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On being silenced

When I left Hamburg in June 1982, having already had run-ins with fascist thugs in Bradford (see blogpost 3, What Goes Around), and having since seen a young woman from the Leeds punk scene captured with Hitlergruß on the cover of a pamphlet, [1] I was so terrified by a German neo-Nazi revival that I could not bear to return to Germany.

Last weekend I got back to Brixton from Hamburg. There, before a friend’s apartment block, I noticed eight freshly polished Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) – commemorating by name, dates of deportation and murder, the Jews who had lived in those flats, whom the Nazis had rounded up. 

The Third Reich is, for me, omnipresent in Germany. Those commemorating this centenary year of the Bauhaus, have posed the question:“What strategies did right-wing powers use back then?”  https://www.bauhaus100.com

My late father also deliberated this question, and the counter-strategies the German Opposition might have deployed to challenge Hitler. Whilst I was working in Hamburg in the early 1980’s, in his lecture series, Modern Political Doctrines, my father taught a course at Leeds University  – ‘Fascism and the Responses To It’ (originally entitled ‘Fascism and How To Fight It’, but that was deemed to sound insufficiently academic).

On my visits home my father and I discussed Fascism. Yet he never knew that, when we lived in Franco’s Spain, he had arranged for me to be schooled in the ways of Fascism. In January 1968, having asked a woman on a cobbled Frigiliana street the location of the school for girls, he unwittingly enrolled me in a seccion femenina. It was in a cramped loft that I was then subjected to Franquista indoctrination by a Falangist women’s section for young women and girls.

Similar building to that housing seccion feminine

Consuming a daily diet akin to Hitler’s prescription to women of “Kinder, Kirche, Küche”, I dutifully crossed myself in diminishing movements as twice-daily I ascended the loft stairs; transcribed the ‘Maestra’s’ dictations praising Franco and God; and copied simple sentences, to practice cursive hand-writing. Although I was intrigued that my elders did little other than embroidery, whilst gazing into the street below from the safety of the loft, I was frightened when a Guardia Civil arrived on our door-step – to interrogate my father. 

No text-books were available in the seccion femenina; however they were at my brother’s school

Back in England the following year, my father did his homework. He made sure I was aware of the struggle against Nazism and took me to see the newly released Battle of Britain, and Dunkirk (1958).

Plaque to airman killed in action during Battle of Britain, Sussex

My father was quick to emphasise that, without either American or Soviet military intervention, Britain would have lost WWII. (As a child, his beloved Balliol comrade, Raphael Samuel, had tracked the Red Army’s progress towards Occupied Europe.)

In addition to my father’s tribute to the inestimable losses suffered by both of those allies, I soon knew that the war had marked our family, as it had untold others’. The following gives a hint of the enduring resonance of the WWII narrative:

  • Great uncle: one of 8 survivors of the Spikengard, a Canadian Royal Navy vessel escorting an Atlantic convoy, sunk by U-Boot, 1942
  • Uncle Harry, Regimental Medical Officer: seriously wounded at Monte Cassino –  Liberation of Italy – airlifted to Southampton,1944
  • Auntie Olive (my father’s eldest sister) newly qualified nurse, who tended my uncle, as well as D-Day wounded, Southampton 1943-1945
  • Paternal grandfather: Merchant Navy steward, missing at sea from troop ship off coast of North Africa, 1944
  • Auntie Flossie and two sisters: called up to serve in Land Army and Timber Corps
  • My (recently deceased) mother-in-law: Fire Warden,  London; and supported US Army Signals Corps –  bunkered 60 m. below Selfridges, Oxford Street, London.
Coming up for air on Selfridges’ roof-top, weeks before D-Day

In contrast to some German contemporaries, the British can commemorate D-Day in liberating Europe[2], and display photographs of our foremothers and -fathers – and see them as heroines and heroes, whose war effort defeated the Axis. 

