Voices: Gary Lineker compared the goverment’s asylum policy to 1930s Nazi Germany. Is that ever okay?

The crucial historical comparison is not between degrees of victimhood, but between the motivations for keeping people out (PA)
The crucial historical comparison is not between degrees of victimhood, but between the motivations for keeping people out (PA)

Was Gary Lineker wrong or right to compare the Tory government’s boat policies to the 1930s?

Well, amidst the furore surrounding Lineker’s tweet about proposed asylum policy and Nazi Germany, it’s easy to lose sight of the complexities of 20th century history. Those complexities mean that Lineker managed to be both wrong and right at the same time, in ways that are difficult to see amongst the angry rhetoric and knotty arguments about BBC impartiality.

What the government is proposing, he said, is “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”.

But while the Nazis obviously employed discourses of intolerance, they were not primarily targeting refugees and asylum seekers. They were concerned with communities within their own borders – often well-established communities – that were singled out for persecution and finally mass-murder. By 1938, about one in four German Jews had already fled the country.

If we look to the historical attitude towards Jewish refugees of Western countries, including Britain, the uncomfortable truth is that we were reluctant to do more. It is here that the echoes with current asylum policy can be heard most loudly.

At the Evian Conference in 1938, numerous countries, including the UK, opposed easing restrictions on Jewish refugees. And whilst Britain often champions its acceptance of 10,000 Kindertransport children, it should not be forgotten that most parents of these children were killed in the Holocaust.

In referring to what was happening in Nazi Germany, Lineker perhaps missed the neater – and more unsettling – comparison between Britain’s past and present attitudes to asylum seekers.

At this point, there are two complaints that might be raised:

One is to say that asylum seekers today aren’t facing the same degree of genocidal persecution as Jews living in Nazi Germany. Yet this argument only goes so far. While some crossing the channel in small boats may have weak claims to asylum, this is certainly not true of all.

But more fundamentally, the real issue at stake is that societal, media, and governmental anxieties about uncontrolled immigration are driven by the same instinctive fears now as in the 1930s. The crucial historical comparison is not between degrees of victimhood, but between the motivations for keeping people out.

The other complaint is about the very act of bringing current events into comparison with the Holocaust. For some, the Holocaust and its origins are so radically unique that drawing lessons for the present risks gross trivialisation.

We have been here before. In June 2019, amidst tensions around refugee policy at the US-Mexico border, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a statement condemning all Holocaust analogies. But the museum’s view was by no means universally accepted, with several hundred genocide studies scholars signing an open letter that dismissed the statement as “fundamentally ahistorical”, such that it makes “learning from the past almost impossible”.

There’s an argument that comparisons with the Nazi period can be strategically unhelpful – sometimes enflaming debates unnecessarily – but a blanket ban on comparisons involves a radical view of the era as somehow outside of history and essentially useless for contemporary issues. In reality, analogies are imperfect and contested, and have to each be considered on merit.

Appealing to identity to work out what comparisons are acceptable also yields mixed results. Commenting on Lineker’s tweet, Suella Braverman spoke about her own Jewish husband and her children’s Jewish heritage, but alongside this we should recall that, only a few weeks ago, the home secretary was herself publicly confronted by Holocaust survivor Joan Salter, making essentially the same argument as Lineker. To state what should be obvious: Holocaust survivors, their descendants, and Jewish communities more broadly, do not hold monolithic views on all matters.

Writing in 2000 during debates on the foundation of Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain, the then Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks concluded that “wherever people are persecuted for their race, their faith, their difference, the post-Holocaust imperative – "Never Again" – must be heard”.

The words are inspirational, but what is often overlooked is that, whether intentionally or not, they also leave behind the practical challenge of trying to work out in what circumstance it is or is not appropriate to invoke the cry of “never again”.

The controversy over Lineker’s tweet should tell us that events of the 1930s and 40s do not simply sit in history, making their meaning self-apparent. Their application to the present is messy.

Although by referring to 1930s Germany rather than 1930s Britain I think Lineker missed the more pressing and unsettling analogy, he was not categorically wrong in his approach.

David Tollerton is a senior lecturer in Jewish Studies and Contemporary Religion at the University of Exeter and the incoming president of the British and Irish Association for Holocaust Studies