Friday, 17 September 2010

Bulldog spirit – history’s unlearned lesson

IT’S often remarked that the very existence of the state of Israel is down to Hitler.
It’s not actually true, or at least it’s not the whole of the story.
Zionism – the Jewish movement for a homeland in Palestine – dates back to the Russian pogroms of the 1880s.
The Balfour Declaration, in which the British government promised (as if it was up to them) “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, was made in 1917.
Whichever way you look at it, though, there is some truth in the idea that the survival of a distinct Jewish identity – and the existence of Israel – is largely due to anti-Semitism.
If it hadn’t been for anti-Jewish laws and ghettoes, the Jews would have been assimilated into the wider European culture long ago. Or so the theory goes, and I mostly believe it.
But this column isn’t really about Israel or the Jews. It’s about siege mentality and how it forges unity and community.
If Hitler thought that by bombing London and other British cities night after night he could destroy British morale, he could hardly have been more wrong. Shared peril brought the people together.
Interestingly, German survivors of the Allied bombing of Berlin say much the same thing – even though Berlin suffered far heavier destruction than London did.
(Hamburg and Dresden fared even worse, with more deaths in just two raids in 1943 and 1945 than in all the attacks on Britain put together.)
Like Warsaw before it, and other cities across Europe later, London in 1940 became a place where air-raids, flattened buildings, bomb-craters, broken glass, rubble and fire were commonplace.
My parents married in 1944 in a landmark London church that had been firebombed just days earlier. The roof was open to the sky and cinders from its remains tinkled down on the wedding party as they exchanged their vows.
It’s a romantic image I was raised with.
Other familiar anecdotes are either comic or tell of miraculous escapes. Or both.
Like the woman found unharmed in her bath, supported precariously in mid-air by the surviving sturdy plumbing in her bombed home.
Or the man located in the rubble by the sound of his laughter: “I pulled the chain and the house fell down!”
Those are the tales my father told, not any of the ghastlier things he must surely have witnessed as a London fireman.
All contribute to the same picture – the common one of never-say-die spirit. The “British bulldog” attitude that was no doubt part-propaganda, but part reality – and which still forms part of the way we think of ourselves.
The blitzed or besieged city is, almost inevitably, a “hero city”. And there are starker examples of that than London.
No one in London, as far as I’m aware, froze to death trying to find precious water.
Or boiled leather boots and book-covers for food.
Or stripped paper from the walls to eat the glue.
Or ate the starved corpses of neighbours or family, after all the birds, rats and pets had gone.
All of those horrors were part of life in besieged Leningrad between September 1941 and January ’44.
Leningrad, where 15 times as many civilians died as in the whole of Britain – not to mention 1.5million Russian soldiers – was the hero city to end all hero cities.
The theory is that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and in a sense I’m sure it’s true.
Ireland would surely not still be such a strongly Catholic land had it not endured centuries of anti-Catholic oppression by England.
The war in Iraq, supposedly integral to the “war on terror”, has made Al-Qaeda strong in a country where it barely existed before.
And the ghetto-isation of Palestinian Arabs is Israel’s worst and most abiding mistake. As if the Jews – at least that tiny proportion of Jews who constitute Israel’s establishment – had learned nothing from their own grim history.


I HAD to check the calendar to make sure I hadn’t over-slept severely and woken up on April 1.
Did the news really say Tony Blair had been awarded a medal for “conflict resolution”?
Surely not the same Tony Blair who only last week was ducking out of book signings in fear of a few anti-war protestors? Yet who refused to duck out of starting an actual war despite the protests of millions?
The same Tony Blair who aided and abetted America’s shabbiest president in invading a foreign country on a false pretext, causing upwards of 100,000 deaths, destabilising the Middle East, increasing radicalism around the world and with it the risk of terrorism?
A man so monstrously self-centred that in his new book he explains his decision with the words: “To me, the only meaning was in being true to myself.”
As if he hadn’t been elected to represent the rest of us.
A medal for a man many would like to see facing a war-crimes trial?
The award of last year’s Liberty Medal to a Hollywood movie-maker was odd enough. But if I were Steven Spielberg I’d be thinking now of giving my own gong back.

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