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.
The quotation stems from Martin Niemöller’s lectures during the early postwar period. Different versions of the quotation exist. These can be attributed to the fact that Niemöller spoke extemporaneously and in a number of settings. Much controversy surrounds the content of the poem as it has been printed in varying forms, referring to alternating groups such as Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Trade Unionists or Communists depending upon the version. Nonetheless his point was that Germans — in particular, he believed, the leaders of the Protestant churches — had been complicit through their silence in the Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and murder of millions of people.
At the same time, however, Niemöller, like most of his compatriots, was largely silent about the persecution and mass murder of the European Jews. Only in 1963, in a West German television interview, did Niemöller acknowledge and make a statement of regret about his own antisemitism.