No Exit…


Why will the idea of “associate citizenship” of the EU not go away? In the last few months, since it became clear that the British drive to exiting the EU was unstoppable, I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen positing this as some kind of answer.

I understand the appeal. In 2003, I waited with many others in a very crowded bar in Kraków to learn the result of the referendum on EU accession. I remember vividly the cheers of relief that accession would go ahead the following year. For many, that day, and the accession day itself, marked a return to Europe – if Poland had ever left. The national anthem records the March of troops in the Napoleonic wars “z ziemi Włoskiej do Polski”: from the lands of Italy to Poland. A series of events that began with the German and Russian invasions in 1939 had finally entered a new phase. One which promised to fulfil the dreams of 1989: that Poland could be a liberal democratic member of “the European club”.

In 2004, on the first day of membership, many of us watched the news reporting on Poland’s new “second capital” in Brussels. Even through the blur of a hangover (it was a very good party) I could feel the optimism.

Time has not been kind to that optimistic vision of Polish society, which will be the subject of a future piece. But it should remind us that membership of the EU can exert a powerful hold on the imagination of those denied it, and that many of those EU citizens whose future residency in the UK is now uncertain understand far better than we do why the EU is important. For us (ironically) the Polish poem of exile, Pan Tadeusz, may describe our plight:

Lithuania, my country, thou art like health; how much thou shouldst be prized only he can learn who has lost thee. To-day thy beauty in all its splendour I see and describe, for I yearn for thee.”

But we need to recognise that the EU isn’t a state. It can’t issue passports: only member states can do that, though the words “European Union” remind holders that collectivities come in different sizes. If we are to make the best of this awful mistake, we need to be clear what we are trying to hang on to.

We also need to be clear that some sort of boutique accommodation with reality for Remainers isn’t on offer. This is happening and we can’t engage with the facts if we are pursuing this kind of fantasy.

Secondly, we need to stop and think quite carefully about the idea of citizenship. Asking governments to create a lesser form of citizenship is open to abuse by issuing governments. What if the sentimental desire for Britons to try and deny the realities of this situation opened the door for them to decide that migrants and refugees could only apply for these kinds of documents? Do we want our own government to devise such a scheme?

It is an unfortunate coincidence that Britain’s exit from the EU is formalised in the week of Holocaust Memorial Day. The stripping of German citizenship from Jews was a fundamental attack on their rights, which made all the others easier to frame and justify in law. We should not be rushing to create second-class citizens, but instead insisting on the fullest citizenship for all, in the widest possible collectivity.

On Holocaust Memorial Day 2020: Stand Together


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The Book of Names in Block 27 at Auschwitz. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2015.

Yesterday, at a ceremony hosted by the Association of Jewish Refugees at Belsize Square Synagogue, I listened to testimony from Frank Bright, a survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Aged 91 and frail, he began by asking the room “Can you hear me?” The plaintive yet essential nature of his question took me aback for a moment.

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day asks us to #StandTogether, but what does this mean? Are we listening?

In the last year, I have spent a lot of time working on the project for the World Jewish Congress and UNESCO. The website contains a range of questions and answers which aim to explain key concepts and key events, and which illustrate them through the life stories of individuals.

As part of this, individuals who have been familiar names have also been developed into full personalities: the humanisation of the Holocaust is more than knowing a name, it is becoming aware of who that person was. The American science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card has many views which I profoundly reject, but his description in the novel Speaker for the Dead of how we should understand the people of the past continues to be something I try and live up to:

…to understand who a person really was, what his or her life really meant, the speaker for the dead would have to explain their self-story – what they meant to do, what they actually did, what they regretted, what they rejoiced in. That’s the story that we never know, the story that we never can know – and yet, at the time of death, it’s the only story truly worth telling.

To fulfil this task for the victims of the Holocaust would take centuries. The Book of Names produced by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, and kept in the Jewish Exhibition at Auschwitz, contains four million names of victims. Speaking to students, I point out that it actually commemorates three groups: those who died and whose names are recorded (Yad Vashem is taken from the Book of Isaiah and means “a monument and a name”); the space at its front where the other two million names we may never know, or even be able to guess at, should go; and the surviving family members whose pages of testimony are condensed into this vast artefact. And these are the barest of details: names, dates, place of birth, place of death (if this is even known). Their hopes, their fears, their aspirations and their regrets all went up, quite literally, in smoke. Telling some of their stories is the only way I can stand with them.

Three of the questions I have answered this year for aboutholocaust have stuck in my mind as I’ve reflected upon the idea of standing together.

Firstly, “Did you know that thousands of Jewish children left Germany without their parents to escape Nazi persecution?” The story of the Kindertransport is well-known and often used to justify a narrative of British moral superiority. The footage of the late Sir Nicholas Winton on That’s Life! in the 1980s, surrounded by the adults he saved as children, is incredibly moving. But for every child who came, many more did not, to say nothing of the parents who were forced to accept separation, usually permanent, as the price of securing their children’s safety. This week, as I sat in a room with some of them in Belsize Square, another of those children, Lord Dubs, was definitively frustrated in his campaign to ensure the safety and security of child refugees separated from their families. We must ask with whom we are standing, and why, and whether the cause of unity for its own sake is worth it. I stand with the children.

Secondly, “Why were there more Jews in Albania in 1945 than before WW2?” in 1938, the Jewish population of Albania was around 200 people. At the end of the war, it was around 1800, as Jews from Germany, Austria, Serbia, Greece and Yugoslavia arrived, in transit to the Americas, Turkey and Mandate Palestine. They had been kept safe by a code of toleration and hospitality called Besa, which means “to keep the promise”. As Lime Balla, one of the rescuers, described it:

We were poor – we didn’t even have a dining table – but we never allowed them to pay for the food or shelter. I went into the forest to chop wood and haul water. We grew vegetables in our garden so we all had plenty to eat. The Jews were sheltered in our village for fifteen months. We dressed them all as farmers, like us. Even the local police knew that the villagers were sheltering Jews.

To stand together is not just a matter of symbolism. It is to act as well, whatever our circumstances, recognising the capacity that each of us has to do something.

Finally, the work on Rabbi Leo Baeck was inspiring. The leader of German Jewry in the 1930s, Baeck chose to stay with his community, as did Rabbi Regina Jonas, a pioneering female rabbi. Both were deported to Theresienstadt, from where Jonas was deported to Auschwitz and murdered in late 1944. I searched in vain for a statement of why they chose to stand together with their community, when in both cases they had options of hiding or escape. The closest I came was the prayer written by Baeck for Yom Kippur in 1935:

Our history is the history of the grandeur of the human soul and the dignity of human life. In this day of sorrow and pain, surrounded by infamy and shame, we will turn our eyes to the days of old. From generation to generation God redeemed our fathers, and he will redeem us in the days to come. We bow our heads before God and remain upright and erect before man. We know our way and we see the road to our goal.

In short, to stand together is sometimes all we can do, recognising that we do so on a road whose ultimate destination is impossible to know. So we must hold hands as we go.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, 2019: Torn from Home


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The four Stolpersteine, as we left them. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2018.

Gunther Demnig works fast on the chilly pavement in Germany. His practiced hands prise up four cobbles from the street: a sharp crack precedes their slow easing from the ground to expose the sandy layer beneath. The stones are on the pavement beside him, gleaming in the pale winter light.

