History Never Repeats

Weekly Writing challenge: Living History. Show us how history is something we are a part of.

Back in 1982, I started high school – left behind the co-educational classrooms of primary school and found myself in a hot, stuffy classroom in a Catholic girls secondary school, sweating in my stiff, thick, blue dress and beige socks, along with 25 or so other girls.

There was a lot that I hated about school that year. The hot, asphalt yard, the Physical Education lessons, the boredom of long, hot afternoons spent in a  double period of maths, or science, or geography, and, not least, the friends who grew tired of my company and made it clear that I needed to “move on”.

I took some comfort, as always, in immersing myself in the novels on my English reading list. One of these was I Am David, by Anne Holm. Published in 1962 (in the US, it was published under the title North To Freedom), this novel introduced my 12 year-old self to the Holocaust. It was the first in a series of books I would read throughout my high school years, that were set around the time of the Second World War and focussed on the persecution of Jews.

In the early 80’s, it seemed that this was the predominant story that needed to be told to my generation, in order that we, too, would not forget the lessons of history.

At that time in my life, events from before my parents were born seemed as remote as ancient history – but my parents were alive when these atrocities were happening. Even in the vague timeline of world history conceptualised by my young mind, I grasped that these events were not so long ago. A whole race of people in Europe had been abandoned by society, incarcerated in concentration camps, starved, and gassed to death in hordes, because of their race or religion, while for my parents, both born right before the outbreak of the Second World War, to working class, Irish Catholic families in Australia, the worst tragedy of that time was economic hardship.

In 1939, the year that my mother was born, a boat called the MS St Louis made a historic voyage with 937 German Jewish refugees on board, first to Cuba, then to the US and Canada, but they were turned away by each country. (This was before the Refugee Convention of 1951 was set up to ensure such a thing could not happen in the future.) The passengers were finally taken in by European countries but it is estimated that about a quarter of them would have later died in concentration camps when those countries were invaded by Germany.

As I went through high school, I learned more about the tragedy of the systematic dehumanisation of the Jewish people, for example requiring that Jewish people had a curfew, taking away their passports – and how it occurred so gradually and insidiously that it went almost unprotested by the people of Germany, and the rest of the world, until the only way to put an end to it was through defeating Germany in the war.

Memorial in Aix En Provence, France, to the French Resistance and other victims of WW2.  At bottom it says: more than 2,000 Jews deported to Auschwitz one hundred children the youngest was a year

Memorial to members of the French Resistance, in the town of Aix En Provence.
At bottom it says:
more than 2,000 Jews deported to Auschwitz
one hundred children
the youngest was a year

As a teenager, I read those stories as historical tragedy. In my mind, and in a view I heard voiced by others, the Holocaust was something that “those people” (Germans) “allowed” to happen “back then”. In my naivety, at that time I could not imagine how they allowed it to unfold under their noses. I believed that we would never allow such a thing to happen now.

If you had asked me, as a teenager, who exactly I meant by “we”, I probably would have faltered, lacking the political knowledge to define “we” as any democratic country and then I probably would have said, “Australians”.

*

Another book frequently listed on high school English reading lists back then, was George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty Four.

Orwell’s dystopian vision of a society that lives under constant surveillance, brainwashed by a devised language of “Newspeak” and scared of being caught by the Thought Police and “vaporised”, was published in 1949. It’s so well known, that Orwellian has become an adjective that “describes official deception, secret surveillance, and manipulation of the past by a totalitarian or authoritarian state”.  Newspeak, according to Wikipedia, “was created to institute thought control and thereby exert political control through restrictive changes to the language. The term is now commonly used to refer to attempts to obscure the truth, especially in political rhetoric which abounds with instances of it.”

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?”* asks Syme, who works at The Ministry of Truth, producing the latest, reduced, dictionary of Newspeak. Winston, the main character, reflects that the only people who speak in current English, (“Oldspeak”) are the “Proles” – the working class – but according to Syme, “The Proles are not human beings.”

Winston also works in the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to rewrite archived newspaper articles to “rectify” any previous “errors” so that recorded history fits the current political climate. For example, Oceania is at war with Eastasia, it has always been at war with Eastasia, becomes, Oceania is at war with Eurasia, it has always been at war with Eurasia. People caught by the Thought Police are likely to disappear. They become “unpersons” – Winston is ordered to rewrite newspaper stories so that there is no record that they ever existed.

