Previous Section Index Home Page

31 Jan 2008 : Column 507

We do not do so, officially, probably because of pressure from Turkey, where it remains a criminal offence to talk about the Armenians, despite the well documented historical facts of what occurred, including in this House’s contemporary records. I was pleased that the Armenian ambassador came to speak to our local commemoration in Barnet last Sunday, which was the biggest outside the national commemoration. It is a disgrace that on last Sunday’s Holocaust memorial day, the Armenian genocide memorial in Wales was desecrated, and I urge hon. Members to sign early-day motion 797 to express their condemnation of that.

I am not putting the case for the Armenian genocide to become the new start date, as it were, for Holocaust memorial day. Holocaust memorial day is about the holocaust, that defining event of the 20th century, and subsequent genocides. However, it is incumbent on us, if we are serious about examining the issues of genocide, to recognise officially what happened to the Armenians, as has been done in France, Germany and elsewhere.

I ask myself whether Holocaust memorial day, despite the original controversies, has served the purpose and objectives that we then set for it. Many more people are aware of what happened and why. The discussions and the debate are healthy in exploring the issues and making it far less likely that the holocaust would ever happen again in Europe. The very controversy over Holocaust memorial day, whether through the Muslims or over the Armenians, helps to raise those very important issues. On the fundamental question of whether it has prevented genocide, the answer is, regrettably, no. One has only to look at Darfur to see that. We still have a long way to go to achieve the humanity that Holocaust memorial day aims to achieve.

1.57 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to make a short contribution to this debate. I am not Jewish. I am making this contribution as a consequence of once having been an historian. About 30 years ago, I was asked to write a book on the Waffen SS, the military wing of the SS. That involved a considerable amount of research, at the centre of which was the aim of trying to understand the racial motivation. It is frequently sidelined in many histories of the Nazi party and of Nazi Germany, but is the core element of the holocaust, which the national socialist state eventually referred to as the “final solution”—it meant just that. Many people suffered in the second world war at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborator—national groups such as the Poles and the Greeks; political parties, such as the communists, social democrats and Christian democrats; resisters; and members of the Special Operations Executive—but if one seriously wanted to get killed, one was Jewish. One was at the bottom of the pit. In a concentration camp someone might just have survived in any other category, but it was almost impossible for a Jewish person to do so. We saw that such camps became industrial complexes.

Wearing my historian’s hat, I want to mention four or five points that remain relevant to us today, not least as democratic politicians. The right hon. Member for
31 Jan 2008 : Column 508
Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) touched on my first point. Amazingly, we still live in an age of holocaust denial, although the evidence about what happened is overwhelming. I am talking not only about the physical remains, the contemporary sources and the war crime trials, but, not least, the scholarship. It ranges from some of the earlier scholars such as Raul Hilberg, who wrote “The Destruction of the European Jews”, to the more recent, outstanding and, in many ways, depressing work of Saul Friedl√§nder, who has managed to pull together so much. The scholarship completely and utterly refutes what has been written by people such as David Irving.

The victims were Jews of all classes, backgrounds, ages and nationalities—assimilated and non-assimilated. They were, on the whole, innocent people. They were killed because of their race, not because of their politics, their religion or their social behaviour. That was what absolutely and totally motivated the perpetrators. We hear a great deal about functionaries of one kind or another, but there is no doubt that Hitler and the leading Nazis believed that there was a world Jewish conspiracy. They wound up the German war effort and made that policy its centre.

The sad thing is that without hundreds of thousands of people, not just in Germany but elsewhere in Europe—civil servants, soldiers, policemen, lawyers, doctors, academics, scientists and industrialists—it could not have happened. And, on the whole, those people were not reluctant functionaries. Then there were the collaborators, the European Nazis and anti-Semites. Again, the efficient removal of Jews from many countries would not have been achieved without the highly efficient civil servants and police in Holland, Vichy France and elsewhere.

