What we can learn from activists of the past

As Nina Klaff travels post-Brexit Europe, she considers activism throughout history and its potential in the present.

On the 25th of June, two days after we voted to leave the European Union, I left the U.K. Like so many others our age, we were grieving.

First stop Germany. I thought of Sophie Scholl and her White Rose, tarnished with the blood of its executed members. Their crime? Distributing anti-war, anti-National Socialist leaflets at the University of Munich. As I’m writing this, news is coming in of a shooting in that very city resulting in several deaths at a shopping center. In her trial, Sophie said, ‘Somebody, after all, had to make a start.’ This is not the kind of start she meant.

The pavement by Prague’s National Museum is adorned with a memorial to Jan Palach, a student of Charles I University who burnt himself alive in Wenceslas Square in protest against the Prague Spring. He died in hospital several days later, his death a demonstration against the demoralized apathy of his people under oppressive Soviet rule. The authorities tried to hide the evidence of his self-immolation, even going as far as exhuming his body from his tomb, but this wasn’t enough to deter other determined youths from doing the same.

As I peered into a bookshop window on Narodní Street, I was told of the Velvet Revolution that passed through it: a protest led by students, the echoes of which rang in the end of 41 years of Iron Curtained communism in the Soviet Union.

The Polish square still haunted by King Kazimierz’s blind lover is home to a stone commemorating the 60,000 Jews of Krakow. Only 3,000 survived, 1,000 of whom were saved by one man, Oscar Schindler. In his factory, a recording of a lecture is the soundtrack to your path along a reproduction of the ghetto wall, shaped like Jewish tombs. 184 academics and their guests were told they were attending a lecture on Germany’s plans for Polish education, but instead were arrested. That room was their last place of freedom.

What did these groups of people have in common? There are flagrantly similar denominators. They were thinkers, doers. Thinking and doing doesn’t make for a malleable society.


In Austria, I recalled a pertinent example of what can happen when the young feel obstructed. I thought of an early Adolph, applying twice to University to study art, and twice getting rejected. He didn’t need their acceptance to understand their importance, and his Napola schools, curriculum changes, and poisonously antisemitic Mushroom children’s books paved the way for one of the most infamous dictatorships of all time.

Back on British soil, I recalled being kettled in at Whitehall in 2009, how I shivered under my short skirt of teenage rebellion as policemen on horseback waded in on us and on our plea for affordable education. This legislation affected the course of my life in ways that are almost unfathomable, and the butterfly effect on other young people is blatant: would-be writers slaving away at a Medicine degree, painters whose art is restricted to the lattes they serve to pay their way through a teacher training course, and so many not in any form of education at all. I am in no way saying that you need a degree to be qualified to think, nor that only those who have one can. I do, however, dismay at the dissuasion a price tag brings.

The cost of questioning becomes far too dear. The universal suffrage our ancestors fought for should not entail having to pay the equivalent of the price of five pints to elect a party leader, when one had already been democratically chosen. At least when you order a drink at a bar, you can expect to be heard.

The greatest minds of Ginsberg’s generation were destroyed by madness. The greatest of mine are crippled with apathy and debt, and while, thankfully, many of their bodies may not be starving, their minds are. If the consensus of my social sphere, which is admittedly of a left wing, middle class demographic, is anything to go by, faith in democracy has waned. There is so much frustration on both sides; I find it hard to believe nothing is changing. Simply voting is evidently not enough. Neither is abstaining: in the last general election, Russell Brand encouraged people to renounce their democratic right. Where are you now, Russell? We’d so love to hear what comes next.

If, like me, you’ve ever questioned why it took so long for Stalinism, Apartheid, Nazism, Segregation, Thatcherism, or any other political period that has been retrospectively condemned to end, I have an answer. Oh, they’re so darned clever. Put a city kid on a farm for long enough, they’ll eventually get used to the stench of manure. It doesn’t mean it’s any less pungent. And so it continues: despite the tripling of fees, a lot of us have continued to flock to university, because, over time, we became accustomed to the policy.

But all it takes is one person. One Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. One Mahatma Gandhi marching to the salts. One Emily Davison throwing herself under the king’s horse. Or at least, that’s how it begins. For every Nelson Mandela, there’s a Steve Biko, and for every Steve Biko there’s the hope of a nation ready to – at least legally – free itself from its shackles.

No man is an island, but the United Kingdom is, and right now, it’s in shambles. United in name but by no means in nature, there’s some serious work to be done. Whatever your views are, the current situation is unacceptable. Believe me, burning myself alive doesn’t appeal to me either, but there are so many, less permanent, non-violent ways of being active. Volunteering in Calais. Get involved with the New Levellers, the cross-party political movement giving a platform to the youth. Posting an angry status. Handing out leaflets. Striking. Joining a demonstration. Going to Question Time. Writing an article for a snazzy student magazine.

While Spielberg’s three hour epic on a hero factory owner was spellbinding, and the New York Times says Dumbach and Newborn’s book on Scholl ‘reads like a suspense novel,’ I don’t want there to be memorials for any of us. I don’t want museum vitrines to contain artifacts of our mistakes, like the SS officer’s cigarette holder made out of human skin that’s on display in Poland. I’d rather our era was remembered for the wonderful things that we do have, like contactless payments, the legalization of gay marriage, and Deliveroo.

If I’m completely honest, even publishing this is frightening. At this point, it is not unreasonable to consider that the future may bring further censorship laws, genocides, and World Wars. Anything is possible. That is why it is so important for us to follow in the footsteps of the changers before us. We must act now, stand our ground, and fight against our instinct to adapt and accept. Our apathy is their biggest weapon. For all our sake, let’s do something. Somebody, anybody, has got to make a start.

Image by Nina Klaff


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