The stones are inscribed simply: names, dates, fate, as far as this can be known. The opening statement is baldly “Hier wohnt”: here lived. This is their last known address before being deported, though the building is certainly different: the city was heavily bombed. We do not know much of what happened after three of the family were deported in 1942. A postcard from the transit ghetto in Izbica in Poland, dated July 1942, was found by chance in a Berlin fleamarket in 2016. From Izbica, their destination is uncertain but was probably Sobibor: their stones now read “murdered in occupied Poland”. The exact moment of their death is unknown: there is certainly no marker for them where they perished.

The fourth stone concludes “Flucht nach England”: fled to England. This stone is for the eldest daughter of the family, who arrived in England on a domestic servant visa in August 1939, though she had never made a bed before. It is her descendants that mill around, blocking the pavement on this grey afternoon.

The arrival of the stones made the occasion seem real. Children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren took turns holding the stones, wrapped in their cloths, cradling them as though they were children. Photographs are taken, tears are wiped away, if not quite shed. We have gathered here for this moment from across the world, and the sight of the names has tautened the air in a way that nobody quite expected. Reluctantly giving the stones to the ground, the family stands back as Demnig pushes the stones into place and with a practiced hand embeds them, fills the gaps with mortar and with almost a flourish wipes away the excess from the inscriptions. The stones have taken their place, not only in the city of origin of those they remember, but in a network of similar memorials across Europe.

We stop, a few words are spoken, the breath of the speakers puffing in the cold air. Four of us arrived just in time for the ceremony and our suitcases are pushed neatly against the building, an odd echo of previous journeys. More words are spoken, some prayers are said, and then we load ourselves into taxis, leaving the stones. Some take a final few images. As I get in, I take a last distant shot of the four stones, together at last in the pavement, a spray of gravel marking the place where they have been worked into the landscape.

The historian Michael Burleigh wrote in 1996 that for many, “Nazism is not a matter of academic contemplation; but rather something which explains why they have no relatives or children; why they are chronically ill or have severe psychological problems; or why they live in Britain, Canada, Israel or the USA rather than Central Europe.” This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day theme, “Torn from Home”, has led me to revisit those words. Burleigh intended the words as a speculation on the state of what was then thought to be a rapidly “historicising” subject, one which might over time become a more “normal” part of history. I wonder whether in fact they have become more relevant than ever. The pictures last week of Holocaust survivors weeping over the burial of victims’ ashes from the collections of the Imperial War Museum suggests that perhaps the past is not yet done with surprises.

Witnessing Gunther Demnig lay Stolpersteine for this family while surrounded by the living proof of the eldest daughter’s survival brought home the sheer randomness of historical fate. Why was this young woman spared? What did she have to give up to do so? In his novel Exit West, Mohsin Hamid wrote that “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” For so many refugees, both then and now, this is no mere figure of speech. The only other marker of this family and its fate is on its sole survivor’s grave, far away in England, amid hedgerows and birdsong.

The journey also underlined that trauma dehomes and dispossesses those who suffer it, shunting the future into strange sidings. The sight of three women, red-haired as their grandmother was, contemplating a display in the school she attended until the racial laws forced her to leave, brought home how it could have been their school. Similarly, over lunch in the small town where the family originated, I noticed the red hair of many locals, along with the surreptitious glances, trying to decide how these faces could be both familiar and strange. In my mind, I wondered how they felt. Curious? Guilty? Sad? Anxious for this reminder of how their home had a past that perhaps threatens their sense of being at home? Living amongst the traces of horror requires either constant attention or deliberate avoidance. The memorial at the ruins of the town synagogue is lonely and neglected. One of our party tried to clear some of the grime but, realising that it was not his home to tend, gave up the attempt, his hand lingering on the stone a fraction longer than it might otherwise have done.

At the same time, the trip offered many chances to form new bonds. My partner’s mother has kept in touch with the local historian who initiated contact when the postcard from her grandparents came to light, as well as the present headmistress of her mother’s school. The bright and curious current students asked informed questions about how flight from home had shaped their fellow former student. She was a migrant, so are some of them, even though second or even third generation. Perhaps she offered hope that new beginnings can be restorative, a chance to rehome oneself. Perhaps the visit also confirmed that return and connection was an option, that doors once entered through could remain open, or at least ajar.

In these turbulent days, when it seems as though Britain is hell-bent on casting itself adrift, the visit was also a chance to reflect on the meaning of movement. My partner’s grandmother must have made a journey very like ours, through Belgium and then either France or the Netherlands. But unlike us, who showed our passports once and then tucked them away again, she had to endure the border crossings of an earlier Europe, her passport stamped with a red J, explaining to anyone who demanded her papers why she was making the journey. The philosopher Walter Benjamin committed suicide in Barcelona in 1940, convinced he was to be sent back to France and the German occupation. Free movement was not acquired cheaply, and we have neglected the multiple meanings of that “freeness”. We are so accustomed to the simplicities of the modern world that we have forgotten they are privileges, not rights, and as such incur duties.

The late Elie Wiesel wrote a story of the final Passover in Sighet, the city in Romania where he grew up. His father brought a stranger to their table, “a poor Polish Jewish refugee who had seen too often and too close the victory of death over man and his prayers.” At the point in the Seder where it is traditional to open the door for the prophet Elijah, the stranger said he would perform the task, and promptly vanished. Wiesel writes that a few weeks later he saw the stranger again, on the transport bound for Auschwitz. Wiesel concludes:

Today I know what I didn’t know then: at the end of a long trip that was to last four days and three nights he got out in a small railway station, near a peaceful little town, somewhere in Silesia, where his fiery chariot was waiting to carry him up to the skies. Isn’t that enough proof that he was the Prophet Elijah?

The tearing from home leaves jagged edges in the heart. We must remember this, and that every new arrival comes from somewhere; and ask how can we know who we are turning away?

Everyday witness


Image credit: Jaime Ashworth, 2018.

About a year ago, a Religious Studies GCSE student of mine and I were discussing martyrdom. She asked if there were Jewish martyrs. I replied that no, not really, but if she wanted an alternative viewpoint, she should ask the organiser of her synagogue refreshment rota and see what their response was.

We laughed at the time, but that now seems rather hollow, in the wake of the attack last week during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The deaths of eleven members of that community in such a violent and senseless manner has shocked and saddened people all over the world, both Jews and non-Jews.

One story described how the Orthodox chevra kadisha, or burial society, had held a vigil outside the crime scene where the victims’ bodies remained while police investigated. Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, who runs the burial society, was quoted as saying “These are people who were killed because they were Jewish, they are bodies of holy martyrs.”  

Along with many others, I have been shocked to silence by the tragedy. I hesitate, however, before the word martyrs. With its origin in Greek, the word originally meant witness, but has come to mean (according to the Cambridge English Dictionary) “a person who suffers very much or is killed because of their religious or political beliefs, and is often admired because of it”. The American Merriam-Webster offers “a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion”. The Oxford definition is “a person who is killed because of their religious or other beliefs”.

While I accept that language is fluid and evolving, the weight of the dictionary definitions seems to be that a martyr has agency in their death: something which is hard to say of those killed last week. They did not choose to be attacked, nor did they sacrifice themselves voluntarily: they were murdered when they should have been safe, in a place which should have offered sanctuary.

The issue of how to talk about the victims of suffering and persecution is a central aspect of my work as a Holocaust educator. Martyr has become a common way of describing Jewish victims, at least partly because of the Holocaust.

Many memorials describe those killed by the Nazis and their collaborators as martyrs. I recently attended a funeral at the main Orthodox Jewish cemetery near London and the memorial to the Holocaust there characterises the dead in this way. Yad Vashem in Jerusalem was founded as the Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority: it still frames Yom Hashoah, the Jewish day for remembering the Holocaust, in this way, as ‘Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day’.

But Kiddush Hashem, to die for the sanctification of G-d’s name, is not quite martyrdom. Jewish law is clear that Jews are not permitted to commit murder, incest, or blasphemy under any circumstances – if the choice is between doing these things and death, then death has to be accepted. Otherwise, models of resistance emphasise that pikuach nefesh, preserving the soul, is preferable: the same principle that means the ill and infirm can break even the most solemn fasts if they need to; and kiddush ha’chayim, sanctification of life, enjoins Jews to aspire to meaningful survival: by learning, educating and recording.

Working as an educator, I have found devising and running sessions exploring some of the different ways in which Jews attempted not just to survive, but survive as Jews, inspiring and moving. The neat dichotomy of martyrs and heroes into which many books and resources still, almost unconsciously, divide the victims, neglects the diversity and variety of the – often very ordinary – heroism involved. Those caught up in the Holocaust found food, raised and educated children, and loved, and learned – in the face of implacable, reckless hate. The Nazis didn’t care if people were good Jews, bad Jews, old Jews, young Jews or any other descriptor: their aim was simply, as the attacker is said to have shouted before opening fire last week, that “All Jews must die”.

The victims of the Holocaust also, however, probably also made mistakes, forgot their obligations, and failed to live up to their best imagining of themselves. This, after all, is much of what being an everyday, ordinary human is.

And it is in that everyday ordinariness that the horror of last week resides. As I understand it, a baby-naming ceremony had just been held. Early in morning services, before (as the rabbi later wryly commented) most of those with busy lives and large families had managed to arrive. Instead, the victims were older, lonelier, more vulnerable, perhaps depending on the synagogue for much of the structure of their daily lives. This was not a heroic choice to assert identity, but a mundane choice to make their way to shul through the drizzle, shrug off their coats, and engage in celebrating the most everyday of miracles, a new life. This was not martyrdom or sacrifice, but simple, brutal murder. It even lacked the poetry to be described as tragedy. It was simply carnage.

We live in an age where we are exposed to information in previously unimaginable quantities: from books and magazines, from news, from advertising. Above all from the ability of friends and acquaintances to constantly present us with new facts, new ideas, and the nagging sense that someone, somewhere, is “doing life” better than we are. The average person today has to make constant decisions about what we know – and how that fits or not with what we thought we knew yesterday – in a way that would utterly confound our ancestors. In that context, it is understandable to use formulaic words and phrases which streamline our process of meaning-making.

But as the rabbi I listened to yesterday morning reminded me and anyone else who listened, words are fundamental: words have power. Creation in Jewish understanding was a speech act. As we remember the dead of Pittsburgh, we have an immense responsibility to do what those in power seem unwilling or unable to do – remember that our words bring the world into being. We are all witnesses to the consequences of doing so – or of not doing so. So, belatedly, Shabbat shalom.  

On Holocaust Memorial Day, 2018: The Power of Words


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Oswiecim Jewish Cemetery. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2015.


I am often reminded of the midrash that says that all Jewish souls (neshamot) were present at Sinai. I remember it every Friday as my partner and I light candles for Shabbat: the words of the blessings over candles, wine and bread linking us not just to Jews all over the world but also through time.

Though I still need transliteration, if I am sufficiently centred I can feel the words coming not from my mouth but through me from a source that stretches back to Sinai. Liturgy as a “portable homeland” is a commonplace of Jewish Studies, but it is also a door through which the whispers of generations can be heard. My partner likes to poke gentle fun at my “authentic” Polish-accented pronunciation but for me, like Polish, the brachot come from a place just beyond conscious memory.

This Friday night also – thinking Jewishly – marks the beginning of Holocaust Memorial Day. This is a curious indicator of the symbolic tension between secular and religious understandings of the Holocaust. Mourning is prohibited on Shabbat – the shiva of eight days following a funeral is suspended for the twenty-five hours between candle-lighting and the resumption of “normal” time at Havdalah. To remember the Holocaust at such a moment, therefore, presents a challenge for observant Jews. How to commemorate slaughter at a moment when they are commanded to live most purely?

This year’s theme is particularly well-suited to reconciling the tension. Words are not (quite) actions, and can be uttered in any spirit. In thinking about the theme of HMD this year, I reflected on four things that they can be used for.

Firstly, and most obviously in a Holocaust context, they can be used to curse. Thomas Pegelow Kaplan has recently explored how language became an everyday vehicle for discrimination and hatred. Teaching about the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, I am often struck by how short they are: just a few hundred words to define and separate a people from work, from family, from relationships. Juden sind hier unerwünscht: Jews not wanted here. Signs with this short phrase demarcated new realities for German Jewry in the 1930s, realities which found ultimate expression in the ghettoes and camps of WW2. This was based on the slogan that was repeated in posters and signs, and repeated at rallies: Die Juden sind unser Unglück; The Jews are our misfortune.

This is connected to the second use of words: to lie. The measure of Nazi shame at what they did can be seen in the linguistic contortions and evasions that were employed. Euphemism became the only way in which what was happening could [not] be described. “Resettlement” meant deportation to murder. “Jewish residential district” signified a ghetto where the inhabitants lived from day to day on borrowed time and stolen hopes. The individual lives and stories consigned to the pits were reduced to “Figuren”: pieces, not people. The tension required to keep this linguistic distortion in place can be seen most clearly in Himmler’s October 1944 Posen speech to senior SS officers, when he referred to “the extermination of the Jews […] a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned.” Himmler knew that his assertion of the ‘glory’ of the Holocaust would not survive the scrutiny: he could only be proud of his crimes if he kept them secret and far from challenge. Language can cover and conceal the facts, even from their authors.

Survivors have long struggled with the challenge posed by this debasement of language, trying to find truth and value in debased coinage. Primo Levi wrote of the realisation after being stripped, shaved, showered, tattooed and thrust into “the blue and icy snow of dawn, barefoot and naked” that “our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.” Charlotte Delbo, sent to Auschwitz for her work in the French Resistance, questioned whether one could even speak of “after”:

I’m not alive. People believe memories grow vague, are erased by time, since nothing endures against the passage of time. That’s the difference; time does not pass over me, over us. It doesn’t erase anything, doesn’t undo it. I’m not alive. I died in Auschwitz but no one knows it.

For many – Tadeusz Borowski, Paul Celan, Jean Amery, possibly Levi himself – the sense that something essential of them had died in Auschwitz meant that they could not carry on. In Polish, in German, in French, in Italian, the reality of the Lager eluded description and in doing so meant life, interrupted by Auschwitz, could never really be resumed. Like the matzeva (tombstone) that heads this piece, life was broken and though some details of the life might be glimpsed, the words that might have animated them to live in our minds were lost. We can know she was Rivka, but we cannot know what she meant, to herself or others: though she died before the Holocaust, the deaths of her descendants most likely killed her a second time. Flesh become word, word become trace: the blank flashing of the cursor as we confront what we cannot now know.

