Britain and genocide

The official annual commemoration of a century of genocide and its victims should be accompanied by a responsible awareness of Britain’s own historical record, says Martin Shaw. (This article was first published on 27 January 2009)

Martin Shaw
Martin Shaw
29 January 2010

The date of the liberation of the Nazi concentration-camp at Auschwitz, 27 January 1945, has since 2001 been marked in Britain as a moment for the remembrance of the victims of the Nazi holocaust – and, by gradual extension, of all those subjected to genocidal assault over the last century. The annual commemoration of “Holocaust Memorial Day”, now in its tenth year, has become an established part of the national political calendar: the highlights include educational programmes and exhibitions, and a series of events attended by survivors of genocide, leading politicians and representatives of religious groups – most of them taking place under the auspices of a charitable trust which works throughout the year (the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust).

Britain is the locus of these activities, but what of its own relationship to the histories and practices being commemorated? Tony Blair’s reply to a parliamentary request in June 1999 that invited him to institute such a day is revealing here. Britain’s then prime minister said: “I am determined to ensure that the horrendous crimes against humanity committed during the Holocaust are never forgotten. The ethnic cleansing and killing that has taken place in Europe in recent weeks are a stark example of the need for vigilance.” The reference was to the war of March-June 1999 over the contested post-Yugoslav province of Kosovo, when Blair had been among the Nato leaders most committed to securing the return to Kosovo of approximately one million Kosovo Albanians expelled by Serbian military forces on the authority of Slobodan Milosevic. Thus, holocaust-memorial day remembers genocide that other nations have committed - whether the Nazi extermination of the Jews or the Serbian expulsion of the Kosovo Albanians - and against which this country stands as a “vigilant” and if necessary armed protector of the innocent.

The implication of so placing Britain in relation to acts of genocide is that there is no need for the country to engage in (for example) the national self-criticism that produced the commemoration of victims of Nazism in Germany, or which in Australia and the United States has produced official recognition of crimes perpetrated against indigenous people in the course of colonisation; nor need for academic debate about Britain’s connections to the history of genocide, which has preoccupied intellectuals and scholars in these and other countries.

True, the institution of holocaust-memorial day did provoke some discussion among scholars of the holocaust. One of those who opposed it suggested that “the day will act as a convenient opportunity for the government to present itself as morally upright, thereby occluding its involvement in contemporary ethnic, religious or other forms of discrimination”; another, David Cesarani, warned that it would reinforce the British people's “rather self-satisfied perception of the Second World War as unambiguously a ‘good’ war from which this country emerged triumphant and morally vindicated.” Instead, Cesarani argued, the British should recognise that “(the) ambiguity of Britain's response to Nazi tyranny and racism is lodged in our heritage.”

The genocidal moment

These criticisms still resound. For indeed, a wider examination of Britain's relationship to genocide makes clear that the problem ranges wider than the holocaust, and often far deeper than “ambiguity”. The modern English state itself was formed and secured in part through episodes of genocidal violence against internal enemies (among them the Normans' murderous dispersal of the Anglo-Saxon peasantry in Yorkshire in 1069-70, the massacre of Jews at York in 1190, Oliver Cromwell's slaughter of Irish civilians in 1649-50). In a more recent historical perspective, the flipside of Britain's claimed peaceful “gradualism” is what Leon Trotsky called “the history of violent changes which the British governing classes have made in the life of other nations.”

Britain's colonisation of the “new world”, for example, was punctuated by what the historian Dirk Moses has called “genocidal moments”. The phenomenon of “settler colonialism” in north America and Australia generally involved forcibly displacing indigenous peoples, and localised genocidal massacres were quite common. British authorities in London and the colonies willed settlement knowing that it foretold the often-brutal removal of the indigenous inhabitants, even if they sometimes condemned the specific means that settlers adopted. The current Australian government headed by Kevin Rudd has apologised to the indigenous peoples, whereas in Britain the dominant attitude is that what happened is a “local” problem that has no implications for the settlers’ country of origin or that country’s state policy.

