World War Two: silence is deadly.

Watching the final episode of Andrew Marr’s* History of the World on Sunday, I was shocked by his manipulation of the events leading up to World War Two. After describing Nazi persecution of the Jews, there was a mere pause before he moved on to discuss the ensuing war. This pause should have wielded tales of pacts, appeasement and expansionism. Instead, it assumed the form of a knot, tying the two ideas together, persecution and war; a bond of causation.  The persecution of the Jews + war = Allied intervention on humanitarian grounds. On reflection, I realised that this implication has been perpetuated within Britain for decades. It has taken me until now to recognise this simply because, until now, I was under the same illusion as many others. Although nobody has ever explicitly said to me ‘Britain waged war on Hitler with the aim of ending the Holocaust’, their silence on matters of appeasement and protectionism have, just as Andrew Marr succeeded in doing, implied exactly that.

Andrew Marr’s History of the World. Credit: theguardian.co.uk

The fact is that the Jews had absolutely nothing to do with Allied action against Hitler. Otherwise, there would have been war in 1935 when Hitler laid out his Nuremberg Laws which removed, among other rights, German citizenship from the Jewish population. But at this time, Britain and France were far too busy appeasing Mussolini’s use of mustard gas against civilians in Abyssinia to give a thought to the civilians of Germany. Although this was done in order to retain a key ally against Hitler (it was feared that resistance would drive Mussolini towards the Nazis), Allied motivation lay in self-interest, rather than humanitarian concern. Neither country could afford another war and Mussolini’s friendship made war less likely. Sorted.

And it wasn’t only Mussolini that was subjected to the desperate caresses of Allied politicians. Hitler too, in spite of his anti-Semitic campaign, was essentially receiving encouragement from Britain in his every endeavour, namely his dismemberment of the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler wants to rearm? Good on you, old boy! An Anschluss with Austria? You deserve it, my friend! Concentration camps? It’s nothing to do with us.

Admittedly, Hitler’s peaceful portrayal of Germany at the 1936 Berlin Olympics may have misled Britain as to the extent of Jewish persecution. Yet it can’t have been too difficult to see beyond the facade of a single part-Jewish fencer, generously permitted to represent Germany at the games, at a time when human rights were being violated so blatantly. Essentially, German domestic affairs held no interest for Britain and, whilst Chamberlain did relax immigration controls in order to accept the Jews fleeing the Nazis, this was proactivity at its least active. The predominant concern of the Allies was for foreign policy and the effects that Hitler’s extreme ideology might have on them.

Even in 1942, when evidence of genocide within Germany had become so overwhelming that it could no longer be ignored, Allied governments merely issued a declaration of condemnation. There was a hint of promise at the resultant Bermuda Conference, where Britain and America toyed with the idea of evacuating the persecuted to safe havens. However the US Foreign Office feared that Germany “may change over from the policy of extermination to one of extrusion, and aim as they did before the war at embarrassing other countries by flooding them with alien immigrants.” Best not then- what’s a few Jews, gassed and burned, against the embarrassment of saving them?

It is true that the Bermuda Conference came during a time of uncertainty, a time when any diversion of resources could have cost the war and all hope of salvation for those fenced inside concentration camps across Europe. However, when in 1944, Jewish leaders implored Churchill to bomb the gas chambers and railways leading up to Auschwitz Birkenau, Germany was on the defensive and the Allies, certain of coming success. Yet still they refused help.

This evidence exposes Andrew Marr’s assertion that ‘Nothing was worse than what the Nazis did, but their job here [the extermination of Ukranian Jews] had been made easier by what the Russian communists had already done’ as limited. Rather, the Nazi’s job was made easier by what Western Allies did. Or didn’t do.

Silence can be as implicating as words yet somehow escapes the reproach levelled at verbal wrongs. It is difficult to accuse that which is unsaid, so something as small as a pause  has the power to corrupt history, unchecked.

* Preempting his readership of this blog, may I point out that I generally boast clear skin, an adequate social life and a womb.
 “bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting**.” Andrew Marr, 2010
** I’ll give you ranting.

The Story of Burnt Njál

My first journey down the Rangriver of the Icelandic Saga hasn’t been easy. Chapter One of The Story of Burnt Njál greeted me with…

Thorgerda was the daughter of Thorstein the Red who was Olaf the White’s son, Ingialld’s son, Helgi’s son. Ingalld’s mother was Thora, daughter of Sigurd Snake-i’-the-eye, who was Ragnar Hairybreek’s son. And the Deeply-wealthy was Thorstein the Red’s mother; she was the daughter of Kettle Flatnose , who was Bjorn Boun’s son, Grims’s son, Lord of Sogn in Norway.

