Lessons from history

Spending my summer break pottering along the Baltic coast from Germany through Poland, Lithuania and Latvia is a reminder of how recently Europe saw horrific slaughters like those now on our television screens in Iraq and Syria.

I write these words from Bialystok, where, seventy-five years ago, the Jewish community comprised almost two thirds of its population of over 100,000. Now there are almost none.

Over the past week I have also been in:

  • Vilnius: pre-war, an overwhelming Polish majority, now Lithuanian
  • Klaipeda: pre-war a large German majority, now Lithuanian with almost no Germans left
  • Swinoujcie, Mielno, Gdansk, Elblag, Olsztyn, pre-war German majorities, now Polish
  • Liepaja and Riga, until a few years ago, with Russian-speaking majorities, now Latvian (albeit in very different circumstances)

Not all these changes have been violent. In some cases, they have been more subtle, ‘encouraging’ people to leave, or part of other trends. But ethnic cleansing is usually nasty. And brutality is hardly new in this area. Dig back further into history and you see the forcible conversion of much of this region to Christianity by the ‘Northern Crusades’ (the same “convert or die” that we again see in the Middle East as religious zealots try to force their views on others). Not to mention the horrendous massacres in the 16th century, when Swedish (!) invaders completely destroyed 188 Polish cities and towns, resulting in the death of a third of the population of Poland — a higher rate of destruction than in World War II!

What does all this tell us? That man’s inhumanity to man (and it is usually men) is not the monopoly of any one group, nationality or religion. Everyone has done it, Brits included — the genocide of native Tasmanians, for instance.

Nor is it a thing of the past, that ‘civilisation’ has left behind. The world still has more than its fair share of nationalists who want ethnic purity, religious fundamentalists who do not tolerate any other belief, and ideologues who believe the end justifies the means.

We cannot complacently hope that this will fade away. That’s why international structures promoting cooperation matter. That’s why protection of fundamental rights is so important. That’s why educational systems that foster understanding and tolerance are vital. That’s why nationalism can be a dangerous force.

But it’s also why we must at times take vigorous action against extremists, against those who violate international law, and against those who have no notion of respect or even tolerance to fellow human beings who don’t share their view.

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