On the shores of the Danube in Budapest recently, a moving memorial to murdered Jews gave me pause for thought amid the bluster of the EU referendum debate.
The memorial on the Pest side of the river is called ‘Shoes on the Danube Promenade’ and consists of 60 pairs of rusting metal shoes of the type worn in the 1940s. There are men’s shoes, women’s shoes and tiny shoes worn by children and toddlers. There are different styles, from workmen’s boots to expensive stiletto heels. Some lie haphazardly, as if kicked off in a rush. Others are placed with precision side by side, as if removed carefully by their owners. The shoes line the promenade opposite the Hungarian parliament building, with its neo-Gothic spires spliced with Renaissance and Baroque features. A few feet below, the blue Danube glides gently to the sea.
Between October 1944 and March 1945, militiamen from the pro-German, anti-Semitic Arrow Cross Party murdered between 10,000 and 15,000 civilians in Hungary, many of them Jews. In Budapest, entire families were lined up along the banks of the Danube and shot into the river. Men, women, children, age made no difference. Most were shot dead, their bodies dropping into the icy waters to be washed away out of sight. But some, in a twist of unimaginable cruelty, were tied together in twos and threes, one person shot dead, the others left to drown.
Shoes were a valuable commodity in those days. Before killing them, the Arrow Cross militiamen ordered their victims to remove their footwear, later to be sold or bartered on the black market. When the smoke cleared, all that was left were bodies in the river and shoes on the Danube promenade.
The memorial, created by the film director Can Togay and the sculptor Gyula Pauer, marks a moment of horror in European history. You can view it from a distance, or you can get in close and touch the shoes, sit by them. Its intimacy makes it all the more poignant. The memorial was installed in 2005, just a year after Hungary, emerging from a troubled post-war past under Communism, joined the EU. The shoes recall terrible events that happened more than 70 years ago in a broken Europe. But the importance of their message could scarcely be more relevant today.
As the UK and Gibraltar prepare to vote in the June 23 referendum, it is worth remembering the origins of the EU. The founding fathers included politicians, diplomats, businessmen and lawyers scarred by World War II. They were a diverse group of people but they shared the same ideals. From the devastation of war, they sought to build a peaceful, united and prosperous Europe. They worked to build economic and political ties that would secure lasting peace. Whatever the failings of the EU today, remember this: they succeeded.
In Gibraltar, the sentiment on the street is overwhelmingly pro-EU. A poll carried out by this newspaper suggests voters here will turn out in force and vote to remain. We are worried that Spain might seek to exploit a British exit from the EU to gain traction in its sovereignty claim over the Rock. We are worried too about the impact of a Brexit on the Rock’s economy and on freedom of movement across the border.
Contrary to what some people say, our vote is important. The nature of a referendum, coupled to the tight polls in the UK, means that every single vote counts. For a recent example of knife-edge results, look at last week’s elections in Austria, where a far right anti-Muslim president was kept out of power by just 31,000 votes. Remote as the possibility sounds, Gibraltar could – in theory at least – swing the referendum result.
And while our local concerns about the impact of a Brexit on our community are legitimate and real, let us not forget that there are issues that stretch beyond our borders. Is it unreasonable to think that a Brexit might unleash forces that could break up Europe once again? Is it melodramatic to think that a fractured Europe might slide into violence again? Lord Luce, a former Governor of Gibraltar, touched on this point last week during a debate on the Queen’s Speech in the House of Lords. “Since 1945 we have struggled to find ways to overcome centuries of conflict, national rivalry and imperial rule, whatever form it might take, and we have done so by providing a framework for collaboration in Europe,” he said. “Some would say that war in Europe again is unimaginable, and that may be true. However, we cannot take that for granted.” For recent examples of how fragile peace can be, look no further than the Balkans in the 1990s, or Ukraine today.
Amid the political noise of the referendum campaign, a video from the Britain Stronger In Europe campaign stood out for its simple message. It showed four elderly veterans of World War II reflecting on why they would vote to remain in the EU. Patrick Churchill, a former Royal Marine Commando who fought on D-Day, said he feared countries would fall apart if Britain was not in the union. “The only solution is to bind together, hold together, there we find strength,” he said. A similar message came from Harry Leslie Smith, an RAF veteran who said Britain’s membership of the EU reflected the values his generation fought for during the war. “We sacrificed many, many men in both world wars and this was to establish a peaceful and prosperous union,” added David Meylan, another RAF veteran. “We can’t sacrifice that now.”
The last veteran in the video was Field Marshal Lord Bramall, former Chief of the Defence Staff. “We would be going backwards, not forwards, in what we set out to cure after the terrible tragedies of the Second World War,” he said.
Sitting on the shores of the Danube surrounded by metal shoes, that message resonated loud and clear.