept quiet back then. And then the trade unions came along, and the trade unions were no friends of the church either, and we had little or no relationship with them and said, so let them fight their own battles.
There was no transcript or copy of what I had said, and it may well have been that I formulated it differently. But in any case, the idea was: we let the Communists get away with it; and we let the trade unions get away with it too; and we let the Social Democrats get away with it too. None of that was our concern. The church had nothing to do with politics back then, and we shouldn't have anything to do with it. In the Confessing Church, we didn't want to represent political resistance in and of itself, but we wanted to state for the church that this is not right and it must not become right in the church, which is why we already had the fourth point in 33, when we founded the Pastors' Emergency Association: If a front is put up against pastors and they are simply booted out as pastors because they were of Jewish descent or something like that, then we as a church can only say: No. And that was the fourth point in the commitment, and that was probably the first anti-Semitic statement from the Protestant Church. That's all I can say about this story: When they locked up the communists, nothing was said, we weren't communists and we were quite happy to have these opponents off our backs. But we didn't feel obliged to say anything for people outside the church, that wasn't fashionable at the time, and we weren't yet ready to feel responsible for our people."

Niemöller has traced the exact history of how the front lines of resistance were laid down one after the other. He did not name the Catholics because the Catholics had their concordat. He could not name the Jews because the great wave of persecution only began when he was already in the concentration camp. Various versions exist, particularly in the USA; some modified by Niemöller himself, others added to the story. Martin Niemöller's second wife (since 1971), Sibylle von Sell, wrote about this on April 23, 2000 in h-holocaust https://www.h-net.org/~holoweb/ :." The trouble with Martin Niemöller's “famous quotation” is that he never wrote it down - which enabled so many hitchhikers over the years to “put themselves on the waggon”. In his “Confession of Guilt” (as he called it himself: Schuldbekenntnis in German) the Communists came first, then the Trade Unionists and then the Socialists and then the Jews. NO ONE ELSE."

For an academic study of the origins and reception history of the quote, it is worth taking a look at the website of Harold Marcuse (yes, he is the grandson ...), Professor of German History at the University of Santa Barbara: https://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/niem.htm

The quote is still frequently used and also very carelessly modified, which speaks for its unbroken popularity.

Example 1:

"We fight - the lonely fight.The postmen, the municipal workers, the refuse collectors, the railroad workers, each for themselves. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller: “When they came for the municipal workers, I kept quiet, because I wasn't a municipal worker.When they brought in the railwaymen, there was no one left to protest."

The appearance of the quote in the context of the “fighting dog scene” seems rather bizarre:

Example 2:

"When they exterminated the ‘fighting dogs’, I kept quiet. I didn't have a “fighting dog”. When they took away the guard dogs, I kept quiet because I didn't have a guard dog. When they banned all larger dogs, I kept quiet because I didn't have a large dog. When they picked up my dog, nobody cared anymore. Author unknown"

It is worrying that the quote often appears in a right-wing extremist spectrum that defines itself as “resistance” and perfidiously draws on the rhetoric and symbols of resistance in the Third Reich.

Example 3:

"When the hypocrites got Jenninger, I kept quiet; after all, I wasn't president of the Bundestag. When they brought in Hohmann, I kept quiet; I wasn't a member of the Bundestag; when they brought in all the CDU members, I kept quiet; I wasn't a party member; when they brought in the independent journalists, I kept quiet; I wasn't a journalist. When they brought me in, there was no one left to protest."
(....fitug.de/debate/0311/msg00166.html )

Example 4:

"Resist the beginnings!
When the STASI-Antifa brought in the National Socialists, I kept quiet - I wasn't a National Socialist.
When they brought in the democratic nationalists, I kept quiet - I wasn't a nationalist.
When they brought in the patriotic conservatives, I kept quiet - I wasn't a conservative.
When they brought in the non-Christians and new pagans, I kept quiet - I wasn't a pagan.
When they came for me, there was no one left to protest.
M. F. (freely adapted from Martin Niemöller)"

And here is the "classic" version:

“When the Nazis got the communists.....”
Much quoted, often modified, sometimes misused, still relevant:
Martin Niemöller's famous quote

When the Nazis came for the Communists,
I remained silent,
I wasn't a communist.

When they imprisoned the Social Democrats,
I kept quiet,
I wasn't a social democrat.

When they took the trade unionists,
I kept quiet,
I wasn't a trade unionist.

When they came for me,
there was no one left,
who could protest.

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