Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Ian Kershaw

The Blair Years Part Seven

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday December 1 2016

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Blair’s Later Career


Tony Blair has hinted that he may return to active politics. He said he was “trying to create the space for a political debate about where modern Western democracies go and where the progressive forces particularly find their place”. He announced that he will launch a new organisation in the new year to look at the global forces that have led to Brexit and Trump: “The political centre has lost its power to persuade and its essential means of connection to the people it seeks to represent. Instead, we are seeing a convergence of the far left and far right.” Blair plans a consolidation of the various groups and foundations he currently runs. He has already said he is closing his for-profit businesses, which have attracted criticism.

It is rather depressing to read the opening pages of Tom Bower’s book Broken Vows – Tony Blair and the Tragedy of Power – and to think back to the optimism one felt in May 1997. It has to be said that Bowers’s book has not received unstinting praise. Nevertheless, Bower gives a good picture of Blair’s life after he left government. Blair has earned tens of millions through a combination of consultancies, public speaking and facilitating corporate deals.

Delivery Man

Blair’s main pitch was that he succeeded in government because of his ability to “deliver” and that he could pass the secret of this on to others in government through “delivery unit solution packages”. David Runciman reviewing Broken Vows in the London Review of Books noted: “Deliverology is itself a false prospectus. It relies on the assumption that Blair gradually mastered these skills on the job and that he was forced out just when he had got on top of the government machine.”

In order to write this series, I have done a lot of reading, including the following very useful books, whose authors interviewed a great number of civil servants and politicians who had observed Blair at close quarters. I would recommend these books. There were three books by Anthony Seldon – Blair (2004), Blair Unbound (2008) and Brown at 10 (2010). There were two by Andrew Rawnsley – Servants of the People (2000) and The End of the Party (2010). No-one seems to disagree with Bowers’s verdict that Blair could be unfocused, lacking in knowledge and poor at management. None of these writers seems overly impressed with Michael Barber’s Delivery Unit.


Bower describes how in the last months of his premiership Blair preferred travelling the globe to paying attention to domestic politics. “Some of those journeys were influenced by his ambitions for a career after Downing Street”. Bowers puts some of the blame on Cherie: “He had constantly urged his wife to refrain from her embarrassing financial forays, promising her serious wealth once they left Downing Street. He assumed that a new world of fees and commissions would answer Cherie’s familiar plea of ‘Why can’t we go by private jet?’”

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 10: Tony Blair and Cherie Blair seen arriving hand in hand at chiltern firehouse restaurant and memebers club for dinner on May 10, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Davies/GC Images)




Helping Gaddafi


Blair resigned as Prime Minister on 27 June 2007, but immediately before leaving office he embarked on a global tour which included a meeting with Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. On 27 April, he had thanked Gaddafi for the “excellent cooperation” between their intelligence services. What this in reality meant was that Blair was helping Gaddafi torture and kill his opponents. MI5 officers, in cooperation with Libyan intelligence agents, had been targeting Libyans living in London who were opposed to Colonel Gaddafi’s regime. When Blair thanked Gaddafi for “assistance” he was probably referring to information extracted by torture in Libya.


Human Rights Stuff

For a man who based his “ethical” foreign policy on unseating tyrants, Blair’s relations with dictators have been puzzling. It is difficult to square this with his professed Christian morality. In 2011, he accepted a lucrative offer from the Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev.


Leaked e-mails revealed in 2016 that Blair had charged Nazarbayev £5 million a year for his services. Kazakh security forces shot dead fourteen unarmed protesters and wounded over sixty others in Zhanaozen in 2011. There were also reports of opponents being tortured. “I don’t dismiss the human rights stuff,” Blair said. “These are points we make”. Blair personally wrote large sections of a speech that Nazarbayev made at Cambridge University. The line Blair advised him to take was “I understand and hear what our critics say. However, I would simply say this to them: by all means make your points and I assure you we’re listening. But give us credit for the huge change of a positive nature we have brought about in our country over these past 20 years… We are going to have to go step by step.” Since Blair began his work with Kazakhstan, the country has fallen eight places in the  Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, to 160 out of 180, and fell in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, to 123 out of 167.


The UK government refused to release information about Blair’s involvement with Rwanda through his Africa Governance Initiative charity. Amnesty International has accused Rwandan president Paul Kagame of human rights abuses, including unlawful detentions, restricting freedom of expression and jailing opposition politicians and journalists. A UN report accused his forces of war crimes, including possible genocide, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Bad Faith

Blair even accepted donations to his Faith Foundation of $500,000 from Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch, and $1 million from Michael Milken (the model for Hollywood’s Gordon “greed is good” Gekko) who was convicted in 1990 for fraud. Faith Foundation staff attended a conference in Vienna funded by Saudi Arabia.


His work towards peace in the Middle East for the Quartet (for which the UK government contributed £400,000 of taxpayers’ money every year) proved ineffectual because of the taint of his closeness with GW Bush. One observer said that he watched Blair’s authority ‘swiftly drip away’, and he was excluded from discussions.


This image of a former prime minister touting himself about may be distasteful but Blair is not the first world leader to disappoint and cash in afterwards. It seems a bit pathetic that Blair should use his status to try to sell the Nigerians Israeli drones and other military equipment for use in their fight against Islamic rebels. However, is it so bad to try and make a buck for Tony Blair Associates? This is more serious than just hucksterism and greed. David Runciman was writing before Trump’s election but he presciently wrote in March 2016: “The way Tony Blair and Bill Clinton have conducted themselves since leaving office is a hostage to the fortunes not just of their personal reputations but of the political causes they still represent … If the scandal of deliverology contributes to the election of President Trump, that would be another thing entirely.”


The three most important public servants in Blair’s administration – Robin Butler, Richard Wilson and Andrew Turnbull – concluded that, as prime minister, Blair had not been a fit guardian of the public’s trust. Richard Wilson said: “There are events during my period as Cabinet secretary that make me shudder at what I remember because we had high hopes and we were so disappointed. He promised so much, but in the end, so little was achieved.”

Historian Ian Kershaw wrote in 2007 when Blair left office: “Labour now seems to stand for little more than the claim that it can manage the problems of British society a bit better, and a bit more humanely, than can the Conservatives. And even that claim is open to question…However Blair’s domestic achievements are judged, his place in history will be primarily shaped by the Iraq war. Iraq will forever stand out in bold red in the debit column of his time in office. It was an avoidable disaster. And it was a disaster bearing Blair’s personal hallmark.”


Complicity Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday February 10 2015.

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Willing executioners?


A number of historians have asked, “How did ordinary people bring themselves to participate in torture and euthanasia in Nazi Germany?” Was this something particular to the Germans or could people of other nations be complicit in similar atrocities? Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis, in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, imagines a Fascist dictatorship in the USA.



In Death and Deliverance, Michael Burleigh studies the character, background and motives of those who carried out the mass sterilisation and euthanasia of German mental patients in the 1930s. In 1920, Karl Bonhoeffer, chairman of the German Psychiatric Association, acknowledged that the exigencies of war had meant that the profession “had to get used to watching our patients die of malnutrition in vast numbers, almost approving of this, in the knowledge that perhaps the healthy could be kept alive through these sacrifices”. This was a thin end of an evil wedge.

During the 1930s, Bonheoffer gave lecture courses to those charged with implementing the compulsory sterilisation policies introduced by the National Socialists. These policies were no secret. The Nazi government sought to involve the wider public in their eugenic measures by opening the asylums to public inspection. In 1935, over 2,000 tourists marched through one of the asylums in the Rhineland. From 1934, parties of a hundred or more regularly visited Eglfing-Maar in Munich.

Hermann Pfannmüller, director of Eglfing-Maar, was a fanatical Nazi and an advocate of “racial and genetic biology. He was amused when one visitor recommended setting up a machine gun in the asylum entrance to clear away the inmates. In 1989 in Potsdam, Burleigh himself watched propaganda films produced to promote euthanasia. The films educated audiences in the cost of caring for the mentally ill. These funds would be better spent on housing or food for normal people.

Sterilisation evolved into euthanasia. However, it is clear that mercy played no part in the killing. Between 1934 and 1945, 400,000 people were sterilised in the cause of eradicating “degenerative heredity”. Under the programme known as T4, daily murders became a matter of routine, with doctors falsifying death certificates to cover up lethal injections and starvation. The Nazis extended the concept of a “life unworthy of life” to include mentally and physically disabled people, Jews, Gypsies, and Homosexuals. Up to 350,000 were killed. The gas chamber technology used by the Nazis was developed when the large number of adult and child euthanasia cases required more efficient means than lethal injections and starvation.

What kind of people could do this kind of thing? The asylum administrators’ annual reports demonstrate what Burleigh describes as “a high degree of enthusiastic complicity”. The psychiatrists themselves were not noted for their intellect or ethics.

Even bureaucrats were not remote from the killing. Secretaries shared their offices with jars of gold teeth extracted from the slaughtered. All T4 employees were entitled to cut price dental treatment, which used gold from the mouths of their victims.  Most of the personnel engaged in asylum work did not have vocations as carers. Many of the murderers were women – doctors such as Mathilde Weber, who ran a “special” paediatric ward at the Kalmenhof, and hundreds of nurses. Burleigh writes that once one has abandoned stereotypes about medical professionals one finds “that these people were often bitter, frustrated, disillusioned, tired, underpaid and undervalued”. The long years they had spent in nursing inured them to suffering of others. Burleigh gives pen portraits of a few of these women, pointing out that it “was possible to refuse to carry out these policies; the only sanctions that existed concerned breaking the code of secrecy”.

Male orderlies tended to be from a lower social class and showed no evidence of a vocation for caring for the sick. They were labourers or drivers who had been made unemployed by the depression. Party membership and asylum employment provided social mobility, enabling minor functionaries to become camp commandants.

After the war, some of the Nazi eugenicists were executed. Many of those who did the hands-on killing  received light sentences. Most melted into the general population under new identities.


In Ordinary Men, published in 1992, American historian Christopher Browning looks through the archives and analyses interviews carried out in the 1960s with policemen who had the job of shooting Jews en masse. The Order Reserve Police Battalion 101 was a unit of just over 450 men from Hamburg, which had been used in 1942 to round up Jews from Russian and Polish ghettoes.


As well as collecting Jews for transportation to death camps, the reserve policemen also carried out massacres themselves. The battalion was responsible in Poland for the shooting of 39,000 Jews and the deportation to Treblinka of 44,000 more. In March 1942, some 75 to 80 percent of all victims of the Holocaust were still alive. Eleven months later, 75 to 80 percent were dead–the result, Browning says, of “a short, intense wave of mass murder,” in Poland.

Browning concludes that these killers were not devils or Nazi fanatics or even virulent anti-Semites. These were ordinary middle-aged men of working-class background – 63% were working class but few were skilled workers. They were mostly dockworkers, truck drivers, warehouse or construction workers, machine operators, seamen, waiters. The majority were from a social class that had been anti-Nazi in its political culture.

These men were ordered to round up Jews, and if there was not enough room for them on the trains, or if they were unable to walk, to shoot them. Sometimes, they were ordered simply to kill a specified number of Jews in a given town or area. On July 13, 1942, the unit’s commander, Major Trapp, ordered his men to round up 1,800 Jews from the Polish village of Józefów and  to select several hundred as “work Jews,” and to shoot the rest- men, women, and children. Trapp told them that if any did not feel up to the task they could step forward and be excused. He wept as he gave the orders. Only a dozen men took the opportunity to hand in their rifles.

As the assignment continued, more found that they could not shoot women and children and they were released to  other duties. One said: “I myself took part in some ten shootings, in which I had to shoot men and women. I simply could not shoot at people anymore.” It was a dirty job. “The shooters were gruesomely besmirched with blood, brains, and bone splinters. It hung on their clothing”. The usual technique was to shoot the victim in the back of the neck. One man reported how “the back of the skull of my Jew was torn off and the brain exposed. Parts of the skull flew into Sergeant Steinmetz’s face. This was grounds for me to, after returning to the truck, to go to the first sergeant and ask for my release. I had become so sick that I simply couldn’t anymore”.

There was peer pressure – one who opted out said his comrades called him “shithead” and ‘weakling’- but there were no serious consequences for opting out. Browning argued that the men of Unit 101 agreed willingly to participate in massacres out of a basic obedience to authority, not blood-lust or primal hatred.

Browning wrote: “These men were not desk murderers who could take refuge in distance, routine and bureaucratic euphemisms that veiled the reality of mass murder. These men saw their victims face-to-face. Their comrades had already shot all the Jews deemed too weak to be deported, and they subsequently worked viciously for hours to prevent their victims from escaping from the train and hence the gas chambers awaiting them in Běžec.“
Critics of alltagsgeschhte – the history of everyday life- say that it draws attention away from the horrors of the Nazi genocide by normalizing the perpetrators. On the other hand, it can show the degree to which the criminal policies of the regime permeated everyday life. How would you or I have behaved in a similar situation – would you be a killer or an evader? Browning writes: “Explaining is not excusing; understanding is not forgiving”. The Holocaust took place because individual human beings killed other human beings on a large scale. The grass-roots perpetrators became “professional killers” in the sense that killing was their job.


Browning argues that it was not just Nazism or Germans that produced such men. There were American units in the Pacific that boasted of never taking captives. “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances,” he writes, “what group of men cannot?”



Daniel Goldhagen and Christopher Browning have had a running dispute for some time. In his book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996), Goldhagen argues that the vast majority were complicit in the Holocaust because German political culture, developing over centuries, imbued in ordinary Germans a unique and virulent “eliminationist anti-Semitism”. According to Goldhagen, Germany had been “pregnant with murder” regarding the Jews since the mid-19th century and that all Hitler did was merely to unleash the deeply rooted murderous impulses that had been festering within the German people since at least Luther’s time. This was unique to Germany  and because of it, ordinary German conscripts killed Jews willingly.


Goldhagen disagreed with Browning’s argument that the killing carried out by Order Police Reserve Battalion 101 was done in the context of the ordinary sociological phenomenon of obedience to authority.  To Goldhagen, they were not “ordinary men”, but “ordinary members of an extraordinary political culture, the culture of Nazi Germany, which was possessed of a hallucinatory, lethal view of the Jews. That view was the mainspring of what was, in essence, voluntary barbarism.”


Goldhagen charged that every other book written on the Holocaust was flawed by the fact that historians had treated Germans in the Third Reich as “more or less like us,” wrongly believing that “their sensibilities had remotely approximated our own.”

The British historian Sir Ian Kershaw wrote, “The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference,” Other historians have used the term “passive complicity” but largely agreed with Kershaw that there was a chasm of opinion about the Jews between the Nazi “true believers” and the wider German public.


In Part 2, It Can’t Happen Here, I will examine whether the citizens of Nazi Germany were so different.

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