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A familiar tune: the Proms affair highlights Britain’s reluctance for critical self-reflection

By Daniel Adamson (@DanielEAdamson)

Controversy was caused by the recent announcement that orchestral versions of Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory would feature at the Last Night of the Proms, in a break with the traditional singing of the anthems. Eventually, this decision was reversed by the BBC.  According to the broadcaster, the original change was made in response to COVID-19 restrictions. However, concern had previously been raised that the lyrics of both patriotic songs contained troubling references to Britain’s history of imperialism and slavery.

Boris Johnson dismissed the decision of the BBC, demanding instead that ‘we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history’. Johnson’s rebuke was symptomatic of a trend which is endemic within British public historical memory: a concerted reluctance to engage in critical self-reflection.

It could be argued that Johnson’s reaction represents an avoidance technique which, in turn, betrays an acknowledgement of the difficult conversations to be had. Consistently, national historical narratives within the United Kingdom have avoided meaningful engagement with problematic aspects of the past. The Coronavirus pandemic has allowed society the time for existential debate. It is troubling, therefore, that the inability to grapple with uncomfortable facets of British history is still afflicting those in the highest offices of power.

A case in point: British Holocaust memory

A dearth of national reflexivity is perhaps no more pronounced than in the sphere of British Holocaust consciousness. The British response to the Holocaust in the 1930s and the Second World War was, at best, ambiguous. Certainly, there were redemptive episodes during this period of history. The Kindertransport scheme in 1938-39, for example, facilitated the passage of thousands of child refugees from Europe to the United Kingdom. However, British efforts were also marked by apathy and inaction, both in the social and military responses to the persecutions in mainland Europe. This was illustrated by the prolonged obstinance evident in governmental responses to the refugee crisis of the 1930s.

Despite this, public memory of the Holocaust has only recently begun to engage with the incommodious strands of British involvement. In the immediate post-war years, mainstream discussion of the Holocaust as a whole was limited. In turn, the subsidiary issue of the British response was largely occluded from public view.

Even as the general sphere of Holocaust remembrance grew in the United Kingdom throughout the 1990s, critical appraisal of the British response to the genocide did not feature heavily in public memory. Although the inaugural Holocaust Memorial Day occurred in the United Kingdom in 2001, the historian Donald Bloxham has noted how the narrative presented failed to ‘turn the mirror around’1. Little mention was made either of how Britain responded to the Holocaust, or whether more could have been done at the time. In other words, a sense of historical and geographical detachment between Britain and the Holocaust facilitated the pervading tendency of British society to ask difficult questions of its past.

Naturally, there are several factors which are likely to have contributed to the limited critical engagement with the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust. The issue is placed within the wider framework of public memory of the Second World War. Triumphalist narratives of British victory in 1945 have overshadowed most other contemporary issues. The entrenched impression of British involvement in a ‘good war’ is not easily compatible with more discerning evaluations of national actions during the conflict. The typically ‘black-and-white’ nature of public memory offers little space for gradation within theorisations of Britain’s complicated history.

In 2016, a school-based survey conducted by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education found that some ‘34.4 per cent incorrectly believed that the Holocaust triggered Britain’s entry into war and a further 17.6 per cent of students thought the British drew up rescue plans to save the Jews’2. In the same survey, nearly ‘23.8 per cent’ also incorrectly thought the British government did not know about the Holocaust until the end of the war in 1945’

More promisingly, recent historical research has started to erode the stubborn lack of self-reflection within British Holocaust consciousness. Through the collection of Kindertransport testimonies, Jennifer Craig-Norton has shed light on the unpleasant experiences of some refugee children once they had arrived on British shores3. Elsewhere, Gilly Carr is spearheading a reassessment of native complicity during the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands4. Some 22 islanders from Jersey alone are believed to have died following deportation to Nazi concentration camps and detention centres. In the weeks since the BBC Proms controversy, the National Trust has published an equally provocative report on links between its historic properties, colonialism, and slavery.

In conclusion, the BBC Proms affair brought into focus an entrenched reluctance within British society to confront troubling elements of our national history. Whether concerning slavery, colonialism, or the Holocaust, for the most part British historical consciousness has displayed a distinct unwillingness to acknowledge less triumphant moments in the ‘Island Story’. This is not a phenomenon limited to the United Kingdom. In East-Central Europe, Holocaust complicity remains a continual bone of political contention. Likewise, France has long struggled to reconcile narratives of victory in the Second World War with those of Vichy collaboration.

Recent events – namely Black Lives Matter and the Coronavirus pandemic – have provided a crucial opportunity to redress an imbalance in British historical consciousness. As a society, the United Kingdom is at a juncture where it is possible to complicate the past. There is a chance to acknowledge where mistakes have been made. However, if those in political power continue to rebuff attempts at historical re-evaluation, there is only limited hope for the development of more nuanced interpretations of the rich history of Britain.  

References:

  1. Quoted in Pearce, in Sharples, Caroline, and Olaf Jensen. Britain and the Holocaust : Remembering and Representing War and Genocide, (2013), p.203.
  2. Foster, in Pearce, A., Remembering the Holocaust in educational settings (Routledge, 2018), p.241.
  3. Craig-Norton, Jennifer. The Kindertransport : Contesting Memory. (2019).
  4. For example, see Carr, G. (2016). “Have you been offended?” Holocaust memory in the Channel Islands at HMD 70. Holocaust Studies, 22(1), 44-64.

Image: ‘Proms in the Park’ by Neil Rickards in the Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Proms_in_the_Park_2.jpg

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