We need to learn quickly from history


THE NEW EUROPEAN featured an article from the desk of Isherwood Editorial this week.

Here it is:

THE MORNING of June 24 came as a big shock to many of us as we came to terms with the referendum result that none of us really expected. Economically – depending on who you speak toor which agenda you’re following – Brexit may not be such a bad thing and could possibly be a good thing, but our decision to leave the European Union has far more damaging implications for our relationship with the rest of the continent.

We have been members of the European community for all my adult life. As I was born Danish and had the right to a passport until the age of 22 – a right I conceded when I was called up for national service – the connection with Europe has always been important to me. This was fuelled by my father, who was effectively a refugee from the Nazi regime in the early 1940s and, for a short time, a prisoner in what became a concentration camp in northern Germany.

To him, the European Union was something that bound us all together and helped prevent another war. The EU, along with other initiatives and projects across war-torn Europe, helped ensure that we did not repeat 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. This may appear a simplistic view, but a united Europe was supposed to be something of an insurance policy and, after all, it was a combined effort that eventually overcame Adolf Hitler.

My father came to England after suffering at the hands of Denmark’s mighty neighbours. He was a young Danish policeman when the Germans marched into Copenhagen in 1940. Guarding the tower in the zoo, he saw smoke rising in the distance as a few shots were fired. Indeed, he became involved in a skirmish in Frederiksberg, his local area, before being arrested and sent to a camp near Flensburg.

He rarely spoke of this period, but he bore a scar on his cheek that suggested he had been the victim of “special treatment”. He saw Hitler twice during his time in two prisons. “A short, clever man. The sort of person you would not notice in a crowd,” was how he described him to me many years later.

How he escaped from prison, not once but twice, was unclear, but he just seemed to walk-out through the gates. Many years later, in – of all places – Copenhagen Zoo, through sheer coincidence, my father and I came across his close friend that accompanied him on this perilous episode of his life – Kurt from Aabenraa. Over glasses of Akvavit and plates of herring, they recounted their experience, laughing and then reflecting on their good fortune and flirtation with extreme danger.

The first time they escaped, they were caught just yards from the Danish border. As they lay in a water-filled ditch, they heard the panting of a German shepherd dog. They looked up and a Wehrmacht soldier stood, lighting a cigarette. “He just whistled, grinned and gestured for us to get out of the ditch,” said my father.

But it didn’t stop them trying again and this time, they escaped all the way back to Copenhagen. When he finally reached Frederiksberg, my grandmother, a matriarchal figure who brought up 10 children on her own and heroically smoked cigars for Denmark, opened the door to see her bedraggled youngest son, Børge, covered in lice and starving. “His jacket moved as if it were alive,” she told me in 1971, the only time I ever met her. “We had almost given him up for dead – he looked terrible and frightened.”

He could not stay anywhere for too long, so he went into hiding and was passed around the homes of relatives for a few weeks, living in attics, where he developed his love of classical music and literature. He then moved onto Helsingor, where he helped Jews escape to Sweden. On one boat, he went across himself and worked his way through Norway before arriving in Bergen where he took a stinking and oily cargo vessel to Tilbury, Essex.

Kurt and Børge travelled by train from Tilbury to Grays which was blacked out at the time. The two young Danes poked their heads out of the station. “Kurt said to me, “hvor fanden har vi landede”, remembered my father, which roughly translated meant, “Where the f*** have we landed?.”

My father joined a regiment in the British Army which was predominantly exiled Danes. He later went to Palestine before being demobbed in the UK. He spent the rest of his life in Thurrock where for the last 20 years of his working life he ran a Working Men’s Club in West Thurrock. Danes visiting the area would often make their way to Flint Street, such was his reputation. He rarely spoke of his experiences in the second world war, but we always knew there was more to learn. It took some years to put together the story, but he seldom revealed how he had ended up in a grimy part of Essex. “I’m the bum of the family,” he would joke with his pals, forgetting to mention how he loved ballet, opera and the works of Chopin, Mozart and Beethoven. He also spoke German, Dutch and Swedish as well as English.

He never resented the Germans, far from it. “Many of them were victims of Hitler as much as we were. Hitler took advantage of the mess in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s and built a gang that did his dirty work. He gave people who had nothing something to believe in and they didn’t have too much choice,” was how he summed it up.

He had, of course, read Mein Kampf, forced to do so in the prison camp, so he knew all about Hitler and the deluded mind of a dictator. “Never again…it will never happen again in Europe,” he would say. “The French, the Germans and the British will make sure of that.”

He was always aware, though, that the British could be xenophobic at times. In the years after world war two, he would occasionally be set-upon by drunk Brits who mistook his blond hair, blue eyes and European accent – right until his death, his Vs were Ws and vice-versa – as being Germanic. One night in the Queens Hotel in Grays, he was attacked by three men and thrown through the plate glass window of a shoe shop. As with his German captors, he was philosophical about the incident. “They didn’t know any better.” My father died in 1993, but I am sure he would be horrified by what’s happening in Europe today. He always felt that Britain never truly embraced the idea of a united Europe, although he added that the whole of free Europe had tried to come together to defeat Hitler. “Some countries couldn’t do much because the Bliztkrieg had taken care of their armies, but everyone had a resistance movement. The war was won because of an allied effort, and ultimately, because of help from the Americans.”

This is why I was so upset by the Brexit vote and I am sure if my father had been alive, he would also be outraged by Britain’s decision to “go it alone”. As someone who experienced occupation, who sought refuge in a foreign country and worked alongside many nationalities for the greater good, he would be dismayed that 70 years of relative peace across continental Europe could be put at risk by the dismantling of a unifying body, however flawed and in need of restructuring it might be?

And now, with populist politics and protectionism coming to the fore, in much the same way that Europe threw itself into the arms of extremists in the 1930s, we have good reason to be worried. When you hear right-wing sentiment coming from Germany, a country that is one of the most civilised in the modern world, you have to shudder. People turn in this direction when they feel marginalised, isolated and disadvantaged. The results can be devastating, but we do have the benefit of history to inform the narrative. Before we allow events to be repeated, we need to talk to survivors from the last world war to remind ourselves of the past. We also need to get into the habit of reading books again. But please, not Mein Kampf.

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