I don’t write much poetry—and after you read my efforts below, no doubt you’ll feel that’s probably the right choice, and that’s the way it should stay. However, following the recent arrests of a couple of very good friends of mine, protesting the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in New York a couple of weeks ago (no names guys, but you are true patriots, and my heroes), I got an e-mail from one of the two, containing a poem we had both read a long while back, and still find extremely poignant; First they Came by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984). I based my few lines on that small but famous poem…
He Cried in Hatred
First he cried in hatred for the Mexicans;
They are rapists he said,
And I did not speak out—because I was not a Mexican.
Then he cried in hatred for a nation of color;
They are as bad as the Nazis he said,
And I did not speak out—because I have the privilege of my skin.
He has shown his hatred of women—grab them he said,
And appointed another sex-offender judico suprema.
Only one gender matters to the sex-criminal-in-chief,
His law will erase your right to be—and destroy the Land of the Free.
And when he has raised the country in hatred against us all,
Who will be left to speak for you and me?
First they came… is about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent purging of their social order. Many variations and adaptations inspired by the original have been published over time. Niemöller’s brief few lines deal with themes of persecution, guilt and responsibility, and they are as pertinent today as they were when he first put pen to paper.
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 for me.
At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C., the quotation is on display in a variation that substitutes Socialists for Communists—so much for me then, I’d have been one of the first to be rounded up by Hitler’s equivalent of the Department of Homeland Security; and if I listen hard enough, I can probably hear the sound of applause across the interwebs. Or maybe not, there has been quite a lot of editorial freedom taken with Niemöller’s work over the years:
Much controversy surrounds the content of the poem as it has been printed in varying forms, referring to diverse groups such as Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Trade Unionists, or Communists depending upon the version. Nonetheless his point was that Germans had been complicit through their silence in the Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and murder of millions of people. He felt this was true in particular of the leaders of the Protestant churches (of which the Lutheran church was one denomination).
Whatever the editorial freedoms taken, in most versions of Martin Niemöller’s poem I wouldn’t make it to the last line. Niemöller was one of the few that recognized Hitler and his Nazi state for what they were, and had the courage to speak out. Remember too, that everything that Adolf Hitler did, especially in his early days as the German Chancellor, were entirely legal under German law, and his political maneuverings did not begin with the systematic slaughter of millions of human beings. Instead they began with securing his grip on political power, building the support of his base, and dehumanizing scapegoated minorities, so that they could be interred for their own good (Bullock, Bullock, Knapp & Lukacs, 2019).
How chillingly familiar does that sound? More than three-quarters of a century later, and the ideological ghosts of Adolf Hitler still tread the world stage.
Every day, I look at the decline of the United States, into what a rational mind with a basic recollection of history can only describe as a fascist-led nation. I fear for a country ruled over by a racist, sexist, criminal, a failed businessman and gameshow host, and I see the atrocities his followers are willing to perpetrate in his name; and I wonder… how many will look back at this period and be able to say, I spoke out?
My pathetic little corner of the internet doesn’t count—I’m not even American. I’m just a worried neighbor, who wishes he could do more than march and wave a banner from the safety of the last major western liberal democracy. Yet how long will Canada remain the True North Strong and Free, with the likes of Scheer and Ford plying their populist demagoguery?
There are many people—some are friends of this blog—that are speaking out. Their voices rely on personal courage, both to use and to listen to, and they should be praised for their stand.
But what else can you do in the face of such inhumanity? We can begin by recognizing that there are issues at stake that are greater than partisan politics, and greater than the dollar or the pound in our pockets. When we vote, with criminally inhumane, far-right candidates in danger of achieving positions of power—Johnson in the UK, Scheer in Canada, and the vicious misogynist in the US—we need to realize that our votes can cost lives as well as livelihoods. Two of my friends, were arrested for their stand, for being true to their country and its ideals:
For in a republic, who is “the Country”? Is it the Government which is for the moment in the saddle? Why, the Government is merely a servant- merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn’t. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them. Who, then, is “the Country”? Is it the newspaper? is it the pulpit? Is it the school superintendent? Why, these are mere parts of the country, not the whole of it; they have not command, they have only their little share in the command. They are but one in a thousand; it is in the thousand that command is lodged; they must determine what is right and what is wrong; they must decide who is a patriot and who isn’t.
Who are the thousand–that is to say, who are “the Country”? In a monarchy, the king and his family are the country; in a republic it is the common voice of the people. Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak. And it is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of pulpit, press, government, or the empty catch-phrases of politicians. Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn’t. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide it against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may. If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country–hold up your head. You have nothing to be ashamed of (Twain, 1962, p.109).
America, Canada, and the United Kingdom have a proud history of being greater than the fear of fascism… we just need to live up to our own rhetoric, and in future years, be able to hold up our heads, look our children and grandchildren in the eyes, and know we have nothing to be ashamed of.
Bullock, A., Bullock, B., Knapp, W., and Lukacs, J. (2019, May 03). Adolf Hitler: Rise to power. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2019, August 21, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Adolf-Hitler/Rise-to-power.
Twain, M. (1962). Papers of the Adam family. In Bernard DeVoto (Editor), Mark Twain: Letters from the Earth [published posthumously]. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
USHMM. (2012, March 30). Martin Niemöller: First they came for the socialists… Retrieved 2019, August 19, from https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/martin-niemoeller-first-they-came-for-the-socialists.