1946: First They Came

First They Came - United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Although this is one of the world’s most famous poems, there is no definitive version of it. Indeed, there is no clear evidence that its author, the Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, ever put it into poetic form. Several variations exist, naming different groups in different orders; is there a correct version?

In a well-researched website (and a more detailed article), history professor Harold Marcuse explains that Niemöller, who initially supported Hitler but then later came to deeply regret his failure to oppose Nazi persecution, formulated the idea of the poem in a series of lectures following the war; Marcuse says, however, that he “could find NO printed document connected directly to Niemöller quoting or authorizing his exact words in a or the poetic version.”

As to which groups Niemöller included and in which order, Marcuse’s research indicates that he always started with Communists and always ended with “me,” but varied the groups in the middlealthough always including “the Jews.” He usually named Social Democrats and/or trade unionists, and at times included disabled people, “occupied countries,” Jehovah’s Witnesses, and possibly Catholics.

The list is historically accurate: communists, socialists, and trade unionists were among the first groups to oppose Nazism early in Germanyin the political arena and ultimately through clashes in the streetsand they were thus  among the first targeted by Hitler and imprisoned in concentration camps. Hitler painted the picture of the Jewish communist union organizer to sway German capitalists toward fascism. (He alsoregardless of the contradiction—used the image of the greedy Jewish capitalist to incite German workers.)

Marcuse’s suggestion for the most faithful rendition would be “Communists, Trade Unionists and/or Socialists, possibly the Disabled, Jews, and me.”

Sadly, this means that the version in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, with its omission of “Communists” (above), is unfaithfulnot only to the existing historical record but to the challenging spirit of the poem itself.

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