Friday, 8 August 2014

A Eulogy for Oscar

My Oscar

Oscar was my world.  He came into my life during a really difficult time for me, on 5 August 2003.   When I got him, he was a frightened, timid 11 month old rough collie who had been returned to the breeder (circumstances unclear) and was due to live out his life in a kennel and a run, possibly as a stud dog, but definitely not as a family pet.  I had wanted to leave London and my soulless job in the City.  I wanted a dog so badly.  I bought the cottage where we both lived on his first birthday.  He is intimately connected with this place and my new life in Suffolk.  It is our home together.   He left my life on 5 August 2014.  We were both in a very different place thanks to the time we had together.

There is something very ancient and deep in the bond between a man and his dog.  It goes back thousands of years to when the first wolves became domesticated.  It's really quite hard to explain the depth of it to someone who hasn't had a dog.  When you live on your own, your dog becomes your soul mate.  Every evening when I was on Twitter, reading a book, or watching a movie, Oscar would be next to me on the sofa, getting a neck message or behind his ears rubbed.  I loved him so much.  He gave me endless, devoted, unconditional love back.  He was the ultimate healing presence for me.

He was my companion through 11 years.  He came to work with me every day.  We travelled Europe on our own together, doing his favourite thing, camping.  He notched up 16 countries from Denmark in the north, down to Spain in the south.  He just loved being in the fresh air, the endless walks, and sleeping pressed right up to me at night.  Every day for those 11 years that I was with him, I greeted him with a good morning and he howled and cried back.  Every night I tucked him up in his basket and he was the last one I spoke to with a "Nighty night, Oscar.  You sleep well, Daddy will see you in the morning."

Oscar was there, observing matters from the back of car in his little collie way, the day I met my boyfriend Ste in May 2012.   Ste cautiously got the paws up, and despite the odd show of jealousy (Ste claims the end of his nose was involved, but Oscar refuted that strongly) the three of us rapidly became a trio.  Oscar, Ste and I walked the Manchester Moors, through the New Forest, and along the Suffolk and Norfolk beaches.  Oscar always slept downstairs in my cottage, but our weekend trips to visit Ste in Manchester meant we were fair game for being joined for a sneaky collie cuddle in bed.  He was particularly fond of being little spooned by Ste.  The best Christmas of my life to date was December 2012, which the three of us of spent together in Suffolk.  We went the whole hog with a real tree, German style, a holly wreath, baking and fresh salmon (of course) for Oscar.  It was truly magical.

On 5 August 2013, the ten year anniversary of Oscar and my being together, a car overtaking on a hill and a bend, drove head-on into us on my side of the road on the A140.  It was such a violent impact, it wrote off my three week old 1900kg Mercedes, and I'm still having treatment for injury to my back and leg, a year after the collision.  Oscar was in the back, safely behind his dog guard, but he was still thrown forward with horrible force.  He started having trouble with walking, and in February this year had a complete muscular break down.  I thought I was going to lose him.  We started an intensive programme of hydrotherapy and physiotherapy, as well as drug treatment for the arthritis that had been exacerbated by the crash.  My Mutti was heavily involved in this, as I had to be abroad a lot with work this year.  Each time he came home from a stay with his beloved "Granny", the results of her nursing were clear for me to see.  A miracle happened: Oscar came back.  In February he had not wanted to go outside at all, he had been hobbling rather than just limping, and when he did go out he hadn't been sniffing anything or raising his head.  Little by little he found his love of life again and became stronger and stronger.  He wore a thick back paw support for walks, but by April he was happily exercising a good hour a day.  He did this right up until the day before he died.

At the end of July Ste, Oscar and I spent a week camping in the mountains in the South of France.  Oscar would have been twelve next month, so it was the perfect holiday for an almost 84 year old (in human terms).  He watched the birdies, the people, and dogs going by from the comfort of his super comfy basket, had a couple of walks along the river every day, and slept under the canvas with his daddies.  Every day at 5 o'clock he was willing us to get up, and start the next day of his collieday.  He did ever so well with the 15 hour car drive (including lots of breaks to stretch his paws): there wasn't a squeak out of him at all.  He was the easiest going dog imaginable.  He was so incredibly happy throughout that holiday.

Last Sunday, less than a week after our return from France, we had two lovely walks in the woods and were lying in the sun together in the garden enjoying the warm weather.  In the evening he brought up his dinner.  During the night he was sick several more times, bringing up bile.  I slept next to him on the floor downstairs.  At 8am on Monday he couldn't get up.  He tried and I caught him just before he fell over on his side.  I took him straight to the vet, where they did blood and neurological tests.  They ruled out poisoning, a stroke and problems with his back.  His reflexes were all still working, but he just couldn't get up.  His heart was racing incredibly fast and he was panting heavily.  He was put on a drip and given strong pain killers.  24 hours later, his condition had worsened.  He just about acknowledged me, and there was still no movement.  I had two vets look at him, and we consulted an expert at one of the country's leading animal treatment specialists.   They all said there was no hope.  It was almost certainly a tumour of some kind.  At 10am on Tuesday 5 August he was put to sleep.  Two days before we'd been sunbathing together.  One of my hands was under his little furry head, the other holding his beautiful white front paw.  It was so surprisingly peaceful.  He died 11 years, to the day, that I had collected him from the breeder.

Oscar had his "Lassie" movie star looks until the day he died.  He had just the slightest white round his muzzle and eyes.  Apart from his poor paw, he was the picture of health, with the most stunning shiny coat.  I'm so grateful he never suffered blindness, deafness, incontinence, teeth problems or any of the other issues old dogs have.  He was such a gentle boy throughout his life.   He was so zen and calm, and looked he spent hours in his basket meditating.  I used to joke he was a Buddhist monk in a former life.  He would get really upset if I killed flies in the house and hated squeaky toys: I think he thought we were hurting them when they squeaked.  I can count on one hand the times I remember telling him off during his entire life.  His departure was so typically Oscar: gentle, quiet, and without fuss.

I've so much to be grateful for: we had 11 years packed full of love and happiness, a dream collie holiday a week before his death, and a swift and painless end, aged just shy of 12.  I don't think any dog, or dog owner, could ask for more than that.  Yet my heart wants to break.  The complete uncontrollable grief I'm feeling is like nothing I've experienced before.  He was my everything: a friend, a son, a brother, a companion.  He wasn't a family pet: he was my family.  He has been with me, through everything, for over a quarter of my life.  Ste and I had already put our name down with  a breeder in Leicestershire to get a puppy collie companion for Oscar in November.  He won't be a replacement for Oscar: nothing could be.  Oscar won't be meeting him and won't be helping bring him up after all.  I like to think that Oscar knew that his time was up, would be happy to know I won't be on my own, and that I'll have a collie by my side again.  The next few months without a dog will be so hard.  I can't even contemplate the void I feel right now without him.

Just before he died I thanked him for everything.  I want to thank him again, to the world, with this little piece.  I loved you so much, Oscar.  You were the most beautiful, softest, best behaved, loving dog in the world.  Nothing can ever take away from the time we had together and I'm just so grateful to have had you in my life.  I'll remember you until my dying day.  Rest in peace my beautiful boy.

Oscar "Tameila After Dark" Ede

* 23 September 2002  † 5 August 2014

"He might only be there for part of your life, but for him you are his whole life"


Saturday, 2 August 2014

Tesco's Racist Sign

This store is working with police/other retailers to identify thieves."  

