Gordon Brown had the kind of Auschwitz photo-call this week that I have always found in dubious taste. I say that with consideration because I have attended and even set up a lot of Auschwitz photo-calls, as I will explain.
Two days before Brown’s photocall, Gerd Honsik, an Austrian author, had been jailed for five years for holocaust denial.
In 1994 I was studying Polish language and culture at the Catholic University of Lublin. With a small group of other students I went one day to the Majdanek concentration camp. There is much less to see than at Auschwitz, but Majdanek has a bleak starkness.
When we first arrived, there were only the eight of us and our guide in the place. I was overcome by the horror of it and withdrew to sit by myself on a bank and think. Then a couple of tourist buses drew up. One was full of American seniors and one of French children, but both were the same in terms of happy chatter and clicking of lenses. It just felt deeply wrong.
After I had learnt some Polish and started work in the British Embassy in Warsaw, I found that my duties frequently involved escorting official visitors to the camps, particularly but not always Auschwitz. When they were politicians, I also had to oversee the organisation of press-calls for them. That never felt right. Nor did familiarity ever make me feel any better about walking around these places. I seemed to pick up on the evil in them – I know that sounds stupid.
I was involved in the events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the camps. One of the things that did, was to bring me into contact with survivors, and also with eye witnesses to the liberation, from a variety of countries. In this and in other ways I received first hand information on the camps. I understood that the Jews were only the largest of the groups subject to mass murder – over a million Poles, other Slavs, gypsies, gays, communists.
There was (and remains) a peculiar tension over the running of Auschwitz, with frequent arguments over the emphasis of commemoration between its Polish and Jewish victims.
The German administration at Auschwitz was based in Oswiecim castle. When the camp was liberated, many of the surviving gypsies were settled locally by the Communist authorities. I once had a meeting with the seven Romany Kings of Poland, in their headquarters which is actually inside Oswiecim castle. I was meeting them because of Home Office fears that, once Poland joined the EU, the UK would be inundated with Polish gypsies.
The layers of irony were extraordinary – that the meeting was in that place, and that it was motivated (in my view) by continuing racial prejudice in the UK Home Office, though obviously of a less vicious kind. I learnt a lot from them about the problems of gypsies, and was able to give them some realistic information on the UK.
I have met people who were in the death camps, and people who liberated them. I view people who deny that the industrialised murder happened as cranky, and I don’t think disputes over precise numbers are of much importance.
But neither do I think holocaust denial should be a crime. It should be met with ridicule and social sanction, not with prison. From reports Honsik seems a nasty bit of work, whose holocaust denial is motivated by Nazi sympathy. But he is given a spurious glamour by his imprisonment, and more attention than he deserves.
Politicians like Brown should avoid being seen to milk the holocaust. Mass murder is not a photo-op. If people want to go and pay their respects, they should do so quietly, with reverence and without publicity.
There is nothing to be gained by Holocaust tourism if we view it as a crime perpetrated by evil cartoon Nazis unconnected to ourselves. Did Brown reflect that he too had the blood of hundreds of thousands on his hands for his part of the attack on Iraq? Did he think about the widespread policy of torture in which the UK and US are complicit?
No. He was too busy thinking about his photo-call.