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Barwell-newGavin Barwell is Member of Parliament for
Croydon Central. Follow Gavin on Twitter.

Each year,
on the 27th January – the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau
by the Red Army – we mark Holocaust Memorial Day (tomorrow).  It is an opportunity to
remember the victims of this and subsequent genocides and to learn the
appropriate lessons so that we can try to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Like many
MPs, I've had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau with students from my
constituency as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s amazing “Lessons from
Auschwitz” project.  And I’ve had the honour to meet Croydon resident and
Holocaust survivor, Janina Fischler-Martinho, and to listen to her hold an
audience of several hundred young people spellbound as she described what
happened to her and her family.

There are
some who question whether we should teach the next generation about what
happened in Europe 70 years ago. Lord Baker of Dorking, who over a long
and distinguished career has done so much to improve education in this country,
has said:

“I would ban
the study of Nazism from the history curriculum totally. I don’t really
think that it does anything to learn more about Hitler and Nazism and the
Holocaust. It doesn’t really make us favourably disposed to Germany for a
start, present-day Germany… I think you study your own history first… I think
children should leave a British school with some idea of the timeline in their
minds – how it came from Roman Britain to Elizabeth II.”


I certainly
agree with him about the importance of teaching the narrative of British
history, but to me World War Two and the Holocaust are a vital part of that
narrative – many would share Churchill’s judgment at the time that Britain’s
continued resistance in 1940, when we had no realistic prospect whatsoever of
winning the war, was “our finest hour”.

Nor should
study of the Holocaust colour our attitudes to present-day Germany. First, no
country has done more to come to terms with its past misdeeds.  Second,
such a study would reveal that anti-Semitism was far from a solely German
phenomenon.  Take for example, Arminius Dew, a Foreign Office official
who, commenting in September 1944 on pressure on the British Government in the
light of increasing intelligence about the Holocaust to bomb the approaches to
Auschwitz, wrote:

“In my
opinion, a disproportionate amount of the time of the Office is wasted on
dealing with these wailing Jews”.

Others argue
that while we should teach young people about the Holocaust, it is not unique
and it is therefore wrong to give it too much emphasis.  It is certainly
true that genocides occurred before the Holocaust and sadly they have occurred
since in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur and elsewhere.  The Holocaust is
however the only example of a modern state focusing not just government
institutions but its private sector and parts of civil society on the
extermination on an industrial scale of particular groups of people. 
Parish churches and the Interior Ministry supplied birth records.  The
post office delivered the deportation and denaturalisation orders. 
Government transport officers arranged the trains for deportation to the camps. 
Pharmaceutical companies tested drugs on camp prisoners.  Companies bid
for the contracts to build the crematoria.  Detailed lists of the victims
were drawn up on IBM Germany’s punch card machines, producing meticulous
records of genocide.  As the historian Ian Kershaw has written, “The road
to Auschwitz was built by hate but paved with indifference.”  The
Holocaust teaches us what educated people are capable of doing in certain
circumstances and just how many people will ‘follow orders’.  It has
happened before and it can happen again.

To that end,
it is important to understand not just what happened but why it happened. 
Nazi ideology was based on a pseudoscientific racism that saw Jews as a group
locked in mortal combat with the Aryan race for world domination.  However
long their families had lived in Germany, as far as the Nazis were concerned
Jews were aliens who could never be part of the community.

Such
attitudes towards ethnic or religious minorities persist today around the
world, including in the UK. Don't believe me? 
There are people who are happy to tell pollsters that non-white British
citizens who were born in this country aren't British. And a significant
minority of the electorate believes there will be a clash of civilisations
between Muslims and native white Britons.

If we want
to live in a strong, cohesive society, these attitudes must be challenged.
There are extremists in every community, but the vast majority of Britain's
black and minority are patriotic (indeed, research suggests they are more optimistic
about Britain than those who were born here) and have exactly the same concerns
– jobs, the cost of living, crime, good healthcare and good schools for their
kids – as everyone else. Anyone who has friends from minority communities knows
this. Prejudice is the preserve of the ignorant.

This
fundamental truth was beautifully illustrated by Mo Farah, a British Muslim and
now Olympic legend born in Somalia who, when asked if he would rather have run
for Somalia, replied:

"Not at
all mate. This is my country".

I
particularly love his use of the word "mate" in response to this
offensive question – quintessentially British.

This simple
answer contains a profound truth: if he feels British, who are you to tell him
otherwise? It is where we feel loyalty to that defines our nationality, not
where we were born or our genetic heritage.

Holocaust
Memorial Day gives us a chance to have this debate. This year’s theme is Communities Together: Build a Bridge.
History teaches us where prejudice leads if left unchecked. We don't have to
repeat it.

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