Extracts from the Mar 2013 Journal

Lessons for UKIP from Germany and Austria

Probably the most striking shift in the fortunes of British political parties recently has been the rise in support for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which now matches the Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls. UKIP also did well at the last set of parliamentary by-elections and should perform strongly at next year’s elections for the European Parliament. That said, UKIP has come nowhere near winning a by-election, as the Social Democrats and the Social Democrat/Liberal Alliance repeatedly did in the 1980s, enabling the Liberal Democrats, their successors, to break through to become a major political player. As for the European elections, which the British electorate traditionally uses to give the government of the day a good kicking, they are a notoriously poor indicator of a party’s likely performance at the next general election; one can in any case question the value to UKIP of success in elections to a parliament that it openly despises.
The key to success for UKIP and all other English-based parties is to win seats at Westminster, and there UKIP has so far failed and looks like continuing to fail, as it did at the general election of 2010. When Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP and its only high-profile candidate, stood against the Speaker of the House of Commons in 2010, he was easily defeated, even though the Speaker by convention does not campaign and might therefore be seen as the softest of targets. And that defeat occurred soon after UKIP’s strong showing at the European elections of 2009, when it scored 16.5 per cent of the vote, coming ahead of Labour and second only to the Conservatives.
UKIP shows every sign of becoming the party of protest, the ‘third party’ that picks up votes from those who are dissatisfied with the governing party of the day but cannot bring themselves to vote for the main opposition party. The Liberal Democrats learnt to play that role skilfully, presenting themselves as a centre party attractive to disillusioned voters from both Tory and Labour camps. The Social Democrat/Liberal Alliance took off in the 1980s, when the gulf between the right-wing policies of the Thatcher government and the left-wing course of the Labour Party under Michael Foot opened up an inviting gap in the centre of British politics that a third party could exploit. But since 2010 the Liberal Democrats have been in government themselves and can no longer appeal to those voters who would wish a plague on both the government and the Labour opposition.
UKIP has undoubtedly benefitted from the unpopularity of the present government, especially as Labour, the principal opposition party, has yet to rebuild its appeal to uncommitted voters after its defeat in 2010. But UKIP is plainly a party of the right, standing to the right of the Conservatives on key issues like immigration and education. An analysis of election results from Germany and Austria since 1945 demonstrates that a third party of the centre is better placed to gain parliamentary representation and political power than one from the right of the political spectrum. (Or indeed from the left: who remembers the success of the British Green Party at the European parliamentary elections of 1989, when it secured 15 per cent of the vote, far ahead of the Social and Liberal Democrats?) It is important to differentiate between right-leaning ‘third parties’ like UKIP and parties of the far right, like the Front National in France, Golden Dawn in Greece or the BNP in Britain. The latter are parties that are effectively excluded from government as they are not considered potential coalition partners by the democratic parties of both right and left.
In Germany, one of the abiding features of politics has been the presence of a centrist, liberal third party, the Free Democrats (FDP), in almost all the governments that have ruled West Germany since 1949 and the united Germany since 1990. This is largely due to Germany’s system of proportional representation, which has ensured that no party has gained a majority of seats in parliament and been able to govern without coalition partners, with the sole exception of the period 1957-61, when Konrad Adenauer’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, held an overall majority. This has given the FDP a crucial role in balancing between the two main parties, the CDU/CSU on the right and the Social Democrats (SPD) on the left. In 1969, when the FDP agreed to form a coalition with the SPD, the CDU/CSU had to relinquish its position as a governing party for the first time in the history of West Germany; conversely, when the FDP split with the SPD in 1982, it formed part of a new coalition with the CDU/CSU, as junior partner in Helmut Kohl’s government.
Only rarely have there been coalitions that have excluded the FDP. The prime examples are the periods 1966-69 and 2005-09 when a Grand Coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD held power. These were by their very nature temporary governments that ended at the next general election, as soon as one of the two big parties could form a coalition with the FDP, as Willy Brandt’s SPD did in 1969 and as Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU did in 2009. The great exception in German politics was the period 1998-2005, when Gerhard Schröder led a governing coalition of the SPD and the Greens, a purely left-wing government. But that government was hardly a model of socialist radicalism since its major achievement was arguably the institution of measures to reform the German economy, the Hartz reforms that contributed so notably to the renewal of German economic competitiveness.
In Germany, the parties that stand to the right of the CDU/CSU have been excluded from government. The NPD, in particular, often seen as neo-Nazi in sympathy, has been kept at the margin of German politics. The same is true of the left, if one counts Joschka Fischer’s Greens as moderates on the basis of their performance in government in 1998-2005. The great success among the German third parties has unquestionably been the FDP, operating from the centre and able to switch between potential coalition parties to its right or to its left.
In Austria, however, the course of politics since 1945 has differed from that in Germany in two important respects. Firstly, the two main parties, the Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP) on the right and the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ) on the left, drew on almost equal shares of electoral support in the early post-war decades. To avoid the ruinous conflict between their predecessors that had so disastrously destabilised Austria in the interwar period, the two governed together from 1947 until 1966 (and for periods subsequently) in a coalition that extended throughout Austrian public life, in a system known as the Proporz. The spoils of power were shared between the two major parties and ‘third parties’ were squeezed out. Secondly, however, the very closeness of the electoral battle between the ÖVP and the SPÖ, as it developed from the late 1940s, compelled both parties to compete for the votes of uncommitted voters, many of whom were not moderates or liberals but people suspected of pro-Nazi sympathies who had initially voted for the so-called ‘Independents’, the Verband der Unabhängigen.
Consequently, the ‘third parties’ that have influenced the government of Austria have often had a troubling component from the far right. The Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ), founded in 1956, was twice led by ex-SS men, most notably Friedrich Peter, party chairman from 1958-78. The Social Democrat Bruno Kreisky, the outstanding chancellor of post-war Austria and a Jew, notoriously developed friendly relations with Peter and the FPÖ, which supported Kreisky when he headed a minority government after the SPÖ’s success at the polls in 1970. With the election of a genuine liberal, Norbert Steger, as party chairman in 1980, the FPÖ seemed to be rejecting its right-wing past and to be transforming itself into a centrist ‘third party’.
But that process was put sharply into reverse when Steger was replaced in 1986 by Jörg Haider, who steered the party back onto a right-wing course. Haider was a charismatic figure whose appeal extended well beyond the traditional support base of the far right. He was that exceptional figure, the leader of a ‘third party’ from the right who led it to electoral success, albeit briefly. After his party’s spectacular success in the elections of 1999, it entered government alongside Wolfgang Schüssel’s ÖVP. But at the elections of 2002 the FPÖ lost almost two thirds of its vote and in 2005 it split, with Haider forming his own party, the BZÖ (Alliance for the Future of Austria); the BZÖ left government following its electoral defeat in 2006. Haider’s death in 2008 deprived the BZÖ of its principal electoral asset, condemning it to long-term decline, while the FPÖ, under Heinz-Christian Strache, remains too extreme to be a potential partner in a coalition government. All in all, a story that offers little hope to ‘third parties’ from the right.