For others, however, the struggle to tell the story was its own reason to carry on. The fierce insistence of Elie Wiesel that “A novel about Treblinka is either not a novel or not about Treblinka” did not stand in the way of writing or working and reworking his memoir Night from its Yiddish original to French, and thence from French to English. His wife Marion retranslated it in 2006, returning to the task he began in Paris in the 1940s, trying to “conjure up other verbs, other images, other silent cries”. But they wouldn’t match the words that took his little sister from him, on the ramp in Birkenau: men to the left, women to the right.

Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment where I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever. I kept walking, my father holding my hand.

Working with the Holocaust Educational Trust on their Lessons from Auschwitz project, we stand where the words were spoken and read Wiesel’s account. There is often a biting wind, and the students are tiring from the long day. And yet these words cut through: the students’ eyes lift from the ground out of their coats and scarves. Eyes stream from more than the wind and even above the wind you can hear the silence.

The sheer number of Holocaust testimonies is the best testament to the difficulty of putting into words both the experience itself and its meaning afterwards. Paul Steinberg, in his distinctively reflexive memoir Speak You Also tries to unpick his memories of Auschwitz from his depiction by Primo Levi as “Henri”, the quintessential survivor who “closed himself up, as if in armour [fighting] to live without distraction”. Whether or not he found truth he leaves uncertain: with the penultimate sentence he refers to “reflections and intermittent memories” which provide him with what he calls the alibi he needs. Whether it is truth, he is unsure, but it is a verdict; “Officially cleared from the docket […] A delivery, however long overdue, is still a deliverance.”

But this is far short of the final power of words: to heal and bless. It is rather the attenuation and separation of meaning from context imagined by Andre Schwarz-Bart in his final novel, The Morning Star, imagining how a race of immortals might try to understand the massacre, hearing its “drawn-out echo” twisted by distance from their source. “The star-dwellers would say, for instance, to mark the idea of an epitome, of a peculiar intensity: an Auschwitz of gentleness, a Treblinka of joy.” This carries through the idea of his first novel, The Last of the Just, describing how the Holocaust consumes the last of the Levy family, the final Lamed Vav: the last of the righteous men and women whose goodness justifies the purpose of mankind to God. Without the just, words lose their meaning; and without meaning the just lose their lives.

This loss of the meaning of words is a feature of modern life. Post-modernity, with its recognition that neither the tale nor the teller could be entirely trusted, allowed the questioning of established “truths” of relationships between genders, classes, and individuals, even if this has fallen far short of their dismantling. Many authors have commented on the way in which the Holocaust, as it threw into doubt the assumption of European progress, made that questioning and dismantling possible. If the systems that produced our societies produced the death camps, then how could we not question the systems?

But this assumed a world in which the connection between sign and signified was relatively stable. As we consume more and more information at progressively greater remove, we can be less and less sure of provenance, context and corroboration: the constituent parts of what might be termed truth.

In the 1980s, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard warned of the rise of simulacra: copies for which there was no original. Eight years before the internet, he warned that there was “more and more information, and less and less meaning” and that the confusion of exposure to information with participation in social life carried with it the possibility of a collapse of both. He worried that “meaning is lost and devoured faster than it can be reinjected”.

As Matthew D’Ancona has written, the discrediting of authorities or arbiters has collapsed into “unhealthy relativism, in which the epistemological chase is not only better than the catch – but all that matters.” We have become experts at spotting “bias” or privilege but unable in many cases to distinguish them from perspective or principle. In a world where nothing can be relied on, we have attached ourselves, limpet-like, to what “feels right” or can be argued over what can be proved. “Alternative facts” are preferred to inconvenient truths.

And there is no need for the bureaucracy of an Orwellian state along the lines of 1984. The Ministry of Truth can be built in computer programs and the corrections are seamless, almost impervious to checking. Robots compile stories from building blocks, replacing possibility with doubt, substituting meaning with syntax.

So how can we put that meaning back? The answer is, paradoxically, found in Auschwitz. Each Lessons from Auschwitz trip is accompanied by a rabbi and each trip ends, symbolically at least, with a ceremony at the end of the rail lines in Birkenau. Long since the night has drawn in and with temperatures falling, the group of two hundred people listens to poems and prayers. The rabbi says many things but the core of what he has to say is a single word, which he asks the group to repeat: Zakhor. Remember. Hold on to what you have seen, what you have heard, where you have gone. In the vastness of the Polish sky, the words barely echo, even on the stones. But the word comes out and goes up all the same.

Words travel in unpredictable directions. Two years ago, a postcard sent by my partner’s great-grandparents from Izbica, the last stop on their journey to Sobibor, was found in a German flea-market. The finder found my partner’s mother and the postcard has led to a trip next week to where her mother came from in 1939; from where her grandparents and great-uncle were deported in 1942. We will stand outside their former home and watch as an artist installs Stolpersteine – stumbling stones – in the pavement. Their names, their dates of birth, their deportations and their deaths will become part of the landscape: flesh become word, word become trace, trace become memory. And then, inscribed on the stone as well as in memory, perhaps there will be some kind of peace. Words speak of the possibility of going on; but only if we are present to the truth of what happened, to receive the sparks as they fly outward, so that we may bless them.

Never Again, Again (Warning: distressing content)


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“It happened, therefore it can happen again. This is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen anywhere.” – Primo Levi

The events unfolding in Myanmar at present have all the worst ingredients of a tragedy after which we will solemnly intone “Never Again”. A complex history, a world distracted by other things, and, worst of all, geographical distance – which is a tactful way of saying that since neither the victims nor the perpetrators are European, the violence will probably be allowed to burn itself out, leaving only a gaping hole where the Rohingya should be.

Though its government disputes this, the Rohingya have lived in the area of western Myanmar called Arakan for centuries. The first mention of them in western sources was by the East India Company in 1799. Rohingya were central to the administration of Myanmar (or Burma, as it then was) until 1982, when the military dictatorship removed them from the list of “official” nationality groups. Since then their conditions have steadily deteriorated. As the organisation Global Citizen puts it, they are “unable to claim citizenship in a country that refuses to recognise them.” Forced Migration Review explains how forcing statelessness on people violates both the 1956 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the reduction of Statelessness. But we have known what statelessness means far longer than that. As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, statelessness means that people are consigned either to the law of exception or complete lawlessness. “Since [the stateless person] was the anomaly for whom the general law did not provide, it was better for [him] to become an anomaly for which it did provide: that of the criminal.”

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty have both called for action amid growing concern since October, though some sources highlight that there has been violence since at least 2012. A United Nations report from February did not pull any punches. Based on interviews with more than 200 of the approximately 66,000 refugees to Bangladesh, the evidence they collected was clear.

“According to the testimonies gathered, the following types of violations were reported and experienced frequently in that area: Extrajudicial executions or other killings, including by random shooting; enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention; rape, including gang rape, and other forms of sexual violence; physical assault including beatings; torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; looting and occupation of property; destruction of property; and ethnic and religious discrimination and persecution.” (p. 40) 

What this means on a human level is, as always, perhaps beyond description if not beyond words. Even the bald breakdown of the testimonies makes for hard reading:

Extracts from a few of the testimonies follow. Please be warned, they are not subtle, though these are some of the least graphic. Page references are to the OHCHR Report.

