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August 03, 2004


My eye was caught by two articles in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph (London).

Poland is commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Warsaw uprising, which was crushed by the Nazi occupiers, killing a quarter of a million people and destroying the city. As every schoolboy knows, World War II started when the Germans invaded Poland, and millions of Poles (quite apart from Polish Jews) died in the war.

But according to the article, the survivors of Germans expelled from Poland after the war ‘want international recognition of their suffering’, and are threatening to claim reparations for their property.

What’s the German for chutzpah?

But what really caught my eye was an article at the bottom of the same page headed ‘Misery never fades for the Roque of Gibraltar’. Apparently there is a town called San Roque a few miles along the cost of Spain from the British colony of Gibraltar. Gibraltar is currently celebrating 300 years of British rule, having been captured by Anglo-Dutch forces in 1704, during the War of the Spanish Succession, and subsequently ceded to Britain in perpetuity under the Treaty of Utrecht. Spain now wants it back. The British government, for reasons of Euro-politics, would be delighted to give it back, except for the awkward fact that about 99 percent of its inhabitants (in referenda) want it to stay British.

But what about San Roque? Well, it seems that the inhabitants of San Roque regard themselves as the descendants of the inhabitants of Gibraltar before the British occupation. According to a spokesman, ’We want recognition of what we suffered 300 years ago’. Sound familiar? A statue in the town has the inscription ‘No Spaniard should ever forget…faithful to their eternal right to return…’ I like the ’eternal’ bit!

No doubt local feelings on the issue have been manipulated and inflamed by Spanish politicians for nationalistic reasons, much as Argentinian politicians claimed the right to ‘return’ to the Falkland Islands, on the basis that for a decade or so in the early 19th century a handful of Argentinian convicts and whalers lived there.

But in the Spanish case there are a couple of further twists. One is that Spain (if Spain can be said to have existed before the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile) only captured the area around Gibraltar from the Moors in the middle of the 15th century (in 1462, according to the article). So Gibraltar has been ’British’ for longer than it has been ’Spanish’, and was ‘Moorish‘ for much longer than either!

The second twist is that Spain itself occupies two enclaves (Ceuta and Melilla) on the coast of Morocco, and has no intention whatever of giving them up, as demanded by the Moroccans.

So what’s the Spanish for hypocrisy?

But the underlying point (which makes this a bit more relevant to GNXP) is that there seems to be a strong human tendency to nurse ancestral grievances (real or imaginary) long after the individuals directly affected (and even their children and grandchildren) are dead. If anything, the sense of grievance seems to grow stronger, not weaker, with time. It’s all rather depressing, but it can have its funny side!

Godless comments:

I would add one point, probably unintentionally omitted from DB's account: World War II started when the Germans and Russians jointly invaded and partitioned Poland. See here:

Substantively, of course, I agree with David. It seems that many people have a model of human migration as a sort of "Finder's Keepers" game, where all population groups were concentrated in the Congo at the start and then loosed to grab their spot in the world. Once a tribe landed in a particular area, it was theirs in perpetuity, and any displacement is prima facie a reason for outside tribes to weep and rend their garments in agony at the outrage. I can of course understand the displaced tribes' annoyance (though not when it's more than a generation or two in the past), but I'm generally loath to reflexively sympathize with the losers in territorial combat. To do so is to elevate sympathy for the underdog to a moral imperative.

Posted by David B at 09:17 AM