Art notes (review)

The German-Jewish refugee artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) was shaped by Dadaism and influenced a generation of 20th-century European avant garde art, including conceptual and pop art.
He achieved this with a simplicity that was profound and organic. Everything could be used. From a spindle to a paper clipping, from a bus ticket to a cotton reel, from a film star poster to an Old Master portrait – all the detritus of life was as useful to him as paint itself. It was all part of a radical concept: Merz. In a new exhibition at Tate Britain, Schwitters in Britain (until 12 May), his collages, paintings and sculpture comprise everything. Given his history, his use of rubbish may reflect the fact that his own art was rubbished as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis.
In Germany before he fled to Norway in 1937, Schwitters created the Merzbau, a building he constructed in his own home but was forced to abandon. The Norwegian landscape influenced the abstract and naturalistic forms which he layered together to provide a visual and almost tactile experience.
But the Dadaist in him did not see things conventionally. A scrap of an Old Master clipping would be edged into the top half of his work: you’d have to squint to see it. So newspaper clippings become surfaces, string becomes brushstroke, and pencil stroke becomes line. A wire netting over the painting or pasted on grease paper becomes varnish and a glass flower poised on a wooden stem can make you smile. But Schwitters painted portraits too, including one of the noted painter and print-maker Fred Uhlman. I was captivated by Untitled: Lovely Portrait, whose pose suggests Rule Britannia.
On entering Britain in 1940 Schwitters was interned on the Isle of Man but the scarcity of raw materials there only fed his imagination. He tore up the lino floor to paint on and made sculpture from porridge. He created over 200 works during his 16 months in the camp before his release in November 1941, when he came to London.
The fragmentary nature of wartime city life prompted him to make collages from London bus and train tickets and even sweet papers, from which he ironically created Untitled (Quality Street).
And yet a deeper message persists: is it the statelessness of the refugee who gathers up the bits and pieces of life to make them work? In London Schwitters became a performance artist, producing his most famous work, Ursonate, at the Modern Art Gallery in December 1944. Critical acclaim followed but he failed to make ends meet in London. He turned to small, hand-held colourful sculptures made of stone, wood and bone, sometimes held together with plaster, wire or dried fruit. These small works challenged the separation between painting and sculpture.
In 1945 Schwitters moved to the Lake District, which evoked memories of Norway. Making collages from stamps and envelopes now expressed contact with distant friends. And finally he tried to complete what he had left unfinished in Germany - a Merz Barn installation with stones, twigs and a cartwheel rim. [link]

