Poem of the week: First They Came by Martin Niemöller

William Sieghart
WIlliam Sieghart

William Sieghart’s poetry pharmacy prescribes the perfect words to help you through your problems. This week: political apathy

I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. My father fled the Nazis as a boy, barely escaping with his life; there were orders to shoot him and his mother at the border. Their flight from Austria has gained a mythical status among my children, nieces and nephews. But for my father it was a recent memory, and for me and my siblings growing up it was an inescapable reality.

This poem sat on my father's mantelpiece, motivating him in his work as a human rights lawyer. He lived by it, as best he could, taking political refugees into our home when they had nowhere else to go. When I think of it now, it is as a reminder not just of a painful history, but of painful futures we must all work constantly to avert.

The lessons of the 20th century were not easy ones. We learnt how simple it can be to whittle away the rights of a certain group until they are no longer worthy of sympathy, no longer human. The easiest way to get away with this is to start small: to pick a target no one will defend. Niemöller reminds us here that it is not only in the interests of our common humanity to defend one another from tyranny – it is also in our own self-interest.

Empathy can be hard to find, especially for people who look different to us, or believe different things. But when we allow ourselves to be pitted against each other, and to be ruled by the meaner emotions, we dig our own graves alongside those of the people we abandon. It’s only when we grasp our essential commonality that we can protect ourselves.

First They Came by Martin Niemöller

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.

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Which poems would you suggest on the theme of ‘political apathy’? Tell us in the comments section below.