Station to station


King Charles III, the newly minted (in every sense) king of England, made his first state visit this week, not, as planned, to France, where police have been smashing their batons into the faces of people protesting against a rise in retirement age, but to Germany, which seemed altogether nicer. He met a few hundred people, some of whom waved flags, spoke a bit of German in the Bundestag, shook some hands, went to Hamburg, mentioned the Beatles, laid a wreath, looked sad but didn’t say sorry, shook some more hands, advocated climate action, then flew home in a private jet made of solid gold while the heralds of the lord blew their trumpets and flights of angels guided him on his way. I may have made the last bit up (it was an RAF VIP Airbus A330).

He gave a nice speech to the Bundestag, albeit one largely devoid of serious content (‘Bitte den Brexit nicht erwähnen!’). Nevertheless, I found myself unexpectedly moved, as Charles reminded his audience of the complicated history of the two countries and of the duty we all have to learn from the past in realizing the future. He also highlighted the many cultural affinities between Germany and Britain, and, indeed there are many, as he noted, from Kraftwerk and Shakespeare to Monty Python and Henning When – and, of course, Dinner for One, the much-quoted British comedy sketch that millions of Germans watch every year as part of their New Year celebration (even though, until recently, it had never been shown on British television). I am a little ashamed to admit that, as an ex-pat living in Hamburg, I had a tear in my eye. For a moment, I forgot to notice just how little he was saying.

After his visit to Berlin, Charles came to Hamburg, visiting the Kindertransport commemorative statue at Dammtor railway station – the counterpart of the one outside Liverpool Street Station, in London, which he was instrumental in commissioning – and the St. Nikolai war memorial, a church destroyed by allied bombing raids in 1943 which demolished much of the city and killed tens of thousands of people. The church was kept in its bombed-out state as a kind of warning from history, not only of the brutality of war but of the necessity to live with the past, however painful. This is an important lesson (largely well taken in Germany), and it is one to which Charles referred in speaking of the danger of our failure to properly reckon with the past. A failure to confront the past is typical of the new authoritarianism and the ‘strongman’ leaders who trade on fake nostalgia for a past that never existed. There was some irony, however, in this warning coming from the head of a state that is increasingly unable to talk intelligently about its past or even to acknowledge large parts of it (the bits where we killed and enslaved people and pinched all their stuff).

Dammtor was the departure point for around 1,000 of the 10,000 Jewish children who fled mainland Europe for the safety of Britain between November 1939 and August 1939 to escape the Nazi terror. The monument – called ‘Der Letzte Abschied’ or ‘The Last Farewell’ – commemorates the Kindertransport and depicts the moment of separation and departure. There are two groups of children, one, presumably, destined for a new life, the other for extermination. One of the two children advancing towards the train track and the hope of a new beginning is half-turned, arm outstretched towards the others. A teddy bear is tucked under her other arm. The ones who remain have Jewish stars stitched into their clothes. They have suitcases too. One lies open, containing only a broken doll, its arms pulled off. A violin case is on the floor, smashed open and empty.

It’s a hugely poignant depiction. Few of the Kindertransport children saw their families again. In most cases, their parents and older brothers and sisters were put into trains and transported to camps where they were murdered. I walk past the memorial sometimes (I work nearby). White roses, a potent symbol of resistance to Nazism in Germany, are often placed on the statue or dropped into the suitcase.

At the request of Jewish organisations, the British government agreed to allow Jewish children up to the age of 17 into the country, provided they could fund their own passage. Visa requirements were lifted, and the government actively publicized the programme. Once they arrived at Liverpool Street Station in London, the children were placed with family members, if they had any, or with foster families or in boarding schools. Thousands of families in the UK opened their doors to these children. It was an act of humanity in the face of profound inhumanity. In time, many of the rescued children made important contributions to their new society, raising families of their own and making their contribution to public service. One such was Lord Alf Dubs, born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, to a Jewish father, who became director of the Refugee Council and, as a politician, one of the UK’s most vocal advocates for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.

It was fitting, therefore, that Charles should visit this monument as part of his visit to Hamburg. His wife, the Queen Consort, placed her own white rose on the monument. It’s important to remember and to honour these acts of decency and compassion; acts that transcend nationalism and partiality. But it is far better, of course, to honour them in the way we live, the laws we make and the societies we create, rather than simply through acts of symbolism, important though these are. How a country treats refugees and displaced peoples generally is an important test of its humanity. It is a test that the UK government is currently failing.

Instead of offering a haven to refugees, the government has been using refugees to stoke fear and manufacture a crisis, using something close to hate speech to appeal to the ethnic nationalist base that voted for Brexit and helped put them into power. While ministers bang on about cracking down on the people smugglers who take people across the English Channel in boats, the real target is the people in the boats. Around 45,000 people came to Britain using this route in 2022, and the vast majority of them – around 94 per cent according to the Home Office – went on to claim asylum. The majority were, like the Kindertransport children, fleeing conflict. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, forced global displacement is higher than it has been at any point since the Second World War. The government knows all of this, yet is determined to create a crisis, closing legitimate routes to seeking asylum in order to paint genuine refugees as ‘illegals’ seeking to ‘invade’ the UK. The xenophobic language is quite deliberate, the sign of a desperate government attempting to hold on to power by reopening the divisions that got them into office in the first place.

The government likes to pretend that its plan to send some asylum applicants to Rwanda to have their claims processed, in defiance of the 1951 Geneva Convention and in spite of fears for their safety in the country, is intended to deter people arriving in the UK through ‘illegal, dangerous or unnecessary methods’, such as on small boats. The Prime Minister even has the slogan ‘Stop small boats’ emblazoned on podiums from which he speaks (it is one of his top five policy pledges). But the truth is that the government has deliberately created the crisis. Of course, the numbers of people arriving in small boats is going up because the government has blocked other routes. There was no small boats problem before this. And, of course, asylum centres are full because the government is preventing community integration and access to the labour market and has slowed down application processing. In short, the UK government is engaging in the most cynical manipulation of some of the world’s most vulnerable people for short-term political gain. Little wonder that Lord Dubs has described the government’s policy on refugees as ‘shameful’. One outcome of the government’s strategy was the recent attempted attack on asylum seekers at a hotel in Knowsley, in the northwest of England.

The growing numbers of people forced to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere is going to increase. It will be one of the defining challenges of the coming decades. We can choose how we react to this challenge, either humanely, in the spirit of the Kindertransport, or inhumanely, as a means of dividing opinion and shoring up political support from the racist far right. It is sad to see what we are becoming. While Charles speaks the language of unity and comradeship, and celebrates our shared humanity, his government is acting ever more illiberally in denying the most vulnerable people their basic rights, while spreading moral panic about the issue. But, of course, this is just one strand of the government’s drift towards authoritarian rule. Curbs on public protest and the introduction of voter ID to suppress part of the vote are further examples of solutions to non-existent problems that just happen to further erode people’s democratic freedoms. Democracy is meaningless if people don’t have the opportunity to intervene, resist and challenge. Britain has never been a paragon of democratic virtue, as the presence of a born-to-rule unelected head of state would suggest, but it has had its moments. That we are failing to live up to the best of them could not be more obvious, and all the pomp and pageantry in the world cannot hide it.


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