“The day the army attacked my village, my father and I had just come out of prayers, when we heard sounds of shooting. We had just walked to a farm, where we were sitting and talking to the owner of the farm. While the firing was still going on, my father stood up, which is when a grenade came and exploded close to us, killing my father, the farm owner’s son, and severely injuring me and the farm owner.” (p.14)

 “I was in front of [my grandmother’s] house, playing with some other boys when the helicopter came. I was shot from the helicopter, other boys were too. Six or seven of us were hit by bullets from the helicopter.”

 “When my two sisters, 8 and 10 years old, were running away from the house, having seen the military come, they were killed. They were not shot dead, but slaughtered with knives.”

The report is equally blunt about the possibility that the statistics derived from these testimonies are just the tip of the iceberg. They emphasise not just that they are only reporting what they have testimony to support, but also that the sexual nature of the crimes means many victims are too traumatised or ashamed to speak of what has happened to them.

In terms of perpetrators, the report is clear that they include members of the Myanmar armed forces, border guards and police, along with ‘irregular’ units of armed locals, sometimes wearing borrowed uniforms. As is depressingly standard in such cases, witnesses knew some of these to be civilians because they were their neighbours.

The response from Aung San Suu Kyi, the former dissident, Nobel laureate and human rights activist who now de facto leads the civilian administration, has been disappointing, to say the least. In a conversation with Turkish President Erdogan, she blamed “fake news” and in a press conference she claimed the government was still trying to decide “how to differentiate terrorists from innocents.” A place to start might be asking them their age.

The UN report stops short of terming the persecution genocide, though it makes clear that the events constitute “[what] has been described in other contexts as ethnic cleansing.” (p. 42)

Definitions are both problematic and essential. For us to respond, we must name what is happening, thus fully bringing it into reality. By naming a crime, we identify it and can prosecute it. Genocide and ethnic cleansing, because they are definitions devised partly in order to suspend the normal rules of sovereignty, are likely to be applied too late: we only know for sure with the dreadful clarity of hindsight. Though one should always remember the macabre evasions of the Clinton White House during the Rwandan Genocide of 2004. A particular exchange between Press Secretary Christine Shelley and reporter Alan Elsner has acquired almost iconic status (some readers may recognise the dialogue from an episode of The West Wing)There is video of the exchange on YouTube.


In fact, a State Department document very clearly stated “Be careful … Genocide finding could commit U.S.G. to actually ‘do something.'” As we know now, the cost of the ‘formulations’ was between 500,000 and 1,000,000 deaths in just under three months: a rate of killing which outstripped that of the Nazi death camps. At that rate of slaughter, all of the 2,000,000 Rohingya could be dead in six months. In Rwanda, the bodies of men, women and children clogged rivers as the world debated definitions. As a survivor who spoke to the playwright J.T. Rogers for his play The Overwhelming prophesied, the cycle of violence has not stopped: “Now it is two hundred percent safe here. But until when, I don’t know. Rwanda is like a fire underground: the killings will come again.”

There are always (frequently craven) reasons not to intervene. There are always (weak) arguments for waiting. There is no defence, however, for saying nothing. The preoccupation of British politics with the EU withdrawal process is crowding out any other discussion. This must stop. Sign the petition. Demand action. When the petitions committee reconvenes this month to start a new session, I’m going to start a parliamentary petition (if an NGO doesn’t get there first) to demand that our elected representatives are at least forced to consider what they refuse to act upon. For now, there is a petition gathering signatures and a letter from the All-Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Burma. We know more than enough, about both genocide in general and this crisis in particular, to expect more than the silence the Prime Minister has so far responded with.

I want to finish with some words from the Nobel Lecture by Aung San Suu Kyi in 2012. Remember her acceptance of the prize in 1991 was made by her son: her lecture was made possible by the pressure from governments and thousands of individuals to free her from house arrest:

“To be forgotten. The French say that to part is to die a little. To be forgotten too is to die a little. It is to lose some of the links that anchor us to the rest of humanity. When I met Burmese migrant workers and refugees during my recent visit to Thailand, many cried out: “Don’t forget us!” They meant: “don’t forget our plight, don’t forget to do what you can to help us, don’t forget we also belong to your world.” When the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to me they were recognizing that the oppressed and the isolated in Burma were also a part of the world, they were recognizing the oneness of humanity. So for me receiving the Nobel Peace Prize means personally extending my concerns for democracy and human rights beyond national borders. The Nobel Peace Prize opened up a door in my heart.” 

A door in the heart should not wait for definitions to be confirmed before opening once again. Words will never be enough. But they may be a start.

Postscript: like many of us, I’m guilty at times of the delusion that things only happen when I’m looking. A friend of mine, a passionate advocate of and activist for peace, wrote this and I thought it should be attached to this piece: a reminder that terrible things are happening all the time and that the work of trying to stop them is constant.

Shocks, Forks and Fractures


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The title story of The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon (Vintage, £8.99), 347 pp.) is a harrowing account of how an idyllic seaside afternoon in the 1970s turns to tragedy. In spare, compelling prose, Haddon describes the initial warnings as the rivets holding the pier together progressively fail. ("There is a faint tremor underfoot as if a suitcase or stepladder has been dropped somewhere nearby.") He describes in merciless detail the fracturing of a summer afternoon into fragments, neatly chronicling each death and the aftermath as normality slowly settles over those left apparently unscathed. ("None of the survivors sleeps well. They wake from dreams in which the floor beneath them vanishes. They wake from dreams of being trapped inside a cat's cradle of iron and wood as the tide rises.")

Haddon's prose captures the way in which trauma is observed from the inside: slowly, but too fast to fully register; completely, but only in hindsight. Another word for this is shock. As Naomi Klein has recently written, "A state of shock is what results when a gap opens up between events and our initial ability to explain them."

Britain in 2017 feels similar to the disintegrating pier in Haddon's story, shuddering as the rivets joining us to the EU are worked loose, the fissures in our society are thrown into ever-sharper relief, and international politics seem more and more threatening. It's the shock that many of us experienced last year in the sweaty early hours of June 24, watching the numbers move like a tide, rolling upward until, as the dawn broke, the result was confirmed.

Many of us experienced that feeling of shock again in November as we watched Hillary Clinton's chances of being President go from being assured, to doubtful, to impossible. A feeling which deepened in January as Trump's inaugural speech made clear he intended to govern as he had campaigned: boorish, aggressive, chauvinistic.

Most importantly, it's the feeling as we watched the flames sweep across Grenfell Tower. Knowing what the inexorable progress of the wall of fire meant – as human beings, unable to stop ourselves imagining ourselves in the place of those inside – but powerless to stop it.

It's a feeling I've revisited many times this summer, as different journeys have taken me past the tower: blackened and silent, the sun still catching on glass that has not been shattered, a grim negative of the neighbouring towers. ("A moment's weakness had caused this horror, the way a single spark from these struck flints bloomed into the fires that surrounded her.")

The footage from Houston this week has brought that feeling again. Watching the waters rise and the roads disappear beneath the floods should remind us that we are always vulnerable to the environment we build through and over (instead of around and with). The levees and dams have creaked and overflowed, and the bonds of society have proved correspondingly frail. Looting and unrest have necessitated curfews, as stretched civil authorities focus on the crisis. President Trump's response, ("The storm, it's epic what happened. But you know what, it happened in Texas and Texas can handle anything.") encapsulates the dogma of small government and its failure to appreciate the importance of collective action to avert rather than manage times of crisis. ("He's never thought it this way, that lives are held in common, that we lose a little something of ourselves with every death.") In situations like this, the heroism of individuals needs to be backed by the state rather than left to fend for itself. We cannot allow ourselves to be flattered for our self-sufficiency by those whose job is to prepare.

