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Nazi Comparisons

In the last few days, I received over 5,000 emails about the proposal in the European Parliament to fast-track a Digital Green Certificate. I support this proposal as it provides hope for the beleaguered travel industry and does not impose any obligation on anyone to be vaccinated.

Many of the emails were genuine but some were very ugly indeed alleging for example that such a certificate was “the same as imposing travel papers on Jews by the Nazis”. Nazi slurs were extremely common among the emails including claims that I, and other MEPs, would get our comeuppance at a Nuremberg-style trial.

It got me thinking about when I joined the Board of the Holocaust Education Trust in Ireland about 15 years ago. I was honoured to meet Tomi Reichental, a survivor of the concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen. He moved to Ireland in 1959 and has been an inspiration to the many thousands of school children who have heard his harrowing account of losing 30 members of his family to Nazi crimes.

In recent times, how we talk about Nazis is very regulated. In many European countries, minimising or denying Nazi crimes is a crime itself. Downplaying, approving of or denying genocide can attract custodial sentences of 18 months to 3 years.

There is a frivolous thing called Godwin’s Law. It asserts that the longer a political argument goes on, the more likely it is that someone will use a comparison to the Nazis or to Hitler.

Nazi references are surprisingly frequent in European politics. With the growth of far-right parties and illiberal governments, political discourse has become harsher to reflect more intolerant political views.

There is an MEP from Greece called Iaonis Lagos. He regularly speaks in the European Parliament on the power of Big Tech and why we should restrict the power of Twitter and Facebook. His accounts have been suspended because of his hate speech.

In a Greek Court in October 2020 he was found guilty of running Golden Dawn, a neo Nazi party, and of orchestrating violent attacks on opponents. Lagos was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

The Greek authorities have requested that the European Parliament lift his immunity which I am looking forward to doing.

The fairly mild mannered EU Observer carried a headline “Greek Nazi MEP upset he won’t get EU Parliament stipend” referring to an expenses claim that upset him.

Last week, MEPs received an email from a Hungarian government-supporting think tank complaining about the way the opposition was behaving in Hungary. A Socialist member of the National Assembly, Agnes Vadai, criticised journalists at the government-supporting state broadcaster and comparing them to Nazi-era propagandists.

Another case involves MEP Jean-Francois Jalkh, representing the far right French National Front, who has previously said that the use of Zyklon B in the Holocaust was ‘technically impossible’. The French authorities have sought his arrest on fraud charges and MEPs last week voted to lift his immunity from prosecution.

Of course, a little closer to home, stirring up memories of the war is stock in trade. Boris Johnson, referring to the alleged misdeeds of the EU, said in 2017 that “if we can handle the Second World War, we can handle this”.

In May 2016, Johnson told The Daily Telegraph that while Brussels bureaucrats are using “different methods” to Hitler, they both aim to create a European superstate with Germany at its heart.

The Nazis set a very high standard of brutality so that more recent war crimes fail to instil a sense of outrage. What is happening in Syria or in the Tigray region of Ethiopia falls short of the industrial killing and war crimes committed by the Nazis. But they are still war crimes.

For many years after the Second World War, very little was said about the Holocaust. This began to change in the 1970s and 1980s. Claude Lanzmann’s mesmeric 11 hour documentary Shoah improved people’s understanding of what had happened with witness accounts from perpetrators (often secretly filmed) as well as victims.

Lanzmann considered it immoral to even try to explain why the Nazis had done what they did. Hannah Arendt’s ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ went the other way causing enormous controversy.

Serious reading about the Nazi era and the work of people like Tomi Reichental serve as a useful antidote to complacency about real threats to European democracy and hysteria about imagined threats.

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