And on Radio 4 I heard a programme with someone going on

(It could have been the Archbishop of Canterbury,
it could have been the Chief Rabbi … for all I know
it was the Dalai Lama)

He said it’s very bad to be a Victim (Obviously) and
It’s very very bad to be a Perpetrator.

But the worst thing of all, he claimed,

Is to be a Bystander because ‘The only thing necessary
for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’ (Edmund Burke)

I have to say I have some objections to this: being a Bystander
Is the most natural position in the world. (“Who needs trouble?”)

Imagine: one day in the 1930s you’re on a street in Vienna, watching
Some middle-class, middle-aged, respectable, professional Jewish men
Scrubbing the pavement clean with toothbrushes, mockingly overseen
By a brutish gang of National Socialist Brownshirts.

Because that’s what they did.

And there are a lot of Bystanders.

Because Bystanders know what Brownshirts can do to you:
If you protest they can beat you senseless with their clubs and boots
With stainless steel toecaps, then drag you away for ‘questioning’.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I must now make my confession:
If I’d been around in Germany in the mid-1930s,
I know I wouldn’t have done anything.

I certainly wouldn’t have been one of those heroes
Who hid a Jewish family in the cellar for years

I would not have been one of those brave guys
Who guided groups of Jewish escapees
Up through the Austrian Alps to the Swiss border

(I would have been afraid. I would almost certainly capitulate
At the merest threat of physical torture.)

These people who lecture us with solemn righteousness,
About not being a Bystander, about not speaking out,
They don’t know the first thing about fear.

They sit in their cosy studies in the 21st Century pondering
Wise, well-educated, humane, highly-moral, civilised maxims

And they seem to think that if another Hitler came along,
All it would take to stop him in his tank-tracks
Would be a defiant, courageous letter to The Guardian.

Oh, yes, I know for certain that if I’d been in Germany in the 1930s
I would not have had the courage to stand up to the Nazis.

(An even greater fear is that I might have joined them;
I’m essentially quite a weak character, easily led,
I could soon be swept along in a mob. I love uniforms.)

But what I most like to think I might have done is this:
I might have run away to South America; I like to think
I might have worked my passage on a ship to South America

Changed my name to something South-American sounding and gone
To live in a remote mountain village in the foothills of the Andes.

Somewhere in Patagonia perhaps … I understand
It is a very beautiful unspoilt country with few inhabitants.

I think I might have been safe there.

Peter Hamilton

If you have any thoughts on this poem,  Peter Hamilton  would be pleased to hear them.