In Polish.  How classy.  This lovely sign has pride of place in my local Tesco store at Diss in Norfolk.  I consider it to be completely racist*

Let's talk this through.  It's not unusual to have information signs up in different languages where there's a large foreign speaking minority who will see them.  When you catch the ferry to Calais there are safety signs up in English, French, German, Dutch and Polish.  It's the whole reason the international system of road signs was designed: so that essential information doesn't have to be translated into multiple languages.  If you can't use a symbol though, I've absolutely no problem with this: it's unquestionably sensible.

Let's see whether Tesco thinks it's a good idea to provide essential information for the convenience of its Polish customers.  There are signs up for "Parent Parking", "Reycling", "Customer Service" and "Toilets" in and around the Diss store.  All of them are in English.  Not one of them is translated into anything.  There are all the special offers, the "Every Little Counts" advertising slogan - all of it in English.  There are even signs setting out rules, such as saying you can only park for 2 hours there - but they're only in English too.  Nope, the only sign they've bothered to put into Polish is the "WE'RE WATCHING YOU" one. 

Tesco Diss.  You're welcome, if you're not Polish

Tesco Twitter Intervenes

Is there a corresponding DO NOT STEAL sign in English? Yes, there is.  It's to one side and I had to look for it.  It was the Polish one that caught my eye.  It's right in your face where you walk in.  I tweeted Tesco about the issue on 19 July.  They said they understood why I thought it was wrong and said they'd speak to the branch manager.  Just to be clear, I've no problem with a sign in English.  Every other sign in the store is in English and it is the language of this country.  I doesn't single any particular national group out as being potential thieves.

The net result of this intervention is that a Latvian sign has now appeared too.  If you're in any doubt which nationalities are being singled out as being potential criminals, they've neatly written the language on the back so we're all aware.  How thoughtful.  Lovely handwriting too.

What's more - it gets better - since my complaint they've added a SECOND "We're watching you" sign in Polish and it's double size.  It has absolute pride of place in the store: it's impossible to enter without seeing it.  Look here on the central door that closes and opens.  The single English one is to its right on the fixed panel on the side.

Why is this so offensive? Well clearly two nationalities are being singled out as being suspected of potential criminal activity.  They are being greeted in a sign in their own language (a rarity in this country) that tells them they're being watched.  Polish families with children entering might be delighted to see their own language, only to realise they're being told that Tesco regards them as potential thieves.  Welcome to Britain.  Welcome to Tesco.

What's next - "DO NOT STEAL" signs in Romani to fulfill another nasty, negative racial stereotype?

Local Poles

Perhaps Tesco has a major problem with this demographic locally.  I seriously doubted it, even before I had a delve into the official statistics.

The last census revealed just 1.1% of the population of the whole of the East of England region was born in Poland.   Lithuania registers at 0.3% of the population and Latvia is so small as to not even make the top 15 table.   Together there are more people born in Germany and the US in the region than there are Poles.  In addition, the bigger Polish speaking communities are not in this part of Suffolk/Norfolk, but up in places closer to the Lincolnshire border.  The only Poles I've personally ever come across in this area are the phenomenally hard-working local hand car wash guys, who have put up a large England flag to try to fit in.

What we do have locally is another fellow EU community: the Portuguese of Thetford.  Wikipedia comments : "During the late 1990s, a slow trickle of Portuguese immigrants started to arrive in the town of Thetford, East Anglia.  By 2004, the media were suggesting that there may be as many as 6,000 Portuguese-speakers in the Thetford area, where there are many Portuguese cafés, restaurants, delicatessens, etc.  This figure would represent around 30% of the local population." 

I note there is no "WE ARE WATCHING YOU" sign in Portuguese in the store, if this is all simply about providing information signs for second-language speakers.

Might there be justification?

However, what if the miniscule Polish and Latvian communities are however single-handed and disproportionately responsible for a outbreak of shoplifting in this area?

Well, let's look at the national crime statistics for the area.  It seems that the East of England has one of the lowest regional crime rates in the entire country.   Life expectancy is among the highest in the UK and regional unemployment is one of the lowest.  My local village newsletter recorded a total of four crimes dealt with by the police in the whole of the last month.  FOUR.  It's not exactly the Bronx round here.

Okay, I don't live in the metropolis of Diss (5000 inhabitants!) so let's see their exact local crime figures based on Tesco's postcode.  Here we have it - a total of 82 crimes reported in May 2014.   One third were anti-social crimes (31.7%) and one fifth (20.7%) were domestic burglaries.  Shoplifting made up 3.6% of the total for last month: a grand total of 3 reported instances of it.  Bear in mind there are three supermarkets close to one another that total is split between: Tesco, Coop/Somerfield and Morrisons.

So we have 3 reports of shoplifting a month, typically, split across three Diss supermarkets (offenders' nationalities unknown), and Tesco responds with these in your face signs that give the impression there is a petty crime spree caused by two specific nationalities: the Poles and the Latvians.  It is utterly disproportionate, misleading, offensive, unclassy and I'm afraid, just plain nasty.

Moreover, even if there were a major problem with shoplifting that was borne out by figures, and these criminals were proven to belong to one or two national groups, it still absolutely wouldn't be appropriate to single them out in this way.  Hire more security staff, but do not label all the other members of the group as potential criminals to the world at large in this way.   It's the equivalent of saying that because you've had a problem with certain individuals, you're okay labelling every one of them by shoving up the "no Irish, no Blacks, no Dogs" signs of yesteryear.  Several, or even many members of a particular societal group might objectively give you problems, but in 2014 it is just not acceptable to go on to label all members of that group with a highly negative label because of this.  There's a simple name for it: racism.

And here we all are wondering how UKIP manages to persuade people the country is sinking under the weight of criminal East European immigrants.  I'm a lawyer who bothered to check up on what the actual local statistics are.  I wonder how many other people will just see the sign and just assume there must be a Polish crime wave locally because the sign is there.  It's inflammatory and perpetuates a slur against a national group (actually, two national groups in this case).  It's racial stereotyping, it breeds prejudice, and it's inherently wrong.

Shame on Tesco

Shame on you Tesco Diss.  Shame on you Tesco nationally for not stopping this.

Aside from the moral position, you've also not thought for a moment how this will offend and piss of not just law abiding Polish and Latvian customers but everyone else too.  This is idiotically avoidable bad PR that your business should be seeking to avoid.  Instead, after a complaint, you've decided to make the situation worse.

* A couple of people have questioned whether it's possible to be "racist" towards Poles.  Simple answer, yes.  At the highest level, national origins are expressly covered in the 1966 United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.  In terms of UK legislation, the definition of a racial group is "A group of persons defined by reference to race, colour, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins." If you want an example of the legislation applying in an anti-Polish case of May 2014, please see here.


Sunday, 11 May 2014

Eurovision Triumph

Well, it's all over for another year.  "Gay Christmas" came and went last night with 125 million viewers across the continent.  Initial estimates suggest at least 126 million of these were gay men.  Families at home, bars, and drunken Eurovision parties tuned in for the annual smörgåsbord of camp fabulousness.  It's the yearly celebration of how deliciously bonkers we Europeans truly are. 
It was a delight, for many reasons.  One of these is that show has gone way past the stage of having only cult "irony" value for the sheer car-crash value of the horrendous acts and dreadful costumes.  The Terry Wogan piss-take era is now firmly behind us, with some arguably very good chunes indeed.  Heck, I wasted £4.74 on iTunes this morning frantically downloading some of them, so they must be good.  

