Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.
–Edmund Burke—18th century Irish statesman
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
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 the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Catholic.
Then they came for the Incurables*, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not an Incurable.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
The above poem was written and delivered by a German Protestant minister named Martin Niemoller. Pastor Niemoller, who was an outspoken critic of Adolph Hitler, was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp for seven years. After his release and during the post-war period, he delivered this speech numerous times in a variety of settings. He didn’t use all of the groups listed above in each of his lectures, and there is some controversy as to exactly which groups he targeted in his now world-renowned speech, but it is generally accepted that he tailored his lectures to his audience. Regardless, his underlying message remains the same:
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
As we head into a new year and a new administration, may we remember world history. And may we honor and emulate those brave men and women who had the courage to speak out. When the protests are stopped and the voices are silenced, that’s when we’ll be in serious trouble. As Nuremberg prosecutor Robert H. Jackson said in 1945:
The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.
*’Incurables’ was the term used at that time for what we now refer to as the disabled.