If you said that, you would be right but...fear not. That hateful exhibition is imaginary. Only my thought experiment. Another in London is real, however. Not with the Brits as culprits, no, but the Germans. It astounded me.
Horrible Histories – Spies is a children’s affair on at the Imperial War Museum. (Imperial? What empire?) It charts the brave deeds of British agents and spies against Germans. Krauts are shown executing and torturing prisoners in occupied France. SS men in black uniforms with aggressive swastika armbands torment their captives. Wehrmacht officers and soldiers revel in sundry repressions. Brutal Gestapo guards pull bullets into a female’s head in concentration camps. With the condign brave resisters fighting back.
I am NOT suggesting the organisers deliberately intended to sow hatred. That is not the issue. Still, you may ask why it is necessary to stage this exhibition, aimed at kids and targeting one particular foreign nationality, 63 years after the war ended. Anyhow, my point is: those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. The Germans were no angels but...what about the others?
France. In 1940 Germany defeated her in battle and occupied part of it, the rest given to the pro-German Vichy government. Naturally, most Frenchmen detested their victors and fought back. Fair enough but...what about the French Empire? From North Africa to Indochina, France ruled over vast colonial territories, acquired by conquest, force of arms. How did Arabs and Indo-Chinese feel about their republican and democratic masters?
Algeria. Between 1954 and 1962 Algerians rebelled against French rule. It wasn’t nice. Massacres, reprisals, jailing of civilians...does it ring a bell? Figures vary but at least half-million Algerians lost their lives. And the French were guilty of widespread use of torture. When a ‘Horrible History’ children’s exhibition in Algiers telling it how it was? What is sauce for the goose...
Vietnam. Indochina had been subjugated by French generals a century before. In 1946, a year after the glorious, democratic and patriotic French resistance had thrown out the nasty Nazis, Vietnamese resistance against France began. Philosopher J.P. Sartre called it ‘the dirty war’ – you get the drift. 8 years later, at Dien Bien Phu, the French Army surrendered. The colonial power quit. Another Horrible History exhibition due?
Britain’s turn. Consider Iran. The West’s current bogey. Peruse Christopher De Bellaigue’s Patriot of Persia. Subtitled ‘A Very British Coup’. Learn all about the 1953 military putsch that overthrew an elected government. Engineered by joint CIA and British Intelligence’s stooges. To protect powerful Anglo-Iranian Oil from nationalisation. A company whose employees were spies working for MI6. A sordid, painful, truly horrible history. ‘Perfidious! Perfidious!’ the dying, deposed Iranian PM Muhammad Mossadegh may have muttered with his last breath. A sentiment shared by many of his fellow countrymen. A ‘perfidious Britain’ kids’ show is overdue in Tehran...
Kenya? Caroline Elkins’ Imperial Reckoning tells some unpalatable truths about the colonialist suppression of the Mau Mau guerrillas in the 1950s. Vast concentration camps arose. Barbed wire, spiked trenches, gun-toting guards from watchtowers...inmates being beaten, tortured, raped, even castrated. Communist propaganda? Fanciful tales? Brazen lies? Not quite. The UK government has owned up. It expresses ‘regret’ to the victims and agrees to pay compensation. Maybe a ‘horrible history’ exhibition will be thrown in, for good measure.
Malaysia, Ireland, India, Cyprus, Greece, China (the shameful opium wars - Chinese children learn about those OK)... Each country may have its own anti-British set of historical grievances to contribute. Verily, an embarrassment of horrible stories!
Wait a minute: isn’t England a land of freedom and rights? Indeed. Besides, the British are perhaps the most civilised, tolerant and generous people in the world. Which other nation offers shelter, housing, money, care and security to complete strangers, often in preference to its own citizens?
All empires have committed great crimes. Because all empires are sinful. All are based on robbery and plunder, not just the British and French ones. Romans, Turks, Arabs, Moguls, and Russians - all sought to benefit not the ruled but the rulers. ‘What are empires but bands of robbers?’ soberly asked St Augustine long ago. The only utterly non-sinful empire would be one based on the teaching and practise of Christ but that empire has yet to exist..
‘It isn’t fair, Sir!’ the kids in my school used to complain. Yep, fairness. A fine British virtue. The Horrible Histories exhibition ain’t fair, the priest opines. And fairness is what he is calling for.