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.

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Leader: The angry middle

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern.

Two months after the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, it remains conventional wisdom that the referendum result was largely a revolt by the so-called left behind. Yet this is not the full picture. Many of the 52 per cent who voted Leave were relatively prosperous and well educated, yet still angry and determined to deliver a shock to the political system. We should ask ourselves why the English middle class, for so long presumed to be placid and risk-averse, was prepared to gamble on Brexit.

Populism has long appealed to those excluded from political systems, or from a share in prosperity. In recent years, however, its appeal has broadened to young graduates and those on above-average incomes who also feel that they have not benefited from globalisation. The sense of middle-class victimhood has become a major strand in Western politics.

In the United States, middle-class anger has powered support for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The former drew his activist base mostly from young liberals. And while Mr Trump’s success in the Republican primaries was often attributed to a working-class insurrection against “the elites”, exit poll data showed that the median yearly income of a Trump voter was $72,000, compared with a national average of $56,000. (For supporters of Hillary Clinton, the figure was roughly $61,000.) It is not the have-nots who have powered Mr Trump’s rise, but the have-a-bits.

In the UK, similar forces can be seen in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, research shows that three-quarters of Labour Party members are from the top social grades, known as ABC1. About 57 per cent have a degree.

Mr Sanders, Mr Trump and Mr Corbyn have very different policies, ideologies and strategies, but they are united by an ability to tap into middle-class dissatisfaction with the present order. Some of that anger flows from politicians’ failure to convey the ways in which society has improved in recent years, or to speak truthfully to electorates. In the UK and much of the West, there have been huge gains – life expectancy has risen, absolute poverty has decreased, teenage pregnancy has fallen to a record low, crime rates have fallen, and huge strides have been made in curbing gender, sexual and racial discrimination. Yet we hear too little of these successes.

Perhaps that is why so many who are doing comparatively well seem the most keen to upset the status quo. For instance, pensioners voted strongly to leave the EU and are the demographic from which Ukip attracts most support. Yet the over-65s are enjoying an era of unprecedented growth in their real incomes. Since 2010, the basic state pension has risen by over four times the increase in average earnings. 

Among young people, much of their anger is directed towards tuition fees and the iniquities of the housing market. Yet, by definition, tuition fees are paid only by those who go into higher education – and these people receive a “graduate bonus” for the rest of their lives. Half of school-leavers do not attend university and, in a globalised world, it is their wages that are most likely to be undercut by immigration.

However, we should not be complacent about the concerns of the “angry middle”. The resentment exploited by Donald Trump is the result of 40 years of stagnant median wages in the United States. In Japan and Germany, median wages have not increased in the past two decades. In the UK, meanwhile, the median income for those aged 31-59 is no greater than it was in 2007, and those aged 22-30 are 7 per cent worse off, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

To compound the problem, the wealthy keep getting wealthier. In 1980, American CEOs were paid 42 times the wage of the average worker. They are now paid 400 times as much. In the UK, the share of household income going to the top 1 per cent has more than doubled since 1979. Because of our hyperconnected, globalised media culture, we see more of the super-rich, fuelling feelings of resentment.

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern, with voters oscillating between populists of the left and the right. The political centre is hollowing out. Rather than pander to the populists, we must do more to quell the politics of victimhood by addressing the root of this corrosive sense of grievance: entrenched inequality. 

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser