This passage from Pastor Martin Niemoller has always bothered me a little: “They came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
On the face of it, Pastor Niemoller seems to be saying that we need to protect each other, irrespective of our politics or cultural groups. Why? So there will be someone to protect each of us when the necessity arises. Implicit in this way of thinking is that, if we don’t speak up for people unlike ourselves, we don’t deserve to have them speak up for us. While that is do doubt true, according to some sense of balance, fairness, or reciprocity, it still bothers me. I wonder how much difference it would make if the last sentence had never been said?
The last sentence of the Neimoller quote seems to be saying, I need to stick up for others SO THAT others will stick up for me, and that’s not a great reason. It was uttered at a time when it looked like Hitler would, indeed, come for everybody sooner or later; in that context, it seems reasonable to want people to take up for each other. But it doesn’t address what a person should do for others if nobody were ever coming for them. That is the real essence of Hitler’s reign: one group would win and be safe, others would not. There’s the evil.
It’s not popular to question great quotes from great men, of which Pastor Niemoller certainly was one. How would you rewrite the last line?