“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” – Martin Niemoller.
Martin Niemoller was a controversial figure, whose motives and actions are still debated by historians, theologians and political theorists to this day. But his words (above) ring as true today as they did in the 1940s. Like many Lutheran pastors (and other religious leaders) in 1930s Germany, Niemoller was an anti-communist who opposed the democratic experiment of the Weimar Republic and its associated ‘decadence’, welcoming the Nazi accession to power in 1933 even to the extent of apparently having official meetings with Adolf Hitler.
Some of Niemoller’s preaching also contained decidedly antisemitic sentiments, something he certainly was not alone among his contemporaries in utilising for theological and political ends. But Niemoller’s views gradually began to change as Nazi power grew in strength during the 1930s, and he objected in particular to Hitler’s attempts to exert powerful state control over the church and religion. The deeply embedded and influential position of the various Christian churches within German society meant that government control over them could act as a way of legitimizing and strengthening the Nazi regime via the ‘support’ of the Nazified church, a move which would radically politicize Christianity in a way that many within the church, including Niemoller, objected to as being in direct opposition to their Christian values.
Niemoller, and others within the Protestant community in particular, made their objections to this policy perfectly clear; he and many pastors who had previously supported National Socialism began to visibly move away from its tenets, although Niemoller himself continued to be publicly critical of the Jewish community – despite the broader-minded and more tolerant approach taken by many of his anti-Nazi colleagues within the church. However, by the late 1930s, the Nazi government had got heartily fed up of the often vocal and public opposition from these men of the cloth; men whose words still carried a great deal of weight within their communities and who thus, almost by default, were considered a threat to the regime.
As a result, and between 1938 and 1945, Niemoller was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps for ‘activities against the state’, only being released at the very end of the war. In the immediate aftermath of the war, he was a signatory to the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, a document produced by the German church in which it admitted that it had been inadequate in its opposition to the Nazi regime.
Niemoller himself is also said to have admitted he had been wrong in his previous personal approach to Nazism and the Jewish community, and that his wartime imprisonment had changed his way of thinking for the better (although there is some evidence that this may not have entirely been the case). He later became a confirmed pacifist, and very publicly (and often controversially) campaigned for nuclear disarmament up until his death in 1984.
His famous words, quoted above, were written at some point during the immediate post war period, and exist in a number of different versions – many bastardised by others since, but many also written by Niemoller himself. Whatever his motives were, and whatever his true views were, these words echo down the decades and, sadly, remain relevant today.
The first victims of the Nazi regime in Germany were indeed its political opponents – socialists, communists, anarchists, trade unionists and anyone who politically opposed or conflicted with Hitler’s government, including religious leaders like Niemoller. Dachau, the first concentration camp in Germany, was opened just outside Munich soon after the Nazis came to power, and it initially functioned as a political prison for such groups.
Soon after that, the Nazis began to target other groups in German society, including the mentally and physically handicapped, and the mentally ill – all of whom were considered ‘useless mouths’ by the regime; a viewpoint used to justify mass sterilisations and appalling gassing experiments (the disturbing lessons learned from the latter were put to use on a much larger scale in the extermination camps later set up in eastern Europe).
Next to be targeted on a wider scale were the Jews, the Roma and Sinti, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the LGBT community and various other groups who didn’t fit into the twisted Nazi ideal of Aryan purity – all of whom also became victims of officially state sanctioned murder, having already been the victims of political harassment and persecution. And on and on it went as the Nazis moved across Europe, spreading their message of hate and destruction.
And on and on it still goes – all of these are groups still, to some extent or another, considered threatening, considered ‘other’ (with all that entails) by the far-right today. All of these groups remain the targets of far-right hatred and distrust, even now, in the supposedly liberal, tolerant 21st century.
Last month marked the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two, and it saddens me deeply to see that the kind of discrimination and hatred that defined the Nazi regime in Germany still exists in Europe and across the world – despite the deaths of millions as a result of it, and despite the post-war hope (perhaps naive?) that such bigotry had been destroyed by the efforts and personal sacrifices of the millions who fought against it.