Eavesdropping on the enemy(review)

In her latest book, Dr Helen Fry describes the important contribution to winning the War made by a group of people who, because of the nature of their work, have remained virtually unknown. The ‘M Room’ (the ‘M’ stood for microphoned) was the code for a secret operation which employed up to 1,000 staff, including some 100 listeners engaged in eavesdropping on captured enemy soldiers, mainly senior officers and including 59 German generals.
It was necessary to employ listeners with an excellent knowledge of German, including colloquial terms, and with the ability to understand various local dialects. The listeners also needed to be familiar with recent changes and political events in Germany. For this reason Military Intelligence turned to Austrian and German refugees, many of whom had enrolled in the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps. The author points out the irony that, after vetting, the recruits had to sign the Official Secrets Act and were privy to much critical information yet had to wait several more years before obtaining British nationality! Obtaining information, which had been so highly secret during the War, involved trawling through around 100,000 documents in the National Archives as well as interviewing one of the only two known survivors of the surveillance teams. The fascinating stories resulting from this research suggest that the effort was well worthwhile.
A major part of the book deals with the German generals and other senior officers. Considering that these people were prisoners, they seem to have lived in reasonable comfort, with their own batmen and the freedom to wander round the grounds of the camp. This may have helped to make them relaxed and chat more freely with their fellow prisoners and thus provide material for their eavesdroppers. One of the important aspects arising from this material shows that not all the officers were ardent Nazis and that there was considerable friction between them with respect to their attitude to Hitler and the conduct of the War.
It was, however, not only from high-ranking officers that useful information was obtained: military personnel at all levels often spoke about new equipment and procedures, sometimes to impress their fellow prisoners with their knowledge. Key information obtained in this way included details about German work on the development of rockets and radar.
From the point of view of readers of this journal, probably the most relevant and interesting information relates to their knowledge of the Holocaust. The prisoners captured before 1942 and the Wannsee Conference may have been unaware of the full intentions of the Nazis but generals captured later had no such excuse. There are harrowing transcripts of discussions and arguments between officers, with some not believing Germans could carry out such atrocities and with others disapproving of them but using the excuse of ‘just carrying out orders’. Some of the material also referred to mass murders being carried out by Latvians and Lithuanians, perhaps in an effort to shift the blame. The effect of the revelations on the secret listeners is discussed by the author, but it is not hard to imagine how frightening it must have been for many who had left relatives behind in Germany or the occupied countries.
In this connection, it is shocking to learn that the evidence collected through listening to the prisoners was not available for use in the war-crime trials, including Nuremberg. Because of this, many self-confessed perpetrators were able to escape justice. Even more disturbing is that the information could perhaps have been used in some way during the War to stop the atrocities or at least to provide proof to the world of what was happening. It was apparently feared that acknowledging how the evidence was obtained could prejudice future use of this method.
Unfortunately there is relatively little in the book about the actual personnel carrying out the eavesdropping. The major exception to this is Fritz Lustig, whose fascinating story is interlinked with the setting up and development of the M Room. Initially, he was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ but was eventually allowed to join the Pioneer Corps. At first, his contribution to the war effort was as a cello player in the orchestra of the Entertainments Section, but in 1942 he was recruited into the intelligence services as a secret listener. The author also pays tribute to Colonel Kendrick of Military Intelligence who enabled so many Jewish refugees to play an active and vital role in the war effort. An interesting account of a little-known aspect of the War.

Vive la France? (review)

