Tuesday, March 15, 2011

First They Came - Pastor Niemöller

To: Harold Marcuse, University of CA, Santa Barbara
      and over a hundred holocaust scholars     

Thank you for your research on Pastor Martin Niemöller's enduring quotation which begins, First they came. Your work provides a valuable tool to understanding how this meditation on the Holocaust has been appropriated in the 65 years since it was written.

There is one contemporary version which is not included on your page. Google returns nearly 11,000 hits for the phrase  First they came for the pit bulls . . . . . . Here is the complete stanza:

     First they came for the Pit Bulls
     and they banned them and killed them
     their owners cried out in horror but I did not object
     because I did not own pit bulls.

Scholars of the Holocaust may question why pit bull advocates have appropriated the Niemöller meditation in their defense of a breed which is responsible for the death of dozens of people every year,  and attacks countless other humans and animals, many of which die.

The majority of Americans have little reason to stay abreast of the BSL (Breed Specific Legislation) controversy, and may be unaware of the contentious dialogue between pit bull advocates on one hand, and those who, in the interest of public safety, favor some form of BSL.

BSL can range from stronger leash laws, mandated spay/neuter programs, and microchipping to outright bans. No one, as far as I know, has called for mass executions of pit bulls. But pit bull advocates commonly reject even the mildest forms of BSL, and often describe it as a form of persecution.

The use of Niemöller's quotation is only one of several ways in which pit bull advocates characterize the breed, and themselves, as victims of society. On blogs and pit bull advocacy sites there are repeated warnings of a pit bull genocide, or to a canine holocaust if BSL is accepted. This self-pity on the part of pit bull owners and advocates may seem bizarre, but there is more. The advocates have, incredibly, compared the suffering of pit bulls to the suffering of Christ. These appropriations have been documented here and here.

In their fight against BSL pit bull advocates are as fiercely aggressive as the breed they defend. Small communities considering BSL are often surprised by the massive, highly orchestrated, national response from pit bull advocates. This advocacy at times conveys different levels of threat, which makes their appropriation of the Niemöller quotation a disgrace.

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The text of the original First They Came (below) and biographical information on this page are from Wikipedia.

Martin Niemöller was a German pastor and theologian born in Lippstadt, Germany, in 1892. Niemöller was an anti-Communist and at first supported Hitler's rise to power. Niemöller eventually became disillusioned and became the leader of a group of German clergymen opposed to Hitler.

In 1937 Niemöller was arrested and confined in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps and remained there until the liberation. He continued his career in Germany as a clergyman and as a leading voice of penance and reconciliation for the German people.

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First They Came
       by Pastor Martin Niemöller

First they came for the communists,
     and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
     and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
     and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me
     and there was no one left to speak out for me.