I am privileged to live in Berlin: a city bursting with history everywhere you look. My flat is in the Bayerischer Viertel of Schöneberg, once a neighbourhood with a sizable Jewish population. As I walk to and from the U-Bahn station every day I see the Stolpesteine, small gold plaques on the floor in front of doorways detailing those who lived there and were taken from their homes by the Nazis, ultimately to their deaths.
The streets in the Viertel are lined with another less subtle installation - the Signs Memorial, detailing in print the various anti-Jewish Nazi decrees passed under the Third Reich. Outside Rathaus Schöneberg, where my husband and I were one of the first same-sex couples to get married, a sign displays one of those decrees from September 15th 1935, translated in English to: “Citizens of German descent and Jews who enter marriages or extra-marital affairs with members of the other group will be imprisoned. As of today, mixed marriages are not valid.” We both walked past this sign with our families barely minutes after we were married - a stark reminder of what we have and how we must treasure it.
Berlin is a city deeply scarred by the Third Reich and the Holocaust. Yet it refuses to hide those scars and wears them with resolve – to never forget what happened and, more importantly, to make sure it never happens again. This is one of the many reasons I am proud to call myself a Berliner.
You will struggle to find someone more determined to recognise the signs of rising fascism than a German. Even if only 13% of the country voted for the AfD in 2017, the return of the far-right to the German Parliament for the first time since the Second World War provoked widespread disgust. However, comparisons to the Third Reich must be drawn carefully. When you invoke the memory of one of the largest examples of mass murder in the last century, to do so trivially is to demean the victims and blunt the significance of what happened.
This is why I was deeply disappointed to see David Lammy, a man for whom I have enormous respect, employ this lazy comparison to members of the Tory ERG. I was more disappointed to see others from the progressive Remain wing of UK politics follow suit. What’s worse is that Lammy didn’t just compare them to the Nazis on an equal basis. When pressed on the appropriateness of the comparison, Lammy protested: “I didn’t go far enough”. This takes bad taste into the realms of farce - promoting Jacob Rees-Mogg above Hitler, Göring and Goebbels.
There is no doubting that the ERG itself is plainly xenophobic. There’s also no doubting that its members have questionable links to unsavoury international figures. But any suggestion that the largely democratic squabbles in Parliament over the withdrawal agreement and Brexit in general have any sort of parity to the dying days of the Weimar Republic, a deeply unstable time in German history coinciding with the Great Depression which devastated the country, is beyond hyperbolic. To propose that the ERG are on the same level as the thugs who smashed up Jewish shops and committed state-sponsored murder of 91 Jews on Kristellnacht is pungently offensive.
“But it didn’t start with the concentration camps!” is the device of choice from individuals who wish to legitimately appropriate the Holocaust and compare it to whatever domestic or minor situation they’re currently facing. It’s deeply effective, because it has the secondary effect of suggesting that your protestations at the absurdity of the comparison is to discard the lessons of history.
The profound importance of recognising the signs of fascism is not license to take the slightest example of intolerance and put it on the same level as the Third Reich. The magnitude of the horrors of Nazism will mean nothing if diminished so regularly and carelessly. Last week, a Jewish German friend of mine who dedicates her time to leading tours of the various memorials expressed just how unedifying she finds these comparisons. I think that, of all people, her opinion on this should be considered.
For those who disagree, I urge you to visit Berlin, not just for the beer and the schnitzel, but to take a look at the other less-known memorials. Wander down the Bayerischer Viertel and look at the Signs. Go to the large square in front of Homboldt University and stare down into the empty white underground room of shelves commemorating the day Nazi students performed a mass book-burning. Visit Platform 17 at Grunewald Station, now a memorial, then the platform at which Berlin’s Jews departed the city for Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. Every step you take along the metal-panelled platform represents hundreds of lives lost.
National Socialism devastated Europe beyond recognition. Their victims deserve better than your edgy Nazi tweets.