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Jun 2012 Journal

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British politicians misuse the Holocaust

Sometimes it almost seems as if the centre of gravity in current exchanges about anti-Semitism and Nazism has moved to the Middle East, allowing such sentiments in Britain to pass unchallenged. While heated accusations of anti-Semitism are regularly levelled at those who criticise Israeli policies towards the Arabs, provoking the equally contentious counter-argument that it is possible to be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic, some recent, thoroughly reprehensible actions and statements by British politicians have passed without attracting the condemnation they deserve.

The worst of these was the attendance of Aidan Burley, Conservative MP for Cannock Chase, at a stag party held on 3 December 2011 in a restaurant in the French Alpine resort of Val Thorens, where the bridegroom, Mark Fournier, chose to wear SS uniform. According to the Mail on Sunday of 22 December 2011, guests chanted the names of Hitler, Himmler and Eichmann. One of the guests was quoted as having raised a toast to the organiser of the party ‘and if we’re perfectly honest, to the thought process and ideology of the Third Reich’.

Readers with a strong stomach can view images of this deplorable incident on the internet, on MailOnline, where Burley can be seen alongside the SS-clad Fournier, grinning cheesily. Both men are Oxford graduates, professionals in their thirties, and quite unlike the uneducated young louts from whom such behaviour might be expected. On the contrary, to judge by the evidence on the internet, it looks as if Fournier and his cronies understood perfectly well what they were doing and saying.

The reaction of the Conservative Party has left much to be desired. When the scandal broke, David Cameron sacked Burley from his junior ministerial post as Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department of Transport and announced an investigation into the incident. This has yet to report, several months later, while Burley remains a backbench MP. One can reasonably assume that the Prime Minister has adopted the trusted tactic of using an investigation to kick an unwelcome issue into the long grass, hoping that the media will lose interest and that Burley’s resignation, which would force a by-election that the Tories could easily lose, can be avoided.

As a result, Burley continues to enjoy the Conservative whip, living to smirk another day and no doubt hoping to resume his ministerial career. In the 1950s, AJR Information reported that a man who had raised a Nazi flag on a building on Finchley Road had had to be protected by the police from angry passers-by. Now, it would appear that those participating in Nazi-styled events enjoy the protection of the Conservative Party. Speaking personally, I would not vote for a party which boasts an individual like Burley as one of its parliamentary representatives. I would regard it as a betrayal of my murdered relatives to do so.

This is not to suggest that a right-wing Tory like Burley genuinely harbours Nazi sympathies, even if he enjoys participating in tasteless pranks in Nazi uniform. If there is any ideological underpinning to this kind of escapade, it is to be found instead in the knee-jerk hostility to Europeans widespread on the Tory right. By dressing as he did, Mark Fournier evidently aimed to provoke the French: ‘We wanted to see how a Nazi uniform in the middle of France would go down,’ he is reported as saying. ‘The answer is not that well at all.’ His intention would seem to have been to taunt the French with their defeat in 1940 and the subsequent years of occupation – conveniently forgetting that the British Expeditionary Force retreated just as fast as the French in face of the Nazi onslaught and was only saved from destruction by escaping across the Channel, protected by a largely French rearguard.

The image of France regularly promoted by the right-wing media in Britain is based on this historically truncated view, which focuses entirely on the French surrender in 1940, in apparent ignorance of the long record of French military prowess, not least the mass heroism that the French forces displayed in repelling the initial German thrust into France in summer 1914. The same media peddle an equally distorted image of Germany, seen almost exclusively through the lens of the Nazi period and ignoring the thorough-going re-education of the German people in democracy and anti-militarism over six decades.

That very welcome development does not prevent papers like the Daily Express (Jewish-owned, alas) from resorting routinely to the stereotype of the jackbooted Nazi in its reporting of German affairs – the kind of national stereotyping familiar from the conservative-nationalist press in Germany either side of the First World War. Branding all Germans as Nazis, actual or potential, is of course highly offensive, as people like Fournier well appreciate. Why would any upright British citizen, they seek to suggest, want to have anything to do with nations whose historical record consists primarily in supporting Nazism (the Germans) or in kowtowing to it in defeat (the French)? We British may have come down in the world since 1945, but we were on the right side in the war, weren’t we?

A similar sense of inflamed nationalism inspired by unthinking anti-European feeling was exhibited in the House of Lords by Lord Willoughby de Broke (UKIP). Speaking in a debate on the European Union on 16 February 2012, the peer did not scruple to compare the EU’s policy on Greece to the Holocaust. Characteristically describing the economic policy as German – those jackbooted Nazis lording it over the Continent again – Lord Willoughby made the remarkable statement that ‘austerity macht frei seems to be the remedy prescribed by the Germans’ to Greece. Readers may well recoil in shock and disgust from this casual abuse of the notorious phrase ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (‘work sets you free’), which was inscribed above the gates to Auschwitz. The reference was plainly deliberate: blithely insensitive to the distress likely to be caused to Holocaust survivors and their descendants by his grossly inappropriate invocation of Auschwitz, the noble lord proceeded, when challenged, to repeat the comparison.

This is a clear case of the trivialisation of the Holocaust, and deeply reprehensible. By likening what happened at Auschwitz - the murder of at least a million defenceless, innocent human beings, mostly Jews - to the attempt by the EU and the International Monetary Fund to resolve Greece’s financial crisis by a policy of debt reduction, Lord Willoughby provided a textbook case of Holocaust relativisation, and one that deserves much sharper refutation than it has received. For if the Nazi genocide was no worse than some historical commonplace like an austerity programme, then why, one might ask, do Jews get so worked up about it?

Lord Willoughby’s outburst, apart from reinforcing the case for the abolition of the House of Lords in its current form, shows that some on the British right are prepared to disregard the aura of respect that normally surrounds the Holocaust by dragging iconic sites like Auschwitz down into the hurly-burly of political slanging matches and degrading them into terms of abuse aimed at ‘Europe’, their favoured target. There are European countries where such violations of the sanctity of the Holocaust would not be tolerated, but apparently Britain is no longer one of them.

Anthony Grenville

next article:Erich Heller – a centenary tribute