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.
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.