Obsession with World War II distorts understanding of human rights
4 August 2012
A fascinating article by SOAS EU law specialist Dr Gunner Beck lays bare some of the important problems created by British hostility to Germany, which, by contrast to the profound social and economic changes that have taken place in both countries in the seven decades since WWII, appears “timeless and unchanging.”
In a wide ranging analysis of the abiding obsession with Nazi Germany in the British media and elsewhere, as well as the “strange sado-masochism” of Germany itself, Gunner Beck demonstrates how effectively this prejudice creates and fosters confusion about the current crisis in the Eurozone and the reaction of some of its members to German demands for closer scrutiny. He asks us to question why German history
is still largely reduced to the twelve years from 1933 to 1945, and why it still seems impossible in Britain to criticise any aspect of German economic or foreign policy, especially on EU matters, without some kind of Nazi connotation or similar historical insinuation lurking somewhere in the background… Why has nearly a lifetime of peaceful and liberal-democratic development in Germany done so little to put the Third Reich into some kind of historical perspective?
He then turns to the oft-cited mantra of human rights law, that it is somehow above modification or criticism because it addresses collective guilt about the war and Germany’s unparalleled wrongs. It may be recalled that the Daily Mail article explaining the reason for the resignation of political scientist Michael Pinto-Duschinsky from the Bill of Rights Commission was entitled ” I escaped the Nazis – so spare me these sneers about tyranny.” He was much criticised for arrogating a special understanding to himself by virtue of being part of a family that escaped the Holocaust (see Adam Wagner’s post). But there is a deeper truth about the Duschinsky objections to the Commission’s attitude: that there is a tendency to denounce anyone who criticises modern human rights legislation as, in Beck’s words, a “crypto-Nazi, a racist, and a divisive and dangerous right-winger”. This is not a healthy way to go about debating the subject, which touches on some of society’s most pressing issues, such as the financial implications and social consequences of the mass influx of refugees and illegal non-EU immigrants into Western and Central Europe. Indeed, in Beck’s view, it is a delusion that makes it effectively impossible to initiate a dispassionate discussion about the consequences of immigration for the survival of the welfare state in any large European state:
in a world where practically no one ever agrees on anything except on the facts that excessive bank bonus payments are inevitable, yet also that the financial markets cannot be regulated and that the end of the welfare state is inevitable, where very few shared ethical assumptions exist, everyone can nevertheless still agree that, whatever the disagreements between them, nothing can ever be as bad as what the Germans – a term all too readily used in place of the Nazis – did during World War II. It is a kind of minimal ethical commitment everyone can safely concur with, and one that costs very little indeed.
Beck concludes that the “whole machinery of human rights movement” has lost perspective. Whilst the courts have gone about an unimpeded extension of the meaning and scope of many human rights, “unhelpful references to the past” shut down any rational discussion of the interpretation now attached to many rights.
For instance, the talk about the need to prevent another Third Reich, genocide or wars, bears little or no meaningful relationship with issues such as whether the right to privacy should extend to abortion or whether there should exist a right to family reunion and fertility treatment, both key issues in current human rights law, both in Europe and the US.
This challenge to our “pathological obsession” with Germany’s historical pathologies will no doubt attract strong criticism. But the author’s call for an honest examination of the infantilising effect of this prejudice on rational debate and policy-making deserves serious attention, which we ignore at our peril:
In the end, China which has so shrewdly refused to do what Germany seems so eager to do, namely to bail out the eurozone, will mop up what remains in Europe on ebay, and it is unlikely that it will make subtle distinctions between things German and British. We shall all be equal then.
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