Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller’s lament about the indifference of Germans to Nazi persecution is one of the most famous poems of the modern era, but its exact wording is in dispute. The most famous version, etched on a wall in the Hall of Witness at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., begins with “First they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist” – which is apparently wrong. The museum omitted Communists, possibly because its directors worried that American visitors wouldn’t consider Communists victims worthy of sympathy.
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The famous pastor, a disillusioned Nazi sympathizer who was one of the founders of the Confessing Church that protested efforts to Nazify German Lutheranism, never inscribed any official version of his poem. It was formulated over the years from the speeches and interviews Niemoller gave after being released from eight years of imprisonment in concentration camps in which he became one of the first prominent Germans to call on his countrymen to repent for their acquiescence to Nazi atrocities. The list of groups supposedly included in Niemöller’s poem has fluctuated over time. In some versions Catholics and the media are also included and on at least one occasion Jews are actually omitted. The poem that appears on the website of the Martin Niemöller Stiftung, for example, does not mention the Jews.
Harold Marcuse, a professor of German history at the University of California and the grandson of the famous German theorist and New Left icon Herbert Marcuse, conducted what is considered to be the definitive study of the various versions, interviews and testimonies surrounding Niemöller’s poem. He came to the conclusion that the four “bedrock” groups of Nazi victims that Niemöller included in his talks were Communists, socialists, trade unionists and Jews. Omitting Communists, Marcuse noted, actually proves Niemöller’s point: He sought to show that complacency is established when persecution begins with groups that people care for least. It’s a process known as creeping normality. Crimes against humanity are first tested on a tiny, unpopular segment before they move on to bigger things
Ironically, Niemöller was also living proof of his own point, and not just in his Nazi past that he regretted. Even after Niemöller recognized the error of his pro-Nazi and arguably anti-Semitic ways, he hardly ever mentions one of the Hitler’s earliest targets: Homosexuals and transgender people. As a Lutheran pastor, and perhaps as a sign of the homophobic country and times he lived in before and after the war, Niemöller could not bring himself to list persecution of the gay or transgender community as worthy of the kind of protest he wished he had voiced in real time about other groups.
One of the Nazis’ first victims, in fact, just happened to be the world’s leading advocates for fair treatment of transgender people. On May 6 1933, Nazi students ransacked the hitherto influential Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin. Four days later, on May 10, they tossed the institute’s 12,000 books and over 35,000 photographs – along with thousands of books authored by Jews and other “degenerates” – into the famous book-burning bonfire at Berlin’s Bebelplatz. The founder and director of the Institute, Magnus Hirschfeld, whom Hitler once described as “the most dangerous man in Germany”, was a pioneer of transgender studies. He viewed transgender people as “sexual intermediaries” who exist on a spectrum between hypothetical models of pure males and pure females. According to Hirschfeld, we are all transgender to one degree or another.
The Nazis knew that most Germans had negative feelings about homosexuals. They realized that their conservative countrymen felt uncomfortable with the liberated sexuality of Weimar’s Berlin, which was, in many ways, the world’s first and foremost gay capital. The Nazis surmised that no one would protest the closing of gay bars and clubs in Berlin, the round up and questioning of suspected homosexuals or the dispatch of thousands to concentration camps. Whether they hated homosexuals on moral or religious grounds or simply felt uncomfortable in their presence or were afraid that speaking up for them would harm them, most Germans kept quiet, because they weren’t homosexual.
Niemöller and others showed how Germans rationalized the steadily widening circle of persecuted groups. The Communists, after all, were the godless agents of the Bolshevik enemy. The incurables and the infirm were a drain on the economy and were suffering anyway. Trade unionists had to be put in their place. And the Jews, well, the Jews were Christ-killers, as everyone knew, vulture moneylenders who were sucking the lifeblood out of Germany, foreign agents alien to Germany’s soul. And homosexuals – as Niemöller may have thought before and after his awakening – were corrupting the morals of fine, upstanding German youth.
U.S. President Donald Trump is probably making similar calculations. Many people detest transgender people or fear them, as evidenced in the ongoing debate about so-called bathroom bills. Others who may not wish them harm and theoretically support giving them full equality might nonetheless feel uncomfortable with the very essence of transsexualism. Or they might rationalize that perhaps Trump has a point. After all, there are army commanders who claim that transgender people in the military are problematic. And there’s the issue of federal funding for their medical needs.
And even those who are critical of Trump’s decision to ban transgender people from the military probably won’t go out on a limb to fight it. They aren’t transgender, after all, and may not even know any transgender people. This is not the kind of do or die clash that one needs to go overboard with. The limited reaction so far and the fact that tens of thousands haven’t mobilized and taken to the streets already, as they did when Trump first announced the Muslim travel ban, could be the result of August vacations, or a sign of things to come.
There is no need to compare Trump to Hitler to assert that his decision sets a dangerous precedent. Single-handedly, with no immediate cause and only to satisfy his homophobic base, Trump stripped a group of people of a right they had only recently earned. He didn’t order them to don a pink star, but he marked them as outcasts nonetheless. He’s done so before with Muslims, illegal immigrants and journalists. Now he’s coming for transgender people.
Trump announced his decision on a Friday night smothered in competing news, from Hurricane Harvey to pardoned Joe Arpaio. Apparently, he wasn’t sure what reaction to expect. If the decision to ban transgender people from the military is met with silence and allowed to stand, it will give Trump the power to ostracize another group and possibly strip them or their rights, and then another, and then another. He will be able to throw increasingly large portions of red meat that will keep his fans well fed with the satisfaction of hate. And when they come for transgender people, sooner or later they will come for Jews, too.