WW2 Relevance

|   12 March 2011

Robbery and History

I was robbed in Barcelona this week. I was queuing up waiting to get into the Camp Nou to see the Barcelona/Arsenal game (which turned out to be a tremendous match, as all sports fans will know by now) when I was set upon by a gang of pickpockets. They were an extremely effective group of thieves. One knelt in front of me and started rubbing my leg below the knee. It was a weird thing to do and took all my attention. Once I was distracted then the other two put their hands in my pockets and snatched my money.

A couple of things struck me about this experience that made me think of my own work. The first was that as the robbery took place I was surrounded by people, all of whom must have seen what was happening – including security guards at the gates of the stadium who can’t have been more than ten yards away. Yet no one did anything to help. Only after the pickpockets had gone did someone come up to me and say: ‘Terrible, isn’t, that kind of thing? I saw it all.’

But why should we expect people to help in that kind of situation? Why put yourself at any risk for a stranger? That, of course, is the story I heard from so many bystanders in Germany and elsewhere who did nothing during the war to help when they saw people in trouble – infinitely more trouble than I was in, of course.

And second, I was interested in how I suddenly felt a wave of emotional intolerance sweep through me about  issues like immigration. The pickpockets seemed not to be Spanish, but by their language and looks came from sub-Saharan Africa. In this reaction I mirrored the feelings of many Germans I met who, more than seventy years ago, wanted to blame all the problems in their country on ‘outsiders’. In a crisis, a common reaction is to look for scapegoats. Obviously, not all pickpockets in Barcelona are non-Spanish, but that’s what I felt at the time.

The whole experience was a stark reminder of how beliefs can change as our circumstances change. It’s easy to be a liberal – but only  so long as everything is going well and life is safe and secure.

2 Responses to “Robbery and History”

  1. Julian says:

    Sorry to hear of your experience Laurence, we had a similar gang robbery attempt boarding the train at Krakow for Warsaw in 2008. The perpetrators blocked me in the carriage passage while the guy behind attempted to lift my wallet. Luckily I was wearing trousers with such deep back pockets they make it difficult for me to get my wallet and felt the guy wading about in my pocket before he could grab my belongings. I fought free and managed to enter the compartment just as another of the gang was leaving with my wife’s handbag. She was unaware what was happening… they created chaos not unlike your experience. I took the bag back from the man while screaming in his face. There were five Polish people in the compartment who just sat and watched the situation, was it fear or because we were English, I’ll never know.

    Again like your experience the gang were obviously immigrants, they looked Romanian I think. My experience didn’t make me scared of Romanians surprisingly, but I stopped trusting the Polish to stand up for me after that and I have to admit for the rest of my time in Poland I was seeing the country with a less rosy tint. Like you I saw how events were allowed to just happen 70 years ago, how the good people ‘did nothing’. I had visited Oświęcim a few days before the attempted mugging and was feeling never again, but I am not sure the world has seen the last of fascism. If people sit frightened and allow one man to fight off about 5 immigrant muggers, hatred will again fester.

    I should add, I am a physically disabled man, quite obvious to the eye as I use crutches. From that moment on I felt very alone in Poland… I only began to relax again when we reached Gdańsk which is dare I say it a more friendly city than both Warsaw and Krakow. Maybe in the UK if I was being obviously mugged in public people would stand and watch, but due to my condition I actually doubt it. This was my first impression of Eastern Europe as an adult and I have to admit, I was not impressed. It did however give me some better insights into books I had and continue to read such as your Nazi’s and a Warning and Aushwitz; highlighting how different the war to the East was to the Germans than how they saw the fighting to the west.

    I had forgotten how much this episode upset me.

  2. Mark says:

    The bad in this world thrive on the divisions such thieves create.
    Even whole goverments, as war has shown.
    Making people wary and angry of groups and races that are know for such thefts. And alienating many against them.

    They need to be stopped, as they are causing many problems across Europe.