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.
Whilst all of us will be familiar with the words of Pastor Neimoller, particularly those of us who have Jewish blood running in our veins, we are much less aware of the actions taken against disabled people in 1930’s Germany. At a time of economic crisis disabled people were labelled with a black triangle, propaganda was issued explaining to the ‘good German volk’ how much each disabled person cost the taxpayer and the first state sanctioned euthanasia of a disabled person took place in 1938.
As a child growing up in a Jewish/Catholic family I learnt from my grandmother how privileged I was to have been born free, how the members of my family lucky enough to have escaped persecution in Russia had recognised the signs during the 1930’s and had urged those family members who had found refuge in Austria, Germany and Poland to once again flee to safety. None heeded these warnings and all were killed in the camps. The understanding that few had the courage to speak out against the persecution of their fellow humans shaped my entire life and made me determined to never allow fear for my own safety to prevent me opposing injustice.
However, it was not until I became a disabled adult that I learnt how the Nazi’s had first experimented on the most vulnerable group of all; sick, disabled and mentally ill people. We will never know whether speaking out against the euthanasia of disabled people in 1930’s Germany would have helped prevent the massacre of millions of Jewish people, but we all know the lessons history teaches us; to never remain silent in the face of evil.
The Welfare Reform Bill is not to be equated with Nazism, nor is it in any way appropriate to suggest the actions of any British politician are similar to those of the Nazis. However, the warnings from the past are clear. During a time of economic difficulty it is all too easy to label one group of people as less worthy than others, to dehumanise them, to mark them out as being a financial burden upon society, and that once one group of people have been singled out for such treatment, that without opposition to that it inevitably leads to other groups being so demonised.
My Lords, I urge you to remember the lessons of all our childhoods learnt at our parents and grandparents knees. That we have a responsibility to our pasts and to our futures to always speak up for those persecuted and prevent future generations looking back to us and wondering why, of all people, those of us directly descended from those with first hand experience of such evil did not heed our childhood lessons and speak out for those unable to speak for themselves. Please remember the question we all asked when first we learnt of our history – ‘but why did no-one speak up for us?’ and vote against the Welfare Reform Bill.