Niemoller’s dictum has been on my mind a lot of late. Mainly because every time I read or watch the news there is always at least one more sign of such hatred; always more stories that evoke a sense of impotent anger and sadness in me. Over the last year or so, Europe alone has seen such disturbing sights as the political legitimation of far-right parties such as the BNP via domestic and European election victories, attempts to legislate homophobia in parts of eastern Europe, the disturbing and sinister growth of the Islamophobic and racist English Defence League, the use of Islamophobia by the media and far-right groups in a similar negative and fear-mongering way to the use of antisemitism in 1930s Europe, violent official collaboration with neo-fascists against left-wing and anti-capitalist opposition protesters in Greece, Roma refugees being hounded out of Northern Ireland by racist bigots, peaceful protesters being attacked by the police on the streets of London during the G20 summit, the shocking recent official destruction of the migrant camps in Calais (at the risk of further brutalising many and frequently very young individuals who are already deeply traumatized and often stateless), and – only very recently – the cancellation of Belgrade Pride because Serbian police, in the full knowledge that anti-gay groups were threatening further violence, could not or would not guarantee the safety of the marchers. And those are just a few examples off the top of my head. There are more such stories, and not just in Europe – just read any mainstream or independent news website and you’ll be virtually tripping over such stories.
Change a few details in the above examples and bring in the impact of the economic meltdown, and you could be talking about Europe in the 1930s – a time when the far-right was on the march, when the world’s economies were in collapse leading to poverty and suffering in many places, and when the ethics and necessity of wars and illegal invasions were being questioned by some. Sound familiar? We all know what happened after that.
Some political commentators and historians have been highly critical of such comparisons, seeing them as lazy and incorrect, but, as a historian myself, I believe the comparisons between the situation now and that in the 1930s to be entirely valid and particularly relevant – which is why I use them here. Refusing to look these comparisons in the metaphorical eye is a symptom of a wider refusal to acknowledge that there is actually a problem here. We are so smug and self-satisfied in our protective bubble of modern superiority that we are quite happy to ignore genocide (Darfur, anyone?), and are happily convinced that the appalling actions of the Nazis could never happen again, because we are so beyond that level of barbarity now – despite the fact that contemporary events are beginning to prove that such hatred, violence and destruction never really went away, because those responsible, both then and now, have been allowed to get away with it.
In fact, those who commit such acts (whether governments, other authorities or organised groups of thugs), do so in the knowledge that they will face no opposition, or if they do, such opposition can be ‘neutralised’ and made ineffective. Why? Because the far-right is either politically legitimized or in the process of becoming increasingly institutionalised across Europe, even going so far as to create links with ‘regular’ right-wing parliamentary parties (the recent and increasingly hysterical debate over the connections between the official British Opposition party, the Conservatives, and the deeply unpleasant Latvian For Fatherland and Freedom Party is but one example of this).
Such attempts to legitimate and ‘normalise’ the far right politically across Europe is evidence for exactly why it is becoming more and more crucial for all of us to stand up for ourselves, stand up for each other, and stand up against this growing far-right threat to all of us. And that means everyone – whether you are political or not and whether you are a member of one or more of the groups targeted by the far right or not just doesn’t matter.
It matters not to me where you stand in the political spectrum either: socialist, liberal, communist, anarchist, trades unionist, feminist, queer rights activist, apolitical, whatever. And neither does it matter who you are in a spiritual sense: Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan, agnostic, one of many faiths or of no faith at all. What matters is that we forget about arguing amongst ourselves about the best way to deal with this threat, and that we start to speak out for ourselves and each other, working together as Martin Niemoller’s dictum so rightly suggests.
Because, on a purely personal and slightly selfish level, as an anti-fascist, as a left-wing political activist, as a part of the LGBT community, and as someone with long-term and potentially serious health problems, I don’t want to reach the point where there is no-one left to speak out for me.
And if we do nothing now, that point will come again; no matter how much we hope, pray, and fervently, sincerely believe it won’t.