Then we had the sets: Ukraine deserves a special mention inventing a whole new sexual fetish.  This involves putting a totally fit guy dressed in a shirt and tie in a giant hamster wheel and asking him to run round and round for you.  If you haven't yet tried it, I recommend you do.  When gay Twitter discovered Hamster Man's amazingly sexy name was <ROMAN> it frankly imploded for several hours.  Well, I had to lie down for a bit anyway.


Eurovision 2014 will go down in history, though, for its result.  Unless you're in some distant village in Outer Mongolia with yak mail being the only connection with the rest of the world, you'll know that a bearded drag queen from Austria, Conchita Wurst, took first prize.  She didn't just win - she romped home with a massive 290 votes. 
Conchita is exquisitely beautiful.  She has a figure to die for.  In her own words, she's a "singer in a fabulous dress, with great hair, and a beard."  The new Queen of Europe is a bearded lady.  Let's pause for a moment to consider her name: yes, it actually means "Pussy Sausage" in a combination of Spanish and German if you were wondering.

The person behind Conchita isn't transgender, unlike Sharon Cohen (Dana International) who took the Eurovision prize for Israel in 1998.  Conchita is the stage persona of a 25 year old guy called Tom Neuwirth, who's from grew up in a provincial town of 3000 people in Styria.  He's a gay man in drag.  With a beard.  
Russian politician Vitaly Milonov, one of the architects of the country's "gay propaganda" law last month called Eurovision a hotbed of sodomy and called for a Russian boycott of the show.  He further called for the "pervert" Conchita to be excluded, and labelled her an "obvious transvestite".  Regarding the latter claim, Vitaly, in other news bear shit was this morning discovered in the woods outside St Petersburg. 
The Votes
Ten million people dialed in across the continent last night to vote in, to add their voice to the professional jury (since 2009 voting is 50/50 jury and popular vote).  What they did was to confirm that this, our continent, is a far more liberal and tolerant place that many ever thought it was.  Let's be honest: Conchita's song was fair to good.  It wasn't a stand out winner if simply heard on the radio.  It was the act that made this phenomenal: last night she looked a million Euro.  
I watched a fascinating voting pattern: one after the other the ten countries with same sex marriage joined #TeamWurst, giving her full or nearly full marks.  Belgium, Netherlands, UK, Spain, France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Portugal: not one didn't do so.  Countries where same sex is very much on the cards (Ireland and Finland) also joined them, as did some other countries you might not have expected to hand over the douze points: Hungary, Greece and Israel.  

Moreover, if you strip out the jury votes and simply look at the popular votes, Conchita's popularity amongst the people of Europe was even more resounding.  Her score goes up from 290 votes (a margin of 52 over the runner up, Netherlands) to 306 votes (86 votes clear).  The juries are there for very good reason and the official score is all that matters - but what's clear from this is a reinforcement of the fact that people across Europe loved her.

It just really struck me: is there anywhere else that would fall over itself to vote for a bearded drag queen if they had such a contest?  I can't imagine this happening in a million years in the USA for example.  
No Politics
The Eurovision Song Contest is older than the EU.  It was created just 11 years after the Second World War.  The armies of Hitler (that other Austrian whose facial hair is really rather famous) and Stalin had decimated Europe.  It was set up to bring the people of Europe together: quite the tall order and amazingly idealistic given the time.  Political statements are expressly forbidden. 
2014 is the year of anniversaries.  It's 100 years since the heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated at Sarajevo, plunging Europe into the hell of WW1. It's 75 years since Reichskristallnacht, when synagogues were burnt across Germany (and Austria): the precursor to both WW2 and the holocaust.  It's 70 years since the D-Day landings and hope spread out over the continent like a slow-burning flame from the beaches of Normandy.  It's also 70 years since the failed assassination attempt on Hitler by aristocratic German officers who paid with their lives.  They had proposed a union of democratic European nations, with its capital in Vienna, the seat of the old Holy Roman Empire.  It's 25 years since the Berlin Wall, the physical symbol of division across the continent, came crashing down, and Austria resumed its natural place at the cross-roads of a Europe that has been healing ever since.

WHAT symbolism then, that Conchita won this year, and next year Eurovision will take place in Vienna.  Rainbow flags were flying everywhere in the audience last night.  Conchita could not say what she wanted to because of the no-politics rule, but everyone knew exactly what she meant when she said:
"This is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom.  You know who you are.  We are unity and we are unstoppable."
Yes, Conchita, we are.  We are LGBT Europeans and the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of straight friends and supporters right across the continent. 
So Proud to be European 
What a different place this continent of ours has become.  It's so easy to forget when you hear constantly the repugnant views of xenophobic, homophobic politicians reported across Europe and on our own doorstep (yes, UKIP, I'm looking at you).  
The vote was a huge f*ck you of liberal values over the dying voice of social conservatism.  It was an affirmation of anyone who has been different and been stigmatised because of it.  It was the personal triumph of a schoolboy from Gmunden who grew up fancying other boys and wanting to wear frocks. 
It was a peaceful, democratic, liberal Europe slowly but surely taking the lead dragging the world into a new century, exactly 100 years after it had plunged it into militaristic chaos and destruction.  It's a new Europe that has voted for marriage equality in an increasing number of countries.  It's by no means without its problems, but in so many respects, it's just such a great place to be. 
I was so, so proud to be European last night.  What a great side of people this brought out, and what an amazing, symbolically significant thing a camp song contest can be, particularly when a bearded lady wins it.  Who'd ever have imagined it :-)

Monday, 5 May 2014

UKIP: Our Last Hope

What more can be said about the apparent phenomenal rise of UKIP in the polls?

2004: something new

10 years ago I was on holiday in Poland and remember the shocked German news reports stating that UKIP had obtained 16% of the vote.  They had returned 12 MEPs.  "These aren't just Eurosceptics" they informed the audience: "They've decided they're not sceptical: they want to leave the EU."  The rest of the EU were well used to decades of Tory Eurosceptics attempting to scupper anything that came out of Europe, but this was something new.

The thought of leaving the EU seemed ridiculous, just at the point where most of the continent was celebrating the accession of 10 new countries.  Yet here we are in 2014 with poll predictions of upwards of 30% of the vote for UKIP, and our PM pledging an in/out referendum on the EU if the Tories win the general election in 2015.

Since 2004 UKIP has gone from a single issue anti-EU protest party to a catch-all repository for the disaffected right wing vote.  The droning on about EU issues seem to have been replaced to a large extent by a much broader anti-immigration platform.  Anti-islam feeling runs high and a dislike of anything not "English" (its appeal is specifically strong in England, not in the rest of the UK). 

The language of UKIP supporters

I'm very interested by the language that UKIP supporters use on social media, and the psyche of fear that appears to motivate them.  Much of it is incredibly dramatic, particularly when discussing immigration.  The country is "overrun".  Schools and hospitals are "full".  The "indigenous people" are being "pushed out".  England is "smouldering beneath ready to explode".  Wow, is it really?

When you fly over this green and pleasant land of ours, it's hard to tally the rhetoric with the reality.  Most of the country isn't built on.  No, actually that's wrong.  Almost ALL the country is not built on.  Any guesses as to the exact figure? 60%? 30%? 15%? Actually only 2.27% of England's land is built on.  "Britain's mental picture of its landscape is far removed from reality".  It's actually a remarkably peaceful, green, spacious, still comparably well-off country.

