First they came for the Communists, but we don’t like Communists…

First they came for the Communists,?
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists,
?and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,?
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me?
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
 
These famous words float an admonition, but isn’t it more likely an adage? They describe the passivity which permitted Hitler’s abuses, but could apply to the ordinary manifestation of totalitarianism. Has human nature yet learned except in hindsight? First they came for the Communists, but we all spoke out, the end. That’s because the big lie is “they.” Try substituting “we” and you see the tsunamic inevitability of mob ethnocentrism. First we came for the Communists, Trade Unionists, and Jews, then him, then her, pure fun until it was me. Oops.

This quote, spoken by German priest Martin Niemoll, features prominently in the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. When I saw it I made a note to look up what seemed a strange discrepancy. Curiously in their version, the first group to be targeted are Socialists, not Communists. I say curiously, because I wouldn’t bring it up if I didn’t think the distinction was very unfortunate.

There are several variations of this “poem” because Niemoll repeated it in many sermons and never wrote it down. Asked about it through the years, sometimes he included Jehovah’s Witnesses and gays, and omitted others. Never, however, did he fail to mention Communists, and never were they not the first.

Does it make a difference? If you consider that Communists are the beasts of burden for Socialism, yes. If there’s a boogieman of Capitalism, it’s not the straw man Socialist, it’s the grassroots, proletariat Communist. Socialists are the intellectuals. The far less palatable working class are the Communists. How unfortunate to scrub Niemoll’s warning of its authentic historical detail. The Nazis first came for the Communists.

Bed bugs have made a comeback in the lives of the American poor, lending an uncomfortable new relevance to a folk bedtime salutation. Imagine if we said “Goodnight, don’t let the butterflies bite.” That carries no folk wisdom whatever.

And so how perverse that a traditionally maligned group such as the Jews, firmly ensconcing themselves on Niemoll’s list, decide another unpopular group needn’t the same protection. Doesn’t it defeat the very threat the old priest wanted us to think about? Yes, each group is meant to represent people in general, universality. But it doesn’t work to say bunnies, or amiable characteristics, because then the prospect doesn’t make sense, our youngsters are made vigilant facing a direction from which an attack never comes.

If the exclusion of Communists was a concession to the perennial Red Scare climate of the US capitol, it sadly confirms why Martin Niemoll’s warning won’t find purchase. Even in a Holocaust Museum dedicated to “never again” coming after people based on their social group, some don’t care about looking out for the most vulnerable.

Imagine Niemoll’s dictum as paraphrased for the Hindu castes. Imagine the Brahmins reciting it, leaving off the untouchables.

Eric Verlo

About Eric Verlo

On sabbatical
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