Leo Baeck 2


Sep 2004 Journal

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Auto-suggested victimhood (editorial)

In 1928 Hitler drew deafening cheers from his listeners with the subsequently oft-repeated mantra 'Jahrzehnte lang war Deutschland der brutalsten Undterdrückung preisgegeben' (For decades Germany was subjected to the most brutal oppression). He made this utterance precisely nine years after the so-called diktat of Versailles, which, though harsh, did not compare in severity with the treaty of Brest-Litovsk Germany had previously imposed on Russia.

Nothing has greater potential for lashing an audience into a frenzy than the suggestion that they have been victims of history. Slobodan Milosevic never tired of reminding his audiences of an event that occurred 600 years earlier: the Turkish victory over the Serbs at the Battlefield of the Blackbirds in 1389. In a similar spirit, the Irish still invoke 'the curse of Cromwell' fully three and a half centuries after the massacre of Drogheda.

Victimhood takes different forms. At Drogheda all inhabitants were killed, whereas the Turks 'contented themselves' with wiping out the Serb nobility on the battlefield. While some victimhood is genuine, many forms, especially in the present climate of opinion, are auto-suggested. The elections after the enlargement of the EU showed that there were groups in every one of the 25 member states convinced that their own country was being fleeced for someone else's benefit. Paradoxically, this sense of injury was particularly deep-seated among the East European newcomers to the Union who had been queuing for years to get in.

But even in Britain, which allegedly has the most sophisticated electorate in Europe, the impression that Brussels exists merely to damage the national interest to the advantage of sleazy Eurocrats is widespread.

Curiously enough, myths of victimhood have gained as much currently among the Left as among the Right in British politics. The Green Party's campaign against genetically modified crops portrayed British consumers as victims of the machinations of big firms like Monsanto, to which the government is in hock. The Greens, likewise, charge ministers with subservience to the road lobby and the fast food industry.

The far-left Respect Party concocted two disparate victimisation myths. On the one hand, they depicted the working class victims of exploitative bosses and a government bent on privatisation; on the other, they projected themselves as defenders of the Muslim community from officially fostered Islamophobia.

But at least in the UK both the extreme right and left-wing parties failed to secure representation in the European Parliament. This contrasts with the situation in recent accession states like the Czech Republic and Poland. In the former the Communists made a partial comeback; Poland, with an abysmally low voter turnout, has sent a block of anti-abortionist ultra-Catholics and unabashed Jew-baiters like pig farmer Leppert to Strasbourg.

In the case of the Czechs and Poles we have two countries, which, having disappeared from the map of Europe for centuries, were reborn in 1918 and two decades later endured, in rapid succession, war, Nazi occupation, dismemberment, mass executions and, finally, forcible Sovietisation.

Cannot their citizens see that the cumulative unification of Europe has rendered any repetition of that doleful scenario virtually impossible in future? And cannot the electorate, particularly in Poland (whose numerous peasants still use more horse-drawn ploughs than tractors) comprehend that only further integration into a common market will remove the inertia as well as the customs barriers, not to mention the farming subsidies in consumer countries, that stand in the way of progress?

Six million Poles - half of them Jews - were killed under Nazi occupation. How can their heirs fail to welcome a new transcontinental order which makes their powerful - and previously ever-threatening - neighbours to the West stress their European rather than their German identity?

Despite a host of such questions, to which there seems to be no logical answer, the numerical evidence points to underlying steady progress for European integration. First there were six, then nine, then fifteen - and now we are twenty-five!

This positive reading of an infinitely complicated situation can be further substantiated by what appears to be negative evidence. It is this: if one were to tot up all the newly elected Euro MPs who go to Brussels intending to sabotage the EU, it would amount to a far from negligible total. But they cannot collaborate effectively - as evidenced by the separatist Belgian Flemish Party's disdain for the French nationalism of Le Pen.

So, although the recent Europe-wide elections engendered ample cause for alarm - not least among Jews in Poland, France and the UK (where the BNP polled 800,000 votes) - we need not yet assume that the EU project is running into the buffers.

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