In India, Bangladesh and Nepal, far worse flooding seems to be producing a different reaction to similar problems. The Times of India shows crowds working with rescuers, bringing food and helping to clear rubble. At root, though, the complaints are similar too: "Why does nothing change? Why are we left to fend for ourselves when they had weather forecasts warning them of extremely heavy rainfall?" asked one Indian columnist quoted in the Guardian. The residents of Grenfell know the feeling, as did the inhabitants of New Orleans in 2005.

In Britain, meanwhile, we continue to make our own weather: working toward "freeing" ourselves from the EU. The Brexit negotiations have resumed and it's clear that this government is determined to ignore the reality that 27:1 make for unhealthy odds. On Ireland, on the single market, on the customs union, on free movement; the position of Her Majesty's Government is that cake policy must remain separate from eating policy.

A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said this week that the government was determined to try and discuss the future trading relationship alongside the withdrawal deal, despite the insistence of the EU that this won't happen. As any country that has negotiated EU accession could tell you, negotiating with the EU on these matters is not a negotiation as conventionally understood. In accession negotiations, the only question is when, not if, individual countries would accept EU law and regulation (this, by the way, is a powerful practical argument for remaining). In our case, we lit the blue touch paper by triggering Article 50 and now require all 27 member nations' agreement to blow it out again, even temporarily. British inability to understand collective behaviour is quite profound (at least among politicians, who are usually happy to talk about what they claim people want but often less keen to engage with what they need).

Internationally, meanwhile, the Prime Minister arrived in Japan at an interesting moment, her plane presumably virtually banking to avoid a North Korean missile. Asked about the escalating (or at least not subsiding) crisis in South-East Asia, she termed the launch "outrageous" and suggested that the UN Security Council should resolve the problem. Collective solutions are good sometimes, it would seem, though the structure of the Security Council gives Donald Trump (along with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jingping) a veto on any solution, so it's likely to be a question of state-to-state solutions in the end.

Haddon's stories have at their core an awareness that traumatic events alter our histories, both individual and collective. ("Today will be different, not simply shocking but one of those moments when time itself seems to fork and fracture and you look back and realise that if things had happened only slightly differently you would be leading one of those other ghost lives speeding away into the dark.") He skilfully evokes the sensation of escape and the chill of privilege it occasions. ("Everyone can feel the thrilling shiver of the Reaper passing close, dampened rapidly by the thought of those poor people.")

The stories also underline, however, that those forks and fractures are constructed of choice. Some choices are positive: in the final story, The Weir, a lonely divorcé rescues a young woman from suicide by drowning, forming a friendship that sustains them both. Mostly, though, the choices of Haddon's characters are negative. In Wodwo, Gavin, a venal middle-class TV presenter, shoots a stranger who interrupts a family Christmas. The stranger makes a macabre recovery, promising to return the following year: Gavin struggles to cope with his actions, becoming homeless before being found by the same stranger and sent back to his family home to interrupt the next Christmas. He approaches the same French window, seeing the changes wrought by the year in his family. And then they look up: he has become the stranger, even to himself. ("The intruder light clicks on. He knocks twice on the glass. As one his family turn to look at him.") What could he have done differently? What can we do differently? Who's making the choices? We need answers but first we have to ask the questions.

The Boy Who Cried Nazi


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Footage of Hitler reflected in a glass display, IWM 2016. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

As a blogger with a background in Holocaust Studies, Godwin’s Law (sometimes the authoritative-sounding reductio ad Hitlerum) presents some problems for me. As originally formulated by Mike Godwin in 1990, it runs:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.

While I appreciate that as a Holocaust scholar and educator I’m a bit of a niche market, this commonplace of Twitter put-downs raises some problems for me.

First, from my perspective, there’s the problem that since I’ve invested an awful lot of time and effort in trying to understand the Holocaust and the Third Reich, the likelihood of my seeing resemblances that others don’t is slightly higher than average. At a recent session run by Robert Eaglestone of Royal Holloway on the cultural impact of the Holocaust, he asked the group to identify resonances between the Third Reich and the Harry Potter books. He said there were eight. I got to ten at a rate that slightly alarmed my ‘pair’ – though this may have been the fact that a grown man is so familiar with the differences between Purebloods, Half-bloods and Muggle-borns. (I will obviously refrain from repeating what Malfoy calls Hermione in Chamber of Secrets.)

The point here, though, is that neither I nor Eaglestone is suggesting that one has to read Harry Potter either as a neo-Nazi code or a passionate anti fascist parable. We’re suggesting that ideas and images from the Third Reich, World War II and the Holocaust have woven themselves deep into our subconscious, both individual and collective. Eaglestone’s most recent work takes as its starting-point the words of the late Nobel laureate and Auschwitz survivor Imre Kertesz, who in his 2002 Nobel Prize speech spoke of the “broken voice that has dominated European art for decades”.

My work, as I have described before, is concerned with the ways the Holocaust has become a mythology – in the sense used by Roland Barthes of “a language in which one speaks” of other things. In this sense, resonances and echoes are what I look for. Sometimes this is educationally effective, as when pointing out the “magical thinking” in the term “brainwashing” which many students use to talk about attitudes to persecution amongst “ordinary” Germans. Some of the problems faced by those who attempted to try and apportion responsibility for the Nazi era can be seen in the comment by Barty Crouch Junior (while disguised as Alastor ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody) in Goblet of Fire:

Scores of witches and wizards have claimed that they only did You-Know-Who’s bidding under the influence of the Imperius Curse. But here’s the rub: how do we sort out the liars?

To be clear: I wouldn’t suggest anyone quoted this in their History exams, or that the world created by J.K. Rowling is simply a vehicle for allegory. There are, however, some obvious ways in which the Harry Potter books are (in Eva Hoffman’s phrase) after such knowledge. Rowling’s magical hierarchy is, consciously or otherwise, very similar to the race laws of the Third Reich. That such pseudo-mathematical pigeonholing of human beings is not confined to that era (look up the word octaroon) also means, though, that we have to ask why these atrocities have caught our imaginations, both cultural and individual, so powerfully.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t draw attention to the resemblances where they occur. Not least because it allows us to critique more problematic examples of Holocaust discourse, such as John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which is most intelligible as a sentimentalised garbling of Holocaust representations rather than a response to the history itself.

In addition to the presence of Holocaust consciousness in fiction, there is a long history of invoking the Holocaust to describe the present in ways that are problematic. Peter Novick, in The Holocaust and American Life (1999), wrote of the ways in which the Holocaust had been instrumentalised by different causes: right, left and centre. Michael Marrus (in his 2016 Lessons of the Holocaust) has also questioned whether “universal lessons” are easily drawn, arguing that “lesson seeking often misshapes what we know about the event itself in order to fit particular causes and objectives [with] frequent unreliable basis in historical evidence and their unmistakable invitation to avoid nuance.”