Then we have the bystanders—the public, the neighbours, the democratic political parties, the Churches and, of course, the allies and the neutrals. I have often wondered what we would have done in the circumstances. I look at how many of us would behave at the prospect of our name appearing in the News of the World, if it were to e-mail us threatening to put us in one of its columns— [ Interruption. ] I am not making a flippant point: it was literally life and death for many Jewish people in the 1930s. If their neighbours helped them, they risked death too, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) said. Many people passed by on the other side.

Then there were the resisters—individuals and groups, from many nations and motivated by moral repugnance, neighbourly behaviour, resistance to the Nazis and courage. Many of them were ambivalent. The life of Oskar Schindler, made famous by the film, is an obvious example.

Whom do we usually remember? We remember the victims and the perpetrators, but we politicians in a democratic Parliament should take note of the collaborators and the bystanders. There was no inevitability to the final solution and the holocaust. It was incremental, and incremental in a way that could happen again. It is not enough that good men and women do nothing.

31 Jan 2008 : Column 509
2.3 pm

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I wish to pay tribute to the Smith brothers of north Nottinghamshire who have been crucial in the running and advancement of Holocaust memorial day over the years. They run the Beth Shalom holocaust centre in north Nottinghamshire, which every school, especially in the north of England, should aspire to visit as part of its educational programme.

I also wish to pay tribute to Lord Janner of Braunstone, who chairs the Holocaust Educational Trust. Among his many other major works on the issue, he has taken on the task of marking mass graves in the Baltic states, and I have had the privilege of assisting with that recently. It is a salutary lesson in history and in current events, because not every country in Europe—never mind in the world—marks Holocaust memorial day. Indeed, not every country is involved in advances in education on the holocaust. Many choose to opt out.

In Latvia, where mass graves are being marked and the work of Lord Janner is soon to be completed, the best-selling book this Christmas was by Andris Grutups, the co-founder of, and lawyer for, the ruling party of Latvia. He is a Member of the European Parliament and a historian. His book is an attempt to rewrite history in relation to the holocaust. His basic theory is best described as, “The Jews had it coming, because they were all communists.” He suggests that a balancing of history is required. Of course, Grutups—who is, let us not forget, a political leader—has a track record. He has published books on the blood libel and on the Dreyfus case, which were also from a strange historical perspective—not unique, but one which would not be shared by the vast majority of historians or, indeed, any reasonable person.

On 22 January, in Tallinn, Estonia, five MEPs from five different countries met to launch a group called Common Europe—Common History. It has the same theme—the need for an equal evaluation of history. It is just a traditional form of prejudice, rewritten in a modern context. In essence, it is trying to equate communism and Judaism as one conspiracy and rewrite history from a nationalist point of view. Those are elected MEPs.

I hope that the Minister and his Department will consider how we can make progress on these issues in the European Union. One good way to mark the huge success of Holocaust memorial day in Britain this year would be to convene a Council of Ministers meeting to consider anti-Semitism today in the European Union and how it should be tackled in all member states. That would begin to tease out some of the prejudices that exist.

My final proposal is in relation to the United Nations and its infamous so-called anti-racism conference in Durban. Under the chairmanship of Libya, it is now proposed to hold a Durban II. The first conference broke up because of issues of anti-Semitism. I suggest to the Minister that he should either copy the example of the Canadians, who have already announced that they will not participate in Durban II or—perhaps more constructively—suggest that if there is to be a major UN conference on anti-racism, holocaust education should be at its core. It could then examine how all
31 Jan 2008 : Column 510
countries could participate in holocaust education and commemorating the holocaust through Holocaust memorial days.

2.8 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): When the allies overran the concentration camps at the end of the second world war, a parliamentary delegation was sent to visit Buchenwald. So distressing were the sights that those MPs saw that one of them, a lady called Mavis Tate, subsequently committed suicide. The very idea, at that time or in the years immediately following the war, that there could arise a school of thought that could seriously attempt to deny what had happened in places such as Buchenwald would have seemed patently absurd.

