A Poem I’ve Been Thinking a Lot About Lately

In these stressful times, I wonder what will become of the 2010’s, and how we will we be written about in history textbooks. Along with that thought, I wonder how we as older people will explain our actions and our thoughts about this moment we are living in. I’ve been thinking a lot about the poem “First They Came” by Martin Niemoller. It’s almost been like a mantra.

Martin Niemoller was a Lutheran pastor in Nazi Germany who, like many Germans at the time, initially supported Hitler. When Hitler’s paranoia and insistence that the state reign supreme over religion reached it’s peak, Niemoller recoiled at the thought. He then led a resistance group of German clergymen, but was arrested in 1937. The Nazis confined him in Sachsenhausen and Dachau, and he was released by the Allied Forces in 1945. His experience of imprisonment in the concentration camps led him to become an advocate for reconciliation and also become someone who was opposed to apolitical stances.

First They Came

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
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

The poem reads like a mantra, with it’s repetition at the beginning of every line, even syllable length, and alternating rhyme scheme. A repeated motif of the absence of voice serves merely as a descriptor, but then become’s the speaker’s undoing. In a way, this poem is similar to a sonnet, with a rhyme scheme, argument, and twist in a final couplet. The context of Niemoller’s imprisonment at Sachsenhausen and Dachau, and the political climate of Nazi Germany, is embedded throughout this poem, and when I look at this poem, it is difficult for me to seperate the past from the present.

Are there any poems that seem timeless for the wrong reasons? How much should a reader consider a poem’s social and political context? How much should readers apply a poem to their own lives?

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