Martin Shaw

The Morung Express
Feb 1, 2010

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

A man wears an Iraq protest t-shirt as he walks past British police
officers outside the venue of the Iraq Inquiry in London, on the day
Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke. An unrepentant Tony
Blair defended his decision to join the United States in attacking
Iraq, arguing Friday before a panel investigating the war that the
Sept. 11, 2001 attacks made the threat of weapons of mass destruction
impossible to ignore. (AP Photo)

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.