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The Holocaust. A European Institution?

I’ve never been much of a European. In fact I’m not really sure if Ireland and the Irish qualify for the word. After all what does it mean, this nebulous thing called European? At its most basic it is a geographical term, the long chunk of land sticking out of Eurasia bordered by the waters of the North Sea, Atlantic and Mediterranean. But beyond that? A shared history, I suppose, and a mix of languages and cultures stretching back thousands of years to the fag-end of the last Ice Age. Yet there is no single European culture, or language, or even people. There is diversity, a multiplicity of races and ethnicities from time immemorial to the present day, that have occupied this particular region of planet Earth, the continental landmass and its islands. But uniformity?

If I feel any sort of identity above and beyond being simply Irish, it is being Gaelic and Celtic. Gaelic gives me ties to Scotland and the Isle of Man. Celtic to a greater family still that brings in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. Celtic, now that I understand, and feel, in my heart and my gut. But is that European? Maybe so. In a manner, the Celts were among the first pan-Europeans. And until recent years I had a sort of fondness, enthusiasm even, for the European Union and the ideals it (supposedly) represented. That latent appeal still remains, despite many disappointments, though I still wonder about that sense of being European.

To me, as an Irishman, Gael and Celt, Europe means invading Roman armies or invading Norman English armies , religious wars, continental wars, world wars, colonialism, imperialism, fascism, communism, capitalism, ethnic cleansing and genocide. All the great chapters of history that made for interesting reading but terrible times for those cursed to live through them (if indeed they did live through them). Which of course brings me to the Holocaust. Only Europe, and that centre and paragon of European ‘civilisation’, Germany, could bring you mass slaughter on an industrialised scale. Thanks to Germany the holocaust of bullets or of gas became another feature of European culture.

Now we find ourselves as the economic thralls of that very same Germany (albeit one suitably whitewashed after a few short decades of penitence), under the guise of the European Union. And what wonderful nations and friends we get to share this brave new Europe with, what exemplars of European civilization do we now have the opportunities to rub shoulders with (while holding our noses and trying not to retch).

So to Lithuania, one of the Baltic states, and the latest inmate to take up residence in the EU camp. As the Guardian so helpfully reminds us:

‘In early July the words “Hitler was right” were painted in Russian on the memorial stone to the 72,000 Jews who were murdered at the Ponary Forest near Vilnius in Lithuania. On another monument close by, a vulgar reference was made to the compensation the Lithuanian government has made to the descendants of murdered Jews. No one seems to have noticed.

German troops were followed by four Einsatzgruppen, whose task was to murder groups who might resist German power. In Lithuania, more quickly than anywhere else, this mission became mass murder.

The mass murder of the Jews of Vilnius could not have taken place without the assistance of Lithuanians: the Germans did not have enough men for the job.

The German unit assigned to kill the Vilnius Jews was Einsatzkommando 9 of Einsatzgruppe B. By 23 July 1941 the Germans had assembled a Lithuanian auxiliary that marched columns of Jews from Vilnius to the nearby Ponary Forest. Jews were taken in groups of between 12 and 20 to the edge of pits, where they had to hand over valuables and clothes before they were shot. Some 72,000 Jews from Vilnius and elsewhere were murdered at Ponary (as were about 8,000 Poles and Lithuanians). Ita Straż was one of the very few Jewish survivors. She was taken by Lithuanian policemen to a pit full of corpses. The shots missed her, but she fell into the pit, and was covered by the corpses of the people who came after. Later she climbed out and away: “I was barefoot. I walked and walked over corpses. There seemed to be no end to it.”

Why has the desecration of such a place escaped our notice? When the “Arbeit macht frei” sign was stolen in late 2009 from the gates of Auschwitz, an international scandal ensued, and the thieves (a Swedish neo-Nazi and two Polish accomplices) were apprehended. Perhaps reporters and editors in western Europe and the US do not associate places like Ponary with the Holocaust. Our imaginations are dominated by Auschwitz, even though more far more Jews were shot at places like Ponary than were murdered in its gas chambers.’

Ireland is an island nation, and we are an island people. Yes, we have links to our Gaelic near-kin in Scotland and Mann, and to our farther Celtic kin in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. We are the Celtic nations and all that is left of the Celtic world (thanks to the other Europeans). But do we really want any links at all to the mass-murderers of the continent? Do we really want to be part of any political or monetary union that includes the butchers of tens of millions?

Maybe, instead of being so eager to grab all that EU cash, of being so willing to sell our independence and sovereignty away for a few shiny trinkets, we should have stopped and thought and did the moral thing. But we didn’t. We let greed and avarice and moral cowardice be our watchwords.

So maybe we are European after all.

2 comments on “The Holocaust. A European Institution?

  1. Aren’t you forgetting that we, the irish, are one of the most interbred people around?

    The Vikings? The Normans and Saxons (Both Anglo and Cambro)? French blood through Strongbow and company along with Hugenots coming here not to mention our Spanish, Portuguese and North African blood.

    DNA tests show that a large swathe of the West of Ireland are genetically linked to the Basque region of Spain. The Irish, at least genetically, are probably the most European of Europe.

    p.s. You forgot to mention the Picts 😉


  2. Thanks for the Comment but I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree with you. Sorry 🙂

    The evidence from the DNA studies carried out in recent times point pretty much in the opposite direction. The base Irish population in terms of its genetic markers is fairly heterogeneous (at least up until recent times). Far from a mixed lot we are relatively unmixed and those extraneous inputs we do have can be pretty much pin-pointed to specific historical incursions (the Scandinavian invasions, the Norman-English invasions, etc.).

    You are right that we do share remarkable DNA similarities with the base Iberian population, though not as great as is made out (there is a lot of controversy in this area, especially with the focus on the disputed links to the Basques).

    North African blood? Are you referring to the Neolithic markers? Asian Minor I would have thought.

    In any case my point wasn’t about genetics (a dubious definer of race and ethnicity) but about culture and identity. There are times when I feel European, in certain attitudes to literature, art, democracy, civil rights, etc. But there are many more times when I don’t. And those attitudes that I referred to could just as well be defined as Irish qualities rather than European.

    Above my insular sense of identity is a Gaelic one, and above that a Celtic one. Yet I find it hard to find anything above those two (apart from a sense of common humanity) and have little real empathy with a European identity. Europe means very little to me. Yet a visit to Scotland or Mann, Wales, Cornwall or Brittany evokes feelings of kinship and familiarity.

    It’s complex. But I think we Irish accept too readily the definition of ‘European’ when we have more immediate, and historic, definitions that carry greater weight – and validity.


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