A quick google of ‘abortion holocaust’ (a target of Novick’s) provides a case in point. Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust attempts to mobilise support to restrict the rights of women through a twisted appeal to high school social studies. Its assertion that “Any person born after January 22, 1973 is a survivor of the abortion holocaust” is as mendacious as any Holocaust denial website but in its cadences and vocabulary mimics the rhetoric of Holocaust remembrance just as its website attempts to mimic graffiti. Their Twitter feed also provides examples of Holocaust discourse, as well as sub-Trumpian attacks on “fake news” and Hillary Clinton: dire warnings of what would happen (in their view) if a woman’s right to choose stretched as far as holding high political office.

In instances like this, Godwin’s Law is not just a useful reminder that comparison can be emotive rather than accurate or helpful. It’s actually an alarm for dishonesty.

But this doesn’t address the real problem of whether a particular group can be termed “Nazi” or “fascist”. It does, though, bring into focus that Holocaust discourse and imagery is employed in many ways that stretch the facts. I became concerned that I had broken Godwin’s Law last week in referring to the events in Charlottesville as a “Neo-Nazi” demonstration. Was I ramping up the rhetoric without sufficient basis?

In the case of Charlottesville it seems that there were a variety of extremists present. Its very title, “Unite the Right”, indicates that it was intended to bring together disparate factions. The cause around which they came together, the statue of Robert E. Lee, was an American one. Images suggest the Confederate flag was as popular as any – though unambiguously Nazi imagery was certainly also present.

This diversity of extremity has made the search for an umbrella term rather difficult, not helped by the White House’s struggle to formulate a response that reaches (let alone goes beyond) equivocation. Not Nazis or fascists or white supremacists, they insist, but the “Alt-Right”.

(Only yesterday, He-who-should-not-be-president has attacked the removal of these monuments as “the history and culture of our great country” being “ripped apart”. Rather appropriately, his stance on this could be a line dance: one step forward and two steps back.)

But what does that mean? Does “Alt-Right” denote something new and different or is it just a marketing exercise; a veneer of respectability over old nastiness?

Part of the problem is that defining what MacGregor Knox termed the “fascist minimum” is not straightforward, since far-right movements are much more locally specific than others. If as Roger Griffin suggests, “palingenetic ultra-nationalism” (the extreme nationalism of national rebirth) is a good working definition, then umbrella terms will always be difficult to find. An Italian Fascist was different from a German Nazi, and both were different from a Spanish Falangist. Insistence on local difference and superiority will mean that “fascist” is likely to be an adjective ascribed by others rather than a name chosen by the group or individual in question. Though I would also point to images from Charlottesville which suggest there were plenty of people apparently flaunting their fascist or Nazi beliefs.

On these grounds, I’m happy to describe “Alt-Right” as an American fascism: insisting on a vision of racial superiority and the restoration of a mythical past (former “greatness”) through violence while positing “degeneracy” (of others, of course) as the root of all that is wrong: thanks to Rebecka Klette for highlighting this element.

That these views find expression amongst those who feel economically dispossessed and disconnected, and/or threatened by progress in social relations, merely lends weight to the comparison. An apparent obsession with a particular version of muscular, military, anti-intellectual masculinity lends more. The first target of Nazi book-burning was the Institute for Sexual Science run by Dr Magnus Hirschfeld: fear of other sexualities was a major part of the Nazi profile. Finally, one should remember that links between these examples go both ways: eugenics and biological racism were essential parts of the American view on race and German “racial science” acknowledged the debt.

But does this still make the label “neo-Nazi” overly reductive and unhelpful? Perhaps, but here’s the rub. If “Alt-Right” is the label these people prefer, then I choose to find something else, something less palatable in Peoria. If “neo-Nazi” causes the biggest shrieks of indignation and the most absurd verbal gymnastics to refute it, then I’ll use that, on the grounds that it clearly touches a nerve. In this instance, I’m with Mike Godwin, who tweeted the other day: “Referencing the Nazis when talking about racist white nationalists does not raise a particularly difficult taxonomic problem.”

Sign at the Womens’ March London, January 2017. Photo: Jaime Ashworth. 

Historical comparison is never exact and always requires a light touch: the sign above from the London Women’s March does the job with admirable clarity and a touch of humour. Situations arise in unique combinations and contexts, the actors similarly unique. But as long as we recognise that, we can also do what humans do best: use lessons from the past to guide future action.

To address the title of this piece: it should be remembered that the boy who cried wolf was eventually faced with a wolf. I suspect that we may have come to that point: whether all of those who gathered in Charlottesville last week were programmatic Nazis is beside the point. That their agenda and actions were not immediately and roundly called out by those in power is the problem. Keep shouting “Nazi”: even Mike Godwin is ok with that.

Crisis of Illusions


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Image: Jaime Ashworth, 2017. 

This is getting serious. I wrote a couple of days ago about the resemblance between the events of the past week and the summer of 1914: mostly suggesting that the isolation and unreality both the Trump presidency and the North Korean regime exist in contribute to attempts to ‘win’ Armageddon. As though a mushroom cloud could ever be something other than a Pyrrhic victory.

The neo-Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville (see picture below for evidence to support the name) and the subsequent limp dumb-show of concern from the White House lead me to suspect that the resemblance between the present United States and late Imperial Germany may go deeper still.

In 1961, Fritz Fischer, a professor of History at the University of Hamburg, published Griff nach der Weltmacht (published in English as Germany’s Aims in the First World War). In it he argued that Germany had exploited the crisis of 1914 in a deliberate attempt to become a world power. In a later book, War of Illusions (1969) he argued for Primat der Innenpolitik, the primacy of domestic policy: the idea that the German government, threatened by rising demands for democracy and especially by the success of the Socialist Party in prewar elections, used the foreign policy crisis to distract from domestic problems.

The idea that politicians use foreign policy to distract from or even solve domestic issues is by now a commonplace. From Nixon to Obama, US presidents have faced the charge that they have bombed their way back into the polls. Some have even been successful.

(Sidebar: any UK readers feeling smug at this point should remember the post-Falklands “khaki election” of 1983 and the “I support our troops” boorishness of the early Afghan and Iraqi campaigns.)

Fischer’s ideas have been subjected to criticism, most substantively on three grounds. Firstly that, while probably decisive, German actions in 1914 were reacting to a crisis that existed without them; secondly, that other powers (notably Britain) may have seen an opportunity to retard growing German influence; and, finally, that the document relied upon by Fischer was not produced until September 1914, after war had broken out.

Historical comparison requires a light touch. Situations are never replicated and lessons are learned. JFK, for example, was influenced during the Cuban Missile Crisis by Barbara Tuchman’s August 1914 which emphasised the need for clear thinking and communication during crises.

But the parallels are striking. An overprivileged and spoilt leader with a penchant for intemperate comments and no clear grasp of diplomatic realities (Trump’s tweets, the Kaiser’s Kruger Telegram). Domestic unpopularity and the need for a unifying external enemy. The sense that other powers are threatening to eclipse a power clinging on to hegemony by its fingertips: America first, Trump says, but first before whom?

None of these are necessarily novelties. Trump’s awfulness is blurring the memory of George W. Bush and his use of the military to play out a family feud in the desert of Iraq. The underlying problem of perceived American decline has been an American concern since before the decline really started, somewhere in the late 1960s. But now, in contrast to the late Cold War (when US dominance was ensured by the structural weakness of the USSR) there are several plausible rivals to the US: most notably China, which has intervened this week to remind both sides that they are bickering in its backyard and will pick sides based on who strikes first. The brief glow of pride in moving from a bipolar world (US/USSR) to a period of hegemony by default has faded as China and India rise, the EU has solidified into more than a trading bloc (if not a state, federal or otherwise), and even Russia has reacquired a measure of its former confidence.

