I was involved in the organisation of the 50th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz, while First Secretary at the British Embassy in Warsaw. The 50th did not receive anything like the media coverage given to the 70th, of which more later.
Senior British visitors to Poland invariably included a concentration camp on their itinerary, and from escorting people around I visited camps a great deal more often than I would have wished. I found the experience appalling and desolate. The first I ever saw was Majdanek and I recall that I just had to sit helpless and shivering for some time. One thing the experience left me with – including meeting survivors and both Polish and German eye-witnesses, and seeing the architects’ plans for camps – was a contempt for those who claim the whole thing did not happen, or was an accident, or was small scale.
It in no way diminishes the genocidal attack on the Jews to remember that a vast number of Poles also died in the camps, as well as gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled and disparate political prisoners. I tried sometimes to diminish the horror I felt at involvement with the camps, with attempts at humour. I was present at a meeting listing the guests of honour; the President of Lithuania was included. I whispered that he was coming to represent the camp guards. That was offensive, and I apologise. But there is a real problem that to this day Eastern Europe – including Poland itself – has not come to terms with historical truth about collaboration with anti-Jewish genocide and other attacks on minorities. I recommend this website, which tackles these issues very honestly and is well worth a lengthy browse.
It requires bigotry not to be able to understand why nationalist resistance movements against Russian occupation became allied with Germany during World War II. That would be reprehensible only in the same sense that allied collaboration with Stalin might be reprehensible, but for the added factor of enthusiastic collaboration with genocidal and master race programmes and fascist ideology. That is what makes the glorification of Eastern European nationalist figures from this period generally inappropriate.
I fear however that the real reason that the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz received so much more coverage than the 50th is a media desire to reinforce the narrative of the War on Terror and Western policy in the Middle East by invoking the spectre of massive anti-Semitism. There have been isolated but deplorable, apparently anti-Semitic attacks of a small-scale terrorist nature in France and Belgium in recent years. But to conflate this into stories of a wave of popular anti-Semitism in Europe is a nonsense. Maureen Lipman’s claim that she may have to leave the UK is not just silly but disingenuous. I do not believe she feels in personal danger of attack – there is absolutely no reason why she should – she is rather making a political point.
There are two factors which could exacerbate anti-Semitism at present. One is the appalling behaviour of Israel and its indefensible action in continually seizing Palestinian land and using its military superiority to dominate and occasionally massacre Palestinians. Regrettably, there are a very small minority of people who wrongly blame Jews in general for the actions of Israel.
The second factor is of course the terrible economic hardship wrought across the whole world by irresponsible banking practices, and the fact that the bankers luxury lifestyles were maintained at the cost of everybody else. There are still a tiny minority of people stuck in the medieval mindset associating banking with the Jewish community. There is in fact a very plausible argument that if any “race” has a disproportionate influence on the development and character of international banking since the mid eighteenth century, it is the Scots! But those who see banking as a racial issue are nutters.
You could construct an argument from these factors, and you could identify that anti-Semitic people do exist. They certainly do. They dominate the very small category of people who get banned even from this free speech blog. But are their opinions intellectually respectable, promoted in the mainstream or able to be expressed openly without fear of either social or legal consequences? No, no and no. Anti-semites are fortunately a tiny and strange minority. I might add that in my numerous and frequent social contacts in the British Muslim community, I have never encountered anti-Semitism (unlike, say, Poland and Russia where I encountered casual anti-Semitism quite frequently).
The final point, is of course, the conflation of anti-zionism with anti-Semitism. That seems to me the fundamental design of the media campaign exaggerating the scale of anti-Semitism at the moment. Yes, we must always remember the terrible warnings from history and it is right to remember those who died in the concentration camps, Jewish, Polish, Romany, Gay, Communist or any other category. But we should be aware of those who wish to manipulate the powerful emotions of horror thus evoked, for present objectives of the powerful.