As we approach the centenary of the ending of the First World War, we shouldn’t overlook another anniversary: 9th/10th November sees the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night when paramilitary Nazi groups wrecked the homes, businesses and synagogues of Germany’s Jewish population. Hundreds of Jews died (figures are uncertain). 30,000 were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. The Nazi pogrom, the Holocaust, probably the worst genocide in human history, had officially begun.
Meanwhile Sunday’s ceremonies will commemorate the end of what was optimistically termed “the war to end all wars”. To end all wars? If only human nature were indeed sufficiently wise, willing to learn and eager to prize peace above all other national goals.
These landmark anniversaries come at a time when the world is the most divided and chaotic it’s been for many years: wars rage, innocent citizens are bombed and made homeless, refugees flee, while selfish priorities and tensions between nations render futile any international attempts at achieving peace.
Still more worrying to me, however, is the fact that individual nations are themselves riven by discord. America’s midterm election proved so nasty that, when the campaigning ended, politicians on both sides – even Donald Trump himself – conceded that things had gone too far. Yet, as soon as he learned he had retained control of the Senate, despite losing Congress, Trump’s demeanour was as aggressive, offensive and belligerent as ever.
If only, back home, we could pat ourselves on the back and say that we would never behave like that. But we do, and are doing so increasingly.
As Brexit tears our nation apart, those with extreme views appear ready on one side simply to disregard the vote, and on the other to say “EU be damned”, whatever the cost to Britain. My concern lies at the societal, rather than the political, level. Something has changed in this country: those prepared to express their views are now routinely vilified, threatened – or silenced.
This week BBC presenter Jenni Murray was due to talk about “powerful British women in history”. The student union’s LGBTQ+ and Women’s campaigns, who consider her transphobic (a questionable description), claimed her presence would “compromise the welfare of transgender students and staff”. The Times’s Lucy Bannerman quoted a Murray supporter: “Imagine feeling you can’t cope with Jenni Murray. That’s got to be up there with fearing hot chocolate. Or baked goods.”
Nonetheless, she pulled out, “for personal reasons”. This was just the latest example of a kind of inverted liberalism where those representing groups who have historically suffered prejudice and underrepresentation now feel empowered to muzzle those with whom they disagree.
Take militant veganism. Vegans, who used to appear a mild-mannered group to me, have developed a hard edge: in a bizarre and sinister contradiction of their principles, some groups have issued death threats to people employed in meat production.
I’m not sure what worries me more. Is it the new-found sense of entitlement that encourages too many individuals or pressure groups to threaten, intimate, denigrate or troll anyone they disagree with? Am I more concerned by the threat to free speech from the tendency to no-platform speakers on University campuses? Or indeed from those – Trump included – who use their positional power to obliterate opposing views amid accusations of fake news?
In such near-totalitarian states as Putin’s Russia, Saudi Arabia or China (among many other countries), dissenters are likely to find themselves jailed – or dead. But now, even in functioning democracies such as ours, cunning and/or threatening use of social media, overwhelming noise and sheer intimidation are also proving effective in silencing opposing voices.
As we honour those who gave their lives in war this Sunday – and, I hope, remember Kristallnacht – we should call for a pause, a break from backbiting and from the calculated creation of discord.
Better still, how about a collective, mutual plea for peace, tolerance and respect for difference? Without those, all the acts of commemoration in the world will do little to halt humanity’s willful, headlong rush towards conflict.