As a young child in the 1970s, I well recall being regularly bored and mystified by the never-ending fascination with ‘the war’. Adults seemed to go on about it all the time, hurrah-for-our-boys black and white movies filled the TV schedules, and even sitcoms knew that jokes about Jerries or Japs were surefire substitutes for proper humour. It was all so long ago, I remember thinking – won’t they just shut up about it?
Now I realise that the passage of thirty years is but the blink of an eye (as my recently rediscovered record collection rather disconcertingly demonstrates). Furthermore, at the outset of 2014, the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, I think we need to look back and learn a great deal more about the 1914-45 period, because we are in grave danger of repeating its mistakes. I say 1914-45, as we need to take the whole period bookended by the two world wars, for the twenty year lull between them was very much unfinished business that reached its grim, almost inevitable conclusion in Hitler and the Holocaust.
It is a horrible irony that 2014 is likely to be a year in which people soberly commemorate the centenary of the Great War, while simultaneously voting in droves for various shades of tub-thumping bigotry in May’s European elections. Across the whole continent and beyond, such sentiment is gaining ground, fuelled by idiot politicians and a craven or timid media.
|Birkenau extermination camp, Poland|
In the run-up to Christmas, I was fortunate to have two trips abroad, one to Berlin and one to Kraków in Poland. Both hammered home the dangers that we seem to be sleep-walking back into, especially on the latter trip which included a day at the Auschwitz and Birkenau Nazi concentration camps. Nothing can prepare you for the experience, and the sheer numbers who died there. We reeled from there back to Kraków, where I picked up a copy of the local English language newspaper. It told me that Nick Griffin, leader of what’s left of the BNP, had recently been in town and warned a rally that “powerful Zionists want to destroy us. We, the nationalists, must stand together to fight for a white, nationalist and radical Europe”. Was it 2013 or 1943 outside?
We can mercifully dismiss Griffin as a truly crap (and fading) demagogue, but the rally at which he spoke was an offshoot of another organised by Poland’s Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), who hold about a quarter of the seats in parliament and form the official opposition. Griffin’s rally was mainly a showcase for a belligerent fringe movement called the National Rebirth of Poland (Narodowe Odrodzenie Polski), whose slogans include the ever-catchy “gas the queers” and “there will be a baton for each queer face”.
The Holocaust did not emerge fully-formed from thin air. People had to be broken down into submission to a political ideology that turned them into acquiescent murderers. The key part of that process is always the same: others have to be comprehensively dehumanised. And it is always the same ‘others’ – gypsies, gays, Jews, people with disabilities – that get picked off first. It was then, and it is now (with Muslims latterly added as the scapegoat group recycled from even earlier times).
It might seem crass to place on this gruesome spectrum the beer’n’fags populism of UKIP, the Groundhog Day hysteria of the Mail and the Express or even the default media inflation of daft young lads into holy warriors and terrorists. I believe that they all belong there, however. When researching my last book, I was gobsmacked to see how close the parallels were between now and the 1930s, even here in Britain. Not just in the obvious rise of fascist thuggery and quisling politicians, but in the prevailing mainstream, which chose to wish away the warnings and faff around instead with its new gadgets, its folksy pastimes and its obsession with home’n’hearth. Today, as then, we seem addicted to the soft poison of nostalgia.
|Same shit, different day|
This is, by the way, another reason I’m a candidate for Plaid Cymru. Those who know little of the party might assume it’s a Welsh UKIP, but that’s very far from the truth. Plaid has always been a firmly internationalist outfit, rooted in Welsh radical and pacifist traditions. Its first MP, Gwynfor Evans, was a lone voice in the 1960s House of Commons against Britain arming the Nigerian government in Biafra; his vocal opposition to the Vietnam war was informed by going there to find out for himself. Its MEP since 1999, Jill Evans, leads the European Free Alliance (EFA), who are in a joint block with the Greens in Brussels.
I’m sorry to those many now dead relatives to whom I moaned when yet another war film flickered on to our telly all those years ago. Now that we’ve lost nearly all of them, the generation who knew wartime as young adults, it feels to me that we have lost something anchoring us to the bitter reality of its first-hand experience. And as our anchor slips away, the danger is that we will once again career off into the same blind alleys that brought such terror to our continent.
The EU is far from perfect, but its creation as a response to the horrors of two wars is something we should never lose sight of. We must make it work for us all. As the famous George Santayana quotation has it on the wall of one of the blocks in Auschwitz, “the one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again”. Let 2014 be a year when we learn once again our common history, and make an iron resolution not to repeat it.