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Scottish Parliament Speech: Education (Holocaust) (June 2008)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

In 1960s Germany a friend of mine, who was Scots, was asked by a girl about Hitler and whether she had heard of him.

Until after 1968 there was a certain amnesia in Germany about the period after 1871, which was when German history stopped in the schools in many of the Länder. Finding out about what had happened between 1933 and 1945 tended to be, to an extent, a re-exploration of the place, given American serials and the effects of 1968. Members might remember the famous French right-wing attack on Daniel Cohn-Bendit - "He is only a German Jew" - to which the Paris students in the streets replied, "Nous sommes tous juifs allemands," or, "We are all German Jews". Of course, Mr Cohn-Bendit is now a leading European politician in Strasbourg.

My own university and area of Tübingen in south Germany did not have a creditable career. A fount of lawyers and medical men, the university was rabidly anti-semitic. Moreover, it was one of the places where a degree of mass nazification occurred.

About 12 miles from Tübingen, there is a place called Grafeneck. Some members who have been to Auschwitz might well have come across the name, because, in 1940, 11,000 of the so-called unfit were gassed there. At that point, the operation stopped. However, even though it is exceptionally beautiful, one still senses a terrible chill about the place.

I imagine that, had I been in Tübingen at that time, I would have said, "Ich bin Hase und ich weiß gar nichts daran," or, "I am only a rabbit and know nothing about what is going on." Of course, that was a survival mechanism against a regime of what George Orwell called "gangsters and shiny bottomed bureaucrats", who would simply whack the head off anyone who opposed them. One has to realise the gangsterish nature of the regime and, indeed, what it did to Germany's own culture. After all, these people produced Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler, Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, Freud, Einstein, the painter Liebermann, film directors such as Billy Wilder and novelists such as Joseph Roth—one of the greatest writers of the 20th century who, appalled by the onset of nationalism and aware of what was going to come, drank himself to death in Paris in 1939.

At times such as this, I think of people such as David Daiches, probably our greatest literary scholar and the son of the rabbi of Edinburgh, and my old friend Bill Fishman, who fought against Oswald Mosley in Cable Street and was delighted to end the war as a sergeant in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders - indeed, he was one of the original Whitechapel highlanders. They had to cope with knowing that six million of their people had died, and did so with remarkable tolerance. Of course, people such as Martin Buber reinforced ideas of religion in the war's dreadful aftermath.

Again, at such times, I also think of Wordsworth's poem "The Old Cumberland Beggar", in which he pleads for tolerance of even the least humanised part of society and makes it clear that we are all judged by our treatment of the man who slouches from village to village and is unable even to look up at the stars. That is what young Germans nowadays feel about the situation, partly through their acquaintance with the past, and is what we must all consider now and in future.

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