I literally gasped aloud. And then began a family tree which, two chapters in, had run off the page, onto my duvet.

Íslenska : Möðruvallabók (AM 132 fol.13r) Bren...

At this point, I reached a dilemma: panic and reason began an internal battle, the former telling me to slam closed the hideously-confusing book, riddled with aeons of genealogy, and never return; the latter gently ordering me to get a grip. Which I did.

Twenty ‘Sigurds’ later (this bloke is the ‘John’ of the tenth century), my initial reservations have quieted. I have come to the realisation that, unless you are studying Icelandic lineage, the footnotes can be overlooked; the plot remains unharmed. And the plot is fantastic.

Again, I was initially worried that the sparseness of the prose would be uncomfortable but, to the contrary, the pages turn as fluidly as those of an elaborately-crafted thriller.

Perhaps it is the idea that this actually happened that spurs me on, into the night, pursuing Hrut’s travels, Hallgerda’s marriages and Gunnar’s feuds. Not only is Njál’s Saga a piece of prose, it is a piece of history, ‘handed down by word of mouth, told from Althing to Althing, at Spring Thing and Autumn Leet, at all great gatherings of people, and over many a fireside, on sea strand or riverbank.’ (George Webbe Dasent)

Read it!

My nan and the Three-Day Week: ‘Why I loved it’

Three day week: Coalminers strike, Britain 1974

In 1973, demand for coal soared as the international oil price rise saw British oil imports fall by 15%. Grasping this opportunity for a pay increase, the National Union of Mineworkers called a ban on overtime.

In January 1974, Heath responded with the Three-Day Week in which ‘most industrial and commercial premises’ operated for only three days a week. The maximum speed limit was reduced to 50mph and television went off at 10.30pm. He calculated that Britain could survive for longer on these rations than the miners could in unemployment.

During this time, loud complaints declaring a return to the Age of Austerity rang through Britain, masking the quieter and arguably more Northern tones that were, well, having quite a knees-up. Amongst this chorus of jubilant voices was my nan.

Here’s what happened when I managed to secure an exclusive interview with her…

– How did life change for you during the Three-Day Week?

I was working at the sewing factory then and I used to work five days a week, nine o’ clock till three, because I used to have to get the children to school then go to work, then be out of work at three in time to go and pick them up from school.

So when we came on this Three-Day Week we thought it was, well I thought, and a few women that I worked with thought it was, wonderful because quite a few of us had young children. When we first heard we was going on three days a week we thought  ‘I hope it’s not split’ you know, but when it was Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday it was brilliant because it gave us a long weekend, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday off. So it was ideal, it was ideal for me, because with your Granddad being a bus driver he wasn’t on three days a week, they just worked normal hours. So I was lucky because the main breadwinner, so to speak, of the family was still bringing a full wage in. It made it easier all round for me because I had those two extra days a week to sort of do more.

How did your pay cut affect you?

We were on piece work, you see, so we only got what we earned in those three days, which was quite a big cut in money, but it didn’t bother me because it was more important to me to have more time with the children, you know? Because we could have nice long weekends- quality time, you know? So I really enjoyed it but, like I say, a lot of people did suffer very badly from it because if they’d got like their mum and dads that were on three days a week it was a big come down in their income coming in. So I was lucky in that respect. So I really really did enjoy it because money wasn’t the important thing to me, it was having a bit more time at home, a bit more time with the children. But I know a lot of people did suffer, very badly.

What about the power cuts?

It was nice that I was at home, with the power cuts, cause I was there, cause your mum, Jacky, was quite frightened when we had a power cut, [laughs] she didn’t like it at all, especially after tea when it was dark when we had to have candles, she didn’t like that at all. I remember our Alison was at Brownies at the end of the road and, with the power cut, there were no street lights so I had to pick her up. Jacky refused to come so I left her at home, Hobson’s Choice, but when I got back she was standing on the doorstep, terrified. I remember she said ‘I thought the candle was going to burn out and I’d be in the dark.’

How were you affected by the speed limit and television restrictions?

I don’t remember either of those. Well, we didn’t have a car in them days, did we? We did have a little black and white tele but [laughs] we would have been in bed by that time.

What was life like when the Three-Day Week was over?

When it finished and we had to start working five days a week again I hated it, really hated it, because it just seemed… it wasn’t as nice a home life, really. So I didn’t stay [at the sewing factory] very long after that. I think that Three-Day Week made me realise how valuable it was to have more time at home so I left after a while and I got a job at the college. I did work five days a week but it was only nine till one. So I was more at home, a bit more time at home, more time to spend with the children.

