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Then there was no one left to speak up for us!

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In Germany they first came for the Communists and I did not speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Trade Unionists and I did not speak up because I wasn’t a Trade Unionist; then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant; then they came for me – and by that time no one was left to speak up.”{{more}}

We need to keep reminding ourselves about this poem and not only about the poem, but about the circumstances that gave birth to it. Martin Niemöller was a German pastor, one of the leaders of the Confessional Church, a Protestant sect. Martin was fully behind the assumption of power by Hitler and the Nazis. Hitler’s attempt later on to put all the Protestant sects under one ‘Reich Church’ met with his opposition, but he still gave broad support to Hitler and the Nazis. He opposed a suggestion by one of his fellow ministers that they assist the Jews and fight against their persecution. He was of the view that the Church must put its efforts into its own safety.

Hitler moved further by arresting hundreds of pastors and taking hold of Church funds. Martin did not escape this, for he was arrested for treason, spent eight years in prison, then a period in concentration camps. His punishment also included four years in solitary confinement. He was left to fend for himself, since the Protestant churches had given in to the pressure and demands of the government. He was only released with Germany’s defeat in the Second World War.

In 1946, January, the Confessional Churches met and Martin was one of its featured speakers, and it was during his address that this famous poem emerged. He spent time discussing the reasons they gave for not stepping forward. “We preferred to keep silent. We are certainly not without guilt or fault and I asked myself again and again what would have happened in the year 1933 or 1934 if Protestant pastors and all Protestant communities in Germany had defended the truth until their deaths? If we had said back then, ‘it is not right when Herman Göring simply put 100,000 communists in concentration camps in order to let them die. I can imagine that perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 Protestant Christians would have had their heads cut off, but I can also imagine we would have rescued 30 to 40 million people because that is what it (cost us).’ ”

Of course, this is about Germany and about circumstances that are very different from ours, but we need to digest the importance of this story. Do you not see that the circle is closing in, really getting smaller, meaning that some of its own are being consumed? What has happened to Vynnette Frederick isn’t really about Vynnette alone and the fact that she is a lawyer and senator. It is a story for all of us, in fact, a warning to all of us. The legal aspects of this matter are clearly of importance to some, but of minor importance to me. What I see is the naked abuse of power. What was behind sending eight police or whatever number to arrest her within hours after the charges against her were dismissed and at a time when she was having lunch with family, friends and her lawyers? One is forced to conclude that not only was this an attempt to humiliate the young lady, but was also an effort to drive further fear into the minds of citizens who express any measure of opposition to things as they stand.

Martin imagined what it would have been like if they had taken a stand earlier in Germany and stood up for the rights of others. But he was doing all of this with the benefit of hindsight. In doing so, however, he is providing lessons for us and also issuing a warning to all of us. We should not have to depend on any hindsight analysis. We have so many lessons before us. I have always said that we are the ones who make a government what it is, for they will do whatever they think they will get away with. This is particularly important within the context of our party system. It is easy to think that Vynnette deserves what she is getting because, after all, she is a member of the Opposition party and moreover is quite outspoken. There is a tendency to feel that you are immune from matters of this kind once you are on the other side, but there will come a day when you will step out of bounds and there will be no one to stand with you. There are examples of this.

For how long will we continue to take refuge behind party? In the overall scheme of things it is not about parties and individuals. It is about rights and responsibilities, about freedom of expression, about one’s right to disagree where the individual is convinced that that is the right position to take. So does membership or love of party override all of this? Do we on the other hand feel that we are simply victims of whatever is dished out to us? Have we lost our sense of being, of brotherhood/sisterhood and community? Are we prepared to show our disgust with these developments? Or is silence our preferred choice?

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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