Focus on Education May 2023

First They Came

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

You may well have heard or read the poem above which was written by Martin Niemöller. He had been a prominent pastor of an influential parish in Berlin from 1931 and he became famous for opposing Hitler and the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis – eventually.

Initially Niemöller, who was decorated in the First World War as a submarine commander was a supporter of Hitler. However, a turning point came in January 1934, where Niemöller and several bishops had a personal meeting with Hitler. He started to feel nervous about where the regime was going and began to see the Nazi state as a dictatorship, which he opposed. And so Niemöller became more outspoken in his preaching which then came to the attention of the Nazis.

In 1937 he was arrested, taken to prison before he spent time in two concentration camps, the second of which was the infamous Dachau. But for four years prior to his arrest, Niemöller had been silent about Hitler’s attack on Jews and others who opposed the atrocities that were taking place. Following the end of the second world war, Niemöller repeatedly expressed regret at his previous support for the Nazi party, and his failure to speak out against it more broadly and more quickly – a regret he expressed in the above poem.

The obvious question is what would we have done in the 1930s if we had seen our Jewish friends and neighbours taken away, not to return – quite possibly knowing that they had come to the most horrific end. In October 1945, Niemöller headed a group of German church leaders who admitted they had not done enough to oppose the Nazi regime when it really mattered.

But what would we have done? It is great to think that we would have spoken out against what was going on… but would we…would we really? And what do we do when we see wrong going on around us today – perhaps when the wrong is done by those who we would consider to be our friends. Perhaps, when those friends make an unkind comment which we might say that they did not really mean – after all it was just a joke or perhaps banter – as if that makes it ok. What do we do in those circumstances?

So we hear our friend making a derogatory comment about someone’s appearance. It raises a laugh – we know they do not really intend to cause offence or hurt because they are normally better than that. Perhaps the person concerned hasn’t heard it – does that mean it is acceptable?

Or going into lunch or in the Form room, someone makes a comment to play to the crowd which singles someone out for one reason or another. Do we choose not to hear it because it doesn’t affect us, even though we know it is wrong? Or do we say something, then or afterwards, because we know that the comment is unkind and therefore unacceptable? And what about if the comment is about someone’s sexuality or religion or ethnicity. Do we speak out and call out what we know is never right – are we brave enough to do that?

Martin Luther King said that: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends”. Not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends. The target of the type of comments I am talking about, will remember those who laughed or smirked, even if they pretend they can shrug it off, and they will remember those who simply kept quiet.

It does take real courage to speak up when we see wrong done – but that is the right thing to do and if we do do that, then we help to shape and maintain the right culture, in what is our community at HGS. It really is ours and it is up to all of us to work to ensure that the culture is the right one. If someone does speak up because something is wrong, they are not being disloyal or a snitch, they are helping to make the community better for all of us.

I hope all of us will be remembered for doing or saying the right thing, at the right time in the right way – as a friend who speaks up, not one who keeps silent –  so that the tone across our community is one in which everyone feels included and treated equally, not singled out. Ultimately treated by others as we would like to be treated.

Some disruption lies ahead with Bank Holidays and the Coronation, so it will be even more important to organize ourselves carefully to make the best of our time in school, particularly when preparing for examinations. We will also need to show sensitivity and understanding towards one another, particularly as challenges approach. E M Forster, spoke of the “aristocracy of the sensitive” and I believe most fervently that there are few more valuable attributes to have than sensitivity towards one another and the emotional intelligence to be understanding and supportive as well as doing the right thing.

Stay safe and well.

Be kind to yourself and others.

Best wishes,

Dr Bird