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background

The phrase:

  • You’ll be first against the wall, when the revolution comes or,
  • Come the revolution, you’ll be first against the wall and variants thereof, particularly the shortening & implicitizing
  • First against the wall
  • (and sometimes, rarely in my experience Come the revolution)
  • And apparently the abbreviation FATW is common enough to rate capture in TFD¹.

Is frequently used in several contexts, particularly sincerely-held political discourse as well as parody of the same.

Strangely enough, despite my experience with the commonness of “First…” vs the near-absence of “Come…”, Google nGrams has the opposite opinion:

Google nGrams comparing the two phrases over time; "First against the wall" not found

definition

For those who haven’t encountered it before, the UD entry is a reasonable start:

'First against the wall'. Refers to an outgoing elite who will face the firing squads 'when the revolution comes'.

Though I dispute it is limited to the elites; when expressed sincerely (or an approximation), it can and has been aimed at any target wished. It is more frequently, in my experience, used sincerely by holders of left-wing political views than RW (which makes sense given the following).

The phrase speaks of violent revolution and retribution upon one’s enemies; this smacks to me more of the Jacobins and the Leninist-Trotskyist crowd than, say, Mussolini’s fascism.

To my imagination, those revolutions, or a popular model of them (eg film, novels, etc), are the most likely source.

question

But as the standard literature seems to have a lacuna here, I can’t be sure of that, nor even a sense of time (eg in French in 1795 or English in 1965 during the US civil rights movement).

So, then, really, when and where did this phrase originate?

  • I’d like to see hard evidence; speculation I have enough of.
  • If this was an “astroturfed” term coined or popularized by some movie or book etc, I’d love to hear about that².
  • If it had French or other origins, I would welcome that background before discussing its borrowing into English.

¹:Which is the only reference I could find in any professional dictionary.

²:Several places I found on the internet seemed to have first encountered it in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (PhraseFinder, Reddit), but I’m doubtful he introduced it, as much as I love him and his work.

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  • 1
    PhraseFinder traces it to the BBC sitcom Citizen Smith, preceding Douglas Adams. But I'm sure that was a humorous use of an existing left-wing saying. There are other variations: Socialist India in 1974 quotes H. K. L. Bhagat as saying "You will be the first man ... to be hanged with the first lamp post" (probably referencing Mussolini). And doubtless there are other methods of execution.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 23 at 13:49
  • 1
    Getting a few hits on "come the revolution". This one is particularly edifying from page 58 of the annual report on the Committee for Un-American Activities, 1950 - google.com/books/edition/Annual_Report_for_the_Year/…
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 25 at 20:02
  • 1
    1947 highways report - another gem - google.com/books/edition/…
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 25 at 20:14
  • 1
    It definitely appears that "come the revolution" was a US Communist Party saying that became an anti-communist dog whistle during the 40s and 50s. It appears (mostly in quotes) in multiple Un-American Activities reports. google.com/books/edition/…
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 25 at 20:34
  • 1
    When the revolution comes is actually in the OED (earliest attestation at 1850): “when the revolution comes (also come the revolution): hyperbolically expressing anticipation of a notional revolution which will change things for the better.” But you’re not asking about that here, right? Jan 26 at 15:24

3 Answers 3

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An initial search yields "first against the wall" in 1942 in The Daily Tar Heel (the student newspaper of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill):

Power—the dagger of student government—is being reached for again; and the victims are already lined-up. First against the wall is the Publications Union board; and Student party politicoes stand along-side.

So far, that’s my dead end. But words from the article like power, party, and supremacy, might point to Bolshevism, and perhaps we can find at least the seeds of the expression there.

In Denikin’s Russia and the Caucasus, 1919-1920 . . . (Carl Eric Bechhofer Roberts, 1921), we find a 1919 account under “Chapter III: First Impressions of Anti-Bolshevist Russia”:

“So it’s all the same for you, as it was under the Bolshevists or as you are now?

“Hm, no. The Bolshevists used to take you and put you up against a wall and shoot you—yes, just say a word, and they put you up against a wall. Every day I used to see them putting people up against the wall and shooting them—for nothing. Why, once they even put me up against the wall; but I said: ‘Shoot me if you like, but what good will it do you? . . .’”


Update (a research placeholder in case anyone wants to attempt an 1800s French connection) . . .

