Sunday, 18 May 2008

Respect the Difficulties of Escaping Tyranny

Sorry that this is another posting prompted by an article in 'The Guardian', but these days with work calming down and me trying to stay off the roads to save on petrol, it is one major source of input into my thinking. Yesterday I read a very moving article by Julia Hollander about her great-grandfather, Moriz Hollander, a Jewish owner of distilleries in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia in the 1920s and 1930s. In her family this man is portrayed as foolish, one who invested poorly and was stupid enough not to leave Austria (which was absorbed into Nazi Germany in 1938) before he was carted off the Treblinka death camp where he was murdered. Julia Hollander, uncovered letters from him right from 1916 until February 1939, just seven months before war broke out. His wife and children were able to escape but he was later taken to Theresienstadt, a 'model' ghetto (which at first took elderly Jews like Moriz and those who had fought in the First World War) the Nazis had built in lands they had taken from Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and later was moved on to Treblinka.

From these letters it was clear that Julia's family had a very distorted view of this man. He had managed to keep his business going and even began moving into new lines right through the worst of the Depression. Austria was particularly hit, the collapse in 1931 of its Kreditanstalt bank in 1931 triggered off economic chaos across Central and Eastern Europe and mass unemployment. To maintain a business in those circumstances especially one dealing in luxury items was a very big challenge and thousands of businesses completely collapsed. As to escaping, this is an issue I will come on to later. However, though Moriz Hollander did not get away himself, all his family were able to get to Britain with sufficient funds to live on. He brought fake papers for his wife Minna that showed she was not a Jew, which allowed her to travel when Jews had had their papers taken from them. He also divorced his wife, so breaking her link to his Jewish background. All of these were measured steps to make his wife and children safer. Without him working so hard all of Julia Hollander's family would not now exist, so I agree with her, they are very hard on the memory of her great-grandfather.

Now from this story, I will turn to broader issues and especially how we look at people fleeing oppression. As is commonly known, the average British person despises asylum seekers, lumping them in with economic migrants and seeing both as parasites on the British economy. To some extent I think this is added to by an unstated unease at the courage of these people who have abandoned everything and gone through difficult circumstances to reach safety. These people have a 'get up and go' that most British people lack. There is also an unease at facing up to the horrors going on around the world, people generally do not want to think about torture or having members of your family disappear in the middle of the night and never knowing how they died. For the average British person, fortunately, these things are generally unknown and in most cases people do not want to know. Despite this hostility to asylum seekers there is a patronising attitude when looking back, especially to those who fell under Nazi Germany: 'why did they simply not leave?' too many people ask. Well there are many reasons.

The first is that Jews arriving in Britain in the 1930s received as much hostility as asylum seekers today. As foreigners anyway they were looked on suspiciously and anti-Semitism whilst not reaching the scale of that of Germany and Austria, was alive in Britain as had been seen in the anti-Semitic riots of 1911 in Wales, and across the country in 1915 and 1917, let alone the actions of Mosley's blackshirts in the 1930s. In addition, there was a great deal of what would not be called 'institutional racism', especially in the civil service, which made life difficult for refugees. Banks also exploited the refugees. Many began taking money out of Germany once Hitler came to power and with the pound, though increasingly rivalled by the dollar at the time, being one of the strongest currencies in the world, it was natural that they brought their money to London. Of course the banks levied special charges on them that sapped their savings and once war broke out and it was clear that the bulk of Jewish account holders from continental Europe were never going to collect their funds, they basically drained all of this accounts with impunity. Money is always a big issue. When people know you need to flee they will exploit you to the full. Even if you get to a country of asylum often you will be barred from working and you have support yourself and your family somehow. Your assets, like your house, equipment, most of your belongings have to be abandoned. This is why many of the people who escaped Germany in the 1930s were wealthy because it was only they who could afford to do so, ordinary middle class and certainly working class people were in no position to do that. It is a challenge to take yourself out of an established situation for a life of poverty elsewhere, especially when we are talking of a time where there was no free health care. Even today the UK is making it increasingly hard for people seeking asylum to come to the UK and survive. There is also an issue of language. I have lived abroad, it is loathsome, you really yearn to have someone speak in your own language, to read or watch something that you understand immediately rather than having to go through a schoolroom exercise each time, simply to understand. People in the country you go to make no allowances for you as a foreigner coming to live as opposed to being a tourist, both in terms of language and customs. Civil servants and business people always assume their ways of doing things are blatantly obvious and understandable, well of course often they are not even to the local population let alone for someone from abroad. So, do not patronise those who stay behind. They are not really 'staying' behind, they simply have no ability to leave.

The other thing, is that it is easy with hindsight to argue that 'well they must have known what was going to happen'. Again this is foolish. At the moment, the UK is not moving to being a Nazi state, but it is becoming quickly authoritarian. Do I leave the UK now? No-one in Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, etc. would give me asylum at the moment. It is not when you judge that the country has become a tyranny it is when the officials of foreign countries do. The UK has an appalling record of sending people back to regimes like Zimbabwe or Saudi Arabia or China and a score of others, which the average person knows are horrific but to the government are not quite dangerous enough to warrant granting asylum. So when should I leave? When police start rounding up people in the night and taking them away to unknown destinations? You could say, yes, but of course until my life is in direct threat then again foreign governments would not even consider my application. By that time, it is too late. Either I am disappeared or my passport is taken away. I can probably no longer hold down a job and so lack the money I need to flee. With the onset of an authoritarian state it is always far worse for the people experiencing it than it is perceived by outsiders whether in that country itself or most certainly abroad. The other factor, is of course, is that we are optimists, we always hope it will not be as bad as it turns out to be. These days when genocide seems an annual occurrence, we are more likely to be aware. In the 1930s the only known genocide had been of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915 a model that did not seem applicable to Germany at all, despite the rhetoric of the Nazis. No-one could have envisaged the industrialised slaughter of millions of people in the way that occurred from 1942 onwards. Even then that was nine years after the Nazi state had been established and as I have noted before there was no direct march to the death camps, it was a twisted and at times ad hoc path.

So to flee a country you gamble your whole livelihood, your standing, your money, your security on the chance that the regime will become so extreme and you will fall within its oppression. This is a hard gamble to take especially when you have a family who may not see things the same as you do. The woman living in my house has no belief in my warnings about the UK becoming authoritarian despite the fact she has relatives across the world to whom she could flee, something I lack. I cannot give up this house and liquidate my assets without her approval and so I cannot even enter into the gamble. Now, back in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy or Bolshevik Russia or Francoist Spain or Salazarian Portugal, or a hundred other dictatorships, millions of people had to face up to such decisions. Is it any suprise that in fact the numbers of people seeking asylum compared to the numbers of people facing oppression is really small. China has a population of 1.3 billion people, even if one thousandth of them decided to flee the oppression, that would be 1.3 million people. The number of people who can or do not escape always far outweighs those who stay and suffer.

In my view asylum seekers should be commended for achieving what they do, for the sake of themselves and their families. Britain has long been a refuge for those seeking safety, but in the past 100 years the attitudes have hardened. Maybe we have been spoilt by long periods of democracy and low levels of violence. We are now too happy to make deals with horrific tyrannies such as China and Saudi Arabia and to despise the people who flee from those states rather than the rulers who have forced them to go. I am glad Julia Hollander has recovered the true history of her great-grandfather and I hope we can move to a similar more positive perception of those seeking asylum rather treat them with almost as much hostility as the people they have fled.

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