A recent government report concluded that the UK does not have a problem with racism. But history shows us the perils of making such claims
By Roland Clark
Britain, apparently, does not have a problem with racism. The millions of Britons who experience racial slurs; discrimination at school; unequal access to jobs, housing and public services; and who are made to feel unwelcome in their own neighbourhoods will have been relieved to read in Tony Sewell’s report, commissioned by Boris Johnson last summer and published in March 2021, that the “UK has fundamentally shifted since those periods in the past and has become a more open society.”
As we continue to process the implications of the Sewell Report, it is helpful to remember other societies that apparently also did not have problems with racism.
Denying that one’s country is racist was particularly common in Europe between the wars. In East and Central Europe, one government after another insisted that they were looking after their minorities even while they were introducing discriminatory social structures and policies explicitly designed to benefit the majority populations. Doing so fuelled the growth of radical-Right parties and encouraged vigilante violence against minorities, and in some instances allowed fascists or right-wing authoritarians to overthrow the very governments that introduced these policies in the first place.
The countries that had the most to gain from denying that racism was a problem were those that had been newly created or dramatically expanded after the great continental empires collapsed at the end of the First World War, such as Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia.
Poland for the Poles
Poland, for example, had been a large and prosperous medieval commonwealth but was divided between the Prussian, Russian and Habsburg empires in the late 18th century. When it was re-created as a nation-state in 1918, it inherited three different currencies, legal systems, transportation systems and education systems, along with a host of ethnic minorities, among them Germans who had enjoyed dominant positions in the old empires but now found themselves playing second fiddle to the Poles.
With the racist paternalism common among Western Europeans at the time, the economist John Maynard Keynes called the creation of modern Poland “an economic impossibility, whose only industry is Jew-baiting”, and British prime minister Lloyd George said he “would rather give a clock to a monkey” than give Upper Silesia to Poland.
In addition to the breath-taking challenge of building a new state out of the ashes of war, European statesmen worried that the Poles, who had been an oppressed minority for well over a century, would in turn discriminate against anyone who wasn’t Polish once they were in charge.
Led by Great Britain and France, the Great Powers forced them to sign a Minorities Treaty, which allowed the League of Nations to interfere in Polish affairs if it was found that minority populations were not enjoying equal rights.
Jewish people in Poland nonetheless reported frequent discrimination, including not being allowed to run their own schools and being violently persecuted by other students at universities. Ukrainian nationalists organised a violent campaign against the Polish state, only to face mass arrests and the “pacification” of more than 450 villages by policemen who turned houses inside out looking for weapons and potential trouble-makers.
Denying that racism was a problem encouraged extremists to take it even further, with fascists literally getting away with murder
Ethnic Germans in Poland also sent frequent complaints about injustices they suffered to the League of Nations, and Adolf Hitler used the discrimination against Germans as a reason to invade Poland in 1939.
Meanwhile, Polish governments repeatedly denied that the country had a problem with systemic or institutional racism throughout the interwar period.
As well as making Poland into a mockery on the international stage, these denials, which were grounded in the belief that Poles had the right to run their country any way they pleased, fuelled the rise of ultranationalists such as Roman Dmowski’s National Democracy party, destabilising Polish democracy before it even had a chance to find its feet.
State of denial
Further south, Romania expanded from 138,000 km2 to 295,049 km² after the First World War, bringing large numbers of Hungarians, Saxons, Jews, Ukranians, and other ethnic minorities under Bucharest’s control. The prime minister, Ionel Brătianu, resigned in 1919 rather than sign what he called the ‘humiliating’ Minorities Treaty imposed by the Great Powers.
Both he and his successors repeatedly denied the obvious and systematic discrimination against minority schools and churches, violence against Jewish communities, and the harsh policing of ethnic minorities whenever they tried to organise cultural gatherings that the Romanian state saw as subversive.
Denying that racism was a problem encouraged extremists to take it even further, with antisemites and fascists literally getting away with murder in celebrated trials. For example, in 1924 Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, who would later go on to become a fascist leader in Romania, murdered a police prefect and was acquitted on the grounds that he was fighting for a nationalist cause. His example was followed by another future fascist, Nicolae Totu, who murdered a Jewish schoolboy in 1927 and was again acquitted when the jury decided that the murder was justified because the victim had disrespected a representative of the Romanian state.
Increased support for fascism and antisemitism in Romania resulted in the appointment of a right-wing government in 1938, followed quickly by the collapse of parliamentary democracy and the institution of a royal dictatorship.
A threat to democracy
Even Czechoslovakia, which cultivated a reputation for tolerance, had problems with its minorities. The country’s first president, Tomáš Masaryk, boasted in 1925 that “chauvinism is nowhere justified, least of all in our country”. At the same time, Slovaks felt marginalised and unrepresented in the new state.
The worse discrimination against minorities became, the louder their governments shouted that racism was non-existent
Living mostly in economically depressed regions and with their religion and culture looked down upon by the more affluent and secular Czechs, they increasingly mobilised around the Slovak People’s Party (SPP). Originally a civil rights movement, the SPP embraced fascism during the 1930s and governed the first Slovak Republic after its creation in 1939.
Similarly, the frequent complaints about Czech racism by Germans in the Sudetenland helped justify Hitler’s annexation of the region in 1938.
In all three countries, the worse discrimination against minorities became, the louder their governments shouted that racism was non-existent. And the more they justified and whitewashed racism, the more virulent and powerful it became as a social and political force that eventually destroyed parliamentary democracy itself.
The interwar histories of Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia should be a warning to Tony Sewell, Boris Johnson, and others who would downplay the problem of racism in British society. Not only is it hurtful for those people whose lived experiences of racism are disregarded, it encourages further racism and serves to destabilise our democracy.