‘First They Came’: The Poem of Protest
12 December 2021
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.
Martin Niemöller’s lines, written just after the Holocaust, argued against apathy—and for the moral connectedness of all people.
These words are 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.
It quickly became popular, from there, as a lyrical argument for civil rights and collective action—and, more broadly, for simple empathy.
What gives “First They Came” such resonance today, isn’t merely its warnings about the dangers of apathy or its recognition of normality creep* or, indeed, its lesson on the ease through which the privileged can become the oppressed.
“First They Came,” is particularly attuned to the needs of the modern protest: It offers wisdom about the evils of the past, in an attempt to prevent more evils of the future.
“First They Came, as used today, derives its power from the notion that no one should be instinctively not cared about—that everyone is deserving of attention and, indeed, protection. That is the nature of politics, and of compassion. And it is to our peril, the poem suggests, that we forget how wound and woven we all are, in the end.
*Creeping normality is a process by which a major change can be accepted as normal and acceptable if it happens slowly through small, often unnoticeable, increments of change. The change could otherwise be regarded as remarkable and objectionable if it took place in a single step or short period.