The United Nations has finally called for the investigation and prosecution of Myanmar’s top military command for crimes of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim population of the Rakhine State. The brutality of the military reached its peak during the ‘clearance operations’ of August 2017, since which 750,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh.
A 400-page report was published by the United Nations on September 17 2018, the result of a year-long investigation into the well-planned killing and rape of Rohingya women and girls, and the burning and looting of their homes. It is the first time that such specific atrocities have been documented for which blame is directly apportioned to the highest level of Myanmar’s military.
Whilst the report indicates a step in the right direction regarding the prosecution of the perpetrators, it fails to address the issue of the displaced Rohingya community. In particular, what is the international community doing to help these victims of genocide?
The 750,000 Rohingya refugees have sought shelter at the camps and makeshift settlements set up in Bangladesh specifically to cater for the refugees. The main refugee camp is located at Kutupalong, located in North-East Bangladesh, but the constant stream of refugees has resulted in several additional camps being built in the surrounding countryside.
It’s been a year now since Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirkwas released to critical acclaim, public approval and criticism. Much of the criticism arose because the film omitted any mention of the Commonwealth troops who were in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and at Dunkirk. It felt like a missed opportunity to correct an anomaly in the collective memory of Britain and the world: to remember the mule drivers of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps (RIASC) who were also on those beaches.
So here’s the missing piece of the story, derived from my research into Dunkirk’s Indian soldiers.
On May 29, 1940, in the middle of the evacuation of Dunkirk, with thousands of British soldiers lined up on the beaches east of the French town, with a giant pall of smoke from the burning oil refinery, with regular sorties by Luftwaffe planes scattering the queues, and with ships large and small taking men off the beaches, Major Mohammed Akbar Khan of the RIASC marched four miles along the beach at the head of 312 Muslim Indians, en route from Punjab to Pirbright.
Read any newspaper in the United States or United Kingdom at the moment and it is likely to be full of news items related to refugees and immigration. Were you to open a newspaper in the 1930s, you would find very similar news stories. Despite the fact Second World War internment took place over 70 years ago, it could not be more relevant in today’s society.
Internment is a recognised function of war, and so the detention of enemy aliens during the Second World War was not unexpected. In times of peril, it can be hard to discern who is friend and who is foe, and there are inevitably casualties of war.
However, national security as a reason for action can sometimes be abused.
Such was the case with the mass internment of those of Japanese ancestry in the United States, a large proportion of whom were American citizens, supposedly protected by the constitution. There were multiple deaths in camp due to the poor medical facilities, notwithstanding the trigger happy guards – the most famous of these deaths perhaps being that of James Hatsuki Wakasa in 1943.
In the case of internment in Britain, the most readily identifiable victims were those who drowned when the Arandora Star, a ship transporting internees from the Isle of Man to Canada, was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, in 1940.
British tabloids like The Sun, Daily Star, Daily Express and Daily Mail are currently agog at the news that Himmler’s diaries have been discovered in Russia, having learned that their German equivalent Bild is serialising excerpts (behind a paywall) of a remarkable discovery by German and Russian historians in the Russian archives.
Billionaire stockbroker Peter Hargreaves recently claimed that leaving the EU could be likened to the British evacuation from Dunkirk in late May 1940. This withdrawal signalled the British retreat from the continent and immediately preceded the French capitulation to German forces two weeks later. Hargreaves declared, “We will get out there and we will become incredibly successful because we will be insecure again.”
As a scholar of rhetoric and the Second World War, I have become particularly attuned to how conflict is used and abused by politicians as a means to convince the British public of the value of a particular issue. Most recently, Tory politicians and campaigners like Hargreaves have mobilised Britain’s role in the Second World War as a justification to vote either for or against staying in the European Union (EU). This type of rhetoric is, at its core, emotive and nostalgic. It’s also deeply troubling because such oversimplified ideas of national identity and wartime patriotism are circumventing any chance of having a meaningful discussion about how Brexit would or would not change life on this island nation. It also ignores the fact that the Second World War was a global conflict, however much that might challenge ingrained nationalistic nostalgia. Continue reading “Selective Memory: The Brexit Campaign and Historical Nostalgia”→
Professor Nicholas Stargardt, University of Oxford
Centre for the Study of War, State and Society Annual Lecture,
University of Exeter, 18 March 2015, 5pm, Venue to be confirmed
The Second World War was a German war like no other. Having started it, the Nazi regime turned the conflict into the most horrific war in European history, resorting to genocidal methods well before building the first gas chambers. Over its course, the Third Reich expended and exhausted all its moral and physical reserves, leading to total defeat in 1945. Yet seventy years on — despite whole libraries of books about the war’s origins, course and atrocities — we still do not know what Germans thought they were fighting for and how they experienced and sustained this war until the bitter end.
When war broke out in September 1939, it was deeply unpopular in Germany. Yet without the active participation and commitment of the German people, it could not have continued for almost six years. What, then, was the war Germans thought they were fighting? How did the changing course of the conflict — the victories of the Blitzkrieg, the first defeats in the east, the bombing of Germany’s cities — change their views and expectations? And when did Germans first realise that they were fighting a genocidal war?
Drawing on a wealth of first-hand testimony, The German War is the first foray for many decades into how the German people experienced the Second World War. Told from the perspective of those who lived through it — soldiers, schoolteachers and housewives; Nazis, Christians and Jews — its masterful historical narrative sheds fresh and disturbing light on the beliefs, hopes and fears of a people who embarked on, continued and fought to the end a brutal war of conquest and genocide.
To produce this study, Toye deftly combines secondary source material with archival research, especially Churchill’s own, often overlooked speech-writing files. The result is a book that is by turns informative, engaging, and, all too often, frustrating.
Matthews agrees that ‘Toye is surely right that Churchill did not command unanimous support during the war, a fact he demonstrates by lacing his book with contemporary reactions to the wartime speeches.’ However, he is critical of the book’s use of Mass-Observation material and the reports of the Ministry of information’s Home intelligence Division:
More than once, while the Home Intelligence Division reported overall support for a Churchill address, Toye is quick to highlight negative comments about the same speech found in the MO files, even when those comments represented ‘minority feeling’ (p. 108). Moreover, these negative reactions often say less about Churchill’s oratory than they do about a war-weary, but also fickle public.
In his author’s response, Toye responds robustly, arguing that Matthews overlooked the ways in which the book addresses such methodological concerns. Toye also emphasizes that highlighting contemporary criticisms of Churchill’s speeches does not necessarily amount to an endorsement of the critics’ point of view. He argues: ‘Once it is grasped that I am neither criticising Churchill nor rubbishing his speeches, then Matthews’s critique of my work loses its force.’