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.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt