Identity-politics is the latest buzz in Europe. From Scotland and Northern Ireland to Catalonia and the Basque country there are growing demands by national sub-groups for recognition of their cultural uniqueness, historical specificity, national difference and political independence. In Britain, the Scottish Nationalists virtually wiped out all the major British parties in Scotland in the recent British elections. Labour has traditionally counted on winning a hefty majority of Scotland’s 59 seats in general elections. This time, they won just one. The Scot-Nats narrowly lost an independence referendum last year; if it were repeated now it would pass easily.
The pipes are skirling and the saltires are snapping smartly in the summer breeze, but there is an undercurrent of concern. Ignoring pleas from the Scottish Jewish community, the local councils of Edinburgh, Glasgow and many smaller Scottish towns flew the Palestinian flag above their offices in solidarity with Gaza after last year’s conflict. The predictable effect was to send the rate of antisemitic incidents through the roof. Scottish Jews experienced almost as many antisemitic incidents in one month as in the entire previous year.
Why, you may ask, do the Scottish Nationalists, like other secessionist parties in Europe, wrap themselves in the Palestinian flag even as they declare their attachment to a radical and progressive political agenda? Perhaps they are expressing solidarity with an iconic group that they think – wrongly – is also seeking independence. Come to that, what is either radical or progressive about the homophobic, misogynist, anti-Western, antisemitic Hamas? You may ask, but you are unlikely to receive a coherent response.
Meanwhile, with nationalism triumphant, there is talk of some Scottish Jews attempting to hide their identity, while others are preparing to pack up and leave. So serious is the perceived threat of a Jewish exodus that the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, last month embarked on a series of public meetings with Scotland’s Jewish community to discuss their concerns, including antisemitism.
But while small fractious sub-nations are rediscovering their identity, some of Europe’s largest and most well-established states are experiencing different identity crises.
France has been struggling with an expanding group of Muslim immigrants – estimated to constitute more than 10% of the population – who show little sign of integrating into their adoptive society. The French have been only barely tolerant of their Jewish minority, but the influx of large numbers of Muslims has made them queasy at the growth of a lethal new brand of antisemitism.
In addition to a spate of verbal and physical attacks on Jews, a Muslim fanatic went on a rampage at the Ozer Hatorah School in Toulouse in March 2012, killing three Jewish children and a teacher. This was followed by the killing of four Jewish hostages during a siege at a kosher supermarket in Paris last January, shortly after the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine. All this has accelerated a mass departure by French Jews, mostly to Israel.
But the most interesting case of identity crisis in Europe is evident among Germans, still struggling to come to terms with who they are 70 years after the Holocaust.
For the first time since the Second World War, a slew of books is being published by a new generation of German historians who are examining the suffering of Germans in the aftermath of the war. These include reprisals by the Allies, the rash of German suicides and the displacement of 14 million Germans following the Nazi defeat.
According to Germany’s Forsa Institute for Social Research and Statistical Analysis, just 9% of Germans now consider the outcome of the war to have been a defeat, compared with 34% in 2005. The majority regard the fall of the Third Reich as liberation.
One of the new historians, Florian Huber, author of Child, Promise Me You Will Shoot Yourself, offers the first comprehensive examination of German suicides at the end of the war and is surprised at the huge demand for his book. “There were literally tens of thousands of cases of suicide,” he told an interviewer. “Many people have told me they felt relief that someone had opened up the Pandora’s box. It has been forgotten for 70 years.”
Another of the new-generation historians, Miriam Gebhardt, examines the rape of German women by the Allies, mostly Russians, in When the Soldiers Came. Many of these rapes, she said, were covered up or ignored. “Germans have had an understandable problem addressing their own victims in the light of the atrocities committed by the Nazis.”
Suicide is a personal choice; rape is a dreadful assault. They are unspeakable phenomena, but they do not change history, just as the new-found sense of victimhood among Germans does not ameliorate other aspects of their national identity.
For the record, a debate is raging in Germany over whether Muslim students should be exempted from mandatory visits to former concentration camps as part of the mandatory Holocaust education programmes. At the same time, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere announced that antisemitic offences jumped 25.5% last year.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.