Selective quotation

As I was finishing up my last blog entry, I decided to link the final word to Pastor Niemöller’s famous “First they came…” quotation. And I stumbled across a page on Niemöller at Liverpool Community College which not only gives the quotation but points out the revealing way in which people have misquoted it over the years – not just casually, but in speeches, and even in memorial inscriptions.

Everbody loves to quote Martin Niemöller’s lines about moral failure in the face of the Holocaust: ‘First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I said nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing. Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist. And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did little. Then when they came for me, there was no one left to stand up for me.’

But interestingly, people use the quotation to imply different meanings – even altering it to suit their purpose. When Time magazine used the quotation, they moved the Jews to the first place and dropped both the communists and the social democrats. American Vice-President Al Gore likes to quote the lines, but drops the trade unionists for good measure. Gore and Time also added Roman Catholics, who weren’t on Niemöller’s list at all. In the heavily Catholic city of Boston, Catholics were added to the quotation inscribed on its Holocaust memorial. The US Holocaust Museum drops the Communists but not the Social Democrats; other versions have added homosexuals.

What could make Niemöller’s point more eloquently than this selectivity? UPDATE Wikipedia gives the original German text and some of the variations.