Germany seems to have learnt from its history, but have UK ministers?

This blogpost is not about comparing the unprecedented and horrific persecution of Jewish people and the many other victims of the nazis and of fascism. This is about asking whether major decision-makers of today have learnt the lessons from history and from decisions taken by their ministerial and political predecessors.

The book above was co-authored by Dorothy Frances Buxton – the younger sister of Eglantyne Jebb, who between them founded Save the Children. It was published in 1938.

When I re-read the transcripts of Hansard in the 1930s, (you can explore them here) some of the phrases sound dreadfully familiar to some of the statements today.

I started writing a blogpost a few days ago about the invasion of Ukraine – something that is teaching the European public (including the UK) far more than anyone could have anticipated. I still haven’t finished it. I’m feeling a mix of emotions that I’m still trying to get my head around in what really is a 24/7 emergency situation for those both caught up in it, and responding to it.

Lily Tomson, formerly of this parish whom some of you will know from her Cambridge Hub days, now lives in Berlin and has been reporting what has been going on there.

The devastation – reminiscent of the all-too-often overlooked wars in the Former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s (the backdrop to my early teenage years) is just as prominent – if not more so because it is beamed into our smartphones without the filter that the world of four terrestrial TV channels and no internet provided.

At the same time, we are reminded that the decision to unleash this war was not one taken by ordinary people.

In a globalised world where many people who are citizens of, and who grew up in one country spent time studying/working in a different country, the impact of such foreign policy catastrophes (wars being a major symptom/example of the failure of politics) can feel much more hard-hitting when people in our communities have loved ones who are affected directly.

The war has also exposed the reporting and cultural biases of the Western media – amongst other institutions.

““This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades,” said CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata on Sunday. “This is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully too — city, one where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.””

LA Times, 02 March 2022

He and other reporters were called out by Trevor Noah on The Daily Show.

Furthermore, we saw disturbing treatment of citizens from African and Asian countries – many of them students at Ukrainian universities, at the borders. So much so that this was raised at the United Nations General Assembly.

“The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines expressed dismay that people of African descent are being singled out unfairly as the refugee crisis unfolds, calling for equal, fair treatment of all peoples.” 

Echoing that call, South Africa’s representative urged European countries to take steps to resolve the current situation whereby some African nationals and people of African descent at the borders of Ukraine are not allowed to cross and move to safety.”

United National – Press Release GA 12406 – 01 March 2022.
A new generation of online political publicity?

We’re seeing a new generation of “online publicity materials” (for want of another term) from a number of official military accounts

…which compared with the video produced by NATO, looks almost benign.

Above – note the use of music in both videos, and the build up/crescendo to a very definitive ending.

The NATO video in particular is a very slick piece of publicity. But there is also a very fine line between a morale-raising video to reassure a nervous public – especially of NATO nations in Eastern Europe, and glorifying war…as the theme tune to Team America World Police in 2004 lampooned. Only others have put alternative graphics to. The lyrics are not safe for work.

But war is not a game.

“What have UK ministers got to say for themselves?”

There are various social media accounts you can read for a more detailed take than I can give, such as former UK diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall, to former UK minister and ex Governor of Basra Rory Stewart.

Mr Stewart’s call is one of a number made by various politicians in the face of what seems to be (from the UK’s side at least) a massive lack of contingency planning. Sound familiar?

Then there is Caroline Nokes MP – the Chair of the Women & Equalities Select Committee, with this call.

You can read her screengrabbed article from her post here.

This was robustly contested by Professor David Andress, Professor of Modern History at the University of Portsmouth.

As political pressure continues to increase, UK ministers continue to make concessions while at the same time claiming the UK is ‘leading from the front’ or is a ‘world leader in…’ something. Lawyer Peter Stefanovic, in association with the Communication Workers’ Union has been producing regular critiques of ministerial statements, fact-checking and myth-busting them on a daily basis.

Above – this is a textbook example of one of the types of social media productions that the larger trade unions should be financially supporting the production of: Short, sharp, hard-hitting and myth-busting content that is easily shared.

In the meantime The Home Office has been shamed into making another concession.

Sponsoring refugees? Again a lesson from the 1930s: Hard as various charities and campaign groups tried, they simply were not able to raise the revenue and get through the paperwork needed to meet the demand.

“Who were the organisations?”

The Home Secretary at the time, Sir Samuel Hoare, gave a list in response to a question from Capt Shaw MP on 02 Dec 1938. It is as below.

The following organisations are members of the Co-ordinating Committee for Refugees:

  1. Catholic Committee for Refugees from Germany.
  2. Church of England Committee for Non-Aryan Christians.
  3. German Jewish Aid Committee.
  4. Inter-Aid Committee for Children coming from Germany.
  5. International Student Service.
  6. Society of Friends (Germany Emergency and Austria Committees).
  7. Society for the Protection of Science and Learning.
  8. Trades Union Congress and Labour Party.
  9. International Hebrew Christian Alliance.
  10. Christian Council for Refugees from Germany.
  11. British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia.

Both socialists and religious groups were prominent in their campaigns.

What transcripts from history tell us – the UK Parliament

Furthermore, we can compare which politicians said what in debates in the Houses of Commons & the Lords, now that historical Hansard is being transcribed and published:

…amongst many, many others.

Then just as now, urgency was at the forefront of campaigners’ concerns.

“Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there are estimated to be about 5,000 of these people who would like to leave Czechoslovakia and Sudeten Germany, and who will be in grave danger unless they are let in shortly?”

Miss Eleanor Rathbone MP – 08 December 1938, House of Commons.

And let’s be clear: more than a few of the comments made by MPs about refugees and Jewish people trying to escape persecution, are absolutely excruciating – whether today or in the 1930s.

The extensive debate in the Lords on 14 December 1938 – not long after Kristallnacht, is particularly grim. But it is an important reminder of how things escalated – and how politicians panicked and floundered in the face of such a situation. The debate also tells us about attempts similar to what Rory Stewart suggested.

“There was that new exodus which called forth the Evian Conference of July. The object of that Conference was, in the first place, the orderly evacuation of the refugees, or the persons who were becoming refugees at that time, from Germany and Austria, and also transit and settlement in other countries.”

Lord Marley – House of Lords 14 Dec 1938

Tragically the Evian Conference resulted in hardly any change in the policies of the major powers – as the US Holocaust Museum describes here.

“Is history telling us that we have been here before?”

I know what my response to that question is. And we can see the responses of many others who are taking campaigning action locally in response to that question. Furthermore, we can see that the institutional mechanisms within the North Atlantic Treaty enabled the more militarily-exposed newer members of the military alliance to bring together a critical mass of countries to respond collectively in the way previous alliances failed.

It was following the Article 4 meeting (see DW from Germany in English here – worth diversifying your media sources rather than just sticking to UK/US outlets) that we saw a number of military deployments from member states that previously had little history of combined operations – such as this example of Portugal and Romania.

Furthermore, we are seeing the unprecedented fast-moving non-military actions – in particular sanctions, freezing of financial assets, and the seizure/confiscation of ‘status symbols’ from those seen to be both the most wealthiest and most closely connected to those responsible for the invasion. Why it’s taking so long for the UK to follow the example of our European allies, I’ll leave it for you to decide. This from the Chairman of the House of Commons Standards Committee.

If you need any further reading on whether ministers from the UK have learnt the lessons from their predecessors, have a look through the sample of free-to-access pages from the British Newspaper Archive entries from the 1930s.

And come to your own conclusion.

%d bloggers like this: