Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise

A 20-year-old Greek footballer named Giorgos Katidis has been banned for life from playing for his national team – some would say entirely appropriately – after celebrating scoring a goal by appearing to give a Nazi salute. The player said he hadn’t understood the meaning of the gesture.

KatidisIn an article titled “Can you accidentally do a Nazi salute?”, BBC Magazine (18 March 2013) wonders if it is possible, in 2013, for a European to be so poorly informed? The footballer was photographed clearly extending his right arm and hand to celebrate scoring the winning goal for his team AEK Athens in a Super League game at the Olympic Stadium in Athens. After the match, the former captain of the Greek under-19 team Twittered: “I am not a fascist and I would not have done it if I had known what it means.” His team’s German coach also said his player was ignorant of what the salute signified.

During the 1939-45 War, Greece was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany. The Germans were fought by the Greek Resistance and in the ensuing struggle over 100,000 civilians died during the winter of 1941-42. The majority of Greek Jews were deported to Nazi concentration camps. The legacy of the German occupation played out in the civil war (1946-49) between communist and anti-communist forces, which devastated the country economically and led to acute social tensions between rightists and largely communist leftists for the next thirty years.

What does it signify that Giorgos Katidis is ignorant of this history? In Greece  it is has not been forgotten. During recent debates about the possible bankruptcy of the Greek state, one argument resurfaced with increasing frequency: the widespread damage inflicted by the Nazi regime during World War II and the demand for significant reparations from Germany. Elsewhere in Europe the rise of Neo-Nazism is a serious cause of concern. So much so that on 20 December 2012 the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 67/154 on “The Glorification of Nazism: inadmissibility of certain practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

The Resolution condemns practices that “do injustice to the memory of the countless victims of crimes against humanity committed in the Second World War, in particular those committed by the SS organization and by those who fought against the anti-Hitler coalition and collaborated with the Nazi movement, and negatively influence children and young people.” It emphasizes “the particular importance of all forms of education, including human rights education, as a complement to legislative measures” and “the importance of history classes in teaching the dramatic events and human suffering which arose out of the adoption of ideologies such as Nazism and Fascism.”

All of which implies a failure of education to tackle not just the history of the 20th century but its moral dimensions in the light of later actions by governments both South and North.

Of course, Greece is not the only country whose youth may be less than sensitive to Nazism. In 2005 Britain’s Prince Harry wore a swastika armband to a friend’s fancy dress party. After a photograph of the incident was published on the front page of The Sun newspaper with the headline, “Harry the Nazi”, contrition was duly expressed: “I am very sorry if I caused any offense or embarrassment to anyone. It was a poor choice of costume and I apologize.”

Teaching the Holocaust should be on the educational curriculum of every country. But it should not be divorced from a present-day assessment of those famously hollow words “Never again!” France’s actions in Algeria, Britain’s actions in Kenya, the USA’s actions in Vietnam and Cambodia, the repression of political dissidents and indigenous people in Latin America, Israel’s actions in Palestine, and a long list of woeful countries that includes Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and currently ends with Syria tell us that public education is woefully lacking.

We must challenge Thomas Gray’s assertion in his “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” (1742):

“To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemned alike to groan;
The tender for another’s pain,
The unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
’Tis folly to be wise.”

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