Gavin Barwell MP: The Holocaust teaches us what educated people are capable of doing in certain circumstances - and just how many people will ‘follow orders’
Gavin Barwell is Member of Parliament for Croydon Central. Follow Gavin on Twitter.
Each year, on the 27th January - the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Red Army – we mark Holocaust Memorial Day (tomorrow). It is an opportunity to remember the victims of this and subsequent genocides and to learn the appropriate lessons so that we can try to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Like many MPs, I've had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau with students from my constituency as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s amazing “Lessons from Auschwitz” project. And I’ve had the honour to meet Croydon resident and Holocaust survivor, Janina Fischler-Martinho, and to listen to her hold an audience of several hundred young people spellbound as she described what happened to her and her family.
There are some who question whether we should teach the next generation about what happened in Europe 70 years ago. Lord Baker of Dorking, who over a long and distinguished career has done so much to improve education in this country, has said:
“I would ban the study of Nazism from the history curriculum totally. I don’t really think that it does anything to learn more about Hitler and Nazism and the Holocaust. It doesn’t really make us favourably disposed to Germany for a start, present-day Germany... I think you study your own history first... I think children should leave a British school with some idea of the timeline in their minds - how it came from Roman Britain to Elizabeth II.”
Nor should study of the Holocaust colour our attitudes to present-day Germany. First, no country has done more to come to terms with its past misdeeds. Second, such a study would reveal that anti-Semitism was far from a solely German phenomenon. Take for example, Arminius Dew, a Foreign Office official who, commenting in September 1944 on pressure on the British Government in the light of increasing intelligence about the Holocaust to bomb the approaches to Auschwitz, wrote:
“In my opinion, a disproportionate amount of the time of the Office is wasted on dealing with these wailing Jews”.
Others argue that while we should teach young people about the Holocaust, it is not unique and it is therefore wrong to give it too much emphasis. It is certainly true that genocides occurred before the Holocaust and sadly they have occurred since in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur and elsewhere. The Holocaust is however the only example of a modern state focusing not just government institutions but its private sector and parts of civil society on the extermination on an industrial scale of particular groups of people. Parish churches and the Interior Ministry supplied birth records. The post office delivered the deportation and denaturalisation orders. Government transport officers arranged the trains for deportation to the camps. Pharmaceutical companies tested drugs on camp prisoners. Companies bid for the contracts to build the crematoria. Detailed lists of the victims were drawn up on IBM Germany’s punch card machines, producing meticulous records of genocide. As the historian Ian Kershaw has written, “The road to Auschwitz was built by hate but paved with indifference.” The Holocaust teaches us what educated people are capable of doing in certain circumstances and just how many people will ‘follow orders’. It has happened before and it can happen again.
To that end, it is important to understand not just what happened but why it happened. Nazi ideology was based on a pseudoscientific racism that saw Jews as a group locked in mortal combat with the Aryan race for world domination. However long their families had lived in Germany, as far as the Nazis were concerned Jews were aliens who could never be part of the community.
Such attitudes towards ethnic or religious minorities persist today around the world, including in the UK. Don't believe me? There are people who are happy to tell pollsters that non-white British citizens who were born in this country aren't British. And a significant minority of the electorate believes there will be a clash of civilisations between Muslims and native white Britons.
If we want to live in a strong, cohesive society, these attitudes must be challenged. There are extremists in every community, but the vast majority of Britain's black and minority are patriotic (indeed, research suggests they are more optimistic about Britain than those who were born here) and have exactly the same concerns - jobs, the cost of living, crime, good healthcare and good schools for their kids - as everyone else. Anyone who has friends from minority communities knows this. Prejudice is the preserve of the ignorant.
This fundamental truth was beautifully illustrated by Mo Farah, a British Muslim and now Olympic legend born in Somalia who, when asked if he would rather have run for Somalia, replied:
"Not at all mate. This is my country".
I particularly love his use of the word "mate" in response to this offensive question - quintessentially British.
This simple answer contains a profound truth: if he feels British, who are you to tell him otherwise? It is where we feel loyalty to that defines our nationality, not where we were born or our genetic heritage.
Holocaust Memorial Day gives us a chance to have this debate. This year’s theme is Communities Together: Build a Bridge. History teaches us where prejudice leads if left unchecked. We don't have to repeat it.