Holocaust analogies help no one

Holocaust comparisons create confusion and inaction when dealing with potential crimes against human

Last week, the European Union's Justice Commissioner, Vivane Reding, waded into the debate surrounding France's deportation of 8,000 of its Roma population.

Reding was rightly appalled by the situation and threatened France with legal action. She also said: "This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War."

At this point, the debate exploded. Although she had not explicitly mentioned it, the Holocaust suddenly became the yardstick by which to measure the horror of the Roma deportations.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's defenders then launched into action. "A plane ticket back to the European Union country of origin is not the same thing as death trains and the gas chambers," said France's Europe minister, Pierre Lellouche.

A state defended its campaign of violent deportation against an ethnic minority by arguing that the victims were not being murdered at the other end. What moral fortitude from the self-declared home of human rights!

The Auschwitz analogy

Rather than a debate on the few rights and numerous wrongs of deporting Roma, the controversy degenerated into a diplomatic mudslinging match, based on how the deportation of the Roma compares to what Jean Seaton calls the "model atrocity", namely the Holocaust committed against European Jews during the Second World War.

Amid the hyperbole, a simple fact is often missed: the Roma were victims of the Holocaust, too. O Baro Porrajmos, or "the great devouring", is the name given to the campaign waged by the Nazis to rid Europe of its "ethnically impure" gypsy population.

One the few commentators to pick up on this -- relatively bravely, judging by the anti-gypsy comments of his audience -- was Daniel Hannan, who quotes at length from Robertson Davies's The Rebel Angels:

The Jews, so cruelly used by the National Socialists in Germany, so bullied, tortured and tormented, starved and done to death in every way from the most sophisticated to the most brutal, have the small comfort of knowing that the civilised world feels for them; they have themselves declared that the world will never be allowed to forget their sufferings. But the Jews, for all their pride of ancestry, are a modern people in command of all the modern world holds, and so they know how to make their voices heard. The gypsies have no such arts, and the gypsies too were victims of the Nazi madness.

Somewhere between 500,000 and one million gypsies were deported and executed throughout the Second World War. In this light, Reding's comparison does not seem so rash: if Sarkozy had launched a campaign of deportation against Jewish immigrants, comparisons with the Holocaust would certainly not be deemed unsuitable.

The Roma and Sinti, alas, are the forgotten victims of the Holocaust. Quantitatively, their suffering pales in comparison to that of the Jews. As Günter Lewy and Elie Wiesl both point out, "not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims". To ignore their plight, however, is not just a dereliction of history but an insult to the current suffering of the Roma.

Bosnia's Belsen

Sadly, this is not the first time that Europe has squabbled over Holocaust analogies while preventable crimes are committed. In 1992, the Bosnian Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing ripped its way through northern Bosnia. That summer concentration camps were discovered by ITV and the Guardian's Ed Vulliamy in Omarska and Trnoplje.

A photo of the skeletal Fikret Alic behind barbed wire evoked the iconic images of the Holocaust and created hysteria in the world's media. That Bosnia's concentration camps were a unique horror was ignored. Rather than reporting on the abominations and crimes they found, the world's media focussed instead on whether or not Bosnian Serb concentration camps measured up to those of Nazi Germany.

As Vulliamy later wrote: "I was obliged to spend more time emphasising that Omarska was not Belsen or Auschwitz than detailing the abomination of what we had found."

For the media and politicians, however, concentration camps were Auschwitz or they were nothing. The Telegraph complained that the camps lacked the "scientific efficiency" of Nazi death camps. Camps revolved around "starvation, beatings, torture, and daily killings", according to the Guardian, but did not match the horrors found in Auschwitz or Belsen.

The "Belsen or bust" mentality that gripped European leaders and the media gave weight to the arguments of anti-interventionists and Bosnian Serb apologists. Bosnia was not another Holocaust, and was thus unworthy of intervention. The result of this failure to intervene was a bloody four-year civil war and genocide at Srebrenica.

Similar mistakes are being made again today. The deportation of Roma is by no means a second Holocaust, nor is the deportation of Roma likely to end with the execution of 8,000 men and boys as happened in Bosnia. The memory of the Holocaust, however, is being used as a shield to defend crimes against an ethnic minority; indeed, an ethnic minority targeted during the Holocaust!

Holocaust analogies help no one. Reding's statement -- though more justified than it initially appears -- simply gave ammunition to the defenders of what is at best an authoritarian attempt by Nicolas Sarkozy to sew up votes for the coming election and, at worst, a morally indefensible violation of human rights.

If the media and politicians stopped using the Holocaust as an index of evil, individual crimes could be analysed in their own context, rather than against an unreachable benchmark of evil.

Duncan Robinson also blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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