Me and Nan

Thanks to Ann Palmer

After Auschwitz

‘Nothing can ever prepare you for Auschwitz’ we were told.

And yet as we walked around the camp, each of us plugged into headphones, listening to our guide’s rapid, rehearsed jabber, I simply rolled my shoulders which were aching from the weight of the water in my rucksack and shifted from one tired foot to the other.

Yes, the hair was shocking. The mounds and mounds of hair. And the glasses. And the shoes…

But there was no reaction: I’d heard it all before, seen the pictures countless times.

We listened to the stories of the escapees whose friends paid the price: up to twenty could be killed for their associations with the wrongdoer. We saw the places where they were punished: the starvation cell, the standing cell, the wall of death. Bang. Bang. Bang. All through this, I begged for a reaction, tried to imagine myself in the same position. I was disturbed by the calmness which held me. A coping mechanism? Perhaps. But I didn’t feel numb; I just felt normal.

Auschwitz was a film set. I was walking through a Granada studio, next door to Coronation Street. The ‘Arbiet Macht Frei’ gate was just a prop. That’s how I felt.  I couldn’t connect with any of it. Not even the gas chamber in which millions had suffocated and then burned.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was the same. Barrack upon barrack upon barrack could be seen from the watchtower window through which I knew murderers had once peered. Of course, I was struck by the vastness of the place, and shocked by the figures: 1,000 to a barrack, 8 to a bed (a euphemism for the shelves on which the prisoners slept.) Yet when walking the same walk that so many others had taken as their last, I couldn’t feel anything.

What did affect me, though, were the family photographs, accompanied by brief biographies, taken before Auschwitz destroyed everything that they had. In particular, I remember a picture of three girls, about my age, proudly playing their musical instruments for the camera. I didn’t have time to read their biography so am left wondering whether they made it out.  A face touches far deeper than a number.

The finishing ceremony, given by Rabbi Barry Marcus, at the point where the train track to Auschwitz-Birkenau ends, also provoked some response. As darkness fell and his prayer, sang in Hebrew, echoed over the vast expanse which once pulsated with feeble life, anger and fear ebbed dully within me. My main thought was of how reminiscent the contemporary cliche, ‘they’re stealing our jobs’, seems of the attitude held by many in the lead-up to the Holocaust. Did it ever really go away? Or did it just transfer from one minority group to another? Yet rather than it being those who hold with such a skin-crawling sentiment, I think that it is those of us who aren’t ignorant and bigoted and cruel that could pave the way to the next Holocaust. Our blind belief in ourselves is fast leading to a complacency which is sure to assist the spread of prejudice. We cannot allow a loss of urgency. To think ‘Oh, it will never happen again’ is just as dangerous as the contemporary myths being spouted about immigration and Islam.

Nevertheless, on the plane home, I was left selfishly pondering what was wrong with me. How was I supposed to feel? Was I heartless? Did I lack imagination? And then I went home and slept, where not a thought of the preceding day disturbed me.

But today, on my way to school, I passed a woman and a child. The boy, with a cunning smile, was obstinately refusing to follow her, secure in the knowledge that his mum would never abandon him here in the park. Yet after a couple of warnings, she began to walk away. The smile faded into a scowl and then into an expression of terror. The child was subsumed with tears as he tottered after his mother screaming ‘You left me, you left me!’

In that moment I was taken back to the train track at Auschwitz-Birkenau where mothers and children were separated with the gesture of a thumb. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, friends. Split into two categories: indefinitely prolonged life and death. The child’s screams continued long after his mother had scooped him up, back into the safety of her arms.

At Auschwitz, it was difficult to connect with that which happened nearly seventy years ago. To me, it didn’t feel real. It was just a place. The people that died there were just a number. History GCSE, ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, have all allowed me to explore the Holocaust, to come to terms with the horror and the suffering and the evil. Thus I argue that you can prepare for Auschwitz.

But sat here, with the image of that panic-stricken child chasing his mother who was only a few metres away, tears fall onto my hands and I realise that what it is impossible to prepare for is coming home.

And so, as the time between us and the Holocaust expands, we become less and less connected to it. This distance is becoming especially profound as the number of survivors dwindles. Yet we must remember. We must continue to visit and continue to educate others. We must always grieve the loss of life and put faces to those who suffered at the hand of the Nazis. If not for the victims, we must do it for ourselves and those that will come after us.

‘The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again’ George Santayana

Thank you to Lessons From Auschwitz
Another interesting article: Bystanders