Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Yorkshire forgets

Since I went on National Radio a week and a half ago to talk about anti-semitism and Holocaust denial I've received supportive messages from academics, journalists, bloggers, and members of New Zealand's Jewish community. I've also had one or two rambling e mails from the people I condemned.

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.


Blogger Fatal Paradox said...

You're certainly right to point out the tragic irony of Yorkshire electing its first fascist MEP.

Important to remember though that nationwide across the UK only about one third of people actually bothered to vote, so irrelevent did the whole exercise appear to them.

So the problem is as much one of depoliticisation as it is of growing xenophobia - although both are undoubtedly reponses to the same problem, i.e. the complete demolition of working class communities by neoliberalism.

4:01 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

Yeah, I think Fatal Paradox is closer to the mark. I'm not sure that neofascists ignore history, in fact the ones I've come across seem pretty attached to it, and eager to reclaim the glory days (which does of course require wilful historical amnesia, but that's not the same as ignorance).

I'm also not sure that your characterisation of fascism as the thing that makes bombs rain down on your head is tremendously relevant. The Nazis were hardly alone in such displays, and as soon as the tables were turned the Allies wasted no time in trying to erase cities like Dresden from the map. Then of course there is the small matter of what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What characterises Fascism is not all-out military aggression. It's the xenophobia, the curtailing of civil liberties, the anti-socialism. Those are in robust supply thanks to the ideological drift that Europe has undergone in the last twenty to thirty years, and its attendant socio-economic changes. Those are fertile grounds for the rise of Fascism regardless of a nation's more or less acute sense of history. (Although, as I did argue elsewhere, not confronting one's own fascist past is a significant enabler in countries that actually had one.)

4:30 pm  
Blogger Fatal Paradox said...

Just posted my take on the whole EU elections drama over here

12:08 am  
Blogger Jayne said...

After reading this news item I don't think people have forgiven nor forgotten about Nazis, the Holocaust or Fascism.

5:00 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

"A satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point of it."

5:06 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Dresden! ... A massive red herring.

I reiterate (reference to the bombing of Hull below also):

As to Dresden being so terrible - here are only some of the places decimated or attacked by the Nazis - so no one of the people of these places is going to ever concern themselves too much about Dresden (Or Hamburg or Tokyo).

And this is only Britain - this doesn't cover the terrible tragedies and horrific actions of the Nazis elsewhere in Europe.

"London was not the only city to suffer Luftwaffe bombing during the Blitz. Other important military and industrial centres, such as Belfast, Birmingham,Bristol, Cardiff, Clydebank (Scotland) [largely destroyed in two vicious and devastating raids - destruction and civilian loss of life in all of Scotland....],Coventry [mercilously bombed with firebombs - many many civilians targeted and killed), Greenock,[two nights of intensive bombing of the town of Greenock, Scotland..], Sheffield [the worst nights of Luftwaffe bombing during the Second World War. It took place over the nights of 12 December and 15 December 1940...., Swansea [Wales bombed by Nazi Germany on 19 February 41. ..], Liverpool […heavy and sustained bombing of the city of Liverpool and the surrounding area by the Nazi German Luftwaffe...., Hull [the German bombing campaign targeted on the Northern English port city of KINGSTON upon HULL in 1941, during World War II....], Manchester [the heavy bombing of the city of Manchester, England during the Second World War by the Nazi German Luftwaffe...], Portsmouth,
Plymouth, Nottingham and Southampton [ heavy bombing of Southampton by the Luftwaffe during World War II. It was targeted mainly in the first phase of the Blitz with terrible civilian casualties....]
Adolf Hitler's and the Nazi's aim was to destroy British morale.]”

And those are only the atrocities in Britain! What about the rest of Europe? The rest of the world? I suppose the Japanese were nice guys too!!

It is a moral and legal crime to deny the Holocaust (and remember the Nazis targeted Gypsies, Trade Unionists, Communists, Seventh Day Adventists, Poles, and many others as well as Jewish people)) and it is the act of a deluded person and /or a coward and someone who is inherently evil to deny it. De facto they are also racists.

Start fucking with people and they fuck back - it's called War - and it IS a fight for right and freedom.

Hitler and other German Nazis and others were was responsible not only for this greatest, most obscene crime in human history, but also for the deaths of millions of civilians and soldiers during WWII.

10:47 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Skyler found this website, which tells the story of the Hull balloon barrage and the teams that maintained it:

9:04 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

Dresden! ... A massive red herring

Sure, Richard. The Germans had it coming, as did the Japanese. There are good indiscriminate bombings against civilian populations and bad indiscriminate bombings against civilian populations.

But you're kind of illustrating my point, really: the reason why the people of Yorkshire voted for the BNP is not that they haven't been taught their own history. Hell, if they wish to know what death from above feels like, they don't need to ask the grandparents, they can just call a number at random in the Baghdad phone book.

To reiterate: military expansionism or the targeting of civilians isn't what distinguishes fascist dictatorships from liberal democracies. Do I even need to reference this book? And do we really want the children of Empire to get all nostalgic and teary eyed about their past? I don't think so.

Want to know why Nick Griffin was elected? The always excellent Mr Challinor will tell you.

12:40 pm  
Blogger GZ said...

If ethnic nationalism is wrong, isn't it also worth condemning in Sri Lanka?

10:42 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Giovanni you don't know what you are talking about. My parents country was attacked - Poland was attacked - millions died. Millions of civilians killed - Jews included - Gypsies included - people and more people - old and young - children included. Anyone. My uncle was in the RAF my mother's cousin died at sea - the convoy couldn't stop to pick up - you have learnt nothing form history. We were fighting people who were *(and I think still are) evil - full stop. We are talking of a merciless enemy. Distorted minds. Go soft on these neo Nazis and other fascists and they will start it up again. They deserved everything we gave them and more. My parents' country - Britain was not and will never be - fascist. Yours may have been.

1:52 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

Best if we leave it right there, I think, Richard. Anyway, I wasn't dissing Maps of course, it's just that I'm nearly always unconvinced with the theory that people vote for the extreme right because they've forgotten history, and that's the point I was trying to make. Twist it however you like.

8:54 am  
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11:48 pm  

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