Archive for July, 2015

Silly season story – those ‘Nazi’ salutes.

July 20, 2015

After the story about the Sun front page story about a home movie showing the future Queen, her mother and her uncle doing raised-arm salutes, all sorts of implications have been read into it. I’m quite sceptical; with scientific training, I can understand all sorts of complicated theories without necessarily believing them to be true.

I started from the vague idea that such a salute derived from the Roman Empire and then was revived in Italy by Mussolini. Even that is doubtful. The earliest documented example is apparently an eighteenth century painting of a Roman scene by the French artist JL David. From that it began to be incorporated into other art works such as later paintings, right down to films and TV programmes in our time.

Mussolini wasn’t the first Italian nationalist to use it, either. There are earlier examples, but not much earlier.

We have views of history that are overlaid by later events. Our views now are not how people saw it at the time. Though we now see Hitler as the dominant partner in what was to become the Axis, we forget that Mussolini was the senior partner for about 10 years from the early 1920s, when he seized power within the Italian monarchy. So the Nazis adopting the Fascist salute was a natural development. The period between the wars had examples of ‘Strong Man’ regimes in many European countries, so that, in that spectrum Hitler and Mussolini did not seem as outlandish as we recognise them to be now. In the same period, there were a number of examples of extreme left revolutions savagely put down. Right-wing authoritarians played on the fears of those disruptions to the hilt and portrayed themselves as bringers of order, albeit ones who stabilised by depriving people of human rights. There are books and articles written at the time that embody what now seems a dangerous toleration towards such movements. John Buchan’s novel ‘House of the Four Winds’ describes a coup that is backed by a rather fascistic movement against a communist government. P.G. Wodehouse created, in Sir Roderick Spode, a comical and incompetent fascist leader; his attitude served him ill when he himself fell into the hands of the Nazis. (John Buchan, by the way, devoted his last years, as Governor-General of Canada, to strengthening relations between the UK, USA and Canada in the vital run-up to World War II.)

There is a parallel story of the raised-arm salute. The so-called Bellamy salute was widely used in the USA from 1892 to 1942 to salute the flag and the national anthem, especially in schools. Twelve months into the war with the Nazis, it became an embarrassment and was replaced by the hand-over-the-heart salute that we see many presidents using in our era.

So what was the lead-up to that piece of film? It could have been something like:

What is that funny salute that the new government in Germany is insisting on? Let’s see if we can do it.

OR

How do American schoolchildren salute the flag?

OR

It may have been a matter of role-play. As a grandfather, I know how small children indulge in role play, and they may insist on their adult companions joining in too. Sometimes they are quite happy to take the role of people or animals that they fear, such as scary monsters.

My three explanations may not be true, but I think their just as likely as more sinister explanations I’ve heard.

We must not make bricks without straw about the events of 1933. And we must remember that all three of the people in the film learnt a lot since, especially in the succeeding ten years. In that they were typical of their contemporaries.

Altogether, a stereotypical silly season story, manipulating emotions and selling newspapers, but of little consequence.

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In memoriam Charles Kennedy

July 10, 2015

At the Social Liberal Forum conference, in the Amnesty HQ in Shoreditch on Saturday 4th July, there was an act of Remembrance for Charles Kennedy.

It had been decided that a minutes silence was too glum an act for the outgoing, empathetic and sociable Charles, so we were asked, instead, to applaud for a minute. Very appropriate.

Every Liberal Democrat leader has his own special gifts. Perhaps we don’t appreciate all their qualities when they are in office, but seeing them in action later is often a moment of recognition of what made them so special.

Charles had sympathy, quick wit and judgement of what was right. He clearly cared for people. He was unique and he established a rapport with many inside and outside the party.

I haven’t seen my favourite Kennedy moment quoted anywhere else. It was his first conference speech after he was elected as one of five candidates. Following LibDem principles, we were asked to put the figures 1 to 5 opposite the candidates; this allows 2nd and lower preference votes from eliminated candidates to be transferred, so that the eventual winner has definitely more votes for him or her than the runner-up. (Even in the present 2-candidate race between Tim Farron and Norman Lamb, we vote using 1 and 2)

Charles started his speech:

‘I would like to thank all of you who voted for me as Leader, whether as First Preference, or Second Preference or Third….”

I think that was as far as he got, because he was drowned out by the reaction of audience applause and laughter.

It showed modesty, a connection with his audience and a wish to reconcile with those who had stood against him. Before that, we had liked and admired him, but then we loved him.

Sir Nicholas Winton and the Kindertransport

July 5, 2015

It was very sad to hear this week, that Sir Nicholas Winton had died. He was 106.LiverpoolStStatue

Until 1938 he seemed to be just another City of London businessman with interests in Prague.

For those not in the know, although he did more good work, that’s what he was for another half century. However, his memorial is what he did in 1938-9 as the Nazis tightened their noose around Czechoslovakia and Austria. He foresaw what was barely imaginable to most ordinary people that this would result, over the years that followed, in deadly peril for all those Jews who lived in Nazi controlled territory.

It is hard for us, with hindsight, to imagine that Hitler was seen as a fairly normal national leader. So people who warned of the danger to Jews were thought to be exaggerating. Winton used his contacts to approach the British Prime Minister, Chamberlain, and eventually got agreement for this country to accept Jewish children, initially from Czechoslovakia. He organised the trains that brought them to the Hook and thence to Harwich and Liverpool St. He also arranged that families in this country would accept them and care from them. The process went on right up to the start of World War II and was extended to Austria and Poland.

Notice however, that the immigration concession was for children. It did not extend to their parents. Some of the parents, underestimating the Nazi threat, may not have wished to leave. But parents, who could have left, were not automatically accepted as refugees. Many of those who remained were ensnared by the Nazi machine and ended up in death camps. A few were lucky and escaped in other ways or managed to evade their hunters.

Although the death camps were reported at the time of their liberation, interest in them waned in the decades post-World War II. In Communist Czechoslovakia, the official narrative was to emphasize the Communist anti-Fascist struggle and to snopake out the efforts from the West. This even went as far as imprisoning returning Czech airmen who had served with the RAF.

After 1990 Czech exiles could try to reconnect with their families and Czechs in their homeland could discover what the west had done for them. Everyone could hear for the first time what the modest Nicholas Winton had done. He received several British and Czech honours, including being knighted by the Queen in 2002 and receiving the Czech Order of the White Lion in 2014. There are statues of him at stations in Maidenhead and Prague. There are memorials to the Kindertransport children at stations in Gdansk, Vienna and Prague, and at Liverpool St. in London.

The picture shows the statue in Liverpool St near the ticket office. It shows two waiting children and a suitcase, as if they had just arrived from Prague in 1938. The inscription on the plinth says, in Czech ‘for the child’. For some months last year, one of the children was missing; I never found out why, but was cheered when they were reunited.

After my son met his Czech girlfriend in 1997, I started to talk to people about Czech history. One of the things that came out of this was that I found two women whose fathers had come to England on the Kindertransport – you might call them granddaughters of the Kindertransport. One of them was someone I already knew in Harold Wood. The second was a doctor I met at a wedding we attended in Bristol.

(Kindertransport is German for children transport. Many Czech Jews were among those Czechs who spoke German as their first language; you can imagine the difficulty this could cause for some of the refugee children in the UK after 1938.)