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The specific words of the saying the signs borrowed from vary; the most commonly cited version of Niemöller’s pseudo-poem, however—the one quoted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, as a lyrical manifestation of the evils of political apathy—reads like this:
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.
It is a reference to the Holocaust. It is also, however, a warning about the ease with which such an event could occur again, if we of the present allow ourselves to become ignorant of the lessons of the past. Niemöller, born in 1892, was German, and a Protestant. Initially a supporter of Hitler’s rise to power, Niemöller came to oppose him in the years leading up to the war: In 1933, he became the head of a group of opposition clergy members, the Pfarrernotbund, or the Pastors’ Emergency League. For that, in 1937, he was arrested and sent to the concentration camps—first to Sachsenhausen and then to Dachau. He survived until the end of the war, when the Allies liberated him and his fellow prisoners. Niemöller returned, after that, to the clergy—and he focused, for the rest of his life, on reconciliation as both a political and a theological aspiration. “First They Came” emerged from that effort.

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