Becoming Nazi

Martin Niemöller wrote:

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

Who are the “they” that Niemöller writes of?  People will read this and see it only as a warning against the Nazis, failing to recognize that “they” is also “us.”  We want to imagine that the Nazis are a unique, unprecedented evil.  We want to dehumanize and other them, because if we don’t, then we are denied the comforting conceit that we are of course better than the Nazis, that we cannot possibly turn into them ourselves. 

But the terrifying reality is that we are all a little bit Nazi because what the Nazis were in their hearts is common to all humanity.  We easily demonize those whom we have decided deserve to be demonized.  We join in condemnation of those whom all “right thinking” people see as obvious demons. We aren’t the bad guys.  We can never be the bad guys.  Only “they” are bad guys. Only those we decide are inhuman are bad guys.  Not all lives matter if those lives are people all good folk rightly despise and recognize as evil.  It is a moral imperative to stand against hate!

In reality, we can trade out any class, any gender, any ideology, any political party, any religion, and any ethnicity from that poem. We can replace “communist” with “libertarian” or “democrat” with “republican” or “leftist” with “right” or “Tory” with “Labor.”  We can replace “Jews” with “blacks” or “whites” with “Asians” or “Hispanics” with “illegals” or “Christians” with “Muslims” or “atheists” with “Catholics” or “deniers” with “sheeple.” 

The point is that it is human nature to “other” those with whom we disagree, to justify our hatred, and to imagine that our hatred is not hatred but rather it is justified and righteous indignation.  It isn’t just “Nazi” nature or “right wing” nature or “left wing” nature. 

And so those who demonize their political opponents, or religious opponents, or whatever opponents are always certain that they are righteous altogether, and those on the other side are evil altogether.  They are always as righteous and full of love and hope and justice as any human ever is when they attack their enemies, when they disparage those who disparage them, when they hate those who hate them.

Niemöller’s words are not just warning us about Nazis.  He’s warning us about ourselves.

We are not allowed this very human way of living.

We must instead, abide by the one verse “do to others as you’d have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12).  Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:36-40, Galatians 5:14, and Romans 13:9).  And our neighbor includes the people we can’t stand the most, it includes those who are our enemies, those who disagree with everything we hold dear, those who would harm us, those who would destroy us, those who would kill us, those who would ask stupid questions and vote for idiots.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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