When Orwell’s novel was published, it was 4 years after the Second World War ended, and the Cold War* – between Western countries, led by the US, and Eastern countries led by the Soviet Union – had just begun. Readers living in “free” countries must have pictured Nineteen Eighty Four as a portrayal of life as they imagined it would be under a Communist government, being lied to and brainwashed by deceptive language and false rhetoric.

*

About 10 years ago, I read a different book. This was a non-fiction book, a very recent history of Australia.

The book was Dark Victory, by Australian investigative journalists, David Marr and Marion Wilkinson, covering the events of a 10 week period in 2001 where Australia made international headlines for all the wrong reasons. The Howard (Liberal/Conservative) government refused to allow entry into Australian waters, to a Norwegian vessel that had rescued a boat of asylum seekers sinking in international waters. This was despite the fact that Australia is obliged, under the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, to allow safe port to ships that are in distress, as well as under the Refugee Convention to provide asylum to people fleeing persecution in their own countries. These people were seeking asylum from persecution, and Australia would not let them onto the mainland. The government refused even to let a doctor board the ship for days.

Events during that astonishing period also included an incident referred to as the “Children Overboard” incident, where the Immigration Minister, Phillip Ruddock, briefed media that people on board another boat seeking asylum, the Olong, had thrown their children overboard in an attempt to manipulate the authorities into allowing them entry. This was then widely reported in the media, and backed up by the Prime Minister, even though there was no evidence. Days later, photos of navy officers rescuing adults and children from the ocean when their boat sank, were provided by the government as evidence that the asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard. It was later found by a Senate Committee that no children had been in danger of being thrown overboard. That did not stop the News Corp-owned tabloid newspaper, the Herald Sun, running a Vote-line, the day after the allegations were first aired, asking “Should boat people who throw children into the sea be accepted into Australia as refugees?”

Shamefully, the fact that people seek asylum in Australia continues to be a political issue used by our major political parties to gain favour with the public by “cracking down” on “queue jumpers”. The rhetoric is that we have a quota, and a “queue” and these people are attempting to jump it. For that sin, asylum seekers who have left their countries in traumatic circumstances and braved travel in overcrowded, flimsy boats to get to Australia, are locked up indefinitely in detention centres, in conditions that are described by some as inhumane and only slightly better than concentration camps. They are turned away from Australia and sent to poorer, smaller, developing countries nearby – such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea, a country itself so troubled with violence that its people are amongst those who previously sought asylum in Australia.

In the decade since the events mentioned above, this issue continues to be on the political agenda, and language is developing to dehumanise asylum seekers. Terms used by the government for asylum seekers included SUNC – Suspected Unauthorised Non-Citizen, UA, Unauthorised Arrival, and UBA, Unauthorised Boat Arrival. The boats that people arrive on are referred to as SIEVs – Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel, and the word “illegal” is deliberately used by some media commentators whenever possible, despite the fact that seeking asylum from persecution in another country is not illegal.

Just last week, our current Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, announced the reintroduction of the TPV – Temporary Protection Visa. The TPV was in place during the incidents of 2001, and up until the Labour (progressive) party won power in 2007. The TPV means that refugees will never be granted permanent residency, and can never hope to bring their family out to Australia through legal means since they will never be a permanent resident. When it was previously in place, it was widely criticised for being a factor in mental illness amongst asylum seekers, and for contributing to more boat arrivals and deaths at sea, because it means that family members can not hope to ever be reunited legally, so their only choice is to pay smugglers to take them to Australia via leaky overcrowded boats. The government’s hope is that it will deter people from “jumping queues” to get into Australia.

Also last week, in a move that reminded me of Nineteen Eighty Four, and finally prompted me to write this post, Morrison ruled that staff at the department of Immigration should stop referring to asylum seekers as “clients”, and now use the words “detainees” or “illegal maritime arrivals.”

We are making history now.

In 100 years time, people will be writing books analysing this shameful period in Australia’s history when we turned asylum seekers away, put them on temporary visas, and sent them offshore, where we didn’t have to see them, and locked them up, detaining them in countries full of political unrest and violence.

People will also write novels, in the future, based in historical truth, where displaced characters fleeing war and persecution reach Australia, and are incarcerated for years behind barbed wire, referred to as a number and forced to stand in queues in 40 degree heat in order to go to the toilet or to be given a tampon.

