Why being a Historian (or an active YEMer) is difficult..

YEM UK President Chris Powers on History, the EU, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, wondering why people can’t just learn from the past?

When I applied to study History at university, I used what I thought was a quote deeply personal to me at that time: “Those who do not study the past are condemned to repeat it.” Attributed to George Santayana and a million other wannabes in the interim, this quote has been used in countless applications to study History. I should know, I’ve glanced over many a personal statement to help others go study the greatest subject at some of the greatest universities. I find myself wondering how many people took this quote seriously to heart when they wrote it. For me, it went back to the very reason I chose History above any other subject. Note that at school I was weakest in that subject and strongest in the Sciences. I was fortunate enough to have a succession of inspirational teachers who not only righted my moral compass, but made me aggressively defend against anyone going against basic principles of freedom, equality, and just respecting others. There was year 10 and 11 where I learned about the Holocaust in all its horror, there was Year 12 and 13 where I learned just how not-unique Hitler was. I studied Mao, I studied Stalin, I began to read the news and cast my net further. I caught sight of Rwanda, I saw Israel-Palestine. At Cambridge, I looked at Twentieth Century Europe one final time, I looked at the carnage across our continent in the first half of the century, the terrible consequences of forces such as nationalism in the Balkans of the 1990s, but I also saw the seeds of something better in the twin processes of post-war recovery and European Union.

It is interesting that people react in the most overexaggerated way when you dare make a comparison with the Third Reich, like nothing could be that evil again and to make such a comparison is just being dramatic. Studying History is more than just a true-to-life version of a Disney movie where good triumphs over evil in the end. That’s not how real life works. Yes Hitler had to use force, coercion and every lever he had to hand to put himself and his friends in control, but don’t forget how many Germans voted for him. More importantly, don’t forget the apathy, or the lack of knowledge, or both about everything that followed. There may not be the deaths of millions of Eastern Europeans in the name of Economics, Nationalism, or anti-Communism taking place right now, but surely anyone can see the seeds of destruction all around once more.

First you have an economic downturn and the green shoots of recovery before 1933. All the Western world’s media has called the Great Recession the worst economic crisis since 1929. That’s bad enough in itself but look at the response and look at the political consequences. Countries have begun to look in on themselves, to try and exclude outsiders. UKIP in the UK, Golden Dawn in Greece, The National Front in France are all symptoms of this problem. But the mainstream parties too, they’re contributing to this. The UK for example is a country built on immigration, yet look at the way Cameron and May talk about migrants. The whole discussion is about control and reduction, not about welcoming, settling, and generating prosperity. We have fragile growth yet nothing has been done to right the wrongs of massive inequality. Housing bubbles continue to inflate, wages continue to be depressed, cuts are being made to our support structures. This is the opposite of the Great Britain that won the Second World War. Look at how countries have treated the Roma where families are broken up and people are just dismissed as criminals or undesirables. Hungary, Greece, Ireland, France, the UK, we’re all as bad as each other here.

But let’s turn to the current issue that’s prompted me to write something in anger, the conflict in Israel and Palestine that has been going on for far too long. Obviously I have sympathy for the Palestinian cause, you need only look at maps of the last 60 years to see their state being absorbed into its Israeli neighbour. The flattening of homes, the killing of kids, it’s very well-documented. I also have sympathy for Israeli citizens, I would not like to have rockets fired at my loved ones either. Yet what is anybody actually doing about this? Firstly you’d think the Israeli government would have a better memory of the past and not treat others as they themselves had been treated by us Europeans in the past. You’d think that Western countries after Yugoslavia would have committed to the idea of preventing ethnic cleansing from taking place, yet barely a finger is lifted in enforcing a ceasefire between the two parties.

The bigger problem though is that this conflict has been bound up in so much more than geopolitics, there’s too much emotion there. The Middle East is a toxic blend of nationalism and religious animosity. Sure we can point the finger and say Zionism caused tension, Western Imperialism created dividing lines, and sure these arguments are valid, but they don’t stop the killing taking place now and will take you no further along the road to peace. Israel was allegedly a secular state, yet look at its flag. How is a Muslim ever supposed to believe a flag with the Star of David emblazoned across the middle is a secular state? I struggle to believe it, more so with what is currently taking place. At the same time, in a region of dictators who repress women in the name of a common deity and a common book and give backing to movements such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda whilst in turn are receiving backing from Western governments in return for oil, how can a Jew be expected to repress the desire to defend themselves? The whole atmosphere is poison and nothing substantial is being done to create peace there, only maintain the current division.

This is bad enough on its own but the thing I cannot abide by is its return to Europe. The Jews and Muslims of France, Britain and every other European state do not equate to Israeli and Palestinian citizens, and even if they did, what right does that give us to attack a Muslim in the street, to heckle at synagogues, or run around shouting abuse in the streets? Yet too many of us are behaving as though they do and that any or all of this is ok.  It’s one thing to be reminded yet again of the discrimination against Muslims here, or with people of a different skin colour (who obviously must be alien or inferior to us right?), it’s entirely another to wake up to news of anti-Semitic attacks at levels last seen in 1938. This should be our wakeup call because it tallies too much with what has happened here before.

British people, whenever Germany is mentioned, cannot resist making a joke about the Nazis regardless of how pig-ignorant and unnecessary such a joke is. They can’t resist glorifying in our national moment when the island stood alone to defend peace and liberty etc etc. Yet why are British people not speaking out against manifestations of the Nazis right here on our doorstep? Why does the paramilitary Britain First have more likes on Facebook than the three establishment parties put together? Why did so many people disengage from elections right at the moment they’re needed to fight against the dangerous exclusionary talk of members of UKIP who think Putin’s a godsend and that gay people cause floods?

To all the apathetic out there, being as you are does not bring peace. Desiring and trying to ensure peace is the most difficult thing to do, your course of action is the most simple. Burying your head in the sand does not promote peace, it lets the strong rule the weak and lets the weak suffer without hope. Desmond Tutu’s quote comes to mind: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” You want peace, be prepared to fight for it and be constantly vigilant. At the same time we must not be insensitive. There is no good vs evil in politics and in Israel-Palestine, there is suffering and fear on both sides. We must be careful not to conflate a conflict there which nobody wants to see happen, and import it onto Europe’s religious minorities. We must embrace our shared spaces, embrace our commonalities and our common institutions which bring us peace, and we must all call as loudly as we can for everyone to reacquaint themselves with the sentiment of those who survived the Second World War, ‘never again.’

People ask me why I care about the EU so much, why I put so much of myselfMustItBeThisWay into the Young European Movement, this is why. Because rather than the Second World War and the Nazi Empire being the worst thing to make comparisons to, it is the best. If you make what it symbolised the epitome of everything you hate, then you will work to make the world better. When you look to the cooperation following WWII and its resulting peace and prosperity
in Western Europe as your model, you create something great just as something great had been created before. Europe as a whole, (but most notably and painful for me the UK,) is sliding towards the very hatred we have worked so hard to eliminate. Yet it needn’t be this way. More people need to speak up. It doesn’t matter who you are, how well-spoken, well-written or well-educated. It only matters that you are well-intentioned. It doesn’t matter if you believe like me that European integration is what has made a war here more difficult, it matters that you believe in the principle that there should not be conflict and violence here in the first place whether between states, groups of individuals, or individuals. 100 years after the outbreak of the First World War, let’s not begin in 2014 the slide towards violence that started in 1914. Never Again.

Chris Powers

Any views expressed in this piece are purely my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Young European Movement more generally.