The attacks in Norway weren't an attack on us all

We should not turn Norway's shattered buildings and shrouded bodies into a party political broadcast

Horror, yes. Shock, yes. But also relief. Relief that we had no need for caveats. Calls for historic perspective or dialogue, or remembrance of the fallen innocents on the other side. The massacre in Norway could be condemned unequivocally.

Anders Behring Breivik is the right's Angel of Death. His act of barbarity perpetrated with brutal political clarity. A Labour prime minister, Labour government and a Labour youth camp his targets.

But as the slaughter was unfolding we still hadn't encountered that cold, blue eyed stare. Initial reports indicated an attack in response to Norway's interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Labour MP Tom Harris, responding, predicted on Twitter that "we'll still have the apologists for terrorism saying it was caused by "foreign policy" or by "disrespect to the Prophet."

Harris was wrong about the terrorists' identity and motives. But the apologists rushed forward nontheless. "You have a better chance of a wet floor killing you than an Islamist", tweeted Dr Eoin Clarke, founder of GEER, the new Gender, Environment, Equality and Race think-tank. "Hamas have a mandate better than the Tories", was a follow up intervention. That's the same Hamas that launched a rocket attack on Israeli schoolchildren in April. I tried to find Dr Clarke's condemnation of that attack, but couldn't.

On Utoya people were scrambling for their lives. Across the UK elements of the left were scrambling for their Twitter feeds. "Solidarity", was a favoured response to cold blooded murder. In reply to the initial bombing, author Owen Jones took the opportunity to point out that "working class Norwegians have just been slaughtered". Of the dead and dying of the Norwegian middle and upper classes there was no word. The BBC was condemned for describing Utoya island as a "summer camp". The attack was a "political crime". Not to report it as such was to "diminish" the young Labour members targeted.

By morning, the death toll had risen to 90. And empathy turned to appropriation. We had witnessed a "political act". It would be "madness not to draw political conclusions considering politics". Political points "should be made". The victims had been "killed for their politics by a political activist". It was important to defend "people's right to use the language of solidarity when a right-wing extremist targeted young socialists".

I was in the hall at Labour conference when the relative of one of the victims of the Dunblane massacre spoke of her campaign to introduce a total ban on handguns. It was silent, save for the sound of grown men and women crying. There was no political connection. Or motive to the crime. We cried anyway.

That night I was telephoned by a friend of mine who has no interest in politics. That moment had been shown on the television news. "I didn't think your lot were like that", he said.

He didn't mean he thought we were heartless monsters. Just that we had too often let our politics obscure our humanity.

It's important to put some of the responses to the Norwegian attacks in perspective. Many of those responding on Twitter are themselves still young. And you cannot fully appreciate the horror of a child's murder until you have children of your own.

But there is something wrong when someone's initial reaction to the scenes from Oslo is to reach for an expression of political solidarity, rather than one of basic sympathy. And we have been here before. The shooter of Democratic Senator Gabrielle Giffords and nineteen bystanders hadn't even been charged before some on the left were rushing to place the blame squarely at the door of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.

This isn't just a matter of poor taste. There are massive issues raised by the events in Norway. If we feel a need to tackle the radicalization of Muslim youth then we clearly have to examine the influences that set Oslo's Timothy McVeigh on his own murderous rampage. If we wish to focus on the threats posed by domestic terrorism then we clearly have to ensure our efforts and resources are focused across all our communities. And we need to examine which "preachers of hate" had Anders Behring Breivik's ear.

But none of this will be achieved by turning Norway's shattered buildings and shrouded bodies into a party political broadcast. The dignity of Jens Stoltenberg and his pledge to fight back with "more democracy and more humanity" stands on its own. It doesn't require cheap comparisons with David Cameron or George W Bush.

Nor will it be addressed by retreating into moral relativism. Far right terrorists; barbarians. Palestinian terrorists; freedom fighters. Irish Republican and Loyalist terrorists; folk heroes. Al-Qaeda terrorists; by-products of US neo-conservatism.

The attacks in Norway weren't an attack on us all. They were an attack on 80 children who went on a camping trip and never came home. Let us mourn for them. But please, let's not grasp for the tragedy and the horror, and try to claim it as our own.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Polish government is seeking $1trn in war reparations from Germany

“Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

The “Warsaw Uprising Run”, held each summer to remember the 1944 insurrection against Nazi occupation that left as many as 200,000 civilians dead, is no ordinary fun run. Besides negotiating a five- or ten-kilometre course, the thousands of participants must contend with Nazi checkpoints, clouds of smoke and a soundtrack of bombs and machine-gun fire.

