First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Communist.
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.
Photo by madeleine ragsdale on Unsplash
Martin Niemöller was not a poet. Or a communist, trade unionist, Jew. Or a man history intended to remember; he was a German Lutheran pastor. Like the rest of the world and his 67 million other anonymous countrymen, he witnessed Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power. We now know how that story ended.
At the time, like most people, Niemöller did not. Like most people, he had a life that went on after the evening bulletin had aired and the morning paper had been read. Like most, his life was small and insignificant in the greater scheme of events. He had no ambition to live it out otherwise; sleeping, waking up, brushing his teeth, making coffee and breakfast while making small talk about the headlines. Moving on.
He had a wife, six children, and a congregation depending on him. He was not the keeper of the communists, the Jews, and the trade unionists. He was not the keeper of abstract notions like the right to life and human dignity. He could have minded his own business. Instead, he chose to speak out.
His phone was tapped. Still, he spoke out. He was then arrested. He spoke out. Several times, and still he spoke out till he was sent to Sachsenhausen camp. He finally joined the communists, Jews, trade unionists, gypsies, Poles, homosexuals. He was not one of them. He did not save them, but spent eight years in their midst, until the Allies liberated Dachau and him in 1945.
He was not a hero; he just made a choice. And those who stayed silent and indoors while their neighbours disappeared were not evil. They were just trying to mind their own business, stay out of trouble and history. They succeeded in part, by dying anonymous, keepers of no one and nothing.
But they did write history, and it was loud. 15 to 20 million lives loud. It took 15 to 20 million silences for the world to finally speak out:
‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’
All human beings, finally said. Now we were all ‘one of them,’ each the keeper of all the others. But it has been seventy years since.
Seventy years later, we have drawn new unfortunate ‘Others’ from a hat: refugees, migrants, and Muslims this time, to excuse our fear, injustice, and bigotry.
I am not a migrant, Muslim, or refugee. I am no hero or poet. My life is small and insignificant, but I have read some history. And I cannot wake up and brush my teeth, make coffee and breakfast and small talk as I read the headlines, then mind my own business, live and die silent and anonymous.
So I am speaking out for the refugees in boats, along borders, and in camps. Empathy is trying, just trying to understand the horrors they must have fled. Trying to understand the heat, cold, or dampness; the hunger, thirst, sickening fear of wait; the humiliation of begging to stay; the alternative: going back.
I am speaking out for the migrants in trucks, on foot, and in detention centres. The families that have been separated. The children alone when dusk settles. Trying to understand hoarse voices and tight throats; foreign words and night time sounds; the guilt building up like bile in a mother’s throat as she replays her goodbyes.
I am speaking out for those feared, mocked, harassed, ostracized, and demonized, because they pray, because they pray on Fridays, because they pray in Arabic. Trying to understand being the only person in a room with a veil; being the only person pulled out of a queue for a ‘random inspection.’
I am speaking out, not because I think that my words will be heard or matter. Nor because I am worried that tomorrow, I may be the next ‘other.’
I want no place in a history book; I want to sit in a garden. I want the right to breathe freely, be still, enjoy the silence, music, nature, a book.
I want the right to live with dignity and cannot have it if I stay silent. So I am speaking out for ‘the others,’ and for all of us, the living.