When is a Nazi salute not a Nazi salute? When somebody who isn’t a Nazi gives it. But how do you decide when somebody’s a Nazi – in heart if not in deed – if giving the Nazi salute is not to be seen as indicative? Why would anyone adopt the gestures of a political movement for which they have no sympathy?
Only scratching my ear, or words to that effect, said the footballer Nicolas Anelka, after fisting the quenelle, the inverted Nazi salute created by that unfunny French comedian Dieudonné. Some men are born Nazis, some achieve Nazism, and some have Nazism thrust upon them. Remember Dr Strangelove’s gloved salute: a man can’t always control the direction of his arm.
We exempt the Queen from our ironies. A child will copy anything she is told to copy. And we can’t know in what spirit, either, she was encouraged to do so. I gave Nazi salutes with my schoolfriends, making a Führer moustache with a toothbrush long before Basil Fawlty. You can rest assured that we were joking. There were no Jewish Nazis where I grew up in the 1950s. In the case of those egging on the young princess, it’s less easy to be certain. Long and deep were the ties that bound British and European aristocracies to the ideology of Nazism.
Funny how class works: you turn your nose up at your own proletariat but allow yourself to be mesmerised by a little vulgarian with a terrible haircut, no dress sense and bad table manners. Jew-hating acquaints us with strange bedfellows. But what if uncle Edward was making that very observation to amuse his nieces? Hey kids, did you see what my arm just did...?
It’s important to remember, Dame Shirley Williams said on Newsnight last week – misremembering wildly – that in 1933, when the photograph of the royal salute was taken, Hitler’s ambitions were little known; it was still possible to admire him simply as someone who put Germans back to work – no matter that the work was building munitions factories and Dachau.
Oh, the things we don’t see when it doesn’t suit us to see them. Mein Kampf had been published in 1925. Its driving monomania could hardly have been missed by anyone who’d taken the precaution, before giving Hitler wholehearted support, to flick it open, and as early as 1920 he had entertained the National Socialist German Workers Party with descriptions of “the Jew as parasite” threatening “the national purity” of the German nation. Not everyone was at the Hofbräuhaus in 1920, just as not everyone was at the General Meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Party Centre in Birmingham to hear Enoch Powell give his “rivers of blood speech”, but inflammatory language has wings. Whoever wasn’t alarmed by Hitler in 1933 was already a little bit in love with his ideas.
All of which still leaves the Queen in the clear, not least because we wish her to be. We do if we are Jewish, anyway. I don’t have the slightest idea what the Queen thinks of Judaism as a faith, whether she numbers Jews among her friends, whether she prefers Roth to Updike, gets Jewish jokes, subscribes to The Jewish Chronicle, or wishes her children had found themselves nice Jewish wives and husbands. As for Israel, well, she is yet to go there. But I know she has no radical objection to Jews, and I know she is good for the Jews. How do I know? I just know.
You develop a strong instinct for smelling out your enemies when you’ve spent a long time running from them. You might not be able to say exactly what you’re looking for, but you know it when you see it. And I don’t see an enemy in the Queen. There are even moments – I am not referring to any specific face-to-face encounter – when she reminds me of the aunts and grandmothers who pinched my cheeks when I was a child, said something to me in Yiddish – “Have you come far, mein kind?” it might have been – and gave me a kopek.
It’s partly because I see something of my central European origins in hers that I feel safe breathing the air she breathes. OK, so my ancestors studied sacred texts in muddy hovels in the Carpathians, while hers trod carpeted corridors in some Schloss in Saxe-Coburg – we are both still from somewhere else. And precisely because we are from somewhere else we have the free minds of those grateful not to be living there any more, feel loosened in our ties, and can value the country we’ve landed in and made our own without believing its purity needs protecting from contamination. No, she won’t ever pinch my cheek, give me a kopek and whisper in my ear, “So how do you find the English, bubbeleh?” But I can imagine she’d quite like to. Queen Victoria had Disraeli. Queen Elizabeth II, had things only fallen out differently, could have had me.
But anyway, the world has changed. It’s not the crowned heads of Old Europe who hate us now. If Edward the Impressionable were to raise his arm today, it wouldn’t be in fealty to the Nazis but to Hezbollah and Hamas, who openly borrow the salute for its anti-Jewish associations. “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas,” you will hear sung in the Netherlands and Germany. Which doesn’t stop Jeremy Corbyn being Hamas’s “friend”.
How defaming Jews passed from being a pastime of reactionaries to a prerequisite of the hard and not so hard left (where it goes by another name) is a matter for further discussion. But the Jew has always been various in his capacity to provoke: now fomenting revolution; now the bedrock of international capitalism; now promising that the meek shall inherit the earth; now grinding the dispossessed under his heel. Thus the salute of extermination passes from fascist to “freedom fighter”, seducing the left as it once seduced the right. Eighty years from now we might be asking whether pictures of a forgotten Labour Party leader hobnobbing with terrorists for whom the murder of Jews is a religious duty could possibly be genuine.Reuse content