If Auschwitz was in Hampshire
The shock comes in the very first line. "If Auschwitz had been in Hampshire," begins the poem by Edward Bond, "There would have been Englishmen to guard it / To administer records / Marshall transports / Work the gas ovens / And keep silent / The smoke would have drifted over these green hills."
The words shock because they confound everything we like to tell ourselves about the Holocaust and the Second World War, specifically that the evildoers were German and that our country was uncomplicatedly on the side of good. It's not only that Auschwitz wasn't in Hampshire, it's that somehow it couldn't have been - as if Britain was bound, by its nature, to stand for what is right.
That view has been challenged somewhat over the years. The Milgram experiments proved that, given the right conditions, many people - not just Germans – are prepared to administer pain, and even death, to strangers. We know that Germans found partners across Europe for their genocidal project, from France to Estonia. But my new novel, Pantheon, also hopes to challenge our received wisdom by showing that Britain's stance against the Nazi menace was anything but pre-ordained.
It's not just that many mainstream figures wanted to appease rather than fight Hitler, including well-meaning folk who simply could not face another world war. Rather, at the core in Britain was a group of hardcore fascists and antisemites, among them the Conservative MP Archibald Maule Ramsay who wittily adapted Land of Hope and Glory thus: "Land of Dope and Jewry / Land that once was free / All the Jew boys praise thee / Whilst they plunder thee." Ramsay's Right Club continued to agitate for peace with the Third Reich long into 1940, until Churchill jailed its ringleaders as a threat to national security. But what if Churchill had not succeeded Chamberlain? What if the appeasers had won? Think Auschwitz in Hampshire.
At the core was a group of hardcore fascists and antisemites
Pantheon looks left as well as right. Long forgotten now is an idea that, in the pre-war period, was regarded as common sense, including by luminaries of the left. That idea was eugenics, the belief that society should aim to improve the quality of the human breed, partly by weeding out those deemed inferior: the physically impaired, the mentally feeble, the morally unworthy. So Bertrand Russell could suggest a scheme involving colour-coded procreation tickets: the elite would be able to mate only with those of similar pedigree. The socialist JBS Haldane could warn that "Civilisation stands in real danger from over-production of 'undermen'." Untermenschen, as the Germans would have it. Meanwhile, George Bernard Shaw imagined a day when the inferior would be dealt with by means of "lethal chambers". He did not specify whether those chambers should be located in Hampshire.
The point is that the liberal intellectual establishment in Britain - and in the US too, - was in thrall to an idea that now strikes us as chillingly close to Nazism. Likewise, people of influence in both countries lobbied for an accommodation with Hitler.
For a British Jew, this has a particular impact. Read the Wannsee protocol, which launched the Final Solution, and you will see it includes a kind of shopping list, cataloguing the Jewish communities in the Nazis' sights. There, sandwiched between Bulgaria and Finland, is "England," with its 330,000 estimated Jews. We were on the list.
We were spared because in the end Britain did the right thing, fighting and defeating Nazism. But an unsentimental look at the history leaves no doubt: it might easily have gone the other way.
Pantheon by Sam Bourne is published by HarperCollins