It was appalling, then, last week in Hamburg, to read of the targeting of a female Labour MP –  called out as “a fascist”, and of bricks through the windows of “traitors” in Lewes, Sussex.  In tandem with the oft-cited ‘Blitz Spirit’, this is the terrifying flip-side of invoking the dominant narrative of national pride in the Allies’ victory in WWII.

In this young century, fascistic fervour expressed through violence against women has seen the murder of two pro-European women politicians, each before a referendum on Europe. In Sweden, Anna Lindh was killed whilst campaigning for a “Ja” vote in their referendum on whether to adopt the Euro. 

When the news came through my colleague’s Twitter feed that Jo Cox M.P. had been shot and stabbed to death, I said it was likely a Neo-Nazi attack. Having lived in West Yorkshire, I knew only too well that readiness to use violence is a distinguishing feature of fascism. It was no surprise to me that nationalist ideology, manipulating unresolved conflicts in relation to identity, had morphed into murder. 

There can be no doubt that “right-wing powers’ strategies” continue to operate at an ideological level. [3] In serving particular group interests, it’s a commonplace that ideology can obscure material relations and present ‘common sense’[4] solutions to complex issues. 

Yet to impute thwarted ambitions and rage solely to those ’left behind’ by globalisation and austerity ignores the narratives of the ‘free-born Englishman’, as well as ‘our’ victory over Nazi Germany. Such notions are not political or economic, but of psychological and cultural character. That is the point at which Left and Right have converged, and not only in England and Wales.[5]

Moreover, to interpret election or referendum results by reference to the monoliths, ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, ‘Somewheres and Anywheres’, or the ‘disaffected’ and ‘the dispossessed’ is to reduce complexity to facile binary categorisations.[6]

Leaving aside tortuous interpretations of the ‘Leave’ vote, in the context of the above, it is reassuring to note that in response to the increase in support for Alternative für Deutschland in the former GDR, the German President asserted latterly that frustration doesn’t licence hostility. [7]

Finally, salient points in relation to the rule of law are made by Professor Dr Susanne Baer, Justice, German Constitutional Court. [8] In her 2018 lecture at University College London, Baer J. signalled alarming attempts to subvert judicial independence – citing Front National’s demeaning of French judges as “gouvernement des juges”.[9])

At the close of her talk, Justice Baer emphasised the vital need to maintain the rule of law, giving practical pointers for citizen action: attending rallies; organising conferences; blogs; song; and critical creative intervention and contestation – such as Marta Górnicka’s Constitution for a Chorus of Poles. (See: https://gorki.de/en/company/marta-gornicka)


[1] Women against Racism and Fascism, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, 1979.

[2] During a sea crossing on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, after a French interpreter had marked the Normandy landings as beginning La Libération, her German colleague kept schtum.

[3] The Concept of Ideology, Larrain, J., Hutchinson, 1979    

[4] A notion my father considered to be inherently right-wing, and so to be contested.

[5] https://www.thenation.com/article/meet-europes-left-nationalists/

[6] The Road to Somewhere. The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, Goodhart, D. Hurst & Co. 2017; see also https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/22/the-road-to-somewhere-david-goodhart-populist-revolt-future-politics

[7] Spiegel “Unsere Verantwortung kennt keinen Schlusstrich”

[8] The Bundesverfassungsgericht (BvG) assesses whether cases raise unconstitutional points and interprets Germany’s Basic Law (Grundgesetz). When founded, the western Allies ensured that the Federal Republic of Germany’s constitution included proper Separation of Powers (Gewaltenteilung) and a mechanism to preserve an independent judiciary. Although the U.K. has an ‘unwritten constitution’ its Supreme Court fulfils a similar supervisory function to that of the BvG. Miller (No. 2) is a paradigm example of the independence of the British judiciary: https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/uksc-2019-0192.html

[9]The Rule of—and not by any—Law. On Constitutionalism Baer, S. Current Legal Problems, Volume 71, Issue 1, 2018. https://academic.oup.com/clp/article-abstract/71/1/335/5272691/

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