Last week it was the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. There were a number of programmes I watched on the television. Terrible times. The survivors’ stories never cease to shock and appal. The ritual humiliation, removal of citizens’ rights, rampant propaganda, extreme nationalism gradually increased until no one could be in any doubt what the Nazi attitude to the Jews was.
The television programmes include scenes of concentration camps being liberated by British troops, the words of Richard Dimbleby reporting on what he witnessed at Bergen-Belsen. Ordinary soldiers spoke of the shock and horror they felt. This is a story with which I am familiar: Allied troops as heroes, liberators, saviours. And indeed they were.
I have only recently become familiar with another story, thanks to a meticulously researched biography by Jack Fairweather, of a former Polish cavalry officer Witold Pilecki. He was a member of the Warsaw resistance. When his group learned of the existence of Auschwitz he volunteered to be captured so that he would be taken there so he could learn what was going on and organise a break out. He managed to smuggle a message out and was hopeful help would come. It did not. He persevered, continuing to document and pass on details of the barbarities he witnessed: the creation of the first gas chamber, the creation of a new camp called Birkenau. His comrades in the the resistance passed the information to the Polish government in exile who shared it with the allies, begging them to act. They did not.
Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill believed the genocide of Jews merited a direct response, and one British diplomat even said the Poles wee “being very irritating over this”.
Perhaps it is because we find it hard to believe stories of acts of such evil if we do not see them for ourselves that we can shut our ears and minds to them. In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing he writes “He said the wicked know that if the evil they do is of sufficient horror men will not speak of it. That men have only stomach for small evils and only these will they oppose.”
But small evils gathered together become large ones. As John Dryden wrote of ill habits, they “gather by unseen degrees, as brooks make rivers, rivers run to seas” until something on the scale of the Holocaust happens.
Watching these programmes, hearing the testimonies of survivors, I am chilled by parallels with our times, with the naked nationalism, the hatred and aggression of some, thankfully not all, Brexiteers. The letter posted on the walls of a block of flats in Norwich yesterday titled Happy Brexit Day telling residents that only English was to be spoken there, and anyone who spoke a different language should go back to their country of origin. It is being treated as a hate crime. When the Prime Minister states that his evening meal on 31st January was made up entirely of British foods cooked to traditional recipes, and certain newspapers resound with loathsome jingoism, it does not bode well for diversity and acceptance, knowingly or in ignorance they are encouraging a narrow view of what it means to belong on these islands.
We have to be vigilant, to speak up for ourselves, for refugees, for immigrants, for anyone who is perceived as different, to challenge bigotry as and when we come across it. The British Empire was built on exploitation and slavery. It was not the glorious past some people seem to imagine. Let us build a new future on openness, fairness and respect, in or out of the EU.
What happened in Germany between the wars could happen anywhere. Nationalism is not patriotism whatever the nationalists say. It is not wed to a particular time in your country’s history, a particular group of people or a particular leader. Patriotism is loving your country, not being blind to its faults, and wanting it to be an honourable place in the world, a place of which you can be proud.
Dear Isabelle, thank you for this post. The link I provide below supports what you are saying but with a little twist. The German government says one thing about restoration of citizenship to Jews who were stripped of it by Hitler – and then – just now, on the very day that I believe Auschwitz was liberated, it does quite another. I’ve heard this referred-to as the “politics of gesture.”
My own application for citizenship was denied because it was my mother, and not my father, who was so stripped. And then she had the temerity to marry an American. Poof, goodbye all our rights once again. Citizenship under German law of the time passed only through the males.
Germany changed this rule in 1953, but they won’t apply that law retroactively to women who were married before that date.
Thank-you for this. I had no idea, so you can’t get citizenship? I heard that Germany surpassed even Ireland in the number of post 2016 referendum applications. Perhaps without that you might have stood a chance. Another casualty of 2016. David Cameron has a lot to answer for. History will not judge him well. Not that that helps you.
Isabelle, thank you for your empathy, I appreciate it a lot. The Brexit disaster and resulting influx of applications have complicated the process for sure, but it’s not ultimately the reason that I and many others are stymied. We can’t lay that particular wrong at Cameron’s door, much as I would enjoy doing that. The pettifoggery and camouflaged legalistic hairsplitting has deep roots in German psyche and tradition — post-Hitler, there were ex-Nazis put in charge of the restoration-of-citizenship gesture and their policy was apparently to make the process as racist and difficult and maddening as possible. (This from a deeply knowledgeable historian.) Nowadays the conservatives in Germany are against enshrining this in law where it belongs, instead of, as is currently the case, an arbitrarily enforced and easily revoked administrative decree. So down goes the vote. But it’s most heartening to know, even so, that there are a substantial number in the Bundestag who did vote to do the right thing.
I am part German but don’t speak the language, which I regret. If I did I think visiting Germany would be a more enlightening experience. The image i have of German efficiency may be completely skewed by what i know of the Second World War. I have always separated the Nazis from the Germans, though obviously there was overlap, but you can’t characterise a country as homogenous. Members of a small family living in the same home will have different beliefs; an entire country? the permutations are endless. But yes, I know the allies often employed people they knew were Nazis after the war ended, so it makes sense some of that hideous ideology seeped into post war policy. Alas.
One of the things I admire about Angela Merkel is her clear moral compass. I may not always agree with her, but she would be on my wish list for a small dinner party guest list.
Yes, Isobel, certainly the whole country can’t be broad-brushed — though the people in charge of the citizenship-restoration project were double-dyed *German* ex-Nazis, not Allies. I, like you, do admire Merkel’s strong stance on things like Holocaust remembrance and Syrian refugees. (BTW, many apologies for misspelling your name. I have just been sending messages to a French Isabelle and I’m a bit bleary at this point. My regrets.)
I am used to the wrong spelling. And I am part French too! My surname is French as some of my ancestors were Huguenots. No chance of a French passport though…
Reblogged this on allegracarlton and commented:
Isobel nails it as usual.
Thanks Allegra. Head swelling…
Isobel, what an excellently clear-eyed and wise post. Witold Pilecki’s horrifying story is new to me and your comments both moving and stirring. Would you object to my re-posting on Facebook?
Please do. I should be flattered, but more importantly it might bring his story to a wider audience. Maybe other countries know it. I certainly didn’t.
Thanks, Isobel – much appreciated!
I cannot but agree with your view over nationalism versus patriotism and the dangers of exclusion nationalism conveys.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings about tbe shameful facts the Holocaust provided.