Martin Niemoller was a U-boat commander during World War I and a loyal German citizen. Following the war after a brief time as a farmer, he attended seminary and was ordained as a Luther pastor.
When things started falling apart in the Weimer Republic he supported those who opposed the regime in hopes of a revived Germany. And to that end he supported Hitler and the National Socialists in the early years of their rise to power. But in time, especially after Hitler issued regulation after regulation, stripping away the rights, and eventually the humanity of Jews, Niemoller began to have second thoughts. He formed a pastors' organization to fight the discrimination against Christians with Jewish backgrounds. And then took a step further, joining the Confessing Church, an organization that fought against the Nazi party in a number of ways.
Niemoller's preaching against the party did not go unnoticed, and 1937 he was arrested by the Gestapo. Initially released, he was rearrested and ended up spending eight years in Sachsenhausen and Dachau.
While in prison, Niemoller wrote a poem, which is his best known legacy:
First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Communist.
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 Niemoller, it was a hard learned lesson--the horrors of the holocaust didn't happen overnight. They happened before, and they can happen again. And while it may or may not be Jews who are endangered, while it may or may not be homosexuals, or persons with disabilities or political dissidents who are at risk, what matters is that we pay attention, and speak up when anyone is endangered--Muslims, women, young black men, anyone.
Benjamin Franklin once said, "Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are." Certainly that was true for Martin Niemoller. Despite all that was going on around him, it took some time before her realized the implications of what Hitler and his cronies were engaged in. But once he did, he spoke up and spoke out.
Might we learn from history as well.