Daily Archives: April 30, 2009


Holocaust Denial and Holocaust Tourism

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.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/gordon-brown/5237879/Gordon-Brown-pledges-funds-for-Holocaust-memorial-during-tour-of-Auschwitz.html

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 muder 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.

View with comments

Warning: This Post Contains Sexism

The ridiculous panic that the media is trying to induce over flu, reminded me of this passage from Murder in Samarkand, p 217:

“We became the chief contact point for the EBRD permanent staff in London. of whom some scores of Brits were coming out for the Conference. This was also the height of the panic over the SARS epidemic.

…One female member of EBRD staff emailed me from London:

“Should I wear a face mask in the conference hall?”

“I don’t know,” I typed back, “How ugly are you?”. “

On Saturday I was invited to address Stop The War’s annual conference. This has shrunk down to what I might call a hard left core, with the other groups that used to be a prominent part of the coalition almost completely evaporated. The most obvious sign of this was the near complete absence of Muslims. But the christians, pacifists, environmentalists and others had mostly gone too. It is probably true that the Hard Left are the ones I am least at home with.

My speech centred on the recent fake bomb scare in the North West, and the relief it had temporarily provided the government from terrible headlines over the death of Ian Tomlinson and over Jacqui Smith’s expense claims. I threw in the following line because a speech needs jokes, and because I like to tease the left sometimes:

“You know, I make no claim to being politically correct. So I can say that, if I were married to Jacqui Smith, I would probably use a lot of porn too.”

Most of the hall laughed, but the feminists got most upset and started to interject. Points of order followed. When I had finished, a speaker from the floor said that my speech was such an important denunciation of the attack on civil liberties in the UK, that it should be copied to DVD and given out on tube stations. Then someone stood up and demanded that I withdraw my comments on Jacqui Smith.

I stayed and listened to an interesting talk on Iraq by Sami Ramidani, but when I left I was harangued on the stairs by a young woman who made Jacqui Smith look positively alluring. She told me I was a sexist disgrace. She seemed very proud of being the Chair of Glasgow Stop the War. I expect it too has a rapidly declining membership.

Anyway, the Stop the War Coalition has now put up videos of its conference keynote speakers on its website, but not including me. I shall take it I am not wanted in future.

Issues of gender equality arose at the Dundee University Court meeting on Monday. The University is in discussion to open a satellite campus in a Gulf state. It is potentially both interesting and a major source of revenue. However it seems that lectures would have to be segregated. There were two views on University Court. Some felt that we should respect local culture, and that the important thing was that women had education of equal quality. Others felt that segregation was so far removed from our values as a university that it was not something with which we should associate.

I feel strongly we shouldn’t do it. The issues are interesting, and cut across feminism. I expect that a few of the feminists who harangued at me at Stop the War would be quite happy with women being kept away from men. My thinking is not particularly feminist. I think mingling with all types of people is much more important to the university experience than anything a dull old lecturer will tell you. And I also pointed out to Court that, if a woman insisted on her right to attend a “Male” lecture, we could be in the position of enforcing segregation.

I have never been a fan of cultural relativism, so the argument of respecting local values cuts little ice with me. But I realise other will have a different view.

UPDATE

A view on the Stop The War controversy by someone else who was there comes on the Daily Maybe

http://http://jimjay.blogspot.com/2009/04/saturdays-stop-war-coaltiion-conference.html

I have no idea why they treat HOPI so badly. Do they get Iranian money?

On the “sexism” issue more generally, I added this comment in the debate below – I thought it might stir people’s brain cells a bit more:

Actually, I am against all forms of disadvantage on grounds of race, gender etc.

Where I differ is that I view sexuality (as opposed to gender) as simply another attribute and as open to use and to humour as any other.

As a teen I shovelled coal on a coalyard at weekends. In the course of the day men might easily lift and carry fifty tons of coal on their back, in hundredweight lots. I do not view that as any less exploitation of their bodies than the work a prostitute does. And I don’t view clerical drudgery as essentially different.

View with comments