People in other countries will judge Australia, just as in the past we felt (rightly or wrongly) as though we could judge the people of Germany, or South Africa, for their treatment of people who are politically minority groups. Now, and in the future, they will read about this time and say, “How could the people of Australia have allowed this to happen right under their noses? We would never let that happen here!”

What is the difference between a “Detention Centre” and a “Concentration camp”? As I’m sure Orwell would point out, the only difference is in the choice of words used to describe it.**

*

History never repeats

Tell myself before I go to sleep

-Split Enz

*The Cold War was the state of hostility that existed between the Soviet bloc countries and the Western powers from 1945 to 1990.

*Quotes from Nineteen Eighty Four, Orwell, published by Penguin Australia, 1984 edition, p 49 & 50

**The term “concentration camp” evolved prior to the Nazi camps, and referred to camps where people were interned without trial, often in very harsh conditions. It did not necessarily mean death camps until the Nazis went one step further. I am not trying to suggest that the Australian Government is systematically killing people in Detention Centres, although at the time of writing this update, one asylum seeker has been thrown from a balcony and killed during rioting within the Detention Centre at Manus Island, and many accounts say that was done by those in authority.

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16 Comments

  1. Just a Little Background Noise

     /  October 20, 2013

    I always thought it was coined by Bernard Baruch.

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    • Just a Little Background Noise

       /  October 21, 2013

      And it made me think of this book, I’ve been trying to remember the title. I enjoyed this piece very much.

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      Reply
      • Thanks! I’ll check it out! And thanks for reading that very long post, and commenting!

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      • Just a Little Background Noise

         /  October 21, 2013

        You’re more than welcome. It’s an interesting topic; not at all black and white.

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    • If you mean the saying, History never repeats, I have no doubt that Split Enz were quoting an already well-known phrase. I like to use songs to come up with titles for my posts whenever I can, and that was the song title that immediately came to my mind when I planned this post.

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      • Just a Little Background Noise

         /  October 21, 2013

        I mean, ‘cold war’ – sorry, I should’ve have specified 🙂

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      • Oh! Well it was attributed to Orwell on Wikipedia but I’m aware that Wikipedia is not the definitive guide to the universe and one should check multiple sources – So I might take that note away! Thanks!

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      • Just a Little Background Noise

         /  October 21, 2013

        I mean, ‘cold war’ – sorry, I should’ve have specified 🙂

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  2. That was a very powerful piece of writing, an analysis of history and literature applied to a current situation.
    Great stuff!

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    • Wow, thank you! It took me all weekend so I’m glad it was worthwhile! Thanks for reading it, too, I was worried that it was so long that readers – especially if not from Australia – would not find it interesting enough to stick with it! So double thanks!

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      Reply
  3. I am a Jew. I was born in 1945. We had speakers come to class when I was in Middle School and show up the rags the Jews wore in the camps and one thing I never could get out of my head. A lamp shade made out of skin. Man can be extremely cruel. For a long time I had the thought the Germans were a bad race of people and it took quite a while to realize that the most of them could not say or do anything about the situation without dire consequences. Many hid Jews and took a chance. It has now been over fifty years and blaming a race of people for the past is wrong. Just as I hope the world is not as anti Jewish as it was I and all Jews need to be more understanding of others.

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    • I can understand why you couldn’t get the image of that lampshade out of your head. Horrific!
      I agree that we can’t blame a race of people for the past, and I recognise that by the time the Nazi party were bringing in those laws, German people were not able to protest. The analogy I wanted to make was that Australians are witnessing the treatment of a group of people (asylum seekers) as though they are criminals, and accepting it because of all the rhetoric around it. I think we can, and will, judge a democratic society – like Australia – by events that are current to our time. Part of the point is that, if we let little laws and regulations come in that seem minor, but erode away people’s rights, (for example, the right to seek asylum and arrive by boat) we end up contributing to the suffering and death of those who need our help.

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      Reply
      • I understand and wish to you to know I probably saw red because of the holocaust. It sometimes upsets the apple cart. You are correct in your points.

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      • There was no need to apologise. It was a good point you raised, in fact it caused me to reword my writing a little bit to make it clearer that I don’t judge German people for what happened in WW2. When I was a teenager I probably did, but now I’m aware that the dehumanising of Jewish people crept in insidiously, as the power of the Nazi party increased, until it was too late for German people to do anything. I thank you very much for reading my post and responding.

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