We are Niemöller

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.

Martin Niemöller — a German pastor, World War 1 naval officer, and that poem’s author — never forgave himself for not speaking up or acting sooner. Eventually, the Nazis imprisoned him for doing both.

The poem is not metaphorical. It’s a mea culpa for living inside the rationalization. Niemöller never published the work. There’s no record of when or where he first spoke the words — or even if the poem is his exact wording. Taken from his lectures, many scholars believe it was extemporaneous. The piece became something of a rhetorical Zelig,1 co-opted by and for other religions, trade groups, philosophies, and causes. For Niemöller, his discomfort in the poem resulted from his own tepidity.

Before entering the priesthood and for years after, he was an unapologetic anti-Semite. He called the Jews “a highly gifted people which produces idea after idea for the benefit of the world, but whatever it takes up changes into poison, and all that it ever reaps is contempt and hatred.”

Highly gifted … changes into poison.

Very fine Jews on both sides.

Why bring up Niemöller now?

Charlottesville, mostly, but also DACA.

The Aloisios, the family that owns Mondo’s Restorante Italiano, had a MAGA hat on the shelf at the bar. Last month, a customer at the restaurant asked the family to remove it. This was the day after Charlottesville came under siege, after Trump said “I think there is blame on both sides,” after Heather Heyer was killed. No, not killed — murdered. The Aloisios were Trump voters but that’s not the point. Sixty-five percent of Oklahomans in 2016 voted for Trump. This was different. After Charlottesville, it was inconceivable that Trump supporters wouldn’t understand the anger of people on the left (read: sentient human beings) — and how the hat symbolized all that was wrong with that weekend in August. Anger towards a president who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) with full-throated venom denounce people like David Duke and Richard Spencer and reject any notion of moral equivalence between victim and abuser.

Even Senator James Lankford got it … sort of.

I was disheartened to see people of all ages participating in Charlottesville’s white-supremacist rally.2

Disheartened? Not outraged, not sickened — disheartened.

He called for engagement, but Nazis don’t engage in conversation. White supremacists don’t engage, either. Neither does the KKK. The Aloisios engage — they took down the hat, incidentally. Lankford said nothing about the Republican president who blurred those lines and refused to call out such evil.

Lankford never mentioned Trump by name.

But at least he said something.

The Oklahoma House delegation was silent.

Jim Bridenstine (R-OK1), who demanded Obama apologize to Oklahoma for pushing climate change3 and who called the former president lawless4 and accused him of dishonesty, incompetence, vengefulness, lacking moral compass, and being unfit for office5 didn’t call out Donald Trump for being unable to spit out the Nazis who attacked students. Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK2), who called Obama illegitimate6 and said the former president was too soft on Putin,7 didn’t call out Donald Trump for not denouncing white supremacists who drive into protestors. The rest of the Oklahoma House delegation: Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK3), Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK4), and Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK5) said nothing.

Senator Jim Inhofe did worse than stay silent — he obfuscated. His press office — yes, he relegated this to his press office — tweeted: “I am deeply saddened by the hatred being displayed in Charlottesville. It is unacceptable. We must work together to unite our nation.” It neither mentions white supremacists or victims, but embraces the pablum of working together (as if that’s possible with skinheads). On his personal Twitter account, the same man who had called Obama a “liar” and accused him of a “cover-up,”8 tweeted on August 15, two days after Charlottesville, that he looked forward to Trump’s commitment to our nation’s infrastructure.9

The Daily Stormer, an American neo-Nazi website/cesspoool, meanwhile, sent out the following after the president’s statements:

Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate … on both sides! So he implied the antifa are haters. There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. He said he loves us all.10

But Inhofe thought it was time to talk about bridges and roads.

Al Pacino, in preparing for “Serpico,” once asked Frank Serpico why he did it. Serpico responded, “Because if I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to Mozart?”11

Those who surrounded students in front of a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the University of Virginia campus were not screaming about the bravery of the confederacy, or the pride of southern memory. They were screaming about Jews. They were screaming about a country that elects an African American president. They were screaming about their America.

Clear enough?

Yet our Oklahoma delegation, with the possible exception of Lankford, was Niemöller.

There was no editorial in the Tulsa World denouncing Nazi sympathizers or exposing the Oklahoma delegation’s spinelessness.

The paper was Niemöller.

And after the DACA announcement, only Lankford made a statement about the heartlessness of Trump’s decision to end the program.

However, we as Americans do not hold children legally accountable for the actions of their parent. In the coming months, Congress must address this issue.12

Charlottesville, DACA were not policy disputes, not unless you think there’s middle ground to find with those who chant “Jews will not replace us.” Or with legislators who advocate frog marching children out of the country to lands they’ve never known.

During the 1920s, Niemöller believed Germany needed a strong leader — someone who could shake things up. He voted for Hitler because the new German leader reflected Niemöller’s views, which included the belief that Jews killed Christ. It wasn’t until the Nazis tried to infiltrate the church did he protest. Then they imprisoned him and sent him to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp, for seven years — most of which he spent in solitary.

Still, he defined himself by his lapses.

“Thus, whenever I chance to meet a Jew,” he wrote in his autobiography Über die deutsche Schuld, Not und Hoffnung (“Of Guilt and Hope”) late in life, “known to me before, then, as a Christian, I cannot but tell him: ‘Dear Friend, I stand in front of you, but we can not get together, for there is guilt between us. I have sinned and my people has sinned against thy people and against thyself.’”

A final thought:

A million years ago at Arnie’s Bar, back when it was on Cherry Street, there was a toy bus on a shelf there with the u scratched out, leaving BS. It was the owner’s way of expressing his position on bussing to integrate public schools. I sat at the bar one night and stared at the little yellow bus, listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, Etta James. I thought, you’re welcome to sing at a place like Arnie’s if you’re African American, but not to drink there.

I may have said something, I don’t remember. But I didn’t leave.

I was Niemöller.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store