About Martin Niemoller and the poem ‘ First They Came….’
Martin Niemoller was a German theologist and Lutheran pastor. He was initially an ardent supporter of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis during World War II, but after the Nazis began to exert their influence over Protestant Churches, he became opposed to their ways and was punished.
After the war was over, he took the initiative to spread theories of peace and apologize for his indifference towards the victims of Nazi Rule.
The finest example of his repentance is his famous quote ‘ First they came….’, which he first used in a speech in 1946 at the Confessing Church in Frankfurt. It criticized the Germans’ complicity in the Nazis’ injustice.
This quote created such an impact that it went on to become a cult political philosophy used frequently even today in popular communication. It was repeatedly re-interpreted and published and is often considered an anti-war poem.
The poem ‘ First They Came… ‘ by Martin Niemoller
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then 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 out for me
Summary of the poem ‘ First They Came…
In the poem ‘ First They Came…’, the speaker, Martin Neimoller retrospects about the Nazis’ subjugation of Germany during World War II. First the Nazis persecuted the socialists in the community. He regrets not having gone to the victims’ aid at that time just because he was not a socialist and so it did not concern him.
Similarly, the Nazis assailed the trade unionists and then the Jews. Even then, the speaker was indifferent as he was not among them. He realized his mistake only in the end when they targeted him, but by then it was too late as either nobody remained to help him, or nobody tried to do so as he had neglected others previously.
Themes in the poem ‘ First They Came…’
The Central theme:
The main theme of the poem ‘ First They Came…’ is ‘ Guilt and Repentance.‘ Throughout the poem, the speaker expresses his guilt for not speaking out against the Nazis while they repeatedly persecuted various sections of his community simply because it was not his business at that time.
He blames his complacency of himself as well as his fellow Germans as the prime cause for the suffering of so many helpless people.
We can observe that he is repentant for his negligence, as in the final lines of the poem he is trying to give a message to the readers to stay united in such times and speak out for their fellows, by articulating that you too will be rendered helpless in the end if there is no-one left.
Nazi Era in Germany.
Nazi Rule, segregations among the Germans, indifference, and unity are the themes in the poem ‘ First They came…’.
The first theme in the poem ‘ First They Came…’ is ‘ Nazi Era in Germany ‘. The speaker talks of their rule during World War II. They were a totalitarian government which mercilessly subdued all those who did not fit into their ideals.
This included the Socialists, Trade Unionists, and Jews, among many others. And as their injustice was allowed to prevail, in the end, nobody was spared, including the speaker.
Segregation in the German Community.
The second theme in the poem is ‘ Segregation in the German Community. ‘ The speaker uses examples of three different sections of his society that were subjected to Nazi persecution – Socialists, Trade Unionists, and Jews. This shows that at the time of World War II, the Germans were divided into various sections and no unity existed between these groups.
Indifference of the Protestant Church during the Nazi Era.
The third theme in the poem is ‘ Indifference of the Protestant Church during the Nazi Era’. Martin Niemoller was a Pastor, and he blames himself and his fellow clergymen for not aiding the victims of the Nazis.
The protestant Church did not attempt to oppose the Nazis although they held great influence in the society; it was only when they too were oppressed that they realized their mistake and repented for their selfishness much later.
Importance of unity.
The last theme in the poem is the ‘ Importance of unity ‘. Niemoller stresses that it was the Germans’ ignorance of each other’s problems that allowed the Nazis to exercise their rule in the first place.
He regrets not interfering while others were suffering because it was not his concern, and that led to his downfall in the end. Hence unity among the people is the prime remedy in times of war and similar crises.
Line by line interpretation of the poem ‘ First They Came…’
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
The speaker opens the poem by stating an example for his indifference during the Nazi persecution of Germans. Here, they refers to the Nazis. The Nazis targeted the socialists first, as Hitler’s government annulled people’s freedom in almost every domain in the society.
The speaker, who was a Lutheran Pastor, says that since he was not a socialist and it was not his problem, he stayed quiet while the Nazis exercised their power.
The whole Protestant Church and many others who were safe did not do anything to stop the injustice, and hence the Nazis were successful in their goal.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
To establish a monopoly over the German national economy, the Nazis subdued the trade unionists next. Since the speaker did not belong among them either, he again watched nonchalantly as the Nazis went about with their cruelty.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
The Nazis, who were racist and hated the Jewish community, did everything in their power to eradicate Jews from the country. Once again, the speaker did not interfere as he was Christian and no harm was done to him or the Church.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
All in all, he and the Protestants did not care at all while the Nazis destroyed almost everybody around them. In the end, the Nazis decided to take control of the Protestant Church as well; this was when he realized his mistake of letting them dominate from the beginning.
It was too late, however, as by this time there was nobody left alive or free to come to his rescue. When he showed opposition, he and many others were arrested. In the concluding line of the poem, he remorsefully hints that his decision to not stand by the victims of Nazi Rule had come back to beat him and that he too was complicit in the suffering of so many people.
Analysis of the poem ‘ First They Came…’
The poem ‘ First They came…’ is an extract from a speech by Martin Niemoller in Frankfurt in 1946. It has a guilty and apologetic tone. The speaker in the poem is Martin Niemoller himself, and he regrets his mistake of not supporting the victims of Nazi Rule in Germany and uses this as an example to implore people to stay united during such crises.
The extract is a prose-poem of four lines with no particular structure, meter or rhyme scheme. However, it is written in a definite flow, with repeated phrases such as they came for and did not speak out.
The first three lines are instances where the speaker was indifferent towards the Nazis’ injustice, and they are repeated except for the change of a single word – the name of the victims.
These lines seem to serve as a background to the fourth and concluding line of the poem, where the speaker says that his negligence finally caused him to be a victim as well, and just as he had not spoken out, nobody else did for him either.
The poem begins with the world first , implying that he and his fellow Germans had been complacent from the very beginning of Nazi oppression. They refers to the Nazis, and each line states their action first, next the fact that he did not speak out – did not protest, and then the reason behind it – because he was not among the victims.
The second and third lines begin with the word then, implying that while he watched, the Nazis eradicated the various groups one by one. The last line also begins with the same word, but this is for the last person standing- Niemoller himself.
The latter part of the line tells the consequence of what is said in the previous part of the poem- he suffered the same indifference he had shown others, and the Nazis were successful in annihilating the whole society.
Note that the examples that are stated – Socialists, Trade Unionists, and Jews – are a synecdoche for the countless people who were destroyed by the Nazis.
The phrase no-one left in the last line could have two interpretations – either that there were hardly anybody free or alive that could help him, or that society reflected his earlier indifference at him, as to why should anybody help while he had been so selfish earlier?
We can observe that rather than a poem, this is an imploration by Niemoller to the world at large to stay united at times of external oppression so that his and his fellow Germans’ mistake is not repeated elsewhere. As if in testimony to this idea, these lines continue to be used as an ideal/inspiration for world peace even today.
Throughout the lines of the poem, we can observe the repetition of the phrases they came for the, I did not speak out, and because I was not a.
Because I was not a is repeated at the end of the first three lines of the poem.
They came for is repeated at the beginning of each line in the poem.
In each line of the poem, the poet has made breaks in the middle of the sentence to pose a statement first and then tell the reason for, or the consequence of it. They are:
1) and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. 2) and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. 3) and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. 4) they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
In the poem, the Socialists, Trade Unionists, and Jews are a synecdoche for all the communities that were persecuted by the Nazis. And the speaker himself is a synecdoche for the whole Protestant Church members as well as all those who were not targeted by the Nazis.