It doesn't matter though: you can reason about how immigration is a necessary thing for an economy, and an incredibly positive thing for a society.  You can talk about the financial contribution that immigrants make in fiscal terms.  You can point out that we have huge amounts of space and we're not about to sink into the North Sea under the weight of millions of newly arrived Romanians.

You simply hit a brick wall of willful, entrenched ignorance, fear and always an underlying belief that the English are somehow superior.  It's as if decades of scare-mongering in the right wing tabloid press has finally soaked in and nothing will dissipate it.  It's pure emotional reaction and the language reflects it.  Let's not doubt it, though: there's real anger, and there's real fear amongst many of these people.  A peril has been identified that goes way beyond the original target of the EU.

Farage: Our Last Hope

Having identified an apparent terrible peril the country faces, the next step is to suggest a solution.  The country has been let down by the traditional parties, but there is an alternative.  Much of the rhetoric I've observed demonstrates an almost Messianic like belief in UKIP to solve matters.

UKIP's policies seem quite ill-defined and apparently to mean many things to many different people.  Is it an anti-establishment party, a libertarian party, or a pro-City, authoritarian right wing party?  In some respects it doesn't matter.  It's just important to note that for some of those 30%+ voters it's not simply a protest party: it's the solution to all their woes.

The party is of course inexorably linked with the personality of its leader, Nigel Farage.  It's he who's on the TV endlessly.  I doubt few general members of the public could name anyone else in the party (except perhaps Roger Helmer MEP).  There's a cult like worship of the affable chap in his tweed jackets, enjoying a warm pint of English beer.  He's a man of the people.  He will lead us to a better place.  He is the "Leader" - note the capitalised L - who is the only politician who truly believes in Britain and the British people.

A Historical Comparison

I'm actually both fascinated and terrified by the mindset that chants that UKIP is "needed urgently" and that UKIP "will prevail".  For someone who's historically aware (and in my case, half-German) it's genuinely highly reminiscent of the posters the National Socialists used in the 1920s.  The country apparently faced catastrophic danger and only one party, and one man, could save it.

I'm not even going to make any Godwin's law type apologies when I post this image (which actually doesn't apply: it says that as an online argument between two or more parties grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.  I'm talking to myself here, not arguing with anyone :p).  If you don't know what it means, it's simply: "Our last hope: Hitler".  It encapsulates so much in one sentence.

Just to be clear, I do not for a moment think that UKIP heralds an overthrow of democracy and the advent of the 4th Reich.  It would be silly to suggest it does.  Thankfully, the parameters of European politics in 2014 are far more narrowly defined than those of Europe in the 1920s.  Almost every country is a fully functioning democracy.  Parties are generally grouped far closer to the centre than they were almost 100 years ago: the extreme far right and far left generally do not have the appeal they did back then. 

Yet there are valid comparisons to be made here in simple terms of the rhetoric.  When 47% of people ticked the "NSDAP" box in Weimar Germany they didn't know what was coming next: we only appreciate with horror the significance in retrospect.  They weren't voting for the holocaust.  They were voting amongst other things for "national revival" and German jobs.  Remember, the very mainstream Daily Mail in this country was praising the Nazis right up until 1938.  Their posters, their speeches and their policies attracted millions and seemed eminently reasonable to many.

According to some within UKIP,  the country is "smouldering beneath ready to explode".  Many feel that the traditional parties have failed us.  One party is the answer, one party can save us, one party is needed.  There's a dramatic desperation, an urgency, and there's a feeling that it's now or never.  There are clear and unfortunate parallels.  The Messianic belief that Nigel is our saviour, the only "Leader" who cares about his people, and can deliver his country, almost literally screams  "Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer" (One People, one Nation, one Leader).   I do wonder whether the people tweeting and re-tweeting the above are so historically unaware that this doesn't even occur to them,  if is it subliminal, or if for some it is quite deliberate.  Personally, it sends shudders down my back to see a "Leader" referred to in these terms.  No wonder people are starting to refer online to the man jokingly as Nigel Führage.

It doesn't matter that the threat to Germany in the 1920s/30s from World Jewry was as imagined as the threat is to England in 2014from Islam, "Labour fascists", gays or immigrants.  As much as I hate this government, I really don't think the country is on the precipice of economic collapse and disaster caused by immigrants, the EU, Islam or anything else.  It's rather a nice place to be in general, actually.  It could be far better still, and I hope it will become so: that won't be achieved by shutting out outsiders and becoming a nation of xenophobes. What UKIP has done is in some ways not identified a fear, so much as to create one.  There was no "Jewish problem" in Germany in 1933.  There is no "immigration crisis" in the UK in 2014.

What UKIP has achieved

By way of further historical comparison, UKIP has come from nowhere in a very short time and promises a political earthquake.  UKIP's  aim in the European elections is to send political representatives to a forum it despises and aims to destroy.  Other far right, yet more overtly racist parties in Europe promise similar.  In May 1928 the Nazis were polling just 2.8%.  By March 1933 they had used the democratic process to take power in the Reichstag, an institution that they hated, which they then destroyed from within, by passing the Enabling Act.  A 4th Reich isn't staring us in the eyes, but this should give pause for thought.

The effects of the UK leaving the EU would be enormous not just for us, but for the whole of the continent.  It would be one of the great events of early 21st century history, with no certainty whatsoever of the outcome.  UKIP has already succeeded where a generation of Tory Eurosceptics have failed, in getting the Prime Minister to put this on the political agenda.  They have done this by driving home fears about immigration and the danger it is doing, without even a single MP.  Dismiss them as "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists", Mr Cameron, but they've managed this quite impressive and worrying achievement.

What's more, instead of the Tories and Labour standing up to counter UKIP's rhetoric, they're leaving it virtually unchallenged.  Instead, they're falling over themselves trying to find ways of accommodating concerns about immigration out of fear of losing votes.  Again, quite impressive achievement there, UKIP.

What's the Solution?

It clearly isn't enough to mock Farage, UKIP and its supporters and hope they will go away*.  They won't.  It seems impossible to get through a positive message on immigration and the EU (yet we must keep trying).  Highlighting yet another story about a virulently anti-gay, anti-Islam or overtly racist UKIP supporter isn't working.  They appear daily now, Farage dismisses them as "I don't even know who this person is", they're suspended, and we move on.  It seems that it would require a UKIP supporter to suggest genocide to grab some genuine attention.  We all know the party is full of freaks, extremists, racists and idiots.  That doesn't make them go away.

Both the press and we have created this situation.  The Green Party actually has an MP, yet it never seems to secure any airtime.  Switch on the TV and Farage's grinning mug is everywhere to be seen.  He is given a disproportionate amount of airtime.  UKIP is given a disproportionate amount of attention on Twitter, by me and by plenty of others.

Our "last hope" is to get out and vote in the EU elections.  If you hate everything that UKIP stands for, and think that it reflects the basest and ugliest side of this country, these are very important elections to show that.  Analysts predict that many UKIP votes will revert to the main parties in the general elections.  However, UKIP will have a huge added claim to airtime and attention if it achieves the largest share of the vote on 22 May.  Whether you're a Tory, LibDem, Green or Labour supporter please get out there - one thing we know is that the UKIP voters will be out in force.  They're the ones who have more interest than anyone in voting in these elections.


Look at this exchange. 

If you're not aware of the details, 40,000 political prisoners were held in the Santiago national stadium during the far-right Pinochet military coup of 1973.  Prisoners were given yellow, black or red discs.  Those with red had no chance of survival.  A total of 3000 "leftists" were murdered under the General's rule and a further 1000 disappeared without trace.

