Normally I enjoy arguing, even when I'm arguing with people who have viewpoints which diverge sharply from my own, but I get little pleasure out of attempting to engage believers in conspiracy theories about Jews and the Holocaust in debate. Any useful discussion of differences has to be ballasted by a set of shared beliefs, as well as a shared commitment to something resembling rational dialogue. It's hard to find any common ground with people who believe that Auschwitz was a hospital and 9/11was a Jewish plot, and it's even harder to hold them to the standards of rational argument. When you're confronted with the ravings of Kerry Bolton or Martin Doutre, it's easy to wonder whether the game you're playing is worth the candle.
Two people who have no doubt about the importance of challenging Holocaust denial and anti-semitism are Skyler's grandparents, who emigrated to this country a few years ago from Yorkshire, the county where they were born and where they have spent most of their long lives. When we visited them the other day, they were keen to discuss the talk I gave on National Radio. Skyler's grandfather had listened carefully to the talk, and he wanted to tell me how appalled he was that hatred of Jews, denial of the Holocaust, and apologies for Nazism are being promulgated today, nearly six and a half decades after the end of World War Two.
Skyler's grandparents have very personal reasons for hating fascism: for several years they lived in daily danger of death from Hitler's Luftwaffe. Skyler's grandfather grew up near the Yorkshire mining town of Barnsley, and went down the pit as a teenager in the thirties. Because a steady supply of coal was so important to the war effort, he was never allowed to join the army. Instead, he worked long shifts down the mines, and trained with the Home Guard in his spare time.
For her part, Skyler's grandmother was a member of the WAAF based near the mouth of the river Humber, on the outskirts of the city of Hull. As a large and important port, and the base for the ships which took supplies over the Arctic Sea to the Soviet Union, Hull naturally attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe. In addition to the inevitable organised raids, Hull received near-constant indiscriminate batterings from the Germans. Because of its size, its distinctive shape, and its location on the northeast coast of England, the mouth of the Humber was used as a 'marker' by Luftwaffe pilots looking to find their way to and from their targets. Planes leaving Britain would fly down the Humber and drop all of their left-over bombs on Hull, rather than take them back to Germany. More than half of Hull's population of 320,000was made homeless by bombs.
At night, Skyler's Grandmother's group would hoist massive barrage balloons over the river, in an attempt to obstruct and divert the flight of the German bombers that streamed across the North Sea. She remembers clutching one of the frosty ropes that anchored the balloons to the ground, and watching dozens of bombers swooping over the blazing city a few miles up the Humber. When she got leave from her duties, she would visit Hull, hoping to do some shopping, or to eat a meal. As often as not, the shop or pub she had intended visit had been turned into a smoking ruin.
Skyler's grandparents remember the cruelty of the Nazi bombing raids, and they also remember the shock that mingled with relief when the Nazi regime collapsed, and the death camps the regime had maintained were opened. It is very hard for them to understand why anyone would want to apologise for the crimes of Nazism today. When we visited on Sunday night, Skyler's grandfather talked at length about the forgetfulness of generations which lacked his first-hand experience of the crimes of fascism. He pointed out that many young Britons today know almost nothing about Hitler, about the Second World War, and about the fate of Europe's Jews. This sort of historical amnesia makes the job of those who want to resurrect fascism easier.
At the same time that Skyler and I were talking to her grandparents about Nazism and forgetfulness, the voters of Yorkshire were electing a neo-Nazi to the European parliament. Taking advantage of the unpopularity of Britain's Labour government and fears about immigration, the whites-only British National Party's Andrew Brons won ten percent of the vote in the Yorkshire region, which under the proportional representation system was enough to make him a Member of the European Parliament. Brons did well in Hull, and in Skyler's grandmother's hometown of Barnsley he won nearly a fifth of the votes. Brons' political activism stretches back to the 1960s, when he was a member of the British National Socialist Movement, an organisation founded on Hitler's birthday. Brons went on to become a leading member of the National Front, a direct ancestor of the British National Party. In 1981 he led a campaign against Britian's Afro-Carribean community, using the slogan 'If they're black, send them back'. In 1984, he was fined fifty pounds for shouting racist insults at a Malaysian-born policeman in Leeds. The cop had approached Brons after hearing him shout 'Death to Jews!' and 'White Power!'
Skyler's grandparents will not be the only ones dismayed by the election of Andrew Brons. Far from being a bastion of bigotry, Yorkshire has traditionally been one of the most outward-looking, forward-thinking parts of Britain. The great English historian EP Thompson moved to the county after World War Two, because he was inspired by its rich history of labour activism and agitation for democratic rights.
In his classic book The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson showed how the artisans, rural labourers, and factory workers of Yorkshire defied the British government's attempts to curb their civil rights during the Napoleonic Wars, and rose up for better working conditions and the right to vote in the decades after the wars.
During the nineteenth century, Hull was one of the most important ports in Europe, a point of contact between the eastern and western parts of the continent. Waves of immigrants from central and eastern Europe and Scandinavia swept through the city. Hull developed a strong labour movement with an internationalist outlook.
When I visited Hull in 2005 to explore some of the unpublished writings of EP Thompson, I had the honour of meeting John Saville, who was an old friend of Thompson and a long-time resident of the city. In the 1930s Saville had worked as an agent for the anti-fascist resistance in Germany, smuggling messages into and out of the country disguised as a travelling salesman. During World War Two he was stationed in India, where he supported Nehru's movement for independence and helped establish a grassroots 'soldiers' parliament'. After the war Saville was part of a network of activists in Hull's unions who campaigned against European colonial rule in places like Hungary and Guinea-Bissau, and against the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. When I chatted with him in his overgrown allotment in 2005, Saville was bent with age and forgetful of many of the details of his life, but still proud of the role that he and his friends in Hull had played in so many progressive causes.
Saville now suffers from late-stage Alzheimers disease; he neither remembers the past nor notices the news. At least, then, he won't be aware that a neo-Nazi now represents his beloved hometown in the European parliament. Younger residents of Hull and the rest of Yorkshire lack Saville's excuse for their forgetfulness of history.