Last they came

Posted in Religion by chamblee54 on June 25, 2008

In an early morning discourse, I said that Martin Niemoller was rolling in his grave looking for the royalties from his poem, “First they came…“. A little research later, I don’t think he ever wrote it down.
For those of you with very short memories, here is the work…

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

-Martin Niemoller

Martin Niemoller was the son of a Lutheran minister. In World War 1, he served on a U boat crew. Harold Marcuse tells this story: “Niemöller was a commander of a German U-boat in World War I. A seminal incident in his moral outlook, as he related in many public speeches later in his life, occurred when he commanded his submarine crew not to rescue the sailors of a boat he torpedoed, but let them drown instead. “ After the war he became a Lutheran Minister. He was originally a supporter of Mr. Hitler, but became an opponent. He was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945.
After the war, he began to speak out. The famous poem was derived from these speeches.
It was never written down in typical poet fashion. There are several versions of it from him, and many more as the years rolled by. It has been quoted, updated, and quoted again.
In addition to the four groups mentioned above, the Nazis also came for mentally ill, incurably ill, or people in occupied countries. The legend is that when asked if he included Catholics, he said
“I never said it. They can take care of themselves.” When the McCarthy fever hit America, he declined to mention Communists.
With regard to the royalties, I could not see that it was ever copywrited. I do not know who “owns the rights”. Some have even speculated that the poem was not composed by Mr. Niemoller.
In the past week, I have seen the poem twice in blogs that I read. One was in reference to gay marriage. The other was because a teacher heard students say things he did not like. I don’t think either of these issues has anywhere near the power of the holocaust.
There is the Rebel looking for a cause syndrome. Many people just want to fight about something, and the cause is secondary to the lust for battle. When a poem like this is used to fire up people for a shaky cause, it brings discredit to the poem.
There is the matter of the “Next Hitler” argument. During the run up to the first war against Iraq, Saddam Hussein was routinely called the next Hitler. While this may be a valid argument at times, it is like the boy who cried wolf if used too much.
Maybe a general moratorium is needed on the use of “First they Came…”

7 Responses

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  1. Denny said, on June 28, 2008 at 11:26 am

    No the incident in the teacher’s class is nowhere near the Holocaust and he never claimed that it was but the point being made is that the seeds of both come from the fact that people stand idly by and do nothing when they witness evil taking place.

    Whether it’s a bigoted remark or seeing a group of people being rounded up. The point is that if you see a wrong taking place and you have the power to take action, then you should speak up.

    Silence is complicity.

  2. chamblee54 said, on June 28, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    Thanks for stopping by.
    I read your account of the incident.
    The only verbatim quote I saw was “I don’t get what’s the big deal about Barack Obama running for president just because he’s black.” I was not there, and there may have been worse things said. Still, that comment doesn’t seem that horrible to me.
    I don’t know what the proper response is. I know sometimes I have spoken out, and wound up in a pointless mud wrestling match that changed nobody’s mind or behavior. When religion is involved it becomes a matter of “building faith” and the damage done to the person speaking up is laughed at.
    As I said, I was not there, and do not know how I would have dealt with it. I just know how about what has happened to me, and the times when I really would have been better off ignoring it. While I would not have known otherwise, with hindsight discretion is the better part of valor. This is especially true when it is just some jerk running his mouth.
    I also find it ironic that the other comment I posted…re: people using the poem by Mr. Niemoller to support their cause…was about Gay Marriage. To those reader(s) who are not familiar with PAYOR dialogs, this may be a bit mysyterious.

  3. Denny said, on June 29, 2008 at 7:55 am

    The Obama comment wasn’t the only thing said, otherwise it would’ve been a non-issue. And I explained to the student why it was an issue and it was soon clear that the boy was trying to be funny.

    Again the reason the poem was used is to illustrate that whether the issue is large or small, when bigotry rears its ugly head, people need to speak up and speak out and not look away blindly.

    After all, as the old adage goes, evil thrives when good men do nothing.

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