As my friend Matt Leys pointed out, it's really rather a leap to go from remarking that UKIP is homophobic, sexist and xenophobic, to thinking that Dave Jones is considering gunning them all down.

I mentioned the dramatic, emotional language of many UKIP supporters earlier.  The woman is not some random UKIP supporter.  She's a UKIP's London region MEP candidate and Southwark UKIP chair.  Do you really want her to be elected as an MEP on a package of around £115,000?  I don't.

* As fun as it clearly is


It's always very difficult to write a post that makes any comparison to the Third Reich, no matter how defined and limited the comparison (i.e here, to the rhetoric of some of his supporters).  The magnitude of the horrors that regime represented leave you thinking "no I'm just being a bit silly and I'm imagining all this" ...  Then you catch up on a story from Channel 4 News that reveal a letter showing concerns about Farage's fascism and racism at school and his marching through a quiet Sussex village late at night shouting Hitler Youth songs.  And you just shake your head.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Is it Homophobic to oppose Same Sex Marriage?

The first same sex marriages in England and Wales took place this week.  It gave an ideal opportunity not just to celebrate the love of the people getting married, but for those who disagree with marriage equality to have one last blast at airing their views about how wrong this all is.

Catholic Voices, for example, has been keen to get its members media time on the subject.  The group
was co-founded by Jack Valero, a member of Opus Dei.  CV purports to represent the views of ordinary British Catholics*.  It has put out various items on the issue, such as this blog post, which at first glance seems reasonable enough.  However, breaking it down, in it they say that by allowing same sex couples to wed, there has been an "evisceration" of marriage.  That word generally means "disembowelment": removing the internal organs of an animal.  According to them, when two men or two women enter together into a legal, civil marriage, these are not proper weddings, but instead are a "parody" of the real thing.

They predict that:
  • all civil marriages will become insignificant and incoherent; 
  • marriage will be weakened; 
  • the state will be beset by groups wanting recognition of polyamorous and "other kinds" of sexual unions.  
Their claim is that society must rebuild itself.  You may agree or disagree with these quite serious claims about the effect of opening up of marriage to same-sex couples, but I'm interested in the question of whether being opposed to same-sex marriage is by definition homophobic.

Is it Homophobic? 

Well, I could answer this question in fewer than 140 characters by nicking Sean Jones QC's tweet below.  It's just brilliant and gets straight to the heart of it for me:

Catholic Voices take a quite apocalyptic stance about the effects of marriage equality, particularly when you strip away their attempts to be reasoned and reasonable.  Sean's tweet covers other less dramatic positions of people who simply don't "like" the idea of same sex marriage but haven't really formulated why.  I'll go on below to look at the matter in a bit more detail below, and explain why I agree with him.

The Word Homophobia

The first thing I'm going to do is to try to move away from the use of "homophobia".  It's an interesting word, first coined in 1969 to describe the "mixture of revulsion and apprehension".  It was also called homosexual panic.  I think back then that probably was the reaction of plenty of people (particularly straight men) when faced with people attracted to the same sex.  No doubt it is still the case for some now.

However, what most people naturally mean when they use the term is something akin to racism or sexism, which is directed at LGB people.  The word covers a whole range of negative feelings that range from antipathy or mild prejudice, through to actual violent contempt.  It can include phobia, but on most people's usage it doesn't actually by any means require fear.  I therefore understand why some get hung up on that aspect of the word, particularly when they try to give it its literal meaning.  I'm therefore going to use the term "anti-gay" in this post instead of homophobia here.

Just like any prejudice, anti-gay feeling and behaviour cover a huge spectrum of words and activities.   Someone who calls gays "poofs" in a tweet is clearly not in the same league as those who beat up, attack or kill gay men because of their hatred (19.3% of all hate crimes in the US were incidentally motivated by sexual orientation bias).   By having your position on same-sex marriage challenged as being anti-gay, it does not mean that the person doing so is suggesting that you're in the same category as someone who engages in violent assaults.  It's perfectly possible for you to know, and even like, some LGB people, whilst believing the law should rightly discriminate against them and to seek to deny them the rights that heterosexual people enjoy.   That really should be obvious.

Also, as with racism, you can of course feel that you're entirely not anti-gay, whilst behaving in such a way that others would agree falls into that category.  Those affected by your prejudice certainly don't have an absolute monopoly of determining what is and what is not anti-gay, but they are often in the best place to assess the effect of it because of their day to day life experiences.

The Symbolism of Marriage Equality

Let's be clear that in the UK the huge legal injustices facing same-sex couples were not the driving force in LGB people arguing for marriage equality.  Civil Partnerships had already meant that almost the same legal rights were available to civil partners as to those marrying.  In this the UK differs to many other countries around the world.

The matter of marriage equality was foremost one of equal treatment, dignity and principle.  Marriage is of course an entirely made up thing: a social construct that humans have created and defined.  It's a concept, not a tangible "thing".  It is however an important institution from which we collectively have agreed certain rights and responsibilities should flow.  This change in the law on marriage was about the State saying "your unions are equal".  It's about the State sending out a signal that "you are equal" after many, many years of state instituted discrimination and wrong treatment, and in the context of ongoing social prejudice. 

It was extremely important to many LGB people, myself included, to win this battle.  I'm enormously glad we did.  The symbolism was absolutely enormous.  We have already moved from a society where, growing up as a gay teen in the 80s, my only point of reference to homosexuality was parody characters on Are You Being Served, and hearing how homosexuals were dying of a "gay plague".  Instead we have an incredibly positive affirmation of same-sex unions by a Conservative prime-minister who himself had even voted against the repeal of Section 28.   This is enormous.

Again, Sean entirely gets it:

I cannot emphasise enough what it represents to have the option of marriage available to me personally, and to know the positive effect on the next generation of gay teenagers growing up in an environment where the State recognises their relationships and treats them as equal.  What an amazingly positive change and healthy development in our society.

Being Anti-Gay

It's not terribly hard to set out tests for whether someone is expressing an anti-gay position.  Here are a few examples:
  • Do you believe that LGB people should have fewer or different civil rights to straight people?
  • Do you believe that civil marriage between an LGB couple is a parody of "real marriage"?
  • Do you believe that LGB relationships are only worthy of separate recognition by the State and LGB people should be satisfied with that?
  • Do your views and words tend to upset, offend or hurt a sizeable proportion of LGB people?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, I'd say there's a good chance you're being intrinsically and inherently anti-gay.  It really is rather difficult for you to argue that is not case.  I think, with respect**, you'd have to be quite thick to not get this point.  If you were saying black people should have fewer civil rights, people would rightly say you're being racist.  Here, you're saying things that are anti-gay, and if you had your way the effects of this would be laws that discriminate against (i.e. treat differently) LGB people.  You're being anti-gay.

And if, remarkably, you still haven't got the point that you're being anti-gay by arguing I should not be allowed marriage equality, then consider this.  In 1967 the US Supreme Court overturned the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which had prohibited inter-racial marriages.  Similar rules existed in other states.  Imagine if, instead, the court had permitted blacks to enter unions with whites, but it created a "separate but equal" institution called "inter-racial partnerships".  Would you argue that mixed race couples should be content with it because it gave all the same legal rights as "ordinary" couples AND this position is not racist?  I think people would label you as racist on this issue, with justification.  I see no difference with stating that LGB people should put up with the separate but (almost) equal institution of civil partnership is being anti-gay.

Please do think about this if you're stance is "I'm not anti-gay, but I don't think they should be allowed to get married."  Really think it through and realise what you're saying.

