First They Came by Pastor Martin Neimöller

This short piece, ‘First They Came’, is what is known as a prose-poem. Within it, the speaker alludes to the themes of guilt, persecution, and responsibility.  It was part of a post-war confession made in German by the German Lutheran paster Martin Neimöller. The poem speaks on the cowardice of certain segments of the German population as the Nazis decimated their own country. Neimöller includes himself in this group. When he uses the first-person pronoun “me” at the end of the poem he is including himself and all those like him who felt that it was not their business to interfere with the Nazis. 

In 1937 Neimöller was arrested by the Nazis and eventually sent to Dachau. He was freed in 1945 and became a leading voice for peace after the war. The poem was part of a speech he gave in 1946 at the Confessing Church in Frankfurt. 

 

Summary of First They Came 

‘First They Came’ by Pastor Martin Neimöller is a powerful poem that explores on the nature of responsibility in times of war and persecution. 

The poem speaks briefly on several of the groups hunted down and imprisoned or killed by the Nazis during WWII. The speaker acknowledges each of these and the fact that he did nothing to stop them. By the end of the poem, the violence makes its way to the speaker and there is no one left to stand up for him. 

 

Structure of First They Came

‘First They Came’ by Pastor Martin Neimöller is a fifteen line excerpt from a speech made by the pastor. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, although there are similarities in the endings used. These are seen through the repetition of the suffix “-ist” in the first few lines. Rather than appearing as a selective rhyme scheme, or half-rhyme scheme, these words are accumulated because of their common origin and the context of the poem. 

 

Poetic Techniques in First They Came

Neimöller uses several poetic techniques in ‘First They Came’. These include, but are not limited to, repetition, epistrophe and anaphora. Repetition is one of the most important techniques at work within these short lines. The words the majority of the lines follow a repeating pattern of “Then they came for…” and “And I did not speak out / Because I was not a…” It is through this captivating transition from one type of person or section of the population to another than the speaker moves. Finally, in the last lines, the repetition ends and he addresses his own position and what happened when they “came for me”.

Connected to repetition are anaphora and epistrophe. Both of these literary devices are at play within the poem. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. While epistrophe is the opposite. It is the repetition of the same word, or a phrase, at the end of multiple lines or sentences. 

 

Analysis of First They Came 

Lines 1-7 

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

In the first lines of ‘First They Came’ the speaker begins by making use of the phrase that later came to be used as the title. He addresses the fact that the Nazis first came for the Communists. He knew this well and despite the fact that men and women were being taken from their homes, forced into slavery, worked to their deaths and murdered, he did not speak out. He was not a Communist and therefore had the ability to ignore what was happening. 

This is a pattern that repeats throughout the poem. He says the same statements about both “Socialists” and “trade unionists”. These are groups of people that he saw himself as separate from. They didn’t have anything to do with him, so he felt that he didn’t have anything to fear. He did not stand up for or do anything to try to protect these groups. 

The repetition of the same phrases over and over is entrancing. It is very obvious from the beginning of the poem that these lines are leading up to something. Things are going to change in the future for this speaker. 

 

Lines 8-15 

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

In the next few lines of ‘First They Came’, the speaker adds that he did not speak out when they “came for the Jews”. It is with this reference that a reader should be aware, if they do not have access to the context of the poem before reading it, what the speaker is alluding to. The Nazis made their way through the different groups that offended them and then finally, things changed. The speaker was put at risk. “They came for me,” he says in the thirteenth line. In an expected, but still powerful, turn of fate, there was no one left in the world to “speak out for me”. 

This is an example of a technique known as allusion. In these last lines, the speaker is alluding to the fact that if he had spoken out for others then there might’ve been someone there to stand up and save him when he was at risk.

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