It was not until the early 1970s that I first heard of a publication called “Did Six Million Really Die?” At that time, it seemed totally bizarre that anyone could suggest that the holocaust had not happened, yet by dint of assiduous embroidery, the peddling of lies and the dressing-up of propaganda and deceit under a false label of historiography, that thesis has moved into a different arena. Everyone has heard of it, and organisations such as the Oxford union debating society think it appropriate to offer the privilege of a platform to its most notorious advocate, David Irving.

I found myself caught up in that dispute because, by sheer coincidence, I had been invited to speak at the Union a few days before the Irving and Griffin visit was due to take place. As a result of the invitation made to those people, I tore up my membership card, having been a member of the organisation for 37 years. I must have put my case across poorly, because time after time I was told that it was an issue of free speech—as though anyone had suggested that Irving and Griffin should not have the right to say what they wanted, as long as they did not break the law. In fact, the question was about who should have one or two of the limited opportunities to speak at the Union that are available every term. A Labour colleague put it far more effectively than I have: “Even fascists have the right to eat—but that doesn’t mean you ought to invite them to dinner.”

As a result of that little episode, which was widely reported, I received an e-mail from my cousin in Israel congratulating me on making that modest gesture. I was affected when I received that e-mail from my cousin Chana, because she was the only child from the village of Siemiatycze to survive the holocaust. She survived—she was about six at the time—because an extremely brave Polish farming family by the name of Krynski hid her, her parents and her grandmother in a bunker under a barn for more than a year and a half. If her family had been caught, they would have been annihilated and so would the Krynski family.

The Krynskis were very poor, and they saved my cousins because before the war my cousins had had a little shop on the market square, and sometimes the Krynskis did not have enough money to buy what they needed for the family. Without giving it a second thought, my cousins used to say, “Don’t worry, Mrs. Krynski. Take what you need; pay when you can.” Little did they think that that simple gesture of charity would one day save their lives. After the war, my
31 Jan 2008 : Column 511
cousin’s family moved to Canada and used to send parcels back to the Krynskis and do the best they could to support them in Poland. Later, they suggested that Mr. Krynski should go to Israel to be honoured for what he had done. It was a sad testimony to the state of post-war anti-Semitism in Poland that he decided, on the whole, that it would not be wise for him to be honoured in Israel for saving Jews and then to go back to live in that part of Poland.

On a brighter note, when I went to Siemiatycze for the first time in 2004 I saw the little shop—it is still there, although it is a flower shop now—and I met the young mother who lives in the little flat above it. I explained that I would like to have a look around, because my family had lived there. She asked whether my family intended to put in a claim to get the property back. I said, “No, that’s all history now.” “What a pity,” she said, “It’s a council flat. If you claimed it back, I might get a better offer!”

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) said, I was privileged to be invited to represent the leader of our party at the excellent event in Liverpool. It was gratifying to see the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi on the platform side by side, commemorating the holocaust. It was also excellent to see—and meet—the representative of the Muslim Council of Britain, who was attending the event for the first time. I said to him what I shall now say to the House: I look forward to the day when we see on that platform a high representative of the Muslim faith who is of similar rank to those who represent Christianity and Judaism. Then we will know that the Nazis really are on the run.

2.15 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I shall be brief. I should declare an interest as a trustee of the Holocaust Educational Trust. I hope that that will not disqualify me from paying tribute to the excellent work of its dedicated and committed staff, in particular for their work among young people. I believe that there is no better way for young people to learn about the suffering that can take place in the world than through the unique horror of the holocaust.

I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) will not mind my saying that I found his speech very moving. He referred to the deepest degradation of the human spirit. Let us learn the lesson that that teaches us all. Let us give us full support to the Holocaust Educational Trust, Holocaust memorial day and every other possible way in which we can learn about that terrible horror and the lesson which it holds for us today.

