Fascism is here, now. What are we going to do about it?

We can do Reverend Niemöller one better by keeping fascists separate from power. We do this by outnumbering them at protests, by supporting communities under threat, and by insisting that ugly legislation supported by elected fascists and fascist sympathizers is defeated before it is enacted.

May 8, 2023, 12:59 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

Reverend Martin Niemöller’s “First they came…” is an oft cited statement, usually rendered as a poem, about post-fascist regret.

The quote is a permanent part of the United States Holocaust Museum, and reads:

First 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 for me.

But Reverend Niemöller got it wrong.

As the Nazis came to power in 1933, they didn’t first come for the communists and the socialists and the trade unionists and the Jews. What Reverend Niemöller doesn’t mention – what apparently never registered with him – is that the Nazis first came for the LGBTQ+ community.

As detailed in Brandy Schillace‘s Scientific American piece, The Forgotten History of the World’s First Trans Clinic, shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933, he targeted the clinic of sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld, who saw LGBTQ+ people not as sexual deviants or mentally ill, but as full people, acting in accordance with their true nature.

The Nazis raided the clinic on May 6, 1933. Schillace writes,

Troops swarmed the building, carrying off a bronze bust of Hirschfeld and all his precious books, which they piled in the street. Soon a towerlike bonfire engulfed more than 20,000 books, some of them rare copies that had helped provide a historiography for nonconforming people.

The carnage flickered over German newsreels. It was among the first and largest of the Nazi book burnings. Nazi youth, students and soldiers participated in the destruction, while voiceovers of the footage declared that the German state had committed ‘the intellectual garbage of the past’ to the flames. The collection was irreplaceable.

At this point in history, conservative German ministers like Reverend Niemöller were in support of Hitler. In the early 1930s, Reverend Niemöller was a member of and participated in “right-wing and antisemitic policies and organizations.” He voted for the Nazi Party in March of 1933. Niemöller experienced buyer’s remorse only after the Nazis began interfering in the church/state relationship and after the Nazis tapped his phone. He was later imprisoned by the Nazis, released only after the war ended.

Even as Reverend Niemöller wrote his confession of Nazi complicity, he apparently thought so little of LGBTQ+ people that it never occurred to him to include them in his famous statement.

Today, in Rhode Island, fascist forces are targeting the trans community and libraries, just as they did in 1933. They are doing so both on the streets and within state and municipal government.

For instance:

  • On February 21, 2022, members of NSC-131, an overtly fascist New England area street gang, interrupted a reading of the Communist Manifesto at Red Ink Library on the East Side of Providence with threats and slurs. They were carrying a Nazi flag.
  • Exactly one year later, a brick was thrown through the window of the Red Ink Library. Most believe the brick was thrown by members of the same hate group.
  • In the Rhode Island House of Representatives, Representative Samuel Azzinaro, a Democrat, has introduced legislation banning LGBTQ+ books in school libraries. Representative Azzinaro wants the law to apply to all Rhode Island libraries.
  • Throughout Southern New England libraries featuring drag queen story times have been the target of right-wing, fascist protests. In West Warwick, counterprotestors organized to shield children from transphobic right-wing protesters. It was worse in Fall River, where NSC-131 held a vocal and visible anti-trans protest outside a library.
  • In Smithfield, the School Committee is considering a policy change that would mandate the outing of trans, queer and questioning students to their parents.
  • In the Rhode Island Senate, Senator Elaine Morgan has introduced four pieces of anti-trans legislation.
    • The first, S957, would mandate statewide what the Smithfield School Committee is trying to do locally: Out trans, queer and questioning students to their parents.
    • The second bill, S958, would prohibit gender-affirming care for transitioning minors, and proscribes jail time for medical health professionals who provide such services.
    • The third bill, S959, would protect doctors from legal and professional harm were they to deny a patient medical care based on their “conscience.” This would allow doctors the right to deny gender-affirming medical care.
    • The last bill, S960, is genocidal in its intent, and would mandate the legal erasure of non-binary people by limiting sex designation on certificates of birth to male and female. It would prohibit the use of non-binary designations.

The violent fascists on the street, and their allies within our government, are looking to history. Where we should be seeing warning signs, they are seeing a roadmap, because it’s not a matter of whether or not history will repeat itself anymore. It’s happening.

But it doesn’t have to.

At its heart, Reverend Niemöller’s “First they came…” is a warning about letting our prejudices blind us to fascism, but in his confession, the Reverend was blind to many of the people he victimized alongside the Nazis.

We don’t have to be so blind.

We can do Reverend Niemöller one better by keeping fascists separate from power. We can do this by outnumbering them at protests, by supporting communities under threat, and by insisting that ugly legislation supported by elected fascists, and fascist sympathizers, such as Samuel Azzinaro, Deborah Fellela, Arthur Corvese, Patricia Serpa, Gregory Costantino, Patricia Morgan, Charlene Lima, Edward Cardillo, Elaine Morgan, Anthony DeLuca – and so many more – is defeated before it is enacted.

It would be sad to live, like Reverend Niemöller, with the soul destroying consequences of inaction, but it’s worse to imagine the violence and shattered lives our inaction enabled against others. Reverend Niemöller lived to regret his actions. His victims did not get a chance to live.