In the 1950s, English translations of a statement by Martin Niemöller – a German Lutheran pastor who had at first supported Adolf Hitler’s rise to power but was later imprisoned for opposing the Nazi regime, and spent the last years of World War II in a concentration camp – began circulating in the United States. The statement (sometimes called a poem) was based on speeches Niemöller had begun giving in 1946. There are various versions, of which this one is perhaps the best known. All of the versions end in the same way: “Then they came for me / and there was no one left / to speak for me.”
“The quote was that rarest of things,” writes Megan Garber in The Atlantic: “a political argument grounded in religious tradition.”
In the last few weeks, Niemöller’s words have been revived and revised by people protesting the actions of the Trump/Bannon/Pence presidency – in particular, the ban on Muslims entering the U.S. The new slogans begin, like the original, with “First they came,” but they end in defiance.
“First they came for the Muslims and we said, “Not this time!”
Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who was a Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2016, put it slightly differently:
The text is “infinitely malleable,” writes Garber, and, despite being 70 years old, uniquely well suited to 21st-century protest:
“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. To use its language is to claim an understanding of history—and an understanding, too, of how readily its mistakes can be repeated by those who fall victim to the luxuries of forgetfulness. It is #neveragain, and #neverforget, with the subjects added in. It is a poem made powerful by its pronouns: They-I-I, They-I-I, They-I-I, They-no one-me.
This is the 21st century, and some of the new endings would make a starchy Lutheran pastor gasp, or faint. Here’s the one that’s gotten the most play:
“Not today motherfucker.” Via Amy Schumer on Instagram, among others and elsewhere.
I’ve also seen “Not today, asshole,” which was already a well-established meme by the time of the protests.
But there’s still another twist to the story.
Last week, at a March for Refugees in Salt Lake City, a woman named Karla held a hand-written sign that managed to be sly, tender, and subversive all at once.
What a time to be alive, when even #PoliteMormonMoms are part of #TheResistance.