Jun 2001 Journal

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Race – the ‘big issue’?

Over the last few weeks race has evolved into a major issue in the General Election campaign. This came hard on the heels of a series on BBC radio which described race as the single greatest cause of mayhem in human history. Not everybody concurred – with some critics arguing that the worst of the scourges that have habitually plagued mankind was religion rather than race. These critics overlook the fact that in many global trouble spots racial and religious divisions overlap. For instance, while it may look to the outside world that in Ireland Catholic and Protestant brothers are pitted against one another, in fact the Catholics are all of Celtic origin whereas most Protestants are descended from Scots and Englishmen (hence the place name Londonderry) ‘planted’ there by Elizabeth and James I.

Similar racial-religious overlaps occurred in Eastern Europe, most notably in Poland. When Poland suffered partition and loss of statehood at the hands of Russia, Prussia and Austria in the 18th century, the battle lines were drawn with surgical precision. On one side stood the Catholic Poles – and on the other their mortal enemies, the Orthodox Russians and the Lutheran Prussians. (Being fellow-Catholics, the Austrians were less resented, though they allowed Galicia to stagnate). Of course, in those days ‘race’ was not the dominant concept it was to become in the late 19th and early 20th centuries thanks to Gobineau and Hitler. Although the Catholic Poles clearly saw themselves as a homogeneous entity, the race-obsessed Nazi occupiers set out to plunder their gene pool through the Eindeutschung (‘germanisation’) of the more Nordic-looking ones among them. A Pole accepted for germanisation could thus escape the near-subhuman status the Nazis assigned to Slavs at the cost of shedding his national and cultural identity. Something not dissimilar had happened to the 18th century Frankists – Polish Jewish followers of the false Messiah Jakob Frank – who had de-judaised themselves by following him into the Catholic fold.

Of course, no such way out presented itself to Polish Jewry in the 1940s. The German race fanatics were bent on their destruction and many Poles, far from thinking of converting the Jews, sought to profit from their misery. This was the case at Jedwabne whose Polish inhabitants perpetrated a massacre of the local Jews in July 1941 and then took over their houses. Greed was certainly a motivating factor, for all that the alibi of the Jews acting as KGB agents during the preceding Soviet occupation is always trotted out. It is a moot point whether this lethal Polish antisemitism was racial or religious in origin. Given the uniquely dominant role of the Church in Polish life, the attitude of Cardinal Hlond, instigator of the anti-Jewish boycott in the 1930s, must have been crucial. (Even Father Maximilian Kolbe, a canonised martyr of the Nazi occupation, expounded antisemitism before the war.)

As we turn our gaze from the realm of drama and beastliness that is Eastern Europe to ‘election-gripped’ Britain, we have difficulty in deciding whether the century-long decline in religion is to be welcomed or regretted. Whatever one’s view of that, there can be no doubt that race is now a live issue. This is a potentially threatening development, but maybe we can draw comfort from the fact that class consciousness – always a key factor in British life – sometimes counteracts race consciousness. Already a hundred years ago the intake into Harrow Public School was not uniformly white-skinned. One Harrovian possessor of a brown skin was the Brahmin – i.e. top-caste – Indian, Jawaharlal Nehru.

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