The British state was not a direct perpetrator in the high-genocidal period of European history – the first half of the 20th century - but its “humanitarian” stance offered but meagre practical support to victims (Armenians in Ottoman Turkey from 1915, Jews during the Nazis' “final solution”). At times, however, it encouraged or endorsed genocidal acts (as during the Greek army’s rampage through Anatolia in 1919-22 and the often brutal expulsion of German populations from Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1945). Britain’s aerial bombing of German cities in 1943-45 was not directly genocidal, but it invoked comparably destructive means and the principle of “collective punishment” (and, like the United States’s firebombing of Japan’s cities, showed how close degenerate war can come to genocide).

The British state was also deeply implicated in the mutually destructive violence of the Indian partition of 1947, in which 12 million people were forced from their homes and at least 250,000 died. This violence - now widely seen as genocidal - was exacerbated by the British partition-plan, which was devised and implemented with disregard for its likely catastrophic consequences. In Palestine in 1948, the British stood by as Zionist forces terrorised the majority of the Arab population into flight in order to create as large as possible a Jewish-majority state. The United Nations’s own partition-plan (notwithstanding its genocide-convention that was to be approved at the end of 1947) is a reminder that responsibility for the disaster was international, but Britain - as the contemporary mandate power - had a particular share.

In the era after the cold war, Britain (like other western states) proclaimed a new determination to prevent genocide. Yet the record is distinctly unimpressive: Britain may not bear the shame of facilitating a particular horrific massacre (as the Dutch do for Srebrenica in 1995), but it has hardly spearheaded effective responses. The Conservative government of John Major (1990-97) adopted a notably anti-interventionist and even cynical stance towards genocide. It disregarded Saddam Hussein's terrorising of the Iraqi Kurds in 1991 until shamed into action (Major notoriously remarked: “I do not recall asking the Kurds to mount this particular insurrection”); it then exerted itself (including at the United Nations) to block effective international responses to genocide in Bosnia (1992-95) and Rwanda (1994).

The (“New”) Labour government elected in May 1997 and headed by Tony Blair took a different approach. Blair and his first-term (1997-2001) foreign secretary Robin Cook were among the foremost advocates of action to halt Serbian persecution of the Kosovo Albanians. Yet the high-altitude bombing with which the war was prosecuted – the only tactic Nato states could agree on – allowed where it did not provoke Slobodan Milosevic to escalate to the murderous expulsion of almost the whole Albanian population of Kosovo. Nato’s intense campaign eventually restored the displaced Kosovars to their homes, but was followed by a failure to prevent the revenge expulsions of Serbs from most of the province.

Britain became in this period the major donor of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government that had secured its rule after the genocide; but Labour failed to oppose the RPF's own aggression, amounting in some places to genocidal massacre, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The British government, in invading Iraq in 2003 and failing to administer the country properly afterwards, bears great responsibility for creating the circumstances in murderous attacks were inflicted (not least by the Sunni-based “resistance” against Shi’a and other non-Sunni Iraqis, terrorising them out of areas they controlled). The low-grade genocidal conflict created a situation where around 1.9 million Iraqis (the UNHCR estimates) became refugees; a number exceeded by the 2.6 million internally displaced. The gravest of all charges against Tony Blair (and George W Bush) may be that they have a clear responsibility for this outcome.

The reflective moment

David Cesarani’s judgment that “the Holocaust is a part of British history” must, therefore, be extended. The wider history of genocide has touched and been touched by British state and society in many different ways. It cannot – with reference once more to Tony Blair’s statement of June 1999 – be assumed that “other” countries are the problem and Britain part of the solution. The idea of “bad/guilty” and “good/vigilant” nations - which often lies at the heart of genocidal practice - is not much help in answering genocide. Rather, it must be recognised that entire nations never stand unequivocally on one side of the historical process: complexity and ambiguity are the norm.

British governments and people have been part of the problem as often as they have been part of the solution. British citizens have responsibilities that go beyond vigilance; for example, to investigate the reasons why their state and social institutions have not always been vigilant, and why indeed they have sometimes been complicit in genocide. The lessons of the historical record are varied, but they leave no reasons for complacency.

Martin Shaw delivered the annual war-studies lecture at King's College, London on 26 January 2010. The lecture – entitled “Britain and Genocide: Parameters of National Responsibility” - contains a fuller version of the argument presented here.

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