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‘Then they came for me’?

The Nazis’ Generalplan Ost proves that while the antisemites may not be coming for everybody, they are coming for almost everybody.

A Nazi propaganda poster depicting colonization plans for Eastern Europe under Generalplan Ost. Source: German Federal Archives/Wikimedia
A Nazi propaganda poster depicting colonization plans for Eastern Europe under Generalplan Ost. Source: German Federal Archives/Wikimedia
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein. His books can be purchased here.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day has put me in mind of a famous poem by German clergyman Martin Niemöller about the rise of Nazism:

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

It is the final stanza that is most often quoted, usually as a moral imperative. It holds that indifference, lack of empathy, and people’s inability to see the humanity of the “other” leads not only to unthinkable horrors but ultimately to one’s own demise.

Tyrants like the Nazis never stop, it asserts. Eventually, they come for everybody. Thus, the duty to resist them is universal.

Many Jews take this imperative very seriously. They are intent on speaking out whenever they see the slightest sign of racism and hate. Moreover, they hold, the Jews are a kind of “canary in the coal mine.” When non-Jews see antisemitism rising, they should understand that everyone is in danger, not just the Jews.

Some of us, however, are skeptical of this. The Nazis, after all, were not coming for racially “pure” Germans—their “Aryan master race.” Those Germans had every reason to believe that “they” would never come for “them,” and those Germans were not wrong.

Jews, then, have a right to conclude that the “canary in the coal mine” theory is mistaken. By and large, non-Jews are not threatened by antisemitism. As such, they have no real incentive to fight it. There are, of course, extraordinary people who will fight it anyway out of sheer moral conviction. But at the moment of truth, such people have usually proven few and far between.

Our moral imperative, then, should be to ensure that the Jews have the political and military power to effectively resist antisemitism on their own.

I believe this is the case, but it is not the whole story. It is true that, so long as they stuck with the Nazis’ plan, “Aryan” Germans were not in danger. But the nature of that plan is a telling one because the Nazis’ ultimate design was not just to dominate Europe and exterminate the Jews.

The most explicit expression of Nazi ambitions was Generalplan Ost, a master plan for Eastern Europe. Put simply, it is one of the most horrifically evil schemes ever devised by man. In his book Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East, historian Stephen G. Fritz writes that the plan “envisioned a vast racial restructuring of eastern Europe. One component was to be the extermination of the local Jewish population as well as the deportation and annihilation of perhaps 30-40 million Slavs.”

“Through huge population transfers, colonial resettlement schemes, and wholesale murder, the Nazis would…create a vast racial empire,” he states.

Most important, Fritz writes, “Genocide was implicit in Generalplan Ost from the beginning.”

The Jews, of course, were to be slaughtered outright, as they eventually were. The Slavs and other non-“Aryan” peoples were, however, to be reduced to a slave race or expelled eastward. It was assumed they would mostly die of overwork or starvation, resulting in their ultimate disappearance. The emptied Eastern European territories would then be settled by “Aryan” Germans.

Very well, one could argue, the Nazis came for the Jews, then came for the Eastern Europeans, but Western Europeans and others were safe.

There are some chilling indications that this was not the case. Fritz points out that German colonization plans extended to Alsace-Lorraine, a region of eastern France that had changed hands several times in wars between the two countries. This implies that having conquered, slaughtered and colonized their way through Eastern Europe, the Nazis might very well have turned west and doomed the “Latin” and eventually the “Anglo-Saxon” peoples to the same fate as the Jews and the Slavs.

And what then? Nazi Germany would now be nothing less than a global superpower, fully capable of challenging the United States and other large countries for world hegemony. With the enormous resources of their conquered territories at hand, the Nazis could easily have pushed into Africa, the Middle East, India, the Far East and beyond. It is difficult to imagine that the fate of the non-“Ayran” and therefore “inferior” races of these regions would have been much different from the Nazis’ other victims.

What this means is that, while the Jews must certainly maintain their ability to protect themselves by themselves, Niemöller was, for the most part, correct. They may not be coming for absolutely everybody, but they are coming for almost everybody, and we must remember this and follow the moral imperative of resistance.

This also means that the Jews are indeed the “canary in the coal mine.” When they come for us, they are certainly coming for you as well, unless you are part of the small minority arbitrarily chosen for glory by the budding monsters.

With antisemitism rising around the world and especially in the United States, this is something the vast non-Jewish world ought to keep in mind. Their fate, after all, is at stake as well.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein. His books can be purchased here.

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