Baffling Denial

We've had plenty of examples in history of laws related to marriage that discriminate against any given group.  The 1701 Act of Settlement was anti-Catholic.  It said that anyone who became Roman Catholic or married a Roman Catholic was excluded from the succession.  The Nuremberg laws of 1935 were anti-Jewish and prohibited non-Jews from marrying Jews in Germany.  I've already mentioned the ban on whites marrying blacks in some US states.

In each of these cases people were, I believe, consciously aware that the policies discriminated against a particular group.  They felt it was right to do so and put forward justifications for this.  This country faced what it considered to be a serious threat from Roman Catholicism in the early 18th century.  Millions of Germans supported the discriminatory Nuremberg laws as necessary to protect the "German nation".  People who argued for segregation knew they were backing a racist policy.  They wrongly thought it was correct to do so in the interests of social harmony.

The extraordinary thing same sex marriage issue, though, is that many people are in utter denial that by seeking to keep marriage from LGB people that they are being at all anti-gay.  Catholic Voices do it in their article.  They say that they are offended by "jeers" that they are homophobic or bigoted for taking the stance they do.  Here's a Catholic Priest, Father James Bradley, who says we live in "dangerous times" because of this and this is "not the path of a civilized society".

Quite how he reaches this point I'm not sure.  He's entitled to his view that I should be discriminated against by the State and to put forward what he sees as his compelling faith based reasons for this.  People will agree or disagree with them.  But to deny that anyone who takes a position that is by definition anti-gay is being anti-gay makes no sense at all.  It is not dangerous to point this out, and it is not uncivilised to do so.  It is only uncivilised if it's accompanied by abuse, but that's not what I'm doing.  I'm simply stating something which should be quite evident if you use some logic.

The Roman Catholic faith teaches (Catechism 2357) that homosexual acts are "acts of grave depravity" and are "intrinsically disordered".  It says that they are "contrary to natural law".  They do not "proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity".  "Under no circumstances can they be approved".  It talks about same-sex attraction being a "trial" for homosexuals.  This is as inherently anti-gay as it gets.  With these teachings, it is a virulently anti-gay religion.  The Catechism then talks about treating these poor homosexuals with "respect" and not unjustifiably discriminating against them (justifiable discrimination is by definition okay according to the faith).

Why should I not point out that all of the attempts to deny me civil rights come from an inherently anti-gay set of religious views?  They are entitled to their beliefs and can argue them as much as they like, but I will not accept that whilst doing so they are not being anti-gay.
Just as a side-note, we have always to remember that there are many Christians who take a different viewpoint to the one above.  The Church in Wales last month issued a report by the standing doctrinal commission which stated the following:

Isn't that beautiful?  A very recent poll found a majority (53%) of Americans now support same-sex marriage, with support amongst white Catholics even higher, at 58%, and amongst Hispanic Catholics at 56%.  Perhaps Rome will catch up with the huge number of its own members who don't support its anti-gay position.  Don't believe that it doesn't or can't ever change its policies on fundamental issues either: that's demonstrable historic nonsense.  To give one example, the Catholic Church banned the charging of interest on loans during most of its existence.  It said the practice was "detestable to God and man, damned by the sacred canons and contrary to Christian charity".  The doctrine was enunciated by popes, expressed by three ecumenical councils, proclaimed by bishops, and taught unanimously by theologians.  People who lent for money were refused the sacraments and Christian burial.  Then, in the 19th century they changed the rules and, hey ho, allowed it. Such is the immutable Word of God.

It Bothers Them

Now, back to the curious point about those being anti-gay denying that they are in fact so.  If you point this out to them, wow does it bother them.  They want to have their communion wafer and eat it.  NO, they are motivated by God's word and love and nothing about their anti-gay stance is at all anti-gay.  They trot out the words that everyone is created in God's image and is worthy of human dignity.  It's "love the sinner, hate the sin, and go out and campaign loudly for the State to actively discriminate against the sinner in civil matters."  They get most upset when their anti-gay stance is called out as such.

A few of them are obviously and offensively homophobic.  The ostensibly reasonable Catholic Voices piece contained the slippery slope argument about "other sexual unions" being recognised.  These words are a bit nebulous and they don't spell out what is meant with that.  Given the piece has already considered straight, same-sex and polyamorous sexual unions, I can only assume it refers either to bestiality, paedophilia, or both.   Considering the union of two people of the same sex with screwing animals in the same context is a bit anti-gay isn't it, even it if wasn't overt?

This Catholic convert and former monk below, who calls gay men "LGBT perverts" and "poofs", is much more direct:

And YET, it bothers the donkey-loving former monk to be called anti-gay.  He's been off recently on a long rant with a doctor I follow about how he worked with gay men in the 1980s during the Aids crisis, preaching abstinence.  Because of this, and despite his anti-gay tweets, he maintains he isn't anti-gay.  This is, to me, very baffling psychology.

A Fifth of Britons wouldn't go to a Gay Wedding

Just to wrap up, it was widely reported (BBC, Guardian, Telegraph etc) that a recent poll showed 68% support for marriage equality, with a minority of just 26% who actually object to it.  That result must have hurt those opposed to same-sex marriage, with their claims that the majority of the population is opposed to it.  26% opposition is actually quite a remarkable figure.  There actually aren't many contentious political issues (HS2, fracking, EU etc) where just 26% of the population are opposed to something.  It shows surprising and heart-warming consensus given the public hasn't even had time to get used to the change yet.

Rather than emphasise this positive point, most of the press however highlighted a subsidiary finding in the poll that a "fifth of Britons (22%) would turn down an invitation to a gay wedding."  Father Bradly, above, said the findings of the survey reflected the reality that people remained "deeply uncomfortable" with being honest about their true feelings on the meaning of marriage.

I actually wouldn't be at all surprised if 20% of the British population would respond in a poll that they would not be comfortable attending a Muslim wedding.  People can be very uneasy and/or prejudiced towards groups, particularly when they have had no personal contact with members of it, and have soaked up negative stereotypes from the press and elsewhere.  If this were the case, a sensible approach might be to accept that prejudice of all sorts is deeply engrained in our society and to ask what can be done to justify it.  I certainly wouldn't argue that it means that Muslim people shouldn't be allowed to marry by the State, because people are personally "deeply uncomfortable" with going to one of their weddings and we need to pander to that prejudice.

Some Gay People Get Married. Get Over It.

The really GREAT thing is all this is over, or it should be.  Those seeking to be anti-gay about marriage have lost their argument, the vast majority of the population supports marriage equality, and this is the last opportunity for them to air their anti-gay views with anyone taking any kind of notice. 

I believe it's been a particularly disastrous week for the likes of Catholic Voices in getting their anti-gay viewpoint over and attempting to win hearts and minds.  Some attempts have led to enormous mirth online, and it's been really quite amusing watching it unfold, and see it bite them back on the arse.  The opponents of marriage equality appear, in my view, to be increasingly isolated, bitter, unreasonable, and often hysterical in their predictions. 

I hope this is my last blog post on the subject.

Love wins in the end.

* Christian Voices is in somewhat hot water at the moment when one of their Speakers, Paula Thompson, an architect, put out an anti-gay tweet regarding Mozilla that spoke of "normal people".  In response a person in the US agreed with her and added "All fags are mentally ill and need to be exterminated".  She retweeted this hate-filled statement to her 1100 followers with no indication that she objected to the contents of the tweet.  She further agreed with a tweet that said "Homosexuals do not want tolerance.  They want to dominate with their sick, deviant life style choice".  Finally a tweet came to light before she was a Catholic Voice in which she said she hoped the IRA would bomb an abortion clinic in Northern Ireland.  It was after that they recruited her as a speaker.

