I often walk the dog in Mary Stevens Park, in Stourbridge, and walk through the grand, now-restored gates. This morning though, it was a plaque on the wall to the right of the gates that caught my eye. There’s a tribute there to one Frank Foley, a Devonian by birth but one who died in Stourbridge in 1958 – he had retired to a house in Eveson Road after the war. So why the plaque?
Captain Frank Foley, a World War One veteran, was stationed in Berlin from 1922 to 1939 as Passport Control Officer at the British Embassy (and less openly, head of the Berlin MI6 station). This was one of the wildest places and times in modern history, of course: the Weimar republic was in full swing but nearby in Russia, the Bolsheviks won their civil war and commenced purging; in Italy, Mussolini was appointed PM and fascist dictator; in Spain, Franco was beginning to make rumbles; in Britain and the US, the great depression was bringing old certainties to their knees; and everywhere, across the world, nerves were jangling in the aftermath of an unprecedented war and an unresolved larger situtation. As he was there he will have heard of Hitler’s Munich beerhall putsch in 1923, the demilitarisation of the Ruhr, the publication of Mein Kampf, the hopeful Kellogg-Brian pact, the election of Paul von Hindenburg in 1932 (over Hitler), the appointment of Hitler as chancellor and the beginning of the Nazi state in Germany a year later. He would have seen the Reichstag Fire, the completion of Dachau, the Enabling Act, the Nuremburg Laws, the Berlin Olympics, the formation of the Gestapoand the SS, the Anschluss and the Kristallnacht and ultimately, the beginning of war.
While Foley was there though he broke every rule. He didn’t have diplomatic immunity in his position, but risked everything to issue visas – legally or sometimes not – to 10,000 Jewish refugees escaping the pogroms and state-led persecution of the Jews in Germany. Those in need of escape flocked to him (secretly of course) and he found them ways out of persecution. He went into concentration camps to get people out, and by the time of Kristallnacht, harboured Jews in his own home, including Leo Baeck, chairman of the Association of German Rabbis. When he was recalled, he left a thick wad of visas ready to be passed on.
Marc Bloch said that history never repeats itself – events always take place in a new environment. But the point of historians is that they can teach us trends and what to do, or not to do. We are not in Nazi Germany now, but we are in world where the Daily Mail’s headlines are not a million miles from their 1938 one berating the German Jews “pouring” into the country. We are not in Nazi Germany, but we are in a world where religion has become mixed up with race, and a perception that a certain people are naturally wrong’uns is widespread (although not, I believe, in the majority). We are not in Nazi Germany, but we are in a world where a powerful, thin-skinned, controversial leader has swept to power in a blaze of racism, scapegoating and virulent nationalism. We are not in Nazi Germany, but we are in a world where individuals are being targeted for discrimination based on the country of their birth and not on anything they’ve done. We are not in 1930’s Britain, but we are in a Britain where our leader has just flown to this leader’s country and praised him, and failed to condemn his actions, and is returning proclaiming the success of her visit. We are not in 1930’s Britain, but we are in a Britain where anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, racist rhetoric has been stoked and stoked for political gain and newspaper sales.
Captain Frank Foley was recognised in 1999 by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem, as one Righteous Among The Nations. I have no desire to be a hero – I’m a coward. When people say “if I was there in Germany,” I have to confess that I’d have been no Frank Foley. I’d have been the quiet non-dissenter, too scared to stick his head above the parapet. I don’t want that though, and I want to figure out what I can do to dissent, to stand up for what is right. I don’t know exactly how to do it. It feels a little like we’re at the beginning of something awful, and I don’t know how to proceed. I want to though. You?