2.16 pm

Mr. Dhanda: I know that the time available is short, and it is difficult to respond to such a moving debate. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who moved me to get involved in politics in the past, moved me in a very different way today. I congratulate him on that.

The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) talked about his roots and his family, like many other
31 Jan 2008 : Column 512
hon. Members—not least the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). The hon. Member for Wycombe also mentioned the fact that there were many victims from different backgrounds. Those victims included gay people, trade unionists and, as I learned on Sunday, well over 1 million Roma Gypsies, too. That point was well made. The hon. Gentleman talked about the wider work that needs to be done, as well as the work of the all-party inquiry, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and other hon. Members have been very involved.

A number of pieces of work are taking place across Government as part of a taskforce on anti-Semitism, including work to tackle some of the issues mentioned by the hon. Member for Wycombe about our campuses and about security in schools. We look forward to providing a positive response to the positive and good work of the all-party inquiry.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) mentioned David Irving, and Nick Griffin, too. I think that he was trying to get across the point that not only should we find their views repugnant, but we should tackle the problem. It is not merely about history; it is also about what we do collectively from here on in. That is why the work of the Holocaust Education Trust and the DVD, which has won a BAFTA, will be so important for the next generation, as they will ensure that we do not lose those crucial lessons from the past.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire talked about the impact that visits to Auschwitz have had on young people—and older ones too, I dare say—in his constituency. I was lucky enough to meet a group of young people from Oldham who had visited Auschwitz and Srebrenica. They were a real mixture of Jewish, Christian and Muslim, and it was obvious that their lives had been changed forever. The opportunity to go together, as a group, has changed their perceptions of other people, cultures, religions and races. That is an immensely powerful thing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) talked about local ceremonies in his constituency. He asked about the £1.5 million set aside for the Holocaust Educational Trust, and whether that commitment would be continued. I cannot make announcements of behalf of other Departments, but I can say that strong and effective representations have been made in the debate, and I am sure that my colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families will take them into account when making decisions in the future.

I have mentioned the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe already. He gave a very moving account of his own and his family’s experiences, and also an important lesson about humility. In this House we can pass legislation on religious and racial hatred, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman was right to remind us that the law is not always enough when it comes to the extremes of humanity and people who do the most extraordinary and devastating things. We must do a lot more, and that is why this debate has celebrated the good works of the Holocaust Educational Trust and all those involved in Holocaust memorial day.

31 Jan 2008 : Column 513

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) told us about his involvement in helping to institute Holocaust memorial day. I congratulate him on being there from the beginning; I had not realised the scale of the battle that he took on when he toured the synagogues of London, and probably beyond.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) made a powerful point about bystanders. In life we can all be bystanders sometimes, but I hope that one result of the good work being done will be that in future, fewer of us will stand by when we see genocide, slaughter and ongoing destruction around the world.

I mentioned earlier the involvement of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw in the all-party inquiry; he also talked about the contribution that Beth Shalom is making in Nottinghamshire.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) described the powerful image from Sunday’s event in Liverpool, when the Archbishop of Canterbury stood alongside the Chief Rabbi. I agree with him that it was also good to see the Muslim Council of Britain represented at the event. The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) set out his personal interest in these matters, and he deserves our congratulations.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East made the very good point that all religions and cultures need to be part of holocaust memorial day. So, in conclusion, let us never forget that the first person to contribute on the very first Holocaust memorial day was a Muslim who had been in a concentration camp in Bosnia.

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed, without Question put, pursuant to the Temporary Standing Order (Topical debates).

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that it is in order for me to express my disappointment that, despite the quality of this debate, the Press Gallery has remained empty throughout, with the exception of the Press Association staff. I hope that the debate will be reported in a significant and positive manner, given the importance of the subject being discussed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That probably fails the strict test of a point of order, but the hon. Member has made his point.

Next Section Index Home Page