Catholic Voices apparently has the "blessing" of the Catholic bishops in the UK. They apparently "can be relied on to express authoritatively the Church's positions in ways that are succint [sic], compelling and reasonable."  Make your own mind up how those tweets fit with that.  Genocide and sectarian violence.  Paula has since resigned, which has conveniently led Catholic Voices to say it's nothing to do with them any more.  Neither she nor Catholic Voices have offered any form of apology to the anti-gay tweets.  The issue of whether this constitutes illegal hate speech is currently with the Police.

** not really

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Austria and the Past

Austria's one of the countries I've visited most in my life, around half a dozen times each year, and one I still find a bit of a puzzle.  It's the land of beautiful mountains, the Sound of Music [click on the link for everything you need to know about that], and Vienna.  Yet there's something I don't quite "get" about the place.   A lot of that, I think, is to do with the way Austrians relate to their past, which is what this blog post is about.

The Monument actually takes up a whole square
Last week I was in Vienna and I took the above photograph of the National Memorial to the Victims of War and Fascism.  It was inaugurated in 1988 on the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss of the country by Nazi Germany.   It's a big, prominent feature, right in the very centre of the city, behind the Opera House, at the entrance to the main shopping street.  You'd assume they chose the words quite carefully.  The plaque simply says:
"On this sport stood the Philipphof, which was destroyed during a bombing raid on 12 March 1945.  Hundreds of people who had sought refuge in the cellars of the building died as a result.
This monument is dedicated to all victims of war and fascism."
That's it.  Where to start.  Well, let's go back to some basics on Austrian history before we reach the reason why this is so jaw-droppingly unacceptable in my view.  You may have wondered why Austria, which speaks German, and is made up overwhelmingly of ethnic Germans, and shares very close cultural links to Germany, is not part of the country.  I shall endeavour to explain!

Ostarrîchi and all that jazz

The country traces its modern roots to about 996 when its name, which means "Eastern March" (a fortified area bordering the Slavic domains) was first mentioned.  It was populated by German speakers and became an independent duchy in 1156.  For over 600 years of this time it was ruled over by the Habsburg family, who were actually originally immigrants from neighbouring Switzerland.  See: this is what happens unless you have strong borders: first they come to do the underpaid jobs you don't want on hotel receptions; and next they're ruling the place, strutting around calling themselves Holy Roman Emperors and building magnificent palaces like Schönbrunn.  Vote UKIP and all that.

Austria was pretty shit at wars, losing a remarkably high percentage that it ever got involved in.  For this reason there's a HUGE monument at the Praterstern in Vienna to an utterly insignificant naval victory they won in 1866 against the Italians, in which two(!) Italians ships were sunk.  When you're rubbish at battles, you've really got to sex up the ones you won, I guess.  So, instead of fighting, Austria married off its royal children strategically and built up a great empire.  The Habsburg motto became: Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube (let others wage war; you, fortunate Austria, marry).

The vast, multinational empire was all fine and dandy until the political changes occasioned by the rise and defeat of Napoleon, and the rise of nationalism in the 19th century.  Austria occupied an odd position in German affairs.  The Habsburgs tended to be elected to the position of Holy Roman Emperor (ie. German Emperor) and so had a reasonably dominant influence in the territory we now call Germany.  At the same time they had a vast non-German empire, whose people would come to identify more and more with their national grouping as time went on.  Matters came to a head when the North Germans took on Austria in war, and of course won so rapidly the poor Austrians didn't even have time to get their Apfelstrudels out for breakfast.  If you've been paying attention, you'll remember: Austrians = "shit at war".

The once multinational, multilingual Austrian Parliament

Austria was pushed out of German affairs, the King of Prussia became Kaiser of a unified Germany (excluding some 8 million ethnically German Austrians), and Austria-Hungary, as it was now known, tried to hold together its dysfunctional empire of around 10 different nationalities.  On one level it was doomed to failure; on another view it was an economically booming multinational entity of 50 million people.  Its economy grew 75% from 1870 to 1913, for example, almost double the rate of Britain's, and faster even than Germany's.  Representatives from around the Empire addressed the Parliament in Vienna (above) in their own language, schools taught in their the local language, and State officials could use their own language at work.  Some would say it was heading very much in the right direction, and was a prototype for a central European Union.

Anschluss and Austrian War Criminals

World War One is of course the hot historical topic of 1914.  It all of course began when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry.  If you're a Blackadder fan, you'll know the poor Ostrich died for nothing too :(  Germany had given Austria-Hungary a blank cheque offer of military support, which given just how shit Austria was at fighting wars was possibly rather silly.  

The plaque commemorating Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the Imperial Burial Vault in Vienna is dedicated to "the first victim of WW1".  How interesting a spin that is, from the country that actually chose to declare war and invade Serbia a month after his assassination in Sarejevo.   I also read a fascinating little Q&A in a Vienna tabloid last week on WW1.  The first thing it said was "It's clear that Emperor Franz Josef was not solely to blame for the war."  This narrative of "it wasn't us" will return... 

When Austria pulled out of the war in October 1918, with its empire collapsing round its ears, followed by the collapse of Germany shortly afterwards, the question was, what next.  Now that they were free of their foreign empire, plenty of Austrians favoured union with Germany. However, the Allies were having none of it.  A referendum in Salzburg province indicated a genuine 99.8% support for becoming part of neighbouring Bavaria.  The victorious Allies would only apply the principle of self-determination when it suited them and strengthening Germany was not on the cards in 1919.  So, Austria became a "rump republic" just 1/8th the size it had been, once again outside and independent of Germany. 

Terrified Austrians look away in horror at the Anschluss. Oh.

In March 1938 the Germans invaded.  Well... that's how many Austrians tend to characterise it.  Given crowds lined the route of the panzers towards Vienna and the only thing that was thrown at them were flowers by the ecstatic onlookers, it's hard to see it as a military invasion in the usual sense.  I'm told that during the filming of the Sound of Music, the city of Salzburg's objection to decking the streets with Nazi flags were swiftly withdrawn when they were told actual archive footage would be used instead (thanks @chrisdaleoxford!).  Just 25 years later there would have been some very prominent, identifiable, red faces to be noted in the crowd.

Let's not sugar-coat Austrian involvement in the Third Reich.  They were in it up to their ears.  From the Führer Hitler, downwards to Adolf Eichmann (the major organiser of the holocaust who attended the same school in Linz that Hitler did, 17 years later), to Franz Stangl (commandant of Treblinka), to Amon Goeth (of Schindler's List fame), and to members of the Austrian ski regiments that the Third Reich newspapers proudly proclaimed had taken part in the invasion of Norway, the Austrians were hugely enthusiastic participants in the Reich.  The uncontrolled viciousness of anti-Semitic attacks in Vienna during 1938/9 actually caused the Nazis in Berlin embarrassment: the Jews needed to be robbed and encouraged to emigrate in an orderly fashion, not be beaten up so obviously under the nose of the world media.  One shocking statistic I heard is that the Austrians made up just 7% of the Third's Reich population, yet contributed 25% of the membership of the SS, and 40% of the management at the death camps.  

