a combination of historical ignorance and monumental self-pity

Also in the Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole was in the Polish city of Wroclaw when Fr Alec Reid’s comments hit the newswire. As he says, he didn’t discuss them with his Polish hosts, he was too ashamed “..that this combination of historical ignorance and monumental self-pity is far from rare” and he wondered “How could you possibly explain that Irish nationalists, who are thought to be so steeped in the past, know so little about the recent history of the continent they inhabit?”.Instead he conducted a silent comparison with the history of the city he was in and now provides a useful historical corrective to those, like Jude Collins, who simply look to the response of Ian Paisley Jr for validation of Fr Reid’s absurd claim –

We love to talk about the exquisite and allegedly unique dilemmas of our national identity, how complicated and confusing it is, how richly ambiguous, how deeply unsettled.

Wroclaw, a single city of around 650,000 people, has had about 50 names in its recorded history; among them Vratislavia, Vrestlav, Vraclav, Presslau and, until 1945, Breslau.

It has been Slavic, Hanseatic, Polish, Bohemian, German and Polish again. Its multiple languages, teeming identities and shifting religious allegiances have been shaped by forced as well as voluntary migrations.

Prior to the Nazi rise to power, Breslau had one of the largest Jewish communities in Germany, with 20,202 members in 1933. Within weeks of Hitler’s rise to power, the thugs of the SA attacked Jewish judges and lawyers in Breslau’s courthouse, signalling the start of the city’s “purification”. Gradually, the Jewish population was moved to the suburbs, then to “housing communes” in the Polish countryside.

From these camps, those who had not already died from the rough treatment and woeful conditions were sent on to the concentration camps at Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and elsewhere. It was to the university in Breslau that the sexual organs of Jews, who were the subject of horrific medical experiments in the camps, were sent for study.

The suffering in Breslau was not only that of Jews, however. The Polish population was expelled from the city. Polish Catholics, political dissidents, homosexuals, the disabled and the mentally ill were murdered. The German population itself, some of which had been moved in by the Nazis to replace the exterminated Jews, experienced horrific violence in the last months of the war. The city was unfortunate enough to be declared “Fortress Breslau” by Hitler and to be the site of a fanatical Nazi resistance to the Soviets that made it the last German city to surrender, four days after Berlin. In the course of the siege, an estimated 170,000 civilians died and 70 per cent of the city was destroyed. Many of the surviving women and girls were raped by Soviet troops. The entire German population was then forcibly expelled. Breslau got a new Polish name (Wroclaw) and a new Polish population. All of this happened within living memory. (The “persecution” of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland evoked by Fr Reid went back as far as 1921.)

And he argues that there is no excuse for an absence of a general sense of proportion, for being wary of comparisons, or analogies, that are as inaccurate as they are offensive –

Whatever the “provocation”, any Irish person should have an instinctive knowledge that the very real sufferings of Catholics in Belfast or Derry don’t even begin to compare with those of the Germans in a city like Wroclaw, never mind those of the Jews. How would we feel if some English twit compared post-war rationing of food in Britain to the Famine?

The irony of all the hyper-inflation of the experiences of Catholics in Northern Ireland after partition by invoking the Nazis or, as Sinn Féin tends to prefer, apartheid South Africa, is that it actually occludes those experiences themselves. It discredits history itself as a context in which we can understand the present. You can’t really talk about the present-day consequences of decades of structural discrimination if you treat the past as a balloon to be filled with so much hot rhetorical air that it either floats off into absurdity, or bursts with violence. And it also comes back to haunt you. If, as Fr Reid claimed, the present Protestant community “should be absolutely ashamed of itself” because of unionist misrule, it follows that the entire Catholic community has to accept responsibility for the atrocities of the IRA.

Avoiding responsibility is what this self-pity is all about, for it tries to invent a Catholic community that suffered everything and perpetrated nothing. To believe in that illusion, you need to perfect your ignorance of the recent history, not just of Europe but of Ireland.[emphasis added]

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