So how does this link to the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville? Am I suggesting that they are part of a conspiracy to force the President to push harder? No, while shocked by his refusal to condemn them I don’t believe this was orchestrated in the crude sense: this is the third time such protests have been held. But the tenor of the Trump presidency since his inauguration has given them insidious permission to act out their fantasies.

In other words, they are in the grip of the same crisis of illusions as their president (chanting “Heil Trump” in some cases.) Their toxic attachment to the symbols of racial oppression is what got Trump elected and it’s the base to which he panders as his core support becomes his only support. His slogan of “Make America Great Again” allows his crowds to insert their own vision of American greatness to re-aspire to. Whether “greatness” signifies the genteel, syrupy savagery of the antebellum South (Gone with the Wind), the complacent vanilla of pre-desegregation suburbia (Mad Men), vacuous 1980s opulence (Dallas and Dynasty) or a post-apocalyptic redneck Reich (think Deliverance meets Mad Max) is up to the individual.

But all of these visions are pop-culture simulacra of things that either never existed or needed to end. And those shouting the loudest don’t know what to replace them with. The uncomfortable truth that their privilege was not just unearned but extorted from others just drives them further into fantasy. For all his bluster, Trump cannot deliver solutions that will address the problems of 2017 with the solutions of the 1930s. So he is left with what Fischer termed flucht nach vorn: flight forwards, from the economy, from healthcare, from (thankfully) failed immigration policy to…who knows.

Does Trump know the answer? It may be comforting to think he is simply #bereftofreason but the footage of him refusing to answer questions about Charlottesville told a different story. A man who tweets at the TV in the small hours of the morning refused to be drawn on the major story of the day. The much-tweeted commentary by the far-right drew attention to the lack of censure for them, characterising it as tacit approval. The blanks left in journalists’ questions are eloquent in themselves, as is Trump’s nonchalant body language ignoring them.

Remember this is a man who is so free with his opinions he started a nuclear crisis off-the-cuff. If he doesn’t speak, it means something. We must read into his silences that he is at least unconcerned or possibly actively pleased that his base is more concerned to preserve the legacy of the Confederacy than ask him to deliver, as long are there is an “Other” to disturb their nostalgia.

The exact nature of links between the Trump presidency and what its apologists term the “alt-Right” should be a matter for a Congressional grand jury and will be a concern for future historians. They may also try and establish links between this week’s events that go beyond them happening at the same time. They may even find them. What they will almost certainly ask is why those in all three branches of government did not do more to stop this. This is a crisis and requires the shedding of illusions by those who can stop this legally. Trump must be stopped.

Where were you when..?


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Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2017.

The current crisis over North Korea seems even more absurd when viewed through the umbrella of a pina colada. Gazing up at the palm trees, feeling the warmth of the Spanish sun and the breath of the breeze as I churn through paperbacks between swims, the idea of a crisis that threatens international stability seems very difficult to imagine.

Yet it is happening: thousands of miles away, a puffed-up incompetent is trying to bolster his ego with incoherent threats of the power and range of his nuclear arsenal. And apparently Kim Jong-Un is making some statements too. (Though I do want to know which ad agency focus-grouped #bereftofreason for the North Koreans: whoever it was, they scored, bigly. But then, as a character in Mad Men once observed, “Bombs are the ultimate product: they cost a fortune and can only be used once.”)

I have no way of changing whatever is going on in the Oval Office, but note that much of Trump’s rhetoric actually seems to be coming from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Since every day is a bad-hair day for the 45th US President, I assume the crisis stems from too much time in the sand traps: the only kind of bunker he should be allowed anywhere near, frankly. Or perhaps he’s having trouble swinging his wood. Either way, bringing the world to the edge of nuclear Armageddon is a drastic way to console himself.

But the golf club is a broader metaphor. A secluded and secure spot where the rules are predictable (if obscure), social interaction kept within limits (the faces on the website seem to bear an uncanny resemblance to his cabinet, being mostly male and white), and the most important qualification for entry is wealth. It’s effectively a womb with manicured lawns for the rich white male. The only difference between the golf club and the current White House is that the former clearly has balls (monogrammed with the Trump crest).

While our hotel is somewhat less exclusive than the Trump National, Bedminster, I can relate to the sense of security and predictability. I had a good breakfast, a nice swim and am writing this from a room just restored to pristine order by a smiling cleaner. I don’t want to leave, and can certainly relate to the rather remote view of the wider world that living in such enclaves year-round might engender. If asked to slide a paw out from the sun lounger to end life on Earth as we know it, it’s entirely possible that my first question would be whether I could order a cocktail with that.

But (thankfully) I’m not a world leader and the most complex choice I have to make this week is between varieties of cheese at the copious breakfast buffet. I am concerned, though, from my own recent tourist experience and looking at the reports of others via social media that we are shaping the world too much to suit the (relatively) affluent population’s notions of comfort and authenticity rather than engaging with the struggles of those around us.

Over dinner the other night, at a resort where every other vehicle seemed to be Italian and a phallus-replacement, African vendors passed among us at intervals trying to sell trinkets and knock-offs. Periodically they met to talk, their voices drifting over the sand, their shadows lit by flashing Minnie Mouse ears: their presence as disposable to many of the diners as the merchandise. They may have taken my refusal to engage in many ways, but essentially I was embarrassed (again) that people have to live this way.

In January, the body of a six year-old was washed up near Cadiz, though it didn’t receive the same coverage as the death of Aylan Kurdi two years ago. We’re not solving the problem, just ignoring it until it interferes with our summer holidays. There is footage this week of a boat of migrants/refugees landing in the middle of a tourist beach.

Across the world, the tension is rising and the spectre of another crisis is being evoked. This, we are told, is a rerun of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I’m reminded of the words of Robert McNamara, then Secretary of Defense, describing the middle of the crisis in his memoirs:

It was a perfectly beautiful night, as fall nights are in Washington. I walked out of the president’s Oval Office, and as I walked out, I thought I might never live to see another Saturday

Similar hardware and strategic questions lend a superficial resemblance to Cuba: once again, the key question is whether missiles have sufficient range to reach an island target. To me, though, the current crisis seems much more similar to that of 1914 than 1962.

Firstly, the competence of the protagonists. Although JFK and Khrushchev both made mistakes, neither was unaware of the seriousness of the situation and measured their words and actions accordingly. In the back-and-forth of soundbites, threats and counter-threats, the US and North Korea are behaving like the monarchs of Europe in 1914: making policy on the spur of the moment and thinking they see how to ‘win’ Armageddon. Trump’s statement today that the US is “locked and loaded” reduces international politics to a bad TV cop show. Instead of taking tea at a palace, Trump is slicing into the rough in New Jersey.

Secondly, the complacency with which (from my bubble) this seems to have been received. Someone has put a giant chicken/Trump inflatable behind the White House, in the belief that the moment to tease an idiot is when he’s down. Or maybe they just want to be on the TV. When words and weapons are put together without thought, the result is bloody, as the leaders of Europe discovered a century ago.

Perhaps the answer is to give Trump a genuine bubble, in which he can be President of his own delusions in perpetuity, the burble of the (fake) news only just louder than the sprinklers. What seems certain is that if he continues in his current state of unreality while commander in chief of the most powerful military the world has ever seen, the end result will not be pretty.