“People can’t seem to see that this is not a normal way of commemorating a tragedy,” says Beata Tomczyk, 25, who had signed up for this year’s race but withdrew after learning that she would have to run to the sound of shooting and experience “the feeling of being an insurgent”. “We need to commemorate war without making it banal, without making it fun,” she tells me.

The race’s organisers are not the only ones causing offence by focusing on Poland’s difficult past. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has revived the issue of German reparations for crimes committed in Poland during the Second World War.

The move followed large street protests against the government’s divisive proposals for legal reform. The plans also added to the country’s diplomatic isolation in Europe. The EU warned that Poland’s funding could be cut in response to the government’s attempts to erode the rule of law and its refusal to honour commitments to take in refugees under an EU quota system. In response, the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, argued that Poland’s funding from the EU is not linked to respect for common European standards. Instead, he claimed in July, it was tied to Poland’s wartime suffering.

PiS lawmakers then asked parliament to analyse the feasibility of a claim for reparations from Germany. “We are talking here about huge sums,” said Kaczynski, who co-founded the right-wing party in 2001, “and also about the fact that Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

Soon after the government announced that it was considering reopening the reparations issue, posters appeared in Warsaw in support of the initiative. “GERMANS murdered millions of Poles and destroyed Poland! GERMANS, you have to pay for that!” read one.

Reparationen machen frei” read another poster promoted by the right-wing television station Telewizja Republika, in a grotesque parody of the “Work sets you free” sign above the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Poland’s interior minister said in early September that the reparations claim could total $1trn.

The legal dispute over reparations goes back to a decision by the postwar Polish People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite, to follow the USSR in waiving its rights to German reparations in 1953. Reparations agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference were paid directly to the Soviet Union.

Advocates of the cause argue that the 1953 decision was illegitimate and that Poland has never given up its claim. Germany strongly disputes this, saying that Polish governments have repeatedly confirmed the 1953 deal.

Since the reparations announcement, Angela Merkel has signalled that she won’t be cowed by the claim and has continued to criticise the Polish government for its policies. “However much I want to have very good relations with Poland… we cannot simply hold our tongues and not say anything for the sake of peace and quiet,” she told a press conference in August.

The PiS’s willingness to broach a subject widely regarded as taboo across Europe has angered many Poles who regard the achievements of a decades-long process of Polish-German reconciliation as sacrosanct. A recent survey showed that a majority of Poles oppose the reparations claim.

“This policy is not only primitive and unwise but also deeply immoral,” says Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “To blame and punish the second and third generations of Germans for atrocities committed over 70 years ago threatens what should be our ultimate goal – that of peace and reconciliation between nations.”

Karolina Zbytniewska, a journalist and member of a Polish-German network of young professionals, says: “It’s true that Poland didn’t receive proper compensation, but times have changed and Germany has changed, and that matters a lot more than money.”

Government propaganda about contemporary Germany is curiously contradictory. On one hand, Germany is portrayed as a threat because it hasn’t changed enough – Kaczynski has implied that Merkel was brought to power by the Stasi and that Germany may be planning to reclaim part of western Poland. On the other, Germany is presented as dangerous because it has changed too much, into an exporter of liberal values that could flood Poland with transsexuals and Muslim migrants.

The government’s supporters also denounce the “pro-German” sentiments of Poland’s liberal opposition, whose members are portrayed as German agents of influence. This paranoia came to a head during protests in cities across Poland in July, when tens of thousands took to the streets to oppose a government attempt to pass legislation giving the ruling party control over judicial appointments and the power to dismiss the country’s supreme court judges. PiS leaders accused foreign-owned – and, in particular, German-owned – media outlets of stirring unrest as part of a wider campaign to deny the Polish people their sovereignty.

But if the government’s fears of a German-engineered putsch are exaggerated, so are fears that its German-bashing will poison the attitudes of Poles towards their neighbours. Too many have visited, lived and worked there for anyone beyond a cranky minority to believe that Merkel’s Germany is the Third Reich in disguise.

“I have German friends, and I don’t think of them as the grandchildren of Nazis or people in Warsaw in 1944. They are not responsible for it on a personal level,” says the runner Beata Tomczyk. 

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem