Tuesday 17 September 2019

Television review: The thing to fear is a lack of it

  • Condemned To Remember (RTE1)

Tomi Reichental at Bergen-Belsen
Tomi Reichental at Bergen-Belsen
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

The only thing to fear is fear itself, according to FDR. But with the rise of nationalism in so many countries, you feel that a new variation is needed - the thing to fear now is the lack of fear.

At times you think that some sort of mass stupor seems to be taking place, which prevents large numbers of people and their media advisors from noticing certain things - such as the fact that if, say, Macron had not won the French election last year, we would now be looking at a world in which France, Britain, Russia and the United States were in the grip of rampant unconstitutional nationalists.

That election effectively saved this thing that we call the modern world, for a while at least. With France gone to the fascists, the armies of the right would have achieved a kind of a critical mass. And while that moment passed, it was too close a contest for anyone to be relaxing and thinking it's all over now, that this democracy thing will just carry on for a few hundred years more.

The fact that it was any kind of a contest, in a civilised country like France, was scary in itself. And we're not even counting the likes of Poland and Hungary - or a country such as Slovakia, home of Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental.

More of us are getting to know Tomi's story as he works ceaselessly to remind us what happened in the Europe of his childhood.

And as he returned to Slovakia in Gerry Gregg's film Condemned To Remember, he witnessed the rise of a nationalist movement which is more or less the same outfit which came to prominence in the time of the Nazis.

By his very presence, Tomi is one of the great witnesses to the evil that is but a heartbeat away.

As you see him there in his home town, trying to remember the paradise it was during his childhood, you have to keep reminding yourself that Tomi is an 81-year-old man who lives in Rathgar, who has seen all these things. Who was a child in Bergen-Belsen. Who is showing us the ways in which this is happening all over again.

And yet so many are still gripped by this lack of fear.

We saw pictures of this Slovakian nationalist greeting his followers by wishing them "a nice happy, beautiful, white day". We learned that just last month, the Polish parliament voted to outlaw any assertion that Poles played any part in the extermination of their Jewish neighbours during the Holocaust - now, why would they even think of doing that?

And Tomi went to the scene of the Srebrenica massacre too, which itself can seem like something from a long-gone age, but was only really the other day. Still we are somewhat incredulous that in a modern, sophisticated country towards the end of the 20th century, the people of the former Yugoslavia let the deranged beast of nationalism out of its dungeon.

So at one level, Tomi's message couldn't be more obvious as he views such modern atrocities: "We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders". And yet we never seem to see it coming. Even now, with so many sinister movements making their intentions quite clear, we prefer to think that it will be all right on the night.

In Ireland we have a famously nationalist movement, Sinn Fein, which is discussing the various ways in which it might be in government, and there are times when you'd almost forget they were nationalists at all - they are not written about in those terms by mainstream commentators, instead they are called "left-wing" and other such descriptions which are ultimately irrelevant.

Sinn Fein themselves aren't forgetting that they are nationalists, are not unaware of the rise of like-minded parties all over Europe, and still it is possible for supposedly sensible Irish people to be looking at those movements in these strange foreign countries and to be thinking, "isn't it a good job we have none of that nationalism stuff here?".

We do have Tomi Reichental though, and maybe in the end that will be enough.

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