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MY TURN: 'And then they came'

by CAROLYN F. MATTOON/Guest opinion
| August 5, 2022 1:00 AM

First they gerrymandered voting districts to rig elections in their favor.

And I did not speak out

Because the gerrymander benefited me.

— Then they came for voting rights of minorities.

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a member of a minority and I could vote without impediment.

— Then they came for the LGBTQ and declared them unfit to participate in society.

And I did not speak out

Because I was not LGBTQ and I was free to live an open life.

— Then they came for public schools claiming instruction was over-broad and too distressing.

And I did not speak out

Because I had no children in school.

— Then they came for women's right to choose whether to bear a child.

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a pregnant woman in crisis.

— Then they came for non-Christians because they declared this a nation for Christians only.

And I did not speak out

Because I believed I was Christian and it wouldn't affect me.

— Then they came for libraries because of books deemed heretical and a threat to established order.

And I did not speak out

Because libraries weren't my only source for books.

— Then they came for women's right to freely travel within their own nation.

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a woman and I remained free to travel where and when and for what purpose I chose.

— Then they came for physicians and medical staff who gave life-saving health care deemed an affront to religious teachings.

And I did not speak out

Because I did not need those medical services.

— Then they came for those whose values and beliefs didn't align with the vengeful, monied, and powerful.

And I did not speak out

Because I supported the vengeful, monied, and powerful and believed they would protect me.

— Then they came for colleges and universities for introducing "subversive" ideas and for teaching the value of questioning dogma.

And I did not speak out

Because I was frightened of what might happen if I did.

Then, they came for ME.

And no one was left to speak out for me.

The 1946 Holocaust poem "First They Came" by German Pastor Martin Niemöller was the genesis for the foregoing words. His poem's a chilling reminder of the dangers of failing to confront extremism. It echoes down the years from the horrors of WWII to the violent, seditious attack on Congress of Jan. 6, 2021. It continues with 2022's vicious, unprovoked Russian war launched by a war criminal against Ukrainian civilians.

Contrasting with the insight of his poem is Pastor Niemöller's ambiguous personal history. A renowned WWI U-boat Commander in the German Navy, following the war he entered the seminary, eventually becoming a prominent Protestant pastor.

However, Niemöller had right-wing affiliations, nationalist sympathies, was anti-Semitic, favored a strong (domineering) leader and the elevation of Christian ideology to lift Germany out of economic and political disruptions suffered after Germany's WWI defeat. In 1920, he reportedly supported the failed Kapp-Lüttwitz

Putsch, a coup d'état attempting to overthrow the Weimar Republic. An early supporter of the Third Reich, he'd voted for Hitler and the Nazis in 1924 and again in 1933. The similarity of the events of Germany's past and our present is striking.

As Hitler exerted control over German churches, demanding Nazification of all aspects of German life including religion, Niemöller began resisting. Even as Niemöller more openly opposed Hitler's increasing authoritarianism he continued clinging to his own nationalist, militaristic, and anti-Semitic beliefs. His criticism of Hitler led to Niemöller's repeated arrests until, in 1938, after nearly eight months imprisonment without trial, he was sent to Germany's Sachsenhausen concentration camp as a political prisoner. He spent the next seven years in concentration camps as an enemy of the state until he was freed by U.S. Army troops in 1945.

After liberation, Niemöller experienced a conversion and began apologizing for his earlier support of Hitler and the Nazis. He expressed regret that his opposition to the Nazis wasn't over their political policies, but because of Hitler's interference in religious matters. Even as he acknowledged guilt and preached repentance he still harbored remnants of the beliefs that led him to initially support the rise of Hitler's murderous dictatorship.

While he spent the rest of his life seeking atonement and preaching reconciliation, nearly 20 years passed before he publicly apologized for his antisemitism.

Although a controversial figure, he left us a gift in the words he penned 76 years ago after release from the concentration camps—a warning for our future:

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

Then 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 out for me


Carolyn F. Mattoon is a resident of Hayden.

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