I felt sick to the pit of my stomach all day on 24 June 2016, the day after the UK voted to leave the European Union. My ancestral memory thrust me straight back into the 1930s, and I was compelled to visit my new German neighbours, whom I had not yet met, to introduce myself, and to apologise for what had happened. This may seem counter-intuitive given my background.
My mother was a Viennese Jew. In 1938 she escaped to England, having been expelled from Vienna University, where she was studying medicine, following the German annexation of Austria. Her mother, sister and uncle were deported to Auschwitz, where they perished. In total she lost eight members of her immediate family.
After the Brexit vote, it seemed to me that we have learned nothing from the past. There was, and is, in the UK a climate of division, of rising racism and xenophobia, of death threats to members of parliament, and of hostility towards anyone perceived as foreign. All factors that echo those present during the rise of Nazism.
I have met people who cite the Holocaust as a reason that they voted Leave, and heard even more who say they fear the UK being dominated by Germany. These views are based on a misleading interpretation of European history; one much encouraged by leading Brexiteers, who frequently portray the European Union in general – and Germany in particular – as the enemy.
In perpetuating this, the proponents of Brexit conveniently forget an important fact. The European Economic Community was built on the ashes of both World Wars, and one of its main founding purposes was to create lasting peace.
The first half of the twentieth century witnessed the most brutal conflagration and loss of life in human history. Following 16 million deaths during World War One, up to 85 million people died during World War Two, a culmination of centuries of conflict.
The nations of Europe emerged from this unspeakable episode in a state of shock and trauma, followed by years of amnesia and denial. It eventually became apparent that this never-ending conflict and slaughter could not continue. In 1957, as a step towards long-lasting peace, the Treaty of Rome was signed by six European countries.
In order for this renewed Europe to have any chance of success, it was necessary for many countries, especially Germany, to come to terms with their past. For several years following the end of the war, there was a resounding silence on these matters. But the trial of former Nazi SS officer, Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust, in 1961 and other events pricked the German collective conscience, and led the German government to embark on an ambitious programme of Holocaust education. Called Vergangenheitsbewältigung, meaning “struggle to overcome the negatives of the past”, the school curriculum today ensures that all German children learn about different aspects of Nazism throughout their education from the age of nine.
Perhaps the most important lesson here is that atrocities are committed by ideologies, not nations. All too often, “Nazi” and “Germany” are seen as synonymous. Yet history has shown that there are individuals and groups in every nation capable of committing atrocities, and Britain is no exception – consider, for example, the era of colonialism. We, too, need to acknowledge our past mistakes and learn from them.
It was undoubtedly the memory of her country’s past behaviour that led Angela Merkel to open the doors, in 2015, to hundreds of thousands of Syrian migrants, a moment that, I confess, brought tears to my eyes. Sadly, the response to this generous act has not always been positive, and Germany has certainly not rid itself of its fascist elements (viz the AfD and the Pegida). Nevertheless, the result of this rigorous self-scrutiny is that Germany is unrecognisable today from the 1940s.
Seven decades on, a multiplicity of complex issues has resulted, once again, in the mass displacement and migration of people on a level not seen since the Second World War, and the concomitant rise of right-wing populism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia across Europe and the globe.
The irony of the frequent Brexiteer claim that we are being ruled by Europe is that Britain has not been ruled or occupied by another country for many centuries, but has, on the contrary, itself ruled and colonised others on a massive scale. EU law is agreed by consensus; Empire was imposed.
For me, the European project, and our part in it, is not just about trade, but about upholding peace and security, maintaining friendly relations with our neighbours, and preserving human rights and dignity for all. Outside the EU, we are a tiny and lonely voice in a big and troubled world.
Susan Soyinka is the daughter of an Austrian Jewish refugee and Holocaust survivor.