Le Mur des Fédérés: A Halloween Haunt: After the French suffered a devastating and embarrassing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, a revolt known as the “Fourth French Revolution” caught fire in the cities of France. Unwilling to accept their government’s surrender, citizens . . . brought about a short-lived revolutionist government in Paris known as the Paris Commune. Those who were a part of this group were known as “Communards” . . . One hundred and forty-seven of those people were shot against a wall in Pére Lachaise Cemetary.

As described in The Bryan Democrat in 1909 . . .

It is “le Mur des Federes,” with their backs to which the “communards” made their last stand against government troops and were shot down like rabbits in the last days of May, 1871.

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+500

The sentiment, if not the exact phrase, has occurred earlier in the 20th century. Here is Along These Streets (1942), p. 210 (Google Books), which connects the phrase to a hypothetical revolution:

Those who had everything in the world and did nothing with it made her sick. This girl Harriet Wilde for instance had everything. She would even be pretty if she wasn't so sullen and self-conscious. And instead of rejoicing and making the most of her opportunities, she carved monstrosities out of wood and talked about a revolution in which she would be among the first to be shot.

An early mention of "the first against the wall" occurs in the February 5th, 1971 edition of Sikestone Daily Standard (Internet Archive), p. 2, in a brief note that starts with a socialist quote from then-Georgia legislator Julian Bond. It ends with an implied threat that Bond would be under threat from the revolution of oppressed peoples Bond himself describes:

The trouble with that premise, Julian, is troublemakers like you will be the first against the wall.

Earlier results might be obtained by tracking the phrase against the wall with words related to revolution and being shot. Results I am obtaining suggest that this notion of revolution putting ideological opponents against a wall to be shot is present since the earlier 20th century, when the appendix to a 1940 report on Un-American Propaganda Activities includes Soviet propaganda from the preceding period (Google Books):

But before you have time to wink, the class foe called landowners and capitalists, arrives on the spot and takes the workman by the collar; and, maybe, when some brave Prussian subaltern (or an English one, who knows?) places our workman against the wall to be shot, the good-natured fellow will scratch his head saying, "What a fool I have been!"

So evidence suggests the idea of lining up to be shot against a wall went back at least to the 1920s and 1930s, and the more precise notion of being "the first to be shot" goes back at least to the early 1970s, before Douglas Adams. It is likely evidence exists to shift one or both of these ideas further back.

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  • Splendid job, wonderful material, I am particularly pleased by your second find. Spot on! Now we might push back the date a couple decades more, but I think that still just nails our perp at the[fomenting, depending on how far we push it back] 1917 Russian Revolution. Now I do wonder at what point it crystalized into a ready-made phrase or idiom!
    – Dan Bron
    Jan 23 at 22:37
  • The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, where (possibly) Al Capone’s men shot seven members of the rival gang who were literally lined up against a wall, may be a contributing event.
    – Xanne
    Jan 24 at 7:31
  • The Romanovs were shot in a house in Yekaterinburg.
    – Xanne
    Jan 24 at 7:35
  • The places our workman against the wall text appears in 1919 (not 1940; in that 1940 publication, the 1919 text is referenced in the appendix). Jan 24 at 20:56
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    John Furley, In and Out of Paris During the Commune (1872) includes this seemingly relevant phrasing: "For instance, I was one day at the Place Vendôme when a woman drew a revolver and fired at an officer. She was immediately placed against a wall and shot." I wouldn't be surprised if similar phrases turned up from even earlier sources.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 27 at 22:39
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First up against the wall occurs in Josiah Wedgwood's book, Testament to Democracy, published in 1943:

Once, in anger, I told G. B. Shaw that his revolution would put me first up against the wall for shooting. He said, "Oh no! We should put you under a glass case to go on talking." That was just his benevolence and fine toleration; and, possibly, a certain contempt for reason. Whatever the results to themselves, Members of Parliament who have seen the light had better go on talking.

https://cooperative-individualism.org/wedgwood-josiah_testament-to-democracy-1943.htm

The phrase "against the wall" and even "up against the wall" shows up fairly often in Google Ngram but almost always with a more ordinary meaning.

Wedgwood (the great-great-grandson of the 18th century founder of Wedgwood) was a long-time member of Parliament and a prolific author.

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