In other occupied European countries, there was a mixture of collaboration and resistance.  In Austria there wasn't collaboration: there was full on leadership and participation.  Austria was an integral part of the Nazi Third Reich.  There was absolutely no armed resistance: as the historian Guy Walters put it to me recently, the museum of Austrian Resistance in Vienna is the smallest one he has ever visited.

The Real Life Amon Goeth, from Vienna, as played by Fiennes

From 1943, only when it became clear that Germany was losing the war, and food and other shortages hit hard, did the love affair at being part of the Greater German Reich began rapidly to wane in Austria.  Local party officials reported regular occurrences of dissent and anti-Piefke comments.  Piefke is a derogatory term for Germans still used by some Austrians: it's a bit stronger than the US term for northerners, "Yankee".  Let's go with "Fukcing Yankee", or similar.  Then, late in the war, came the Allied bomb raids: the centre of Salzburg was obliterated and around 30% of Vienna was destroyed.  In the end, Austria was on the losing side of yet another war (this time, fortunately, and of course!).  Finally the country was divided, like Germany into four zones of occupation.  This lasted ten years until the US, Soviet Union, Britain and France withdrew in 1955.  Austria was forever to remain a neutral country, and would never seek reunification with Germany, as part of the new Austrian State Treaty. 

So there's your long-winded answer.  Why isn't Austria part of Germany today, whilst say neighbouring Bavaria is? - a series of historical accidents.  It did not stop them, sadly, from participating fully in the worst chapter of German history imaginable.

The Myth of the First Victim

With newly re-established Austria finding its feet in 1955, many people turned firmly to the future and did not want to discuss the past.  To be fair, collective amnesia was a phase that many in Germany went through too.  The difference was that the Austrians had what they took to be official sanction for it in the words of the 1943 Allied "Moscow Declaration".  It had described Austria as "the first free country to fall a victim to Hitlerite aggression".  This was a blatant untruth, and was intended to encourage resistance in the country.  It followed directly with a warning that if Austria did not do so it would pay for it when victory came.  As we know, that resistance never happened.  Right up to May 1945 young Austrian men were dying fiercely defending the Third Reich.

In West Germany, by contrast, an intensive programme of civilian de-nazification had been carried out by the Allies, which just did not occur here.  It suited many Austrians, laden with personal or family guilt, and latent resentment for the terrible fate that had befallen the country from 1938-45, to buy into this myth of the first victim.  The Sound of Music is the perfect example of the sugar-coating/ total white-washing of the period of history.  You watch it and think "oh those poor little Austrians!" forgetting entirely about the sing-song Viennese accents ordering people off trains and into gas chambers.  Worse, the movie isn't even Austrian - it's a product of Hollywood.

Oh Julie: what were you part of?

In 1991, a majority of Austrians said it was time to "put the holocaust behind them".  Just consider for a moment how many holocaust and other war victims were still alive and suffering at that point.  A poll in March 2013 that was widely reported abroad showed three of five Austrians want a "strong man" and lead the country, and 42% think things were not all bad under Hitler.  46% (in 2013!) still thought of Austria as a victim.  

I suppose it's something, though, that 54% rejects the myth.  Given these figures it would be silly, and wrong, to say "all Austrians deny the past".  They clearly do not.  As time has gone on, there has (slowly) been a more honest and critical reappraisal of the situation.  Attitudes also vary according to which part of the country you visit.  Vienna has long been traditionally more social-democrat and, I think, open to own up to the country's history.  Even in sleepy, conservative Salzburg I met a woman who was spitting mad about companies celebrating their 60th anniversaries in 2008/9, when she said it was blatantly obvious they had been "aryanised" (i.e. stolen from their former Jewish owners).  The picture is nuanced, but it's fair to say that in general Germany has been admirably open at least since the late 1960s to talking about its past, whereas Austria has been remarkably reticent on the whole.

Does the Past Matter?

Well yes, I think it does.  An honest appraisal of the past is, for me, a key component in achieving a healthy, tolerant society.   The Jewish community of Germany is absolutely flourishing once more and is the fastest growing in the world.  At 120,000 it is the 3rd largest in the EU.  Munich's Jews are back up to pre-1933 numbers.   It's nothing short of a miracle that Jews feel safe and want to bring up their children up right across the country.  I absolutely believe this in part down to the way the country has dealt so thoroughly with the history of the Nazi period.  In Austria there is a quite different feeling.  The small Jewish community is centred in one district of the capital, it is predominantly Ultra-Orthodox and was for many years completely stagnant in size.  Repeated recent stories sadly point to Viennese Jews being wary of anti-Semitic attacks. 

The far-right Freedom Party of Austria regularly polls 20-25%; in 1999 when it entered national government as part of a coalition, it attracted diplomatic sanctions from the EU.  Germany (just like Britain) isn't a bed of roses when it comes to xenophobic tendencies, but in Austria these people have been polling big numbers for decades and actually taking part in local and national government.  Its leader was recently embroiled in a scandal over an overtly anti-Semitic cartoon that he published.

Open-minded, liberal friends of mine in Vienna acted angrily to the reporting of the March 2013 poll abroad.  They said Austria was being picked on and it really was time to move on - their kids were sick of hearing all this when they had nothing to do with it.  I'd have a lot more sympathy with this if the country had actually been through the process Germany has.  You are much more inclined to forgive when something has been honestly owned up to, rather than dealt with it in a half-hearted and sometimes completely dishonest way.  This is even more the case where almost half the population still today thinks of their country as a victim rather than a perpetrator nation.  Of course my friends' kids were nothing to do with the actual crimes: but they are part of the society in 2013 that answers these polls the way it does, and that votes the Freedom Party in.

Mauthausen in Austria: the cruelest of all camps?

I remember my first visit to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp near Linz.  It is widely known as the most gratuitously cruel of all the camps across German-controlled Europe.  The SS took pleasure in devising over 60 ways of killing prisoners, from forcing them to climb down a quarry wall whilst taking pot-shots at their hands (the "Parachute Jump") to the "domino effect" of prisoners carrying heavy stones up 180 uneven steps falling back onto the people below them.  There was a special exhibition on entitled "Austrians in Mauthausen".  This presumably was set up by whatever professional historians run the exhibits here.  I was excited to see this acknowledgement of the role of Austrian SS management and guards in this Austrian camp.  But no, it was an exhibit about political opponents and the handful of priests who had ended up there.  The last section was a huge celebration of the liberation of Austria in May 1945.  Wow.  Just wow.  Austrian kids will come here to be educated on the holocaust and they will leave with the impression the Germans came in, did it all, and left.  It's actually shameful.

"That" Monument

So we return to the monument in the centre of Vienna.  In a way it draws together all the strands of this post perfectly.  It purports to commemorate all victims of war and fascism, yet it makes no reference to the Jews, to the Gypsies, to the socialists, to the communists, to the priests, or to the gays.  Of the 40 million victims of the Second World War, it in fact only mentions one group expressly: the 300 or so rich Austrian inhabitants of the luxury Philipphof apartment complex who were killed in a US air-raid.

I feel quite strongly about the wrongs of the Allied carpet bombing of German and Austrian civilian targets (please read this post if you haven't already) but this "War and Fascism" monument.. it actually makes me vaguely stabby.  I believe it is right and just to acknowledge civilian victims, even in a perpetrator nation, and even if they were members of or supporters of the Nazi party.  They did not deserve to be summarily burnt or crushed to death in a cellar in this way.  But before that HAS to come acknowledgement of the other victims, and indeed this country's role in carrying out crimes against them.  That is entirely, 100%, lacking here.  Austria really can do better than this.