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 for me.
– Pastor Martin Niemöller
You may have heard or read a different version of this poem, because it exists in a number of forms. It certainly was given in speeches by Niemöller (1892-1984), who was a German Lutheran Pastor, contemporary and colleague of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (see last post). The version above is the one found on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, but in various guises it can be discovered, with mention of Communists, the ‘incurable’, the Social Democrats, etc. The point being made is basically that by not standing up for those who are ‘not like us’ or ‘not of our race/ religion/ creed/ political allegiance’, we do ourselves a disservice and thus fail to serve all of humanity.
The problem that confronted Niemöller was that, unlike some contemporaries at the time of the rise of Nazism, he did not speak out against Hitler, at least not at first, and this poem that we read is testimony to the anguish he felt over his initial inaction. He was anti-Communist, so welcomed the new Chancellor who was going to deal with the problems caused by what he saw as the prevalent social evil of his time, and deal firmly with those who were stirring things up and were enemies of the church. It was only as time went on, and each successive group of scapegoats were ‘dealt with’ that he started to realise where things were going. The Jews would appear to have been the group that suffered the most under Hitler, but they shared the concentration camps with political dissidents like communists as well as gypsies, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
What Niemöller intended with his words was to convey how it started with those that ‘everyone disliked’ i.e. the political troublemakers, then it moved to a group marked by nothing except their religion or race (the Jews). It is often debated how a modern European ‘civilised’ nation like 20th century Germany could so easily have allowed these things to happen, but it was at the end of a centuries-long process of the dehumanisation of the Jews. Anti-Semitism may have complex roots but to simplify it as best as one can; the first step was when many Jews in Europe became bankers by trade. This was a niche for them to fill since the church, pre-reformation, banned the practice of usury (charging interest on loans), since this is actually forbidden in the laws of the Old Testament. Actually it was forbidden for Israelites to charge interest to fellow countrymen (brothers in the faith), but not those of other races or faiths, and so since Christians could not lend to each other professionally, Jews were able to exploit that market. Various Kings and Emperors across Europe employed their services to bankroll their armies as they tried to take more territory and defeat neighbours; because many of them resented paying the money back, they would concoct stories against Jews, like saying that they ate Christian babies – horrible stuff like that – or blame them on devilry and casting bad omens and spells when disasters occurred, and then allow mobs to ‘take matters into their own hands’ or just proclaim a law that all Jews be deported, and thus their debts went away with the exiles! Where Jews found they could stay, they tended to remain together for their own safety and so their ‘ghettoisation’ began; they often did not integrate well with Christians.
By the time of Nazism, even ‘scientific’ studies were used to offer proof that Jews were genetically inferior, or ‘subhuman’ to the ‘better races’ like the White European tribes. On top of this, laissez-faire capitalism, in its first recent outing, had collapsed the world markets in the Wall Street Crash of 1929 (just like it did again in 2008). People then realised, as many are realising this time around, that it was the fault of the banks and the unhindered greed of the bankers who could not stop the ‘boom’ of the 20s and went too far. For the reasons listed above, many of these bankers were Jewish! In finding who to blame for the woes of the First Great Depression, much was apportioned to the Jews, and so the rounding up of these people was easier to achieve. Problem was that not all bankers were Jews, and not all Jews were bankers, but who would be concerned with such petty truths when people have a good old-fashioned lynch mob ready to take the trash out to the bins!
Anti-Semitism is on the rise again, and some are using the recent crash and New Depression in their finger-pointing efforts, but in the complexities of world politics, we have a situation where nobody really wants a return to persecuting the Jews like ’twas done a generation ago (fortunately), and Israel has become a powerful world nation with ties and links to major political powers. These days you only have to say that you’re not a fan of Woody Allen’s films to have the Anti-Defamation League accuse you of being anti-Semitic!
Enter the new scapegoats! The ‘Jews of the 21st century’! The Muslims!! Sure we all see the barbarity of those extremists who post their own videos online to boast to the world just how barbaric they can be as they do it all in the name of Allah, to cries of ‘Allahu Akbar!’ – sure we can see with our own eyes on our TV screens just how murderous and utterly detestable these people are! I’ll make no argument against that. I have already stated how the likes of ISIS are immoral human beings. However, just as not all Jews were or are bankers, and I believe we should apportion blame on those bankers who messed up (in 1929 and 2008) for our financial problems, so I also see that not all Muslims are extremists, and we should apportion the blame for the genocidal activities we are seeing on the extremists, and the extremists alone!
The dehumanising process has begun already. A large proportion of immigrants coming here are Muslims (actually escaping persecution by the extremists!); how often do we read in our media of ‘the death of an immigrant’ under a truck or of ‘a boatload of immigrants’ in the Mediterranean instead of the death of a boatload of people? They are fleeing the same groups that are our enemies, they are victims too. In the huge complexities that we need to wade through to find any sort of answer to this crisis (which I believe could be reduced from the megacrisis it is portrayed to be by parties interested in scapegoating again), we will have many questions difficult to answer. Let us relish the challenge instead of jerking our knees to the goose-step of hatred!
You don’t think they’re being dehumanised? Nobody is calling for their extermination, like the Nazis with the Jews? Think again! Almost a year ago, Charisma magazine online published an article from the website of the CADC (Christian Anti-Defamation Commission) that called for the extermination of all Muslims in the Western world! Actually it called for Muslims to ‘convert, leave, or die!’ – how and where does that sound familiar? While the CADC may be a fringe group, Charisma is a magazine of some note and a reasonable readership – its founder, Stephen Strang, was listed by TIME in 2005 in the ’25 most influential evangelicals in America’. I am very pleased to say that due to a flood of protests, Charisma removed the article and link, but never offered a reason for retraction nor an apology! To think that they would even consider printing such an article is beyond my comprehension! I do not pass judgment on the salvation of other believers, but this attitude has zero to do with my faith, or my Jesus!!! The original article is still available here at defendchristians.org.
Unlike Niemöller, who waited too long to be effective, I will start speaking out now, to halt the process that turns humans into cattle for slaughter, before we reach the day when we add a new line to that poem: “Then they came for the Muslims…”. I shall leave you with the very words of Pastor Niemöller [apologies for the imperfect translation], so you can sense his regret and angst:
When Pastor Niemöller was put in a concentration camp we wrote the year 1937; when the concentration camp was opened we wrote the year 1933, and the people who were put in the camps then were Communists. Who cared about them? We knew it, it was printed in the newspapers.
Who raised their voice, maybe the Confessing Church? We thought: Communists, those opponents of religion, those enemies of Christians – “should I be my brother’s keeper?”
Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. – I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it’s right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn’t it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]? — Only then did the church as such take note. Then we started talking, until our voices were again silenced in public. Can we say, we aren’t guilty/responsible? The persecution of the Jews, the way we treated the occupied countries, or the things in Greece, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia or in Holland, that were written in the newspapers
I believe, we Confessing-Church-Christians have every reason to say: mea culpa, mea culpa! We can talk ourselves out of it with the excuse that it would have cost me my head if I had spoken out…. We preferred to keep silent. We are certainly not without guilt/fault, and I ask myself again and again, what would have happened, if in the year 1933 or 1934 – there must have been a possibility – 14,000 Protestant pastors and all Protestant communities in Germany had defended the truth until their deaths? If we had said back then, it is not right when Hermann Göring simply puts 100,000 Communists in the concentration camps, in order to let them die. I can imagine that perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 Protestant Christians would have had their heads cut off, but I can also imagine that we would have rescued 30-40,000 million [sic] people, because that is what it is costing us now.
Grace be with you.