We can't escape from 1938
A shameful episode in world history still haunts us
My grandparents took in an Austrian boy in 1938. His name was Gottfried and he lived with them for a few months before moving in with relatives, after which he apparently went on to live to a ripe old age. I don’t know any of the details because my grandfather was long dead by the time I was born, my grandmother was quite elderly, and my dad never spoke about anything except cricket. Besides which, since all my family were journalists, even were I to ask them most of the facts would probably be inaccurate anyway
The story of the 10,000 Jewish children rescued in the Kindertransport is a tiny ray of light and humanity in a story that is otherwise unrelentingly bleak, more so for all the missed opportunities to do the right thing. Just five months before the child refugees began to arrive in Britain, representatives of the world’s declining number of civilised countries had met at the Évian conference to discuss the fate of Germany’s Jews. Despite talk and good intentions, no one could or would help them, with the exception of the Dominican Republic (and even their dictatorship did so for their own racist reasons). It’s sad what’s happening to the Jews, and Hitler is a terrible villain, but we have our own problems.
It was a shameful moment, made worse by the hostility with which some sections of the press regarded the prospects of Jewish refugees, and one that makes anyone pause to consider how history will regard their own behaviour. The vague lingering shadow of the late 1930s is why so many feel a visceral alarm about any dehumanising rhetoric regarding migrants, the most prominent recent example being Gary Lineker who spoke of ‘language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s’.
Bad Nazi analogies are never far away when two Englishmen are debating politics, but Lineker’s latest intervention seems to have spurred them to new levels; following the Home Secretary’s visit to Rwanda, many thought it would be cuttingly astute and clever to photoshop her onto images of Auschwitz to draw on the chilling historical comparisons between the Nazis and the Tory government.
I do try to understand what motivates political opponents, but in this case I really struggle to believe people actually engage in this debate in good faith. We live in a country with record immigration and record net migration, one where the leading roles of state are taken by members of racial minorities, including the Prime Minister, and in which 40,000 a year are now entering illegally, largely because they think they are more likely to be allowed to stay here than in neighbouring countries.
When people say that Britain feels like 1930s Germany, do they really mean it even in a very loose sense, or are they just signalling ‘Tories = bad’, or attracting attention, or do they genuinely know nothing about history? Do they think the Nazis just had a very strict immigration policy and that’s why the History Channel makes all those documentaries about them?
Perhaps this is all part of the collective anti-therapy discourse, where people make themselves unhappy by convincing their neurotic minds that other people’s opinions actually threaten them. There is nothing more threatening than Nazism, the cancer of politics, all the more so because so many of the ‘symptoms’ are also found in harmless ideologies with superficial similarities. The supposedly chilling ‘14 signs of fascism’ is a classic example of hypochondria applied to politics.
The Second World War is our modern origin story and Hitler our devil, the sturdy moral marker in an otherwise changing world. But one reason why people make the analogy is that, like catastrophising more generally, it works.
Nazism had a toxifying effect on conservative arguments more generally, being in Allan Bloom’s words the Right’s ‘ugly last gasp’, and it’s easy to draw superficial comparisons between the two ideologies. There are few areas of social policy where its legacy doesn’t have some tarnishing effect, to the extent that people have even enabled paedophilia to avoid its association, but none more so than migration. The transformation of Britain, France, the Netherlands and other western countries through immigration in the decades following the War would have been impossible without the taint of Nazism.
But as the Great Awokening has accelerated, and as progressives have become obsessed with ‘labelling’, so the tendency has grown. In 2016, when the sheer weight of numbers in the migrant crisis was putting unprecedented strain on services across Europe, and agitating public opinion, Amnesty International put out an advert in the New York Times calling on European leaders to take in more refugees, with images of families behind barbed wire and the phrase ‘Leaders of Europe, it’s not the polls you should worry about. It’s the history books.’ Germany had just received almost two million refugees from the Middle East, which is not exactly a policy with chilling echoes of Nazi Germany.