Friday 30 September 2016

Fergal Keane: Fearmongers keep flame of hatred alive in the city that burned

Fergal Keane

Published 13/12/2015 | 02:30

RALLY: Supporters of the Pegida movement in Dresden
RALLY: Supporters of the Pegida movement in Dresden

I first came to Dresden in the company of a dear friend who had been a slave labourer there towards the end of World War Two. By the time he arrived, Roman Halter had already survived the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz. His entire family had perished. Through luck, tenacity and an almost superhuman will, Roman also survived the bombing of Dresden and escaped his Nazi captors. He was hidden with some other survivors by a German couple who lived on the outskirts of the city. The husband paid with his life for that act of generosity towards Jews.

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Roman always carried the story of Klaus and Hertha Fuchs as a warning against the dangers of imposing collective guilt on any people. He was alive because Germans had risked their own lives to save him. My dear friend died three years ago at the age of 84. He was resolute to the end in speaking out against bigotry and intolerance, from whatever source it came.

I needed to summon his presence last week in Dresden and later as the odious language of fear spread across the screens and airwaves of the world.

With its high Baroque glory, Dresden is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It has been rebuilt, but the ghosts of an intolerant past were echoing along the elegant cobbled streets.

I was back there on the trail of the far right, whose strength has been growing in parallel with the surge in migrant arrivals. The founder of Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West), Lutz Bachmann, lives in the suburb of Freital. He infamously called migrants "junk" and "scum" on his Facebook page. Every Monday the organisation holds an anti-migrant rally in the centre of the city.

I have reported wars caused by territorial disputes, superpower conflicts, regime change, corruption and the quest for natural resources. But the most vicious conflicts of all are those caused by the Utopian notion that if only one or other group - race, religion, class, tribe - simply were not among us, all would be well.

The preachers of hate are everywhere these days, on the far right and extreme left, religious fundamentalists parading their hatred as virtue, political demagogues stirring up fear of the "other". Loose words scatter among us like arrows with poison tips.

Do I understand public fear in eastern Germany over the sudden influx of people seeking refuge or economic betterment? Of course. But this is where the difference comes between politicians and demagogues. Good leaders listen and explain. They keep to the terrain of the rational. I am reminded of John Hewitt's magnificent definition of patriotism as being about "keeping the country in good heart, the community ordered with justice and mercy".

Hewitt was writing in the middle of the worst period of the Troubles when the demagogues, bullies and bigots were rampant. We need to heed his wise words now.

******

Helsinki was cold and rainswept. But the Finns are the cheeriest people I have met in a considerable while. And I met a man who has been one of my heroes for decades. Irish people will know Martti Ahtisaari as one of the key figures in overseeing the destruction of IRA weapons as part of the Good Friday Agreement. Approaching his 80th year, the former Finnish president and UN diplomat has been at the heart of numerous peace processes. What I didn't know until I met him was that he had been a child refugee in World War Two. The Soviet Union gobbled up a chunk of Finland where he was born. "I can't go back. I don't want to go back," he said. His office overlooks South Harbour, though we could see little beyond the shapes of boats moving through the Nordic winter gloom.

I told him I was feeling pessimistic about the world. He smiled.

"There isn't a conflict that cannot be resolved," he said. "That is my experience."

And then he spoke of Namibia (as a UN commissioner, he guided the country to independence from apartheid South Africa), Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland and other places where peace of a kind had come about. But Syria and Iraq, surely these were too far consumed by war for a peace to emerge?

Ahtisaari shook his head. In his view, the Vienna talks offer hope. After spending much of his life closeted in rooms with bitterly opposed factions, Ahtisaari is no dreamy-eyed idealist. He is patient and quietly spoken and a good listener. What a joyous contrast to the unpleasantness elsewhere. Lucky the land that had him for president.

******

Back to London and a renovated church in Notting Hill for a benefit in aid of torture victims. It was organised by the actress Emma Thompson. She has been a friend of mine for many years and is a true humanitarian. What she does is driven by a deeply felt empathy with those who are outcast. Her policy is to do what you can where you can - rather than self-indulgently bewailing the miseries of the world and doing nothing.

Emma is one of the driving forces behind the Helen Bamber Foundation, which offers therapeutic help to people tortured by the world's secret policemen. I was invited to speak about Eritrea and introduce a short film about a woman named 'Sara', who fled her homeland only to be enslaved and brutalised by a Saudi family.

There were conversations with a Holocaust survivor, a torture survivor from Guinea and a young woman trafficked into sexual slavery. The night finished with the most remarkable choir I have ever encountered. The members of Woven Gold come from a Who's Who of war-torn countries. They sang the music of Syria and South Africa and lifted the audience to its feet in celebration of the human spirit. "All that was beaten has not beaten me/All that was taken has not taken me." I ended the week in much better spirits.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent

Sunday Independent

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