Friday, February 04, 2005

Banning history

No you cannot ban the swastika and the hammer and sickle and you are mad for even thinking about it – but then what else do you expect from MEPs who are, at this moment, clamouring for just such a ban?

For sure, the symbols are offensive to some – although it depends on the context. As a lad, I had a large collection of scale model aircraft, including a replica of a Ju 87 and an He 111 in Luftwaffe colours, both bearing tail-fin swastikas.

Living in a largely Jewish neighbourhood, my Christian parents were mortified, fearing that we might offend our neighbours, not a few of whom had been in concentration camps. But it was those neighbours who prevailed upon my parents not to order me to destroy the models, recognising them for what they were, and glad even that the symbol was remembered for what it was.

Incidentally, I also had a number of Soviet aircraft, bearing the hammer and sickle mark. What is the EU going to do – ban small boys from making model aircraft, or sanitise the kits so they no longer bear the symbols appropriate to the model? Are we to burn books on the Battle of Britain showing pictures of Me 109s flying over England?

As the Jewish friends of my parents pointed out, context is everything. So you can under specified circumstances, criminalise the act of giving offence, but to ban the symbols that might, in a very few of those cases be deliberately used to cause offence, is to take us down a dangerous path. It is, in effect, banning history.

Any sensible person would recognise this, and the nonsense uttered by a group of "centre-right MEPs" in their approach to EU justice and home affairs commissioner Franco Frattini would, in a saner world, be given short-shrift.

When Jozsef Szajer, a Hungarian MEP, added his voice to the fray, saying that, "We would like to have an equal treatment of the other evil totalitarian regime of the communist system," and Czech MEP Jan Zahradil agreed, saying that: "If we decide to ban one, we should decide to ban all of them," we know the world is teetering on the brink.

And when the 25 justice ministers of the EU member states are now set to debate a possible EU ban on Nazi symbols on 24 February, the world – or "Europe" - has possibly gone over the edge.

A glimmer of sense returns, however, with EU commission officials stating that restrictions under a EU legal framework to fight racism will not be a blanket ban. Proposals, they say, are likely to extend measures against inciting racial hatred, such as distributing inflammatory leaflets, to include symbols such as the swastika.

But this should not in any event be a matter for the EU – it is none of its business. This is a matter for member states, each of whom have their own histories to deal with and their own sensibilities.

And talking of sensibilities, have these MEPs – to say nothing of the commission – any idea of how offensive many of us find that ghastly blue flag with a yellow ring of stars? No, I am not equating it with the swastika or the hammer and sickle. There is no comparison. But I still find it offensive, to the point of loathing it, a feeling shared by many.

Thus, if there is to be madness, let it be complete. Taking a cue from Czech MEP Jan Zahradil, who says that if we ban one, we ban them all, let us also ban the ring of stars. Now that is an EU measure I would support.

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