“There Was No One Left To Speak For Me”: Niemöller, Dachau and Rhetoric’s Rise

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Justine Leonhardt. View from Bunker at Dachau. 2012. JPEG.

I visited Munich in the throes of mid-January, when the temperature was minus 26 and it was one of the coldest winters in recent memory. While I grew up in Alberta and was familiar with the extremes of winter, the cold was so intense that – in my walk to meet up with a tour group one morning – I snuck into every second store, Galeria Kaufhof and Starbucks, the TK Maxx, to stave off the bitterness for a few seconds; I took the opportunity to visit Peterskirche Cathedral just a few minutes before we were meeting, an act more aligned with staying warm than it was with curiosity.

It was the kind of day – and season – when it was no benefit to be a traveller in Germany, but nevertheless, after the tour group met to take the train to Dachau Concentration Camp, we stood outside the Visitors’ Centre in the bitter cold out of respect for its history. We all fussed around in our circle in an effort to deal with the extreme cold, rubbing our hands and moving our legs until we went inside, even as we appreciated the gesture. I felt the rough pain of my inner thighs as I walked, as if they – in ten minutes – had started to freeze. It was hard to imagine that people very much like us had been enslaved in such a cold climate under brutal conditions, without the food and clothing necessary to sustain them.

We walked into the camp beneath the leaden grey of midday, through the grounds of dead grass and the Nandor Glid sculpture, past the crematorium and into the building where camp prisoners had been stripped of their possessions. When we got to the barracks, we stopped at the door of Martin Niemöller, a pastor who was initially a supporter of Adolf Hitler but was eventually imprisoned for opposing Nazism. Niemöller is famous for the words that have become enshrined as a cautionary tale, a testament to the struggle we must all fight against injustice in all its forms:

“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.”

They are powerful words that realize an equally powerful sentiment, and in the haze of the United States election, they came back to me again last week. Among all of the blame that has been flung around at Hillary Clinton; the Democratic Party; neo-liberalism; bigotry and racism and hate; they resound clearly. Yet, I can’t quite find it in myself to think that this election result was due to hate or racism or bigotry, but more than anything, of apathy and the dangerous impact fear has on us and our fellow human beings, particularly those who may be more vulnerable than ourselves.

Since the election, I’ve read the words of many people who voted for Donald Trump, and their reasoning is not unsound. The journalist, Asra Nomani, articulately wrote that she could not vote for the Democratic Party because she was concerned about Clinton’s connections to Qatar and Saudi Arabia; Steven McManus, a gay Trump supporter whose real name is not identified, has seen the decline brought on by NAFTA in Michigan. While Nomani and McManus both mention their concerns about Trump’s inflammatory and bigoted statements, they reference American history as a sign of progress. “We’ve got our rights now,” says McManus.

While McManus may have his rights, what of the rest? The history of social justice and civil rights may serve as a comfort to Nomani and McManus and many others, but human rights can erode slowly – bit by bit – in ways that can’t be effectively measured until their usefulness has dissipated. What is will not necessarily remain. The early comparisons Donald Trump drew to Adolf Hitler during his campaign seemed like a stretch to me at the time, but the blindness of his statements comes part and parcel with his character and intent. Many people did not vote for him because of his hateful rhetoric, yet the same was true of Hitler.

I am not American and I could not vote, but it’s easy to see that something has slipped from the cage that cannot be pushed back in. Voters have had to decide what to leave in the dust this election, as they always do, but the empathy that’s been surrendered in service of fear may mean those hard-won liberties are wrestled from the hands of the many. We will all see what happens, but Niemöller’s words speak to what’s possible.