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.
– Pastor Martin Niemöller
Niemöller was a decorated German naval officer before becoming a prominent Lutheran pastor and theologian. He initially supported Hitler, but was eventually imprisoned for “activities against the state” as a leader of the Confessional Church, which was a Protestant group opposing Nazi control. His former concentration camp cellmate, Leo Stein wrote of when he asked Niemöller why he originally supported the Nazis:
I find myself wondering about that too. I wonder about it as much as I regret it. Still, it is true that Hitler betrayed me. I had an audience with him, as a representative of the Protestant Church, shortly before he became Chancellor, in 1932. Hitler promised me on his word of honor, to protect the Church, and not to issue any anti-Church laws. He also agreed not to allow pogroms against the Jews, assuring me as follows: “There will be restrictions against the Jews, but there will be no ghettos, no pogroms, in Germany.”
I really believed, given the widespread anti-Semitism in Germany, at that time—that Jews should avoid aspiring to Government positions or seats in the Reichstag. There were many Jews, especially among the Zionists, who took a similar stand. Hitler’s assurance satisfied me at the time. On the other hand, I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while.
I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.
Martin Niemöller created multiple versions of his “First They Came” speech. Ironically, he interchanged different ethnic and political groups over the years. Yet the sentiment remains the same: People of good conscience will pay the the price if they passively ignore the persecution of those around them.
The poetic version quoted here is on display at The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.