Ralph, 8 years old, will never forget that cold December day in 1938 when he and his sister, 17 years, boarded a train in Hamburg, Germany, bound for England with few belongings, but many questions. “I remember it like yesterday,” he says. “The first thing I said to my sister was: ‘Where are our parents?” His sister tried to calm her little brother’s nerves. Their parents would join the siblings in England in three months, she replied. Then they would all sail to America together to start a new life. “I always thought about them, that they’ll come,” said Ralph. “But they never did. They couldn’t.”
Ralph hadn’t the slightest clue what was in store for them after arrival — or the tragic fate of their parents. “I got a card from the International Red Cross in 1942 saying that “your parents were victims of the Holocaust, we’re very sorry, and we have to tell you that they’re murdered,” he recounted.
Ralph was part of 10,000 mostly Jewish children transported from Nazi Germany to England between December 1938 and September 1939, a rescue effort known as the ‘Kindertransport’, or ‘children’s transport.’
Eight decades have passed since the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe in September 1939. Nazism and the acts of the Nazi German state profoundly affected many countries, communities, and people before, during and after the war. The regime’s attempt to exterminate several groups viewed as subhuman by Nazi ideology was eventually stopped by the combined efforts of the wartime allies headed by Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States.
Of the world’s 15 million Jews in 1939, over a third was killed in the Holocaust (3 million in Poland alone). Of the estimated 50 million deaths in WWII, about 26 million Soviet citizens perished as a result of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, including around 10 million soldiers who died in battle against Hitler’s armies or died as prisoners in camps. Millions of civilians also died from starvation, atrocities and massacres. Undoubtedly, it was the patriotic Red Army’s advancement from the East and its other Allied armies (the US, Britain and France) from the West converging on Berlin that ended the war in Europe on May 8, 1945.
Over 8 million Germans, including almost 2 million civilians, died. Germany and its economy were devastated, with most major cities destroyed by the bombings of the Allied forces, sovereignty taken away by the Allies and the territory filled with millions of refugees from the former eastern provinces, which the Allies had decided were to be annexed by the Soviet Union and Poland, moving the eastern German border westwards to the Oder-Neisse line and effectively reducing Germany in size by roughly 25%.
The rest of Germany was divided among the Allies and occupied by British (the north-west), French (the south-west), American (the south) and Soviet (the east) troops. The expulsions of Germans from the lost areas in the east — the Sudetenland, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe went on for years. Roughly 15 million Germans were expelled. This was the dimension of an unbelievable human tragedy and even today millions of families reel under this trauma.
The aftermath of WWII was the beginning of a new era, defined by the decline of all European colonial empires and the simultaneous rise of two superpowers: the USSR and the USA.
Post World War II
After the world viewed the Nazi death camps, Europeans began to outwardly oppose ideas of racial superiority. Liberal anti-racism became a staple of many governments, with racist publications looked down upon. Since the collapse of Nazi Germany, European populations have been wary of racial political parties and have actively discouraged white ethnocentrism, fearing the return of a catastrophe similar to the purges carried out by Nazis. It can be argued that multiculturalism as one of the pillars of contemporary European society gained importance because of the same reaction.
However, the US and the USSR –allies during WWII — became competitors and engaged in the Cold War. The United Nations, an organisation for international cooperation, was created. Members of the UN agreed to outlaw wars of aggression to avoid a third world war. The devastated great powers of Western Europe formed the European Coal and Steel Community, which later evolved into the European Economic Community and ultimately into the current European Union with 27 countries as members.
This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, symbolising the collapse of Europe’s communist regimes and the end of the Cold War. For many, this moment represented the victory of freedom, the spread of liberal democracy and peaceful international relations in much of the Western and Eastern world. Consequently, a good number of former communist countries later joined the European Union. Liberal values seemed to overcome dictatorships and autocracies.
However, since recent past, across the world, there has been a consistent shift to the political right, as voters abandon the centre-left and centrist parties, which once held power in many democracies, after years of austerity and economic downturn. The early years of the 21st century have not been good for global capitalism. An international credit crisis and a widespread recession have shaken public support for free-market processes within democratic setups.
With no alternative policies to such contradictions, right-wing nationalism has returned, forcefully and virulently, in an illiberal form to young democracies such as Hungary and Poland, and in a right-wing chauvinist and anti-immigrant guise to more politically established countries such as Britain, Germany and the US. Besides, issues of migration, Brexit, US-Russia trade war (which will harm Europe) have accelerated it. These anti-establishment networks are not only taking advantage of divisions across the European Union: elites Vs the public, Europhiles Vs Euroskeptics and far-right nationalism Vs liberalism, but also some ambiguous positions of the centre-right toward issues such as identity and immigration.
European societies are now more fragmented, and some traditional (especially Left-wing) parties are in decline. Identity politics has been exacerbating the contradictions of globalisation as well as Europeanisation. The overall political system has moved rightward. This has also meant the decay of anti-fascism as a main value in national institutions as well as at the European and global level. Here lies the greatest danger for democracies and democratic values all over the world.
In an unprecedented way, politics is driven even by hatred utterings poisoning the very basic democratic and human values. US President Trump recently called openly on several Democratic congresswomen of colour to “go back.” He was referring to four congresswomen — three who were born in the US and one who came as a child refugee. His remarks were widely condemned as racist.
Last month, Walter Luebcke, president of the Kassel regional council in central Germany, was shot in the head. Sixty-five-year-old Luebcke was a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats and an outspoken supporter of government’s pro-migrant policies in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis. Merkel opened Germany’s doors to over a million migrants in 2015. But her policy, hailed by humanitarians all over the world, also attracted fierce criticism from the right, particularly following a number of terrorist attacks across the country in summer 2016.
Recent elections in India and the European Union have resulted in gains for politicians with strident nationalist messages. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi easily secured a second term, shrugging off a challenge to paint him as a threat to India’s secular pluralism. However, it is of serious concern that violent Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim rhetoric are increasingly becoming socially acceptable.
Mahua Moitra, a Trinamool Congress MP, in a very thought-provoking speech in Parliament recently opined that India is displaying early signs of fascism. “We have to decide which side of history we want to be on… the side that upholds the Constitution or the side that becomes its pallbearers,” she said.
A few days ago, Aparna Sen and 48 other eminent citizens, including filmmaker Shyam Benegal, vocalist Shubha Mudgal, historian Ramchandra Guha and sociologist Ashis Nandy, wrote to Modi saying ‘Jai Shri Ram’ has become a ‘provocative war cry’ with many lynchings taking place in its name. The letter underscored the significance of dissent in a democracy. “There is no democracy without dissent. People should not be branded anti-national or urban naxal and incarcerated because of dissent against the government,” it said.
Ralph was “lucky” that he was saved. But his parents were not. The main question that haunts us is “Why”. If one critically and sensitively analyses the recent developments in the largest democracies such as in Europe, the US and India, many such questions, concerns and apprehensions arise. This, even after eight decades of the end of WWII, a war in which extremist, racist, radical authoritarian and ultra-nationalist ideologies were grown, spread out and deliberately tried to destroy the most basic humanistic rights and values of mankind.
Time is nigh to remember German Pastor Martin Niemoeller’s post-war confession of 1946, which is about the cowardice of German intellectuals and certain clergy (including, by his own admission, Niemoeller himself) following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent incremental purging of their chosen targets, group after group. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum quotes the following of the speech:
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me
(The author is an MLA and Humboldt Expert in Agriculture, Environment and Cooperation)