A cautionary tale

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
October 29, 2018 3:06 p.m.

Martin Niemöller

Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) was a German Lutheran pastor who was a national conservative in Germany during the Weimar Republic.  He at first welcomed Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, believing that it would bring a national revival of a Germany that was in the throes of soaring inflation and unemployment following World War I.  But he gradually abandoned his views.

After the war, he wrote a poem about the cowardice of Germans following the Nazis’ rise to power and their subsequent elimination of opposition groups.  There are several variations of the poem, but this one is on display at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.:

First 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.

Make no mistake in thinking Niemöller was a hero.  He was not a Schindler or a Wallenberg who tried to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. He did try to protect Jews who had converted to Christianity, and for his opposition to the Nazi’s state control of churches he was arrested by the Gestapo and interned in two concentration camps for “protective custody” from 1938-1945.  Niemöller was liberated by advancing units of the U.S. Seventh Army.

While he received harsh criticism because of his early support for Hitler and his attitude toward Jews, he never denied his own guilt, allowing that it wasn’t until his 8-year imprisonment by the Nazis that he reached a turning point.

Leo Stein, Niemöller’s former cellmate, wrote that he had asked Niemöller why he had ever supported the Nazi Party.  Niemöller’s reply, as reported in The National Jewish Monthlyin 1941:

I find myself wondering about that too. I wonder about it as much as I regret it. Still, it is true that Hitler betrayed me. I had an audience with him, as a representative of the Protestant Church, shortly before he became Chancellor, in 1932. Hitler promised me on his word of honor, to protect the Church, and not to issue any anti-Church laws. He also agreed not to allow pogroms against the Jews, assuring me as follows: “There will be restrictions against the Jews, but there will be no ghettos, no pogroms, in Germany.”

I really believed, given the widespread anti-Semitism in Germany, at that time—that Jews should avoid aspiring to Government positions or seats in the Reichstag. There were many Jews, especially among the Zionists, who took a similar stand. Hitler’s assurance satisfied me at the time. On the other hand, I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while.

I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.

In these difficult days of 2018 that often challenge our notions of decency, tolerance and humanity, the story of Martin Niemöller may be viewed as a cautionary tale. We Americans, who enjoy the freedoms bestowed upon us by the United States Constitution, need to understand that what we take for granted today can disappear tomorrow unless we constantly renew and enforce those freedoms by practicing good citizenship and showing tolerance toward all faiths, political beliefs, races and lifestyles.  Hatred or fear of “The Other” can lead us down paths that are destructive to our nation, our communities and our very selves.

The recent shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue, bombs mailed to prominent Democrats, increasing volume and intensity of hate expressed on social media – are we ourselves in danger of becoming what we thought we were fighting against?

Martin Luther King, Jr.

As Niemöller learned too late, changes to society can come so slowly, so subtly, that it is often too late before we understand that we have somehow made a course change that has taken us in the wrong direction.

As this piece began with one Martin, I will end with another Martin.

Martin Luther King, Jr.,said:  “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.”

Suanne Thamm 4Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.

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