First they came for the…

A reference to this famed quotation with “children” in the blank came to me today, a reference to the Trump administration’s announced intent to confine undocumented immigrant families indefinitely, thus reneging on the prior agreement that, in a 2015 court judgment, set a 20 days maximum confining migrant children.

Whom did “they” really come for, in the Nazi context? Wikipedia gives the background: German pastor Martin Niemöller embedded the idea in a much more verbose confessional (since he was once a Nazi sympathizer himself) passage in 1946. He mentioned only Communists, the incurably sick, and Jews.

Then people started making the statement more succinct and modifying the victim classes. Here is one version I find very expressive, in Wikipedia from the UK Holocaust Memorial Day Trust:

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

Sad to say, scanning history, we could keep adding groups. Some particular Nazi targets for concentration camps don’t show up in standard versions of the list, such as Roma (“gypsies”), homosexuals, Social Democrats, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, “asocials,” intellectuals, and pastors (including Niemöller himself).

Recently, versions have been circulated–and appeared on signs at rallies–starting off with Muslims, journalists, and others.

The reference to children came in an email from the news organization Truthout. I didn’t find that reference on their web site but I did find “Billionaires… First They Came for the Economy” and “Climate Change: First They Came For…” (including, in the blank, Arctic sea ice, mountain glaciers, permafrost… you get the idea).

The formulation “First they came for the…” is obviously powerful, and all the more so because everyone reading it must know to fill in the blanks and end with themselves. The moral is clear. As another famous Martin, MLK Jr., said:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Above photo of Dr. Martin Niemöller in 1952 by J.D. Noske / Anefo [CC0] from Dutch National Archives in Wikimedia Commons

About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
This entry was posted in Civil rights, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to First they came for the…

  1. mhudgings says:

    Excellent article. Highlights where we are now in our devolving nation. But there are many who are speaking up and fighting back. That gives me hope for a future that will look very different from this Trump nightmare.

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