How it felt when my workplace began to crack down on the internet usage.

How it came to be (Final Paper) The objective of this paper, is to argue the importance of understanding the historic contextual knowledge a work when attempting to derive meaning from it. I chose to use Martin Niemöller’s poem, “First They Came for the Jews,” to illustrate the need for contextual understanding of a work when trying to interpret meaning that is embedded into tales of an event like the Holocaust.

How it came to be

  From 1933 to 1945 our World faced one of the darkest periods in human history, as an estimated eleven million people were slaughtered in the genocidal Nazi movement we now know as the Holocaust. It was this horrific event that inspired Martin Niemöller, an outspoken foe of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, to write his poem “First They Came for the Jews.” While the focus of Niemöller’s poem is clear, it contains many important references to various specific aspects of the Holocaust and his own personal experiences. Thus, in order to fully understand the meaning of Niemöller’s poem, it is vitally important to have historic contextual knowledge of Martin Niemöller’s life, the various routes and methods of the poem’s publication, and the events of the Holocaust.

“First They Came for the Jews” is a first hand statement by Martin Niemöller regarding the dangers of political apathy. In this statement, which is often referred to as a poem, critical events of Niemöller’s life play an important role in the reader’s understanding of the text. Niemöller, born in Germany on January 14th, 1892, was a member of the German Navy where he would eventually be assigned commanding officer of his own U-boat during World War I. However, when Niemöller refused to comply with orders to surrender his boat to England as part of the armistice of November 11, 1918, he was discharged from Germany’s Navy. After being discharged, Niemöller followed his father’s footsteps and began to study theology at the University of Münster. In 1931, Niemöller became a pastor in Berlin, and as a German nationalist was a strong supporter of Hitler until the Nazi movement began to interfere with church affairs. In reaction to the Nazi interference with his church, Niemöller founded the Pastors’ Emergency League, which consisted of Protestant clergy devoted to taking a stand against Nazi domination of the church. Refusing to give in to Nazi threats, Niemöller was arrested in 1937 and was sent to the Saschsenhausen concentration camp. Niemöller’s arrest outraged many Germans, which prompted a statement by Adolf Hitler in regards to Niemöller that reads, “That man is dangerous and will never cease to be so. Within the concentration camp he has the maximum liberty and is well looked after, but never will he see the outside of it again.” When the war ended and Niemöller was released in 1945, he focused his efforts on rebuilding the German Protestant Church. After his release, Niemöller made many visits to the United States during which he would preach the importance of organized groups cooperating with each other to resist evil. While several theories exist regarding the origin of Niemöller’s most famous quote, it is believed by many that the statement originated during his speaking tour across the United States. In his statement, “First They Came for the…” Niemöller illustrates his view of his long battle against the Nazi regime.

In reading “First They Came for the Jews,” it is critically important to understand Niemöller’s personal history, as the poem dictates the series of events that led to his eventual imprisonment and also expresses the guilt he felt for not speaking out until it was too late. The first sentence of the poem, “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew,” represents the period of time when Niemöller was in support of Hitler. In order to accurately understand the context of this statement, it is crucial to know that Niemöller was a Protestant pastor and felt no connection to the Jewish followers being targeted. Thus, he felt no urge to speak out against the attacks. In the following sentence Niemöller states, “Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.” Again, because Niemöller felt no allegiance with the Communists, he refrained from speaking out against their mistreatment. Describing the procession of groups being victimized by the Nazi’s, the next sentence reads, “Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.” Continuing with the trend of lacking association with the groups being persecuted, Niemöller once again abstained from speaking out against Nazi actions. In a 1976 interview, Niemöller explains why he didn’t act to resist the persecution of the Jews, Communists, and trade unionists, as he said

The idea was anyhow: The communists, we still let that happen calmly; and the trade unions, we also let that happen… All of that was not our affair. The Church did not concern itself with politics at all at that time, and it shouldn’t have anything to do with them either (

Knowledge of Niemöller’s past is essential in order for readers to understand that this poem is not an outsider’s recollection of the events of the Holocaust, but rather a personal declaration of what happened and why Niemöller chose to act the way he did.

While the first three sentences provide insight into the literal historic events of the Holocaust, the fourth and final sentence unveils the important moral lesson that Niemöller captured from the events. The final sentence reads, “Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.” In many interviews, Niemöller is quoted claiming that the lack of action by Protestant churches towards the Nazi persecution of millions of people showed a sense of complicity by the Church with the Nazi’s. Niemöller often personally expressed his guilt for remaining silent while millions of people were being killed and his sense of regret is felt throughout the poem. However, in order to derive the feelings and emotions implemented into the structure of the poem, the reader must have knowledge regarding Niemöller’s past and the historical events of the Holocaust.

To this day, the exact origin of the poem and its original structure is heavily disputed, since the poem has been published in various versions. The original wording of the poem is debated heavily by historic scholars, as the groups mentioned and the order in which the groups mentioned in the poem vary in each version of the poem. The lack of clarity regarding the wording of the poem can be attributed to the fact that Niemöller spoke about the topic extemporaneously and in seemingly all four corners of the world. Various publications of the poem have included groups such as Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, trade unionists, Communists, Socialists, and even gays. The broad application of the poem helps highlight the overall meaning of the poem; that smaller groups must co-operate to prevent the escalation of a rising power and eventual loss of freedom.

When reading Niemöller’s “First They Came for the Jews,” one must have historic contextual knowledge of Niemöller’s life, the various forms and uses of the publicized text, and of the setting surrounding the events described in the poem. In order to understand the significance of the poem’s context, the reader must know that Martin Niemöller was a Protestant pastor, whom initially supported Hitler. The reader must know that Niemöller didn’t speak out because as a pastor, he felt that as part of the church he should have no participation in political matters such as the Nazi movement. Also, the reader must know that when Niemöller finally decided to act in resistance against the Nazis, it was because he felt they were interfering with church affairs. Further, it is important to know that this poem was written after Niemöller spent seven years in concentration camps surrounded by those oppressed by the Nazis, and that this poem expresses the guilt he felt for not speaking out against their mistreatment sooner than he did. Personal experiences and world history are deeply embedded into the meaning of this poem, and in order to derive its true meaning, the reader must have contextual knowledge of the poem’s history, the events and setting included in the poem, the time period in which the poem was written, and also the personal history of Martin Niemöller himself.

Works Cited

“First They Came for the Communists…”” UCSB Department of History. 12 Sept. 2000. Web. 26 Feb. 2011. <>.

“German Churches and the Nazi State.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Web. 26 Mar. 2011. <>.

“Martin Niemöller: “First They Came for the Socialists…”” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Web. 26 Mar. 2011. <>.

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