Monday, July 26, 2010

Bon mot for the week (century... millennium)

First they came for the Communists,
but I was not a Communist, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists,
but I was neither, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Jews,
but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out.
And when they came for me,
there was no-one left to speak out for me.

Martin Niemöller (1892-1984)

These lines have always seemed particularly important to me, ever since I first heard them as a schoolboy of about ten - but particularly so at this time, living in this country now.

I stand corrected on the matter of the author here. I had always been led to believe that these words were spoken by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), and this is an attribution which seems to have gained primacy on the - not always so reliable - Internet. However, it would seem that they are more properly ascribed to Niemöller; although the exact text and provenance are shrouded in obscurity, it would seem that the famous 'poem' is derived from or inspired by one or more speeches that he made shortly after the War. Like Bonhoeffer, he had been one of the leaders of the Confessing Church, a dissident Protestant group that opposed Hitler; but unlike Bonhoeffer, he survived his wartime internment in the concentration camps. And his initial support of Hitler when he first came to power makes him a more ambivalent, somewhat tarnished figure - which is perhaps the reason why so many have preferred to associate these inspiring words with the martyred Bonhoeffer.


The British Cowboy said...

It's actually Pastor Martin Niemoller, a Great War U-boat commander/Iron Cross recipient, and outspoken opponent of the Nazis.

Froog said...

Oh, really. Always seems to get attributed to Bonhoeffer on the Net.

It may be one of those misattributions that's become almost irredeemable now - like Gagarin been the first man in space.

Do you have an 'authoritative' reference for the Niemoller sourcing?

Hope Ribfest went well! I gather it was an even more sweltering day than we had here in Beijing - which is a daunting thing to try and contemplate, because I was afraid to set foot outside here most of the weekend.

justrecently said...

It's Niemöller indeed. Inside Germany, his record as an U-boat commander may actually have made him a more dangerous opponent to the Nazis, than Bonhoeffer.

The Niemöller has the - it says - accurate wording of the text you quoted - link here.

Bonhoeffer was executed almost last-minute by the Nazis, in a revenge on every opponent they could get hold of at the time. I'm sure that Niemöller was a "candidate", too, but more lucky in the end. So was Erich Kästner, a poet who escaped from Berlin in spring 1945 and went to Austria with a lot of help from some UFA friends.

justrecently said...

The Niemöller Foundation, that is.

Froog said...

Thanks for that, JR.

The British Cowboy said...

Honestly I've never heard it attributed to anyone by Niemoller. I also have no idea how to do umlauts, so suck it, Trebeck.

That could be because Bonhoeffer and Niemoller are close enough that they are mistakeable for one another at a very quick glance, and I had a framed copy of the quote on my wall for around 15 years, so maybe if it is attributed anywhere to Bonhoeffer, my brain just seees Niemoller.

The British Cowboy said...

Ribfest IV was the best ever. Around 100 people all told fed in 105 degree heat.