This exhibition, held last autumn at Paris’s Town Hall as part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Vel d'Hiv’ (Vélodrome d’Hiver) roundup, the mass arrest of French Jews in July 1942, was organised under the auspices of the mayor of Paris (admission free). It was timely in that the French have been slow in acknowledging their part in the Holocaust thanks largely to the belief, fostered by General de Gaulle, that all Frenchmen conducted themselves with rectitude and even heroism during the War and were not tainted by collaboration with the German occupiers.
I did not see the exhibition but French friends found it deeply moving and sent me the English catalogue, which gives a detailed description of the contents of the exhibition. It recounts the history of mass arrests by the French police, with tens of thousands, including many children, eventually sent to extermination camps following a cruel stay in the overcrowded Vel d'Hiv. In the notorious round-up of July 1942, almost 14,000 Jews were arrested, many of them children. More than half of the 11,400 children deported from France between 1942 and 1944 were Parisians. These stark figures are a reminder that the French police not only followed instructions from their German masters but frequently did so with alacrity.
The exhibition tells a tragic and moving story. Arrests began as early as August 1941, at the request of the Gestapo, followed by internment in the notorious Drancy camp in the suburbs of Paris. The first deportation to Auschwitz took place in March 1942. Hundreds of French Jews were arrested by the German authorities as a reprisal for attacks by members of the Resistance, followed by deportation. Pierre Laval, head of the government at that time, asked that children should be arrested alongside their parents, and this was done.
In the Vel d‘Hiv round-up, more than 12,000 Jews, including 4,000 children, almost all French, were assembled in the stadium in deplorable conditions that led to epidemics and some deaths. Some were sent to Drancy and others to the Loiret camps, where conditions were equally horrendous - gross overcrowding, poor hygiene, epidemics and starvation. Many children were separated from their parents and left to their own devices.
On the positive side, the exhibition also describes the many attempts to help and rescue some of the children. By November 1941 Jewish welfare organisations were officially closed down and a new Union Générale des Israelites de France, which ran children’s homes and clinics, was created under the auspices of the Vichy state. But many of the welfare organisations – Jewish, Christian and secular – continued to function clandestinely, creating a nationwide network for the rescue of children. Some children were smuggled into non-Jewish families in Paris and others were taken out of Paris with ‘carers’ paid to look after them. Funding came from a variety of sources, much of it from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and between 1941 and 1944 up to 2,000 Parisian children were thus saved. In France as a whole, some 10,000 children were saved thanks to the existence of the rescue networks. The majority of foster families did not attempt to convert the children but there were exceptions, such as the Sisters of the St Vincent de Paul Convent, who not only converted their charges but were reluctant to return them to their guardians at the end of the war.
So, once again, we have a picture of great cruelty on the part of the state and the police and the indifference of the majority of citizens, tempered by the brave and selfless actions of individuals and Catholic organisations who, by helping Jews, put themselves at considerable risk. A great many French Jews, probably the majority, survived the war. Vive la France after all?

Letter from Israel

The Theresienstadt Memorial Museum is situated in Israel’s verdant Jezreel Valley, in premises attached to Kibbutz Givat Chayim Ihud. Once or twice a year I receive the Museum newsletter, continuing the subscription taken out by my late father. For many years it appeared in stencil form on plain paper, making it easy to fold and stow in my handbag for reading while I waited for a bus or to see the doctor. In the last few years, however, it has been revamped and appears as a highly professional glossy magazine, replete with full-colour photos, making it much easier to read but far less easy to stuff into my handbag. Still, the information it contains is so rich and varied that I feel impelled to make the effort to study it and maintain my annual subscription. Although the Museum was recently accorded official recognition and a budget was allocated for its upkeep, the money has not actually been released, which hampers the day-to-day running of the site.
The journal itself is a treasure trove of information, revealing a plethora of activities and events associated with Theresienstadt. One of the salient projects initiated by the Museum is the annual conference on Music and Memory, held in conjunction with the Tel Aviv Academy of Music, celebrating the creative musical talents which abounded in the camp. In addition, several members of the Association of Former Inmates of Theresienstadt were provided with tickets and transportation enabling them to attend the stellar performance of Defiant Requiem given in Jerusalem last year.
Several pages of the journal are devoted to visits to the Museum by well-known and less well-known persons. Thus, one distinguished visitor was Stuart E. Eizenstat, former US Ambassador to the European Union and one of the sponsors of the Defiant Requiem project. Another was an American teenager, Jordan Seri, who came accompanied by her family. Jordan has devised an original way to raise money - she collects sea shells, paints them and sells them, donating all the proceeds to the Museum.
In addition, on Holocaust Day groups of IDF soldiers participate in a ceremony and tour the Museum. For some years now pupils from the Ort High School in the nearby Druze town of Daliat-al-Carmel have also attended this ceremony, with representatives from both groups, as well as Theresienstadt survivors, being among those lighting beacons.
The Museum also engages in an outreach programme and the journal contains a report of talks given by representatives of the Museum and the survivors’ association to IDF soldiers in their bases around the country. Leaders who are due to accompany school delegations to Poland are also given briefings.
The journal contains, in addition, an account of an exhibition of drawings by former prisoner Albin Glazer depicting sites in the camp as well as scenes from daily life. Another feature describes the exhibition of items commemorating the football ‘league’ that was instituted in the camp. This is currently on loan to the Theresienstadt Museum in the Czech Republic. In May last year, before the Czech national football team left to participate in the Euro 2012 tournament in Poland, its members were taken to the site of the camp to view the exhibition.
Finally, a project is under way, in conjunction with Yad Vashem, to scan all the thousands of documents - letters, articles, eye-witness accounts, pictures, etc - in the Theresienstadt Museum’s archive and put them online. This will mean closing the archive for a year, but the end result will surely be worthwhile, ensuring that the precious material will not be lost as a result of the ravages of time. [link]

Letters to the Editor

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