Monday, July 14, 2014

Matthew Parris on the real meaning of Martin Niemoller's iconic poem


Matthew Parris had a powerful and disturbing piece in Saturday's Times about the real meaning of the anti-nazi poem usually attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller and the way people remember it.

The poem describes how the Nazis worked through a list of victims and the author did not speak out, and then concludes with the words

"Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak up for me."

Matthew argues that people often incorrectly remember the earlier groups listed in the poem as being those victims of the nazis that the person remembering the poem does in fact feel sympathy for.

Hence a centre-right politician used the poem including the line "First they came for the industrialists" when only those industrialists who annoyed the Nazis for some other reason like being a Jew, Freemason, or political opponent, were in fact victimised by the Nazis. Parris says he has heard black people include "the blacks" and suggests that many gay people think Niemoller included a line about the Nazis coming for gay people but that he did not in fact include either line.

Matthew Parris argues that a key part of the message of the poem is that the Nazis got their way not only by picking off groups of human beings they disliked one at a time, but that they started with the most unpopular groups, those without friends, so that others got used to keeping their heads down or even cheering at first as the pariahs of society fell under the nazi jackboot - only to find that these victims were followed in turn by everyone else.

Matthew's comment can be challenged on some details but, for all that it is incredibly uncomfortable reading, his argument is strong on the big picture.

It appears that Martin Niemoller may have used different lists of victims in different speeches according to whom he was speaking to at the time. In 1976 when he was asked about this he said

"There were no copies or minutes of what I said, and it may be that I formulated it differently. But the idea was anyhow: the Communists, we still let that happen calmly: and the Trade Unions, we also let that happen: and we even let the Social Democrats happen. All of that was not our affair."

Hence the most common original version of the poem is

"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 Social Democrats, and I did not speak out because I was not a Social Democrat.

Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak up for me."

I don't know if people would listen long enough to get the point if you reset the poem in quite as extreme and "in your face" a manner as Matthew Parris suggests - starting with "First they came for the paedophiles," and continuing with "Then they came for the terrorists."

It really is essential to protect children from paedophiles and everyone from terrorists, although in both cases the very fact that the crimes of both groups are so terrible and justly unpopular means that exceptional vigilance is needed not just to catch the guilty but to avoid wrecking the lives of the wrongly-accused.

But Matthew is dead right that each of us should think of the poem as if it starts with some of the groups who we personally dislike.

The poem is sometimes quoted as beginning with "First they came for the Jews."

As we have seen this was not the original, but if you are an Arab or Palestinian, you probably should start the poem with

"First they came for the Jews"

But if you are Jewish, you should probably start with "First they came for Hamas."

If any Nye Bevan style socialists, or anyone else who really hates the Conservative party, is for some peculiar reason reading this blog you should start the poem with "First they came for the Tories"

But if you are a Norman Tebbit style Tory, you should leave the poem much as Martin Niemoller wrote it, except perhaps replacing "Social Democrats" with "Labour party" or "Socialists."

If you are a strong opponent of blood sports you should start with "First they came for the hunters"

And if you are a member of a hunt, that should be "First they came for the Hunt Saboteurs."

If the poem does not make you uncomfortable you are not thinking of it in the right way.

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