Then They Came for Me

First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.

Then 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 me and there was no one left to speak for me.

My daughter and I saw this quote at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum earlier this month, and it is oft repeated in times like these.  But this article reminds us that its author was a complicated figure.  

Martin Niemöller, a German Protestant pastor, was a supporter of Hitler, an anti-Semite, and a member of a far-right group.  It was only when fellow pastors were pledging allegiance to Hitler and
Niemöller resisted and was sent to a concentration camp that his thinking evolved.  Here is, in some ways, an even more powerful quote from him that also ought to be etched in a museum:

… it was not at all clear to me what only dawned upon me later in the concentration camp: that, as a Christian, I must conduct myself not according to my sympathies or antipathies, but must see in each human being, even if he is unsympathetic to me, the fellow human being for whom Jesus Christ hung His cross as much as for me. This simply precludes any form of rejection and action against a group of human beings of any race, any religion, any skin color.

People who espouse hateful sentiments that do not allow others to freely exist deserve our condemnation.  But they also must be given room to change, for history proves that people can in fact change, sometimes in profound ways.  We are worse off if we don't make space to make that possible.

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