BBC producer draws Auschwitz parallel to Rule, Britannia

BBC producer draws Auschwitz parallel to Rule, Britannia


norman lebrecht

August 26, 2020

As a sign how normally sane people are losing their marbles over an innocuous anthem, read this latest contribution to the debate from Cat Lewis, executive producer of the BBC’s religious programme, Songs of Praise.

She went on to say:

Someone at the BBC needs to comment on this dodgy bit of historical relativism from a fairly responsible head of a flagship programme.




  • Kenneth Griffin says:

    Songs of Praise is hardly a “flagship programme”, as evidenced by its regular broadcast time of 13:15 every Sunday lunchtime (except this coming Sunday, when it’s to be shunted 50 minutes earlier to accommodate live sport).

    This blog’s persistent support for mass public demonstrations of nationalist supremacism, produced by BBC Music, are getting more hysterical with each post.

    Surely there are more rational ways to bash the BBC?

    • Helen says:

      Throwing your toys out of the pram because you’re not being listened to exclusively any more?

      “nationalist supremacism”? Grow up.

    • V. Lind says:

      I’m just relieved they still have Songs of Praise. And Bells on Sunday. Wasn’t there a move afoot to cancel Though for The Day?

      • Ramesh Nair says:

        Hello again, Ms Lind, wherever you live. Who knows how many commenters on this ‘Last Night’ stoush are actually Proms veterans. Though I live in Auckland NZ, I flew over to attend about a third of the 2019 and 2018 Proms seasons as an Arena half-season ticket holder. On both occasions I booked my return flights to NZ before the Last Night. I attended two Last Nights, back in the early 90s when I was living in London as part of my overseas experience, a newly-minted university graduate. Again I did this the hard and authentic way, queueing for absolutely ages to get a couple of square feet of arena space. So I feel qualified to comment here! One Last Night featured a piano roll of Percy Grainger in the Greig concerto, so we in the Arena chanted, ‘Arena to audience : Mr Grainger is indisposed today’.

        As for the panoply of anthems that conclude the Last Nights, I sang along for ‘Jerusalem’, but never for ‘Rule Britannia’. I never bothered to virtue signal my disapprobation of the words of ‘Rule Britannia’. I enjoyed the camaraderie of the many Proms friends and acquaintances I made both in the early 1990s and for the last two seasons, as one does when one is not socially isolating for hours on end to get into the Arena of the RAH. Commentary on the words of these anthems, or the conjectured sentiments behind Elgar’s ‘Pomp & Circumstance’, I thought of as politics and hence out of bounds within the mosh pit of the RA Hall.

        But it is the 21st century, and it seems entirely reasonable to consider whether some words can be subtly tweaked. Professor Mary Beard’s suggestion of ‘Britons shall never never be knaves’ seems sensible. But largely, one has to view these words as absurdities like most opera plots. ‘Britannia rules the waves’ is as factually absurd nowadays as the plot of Wagner’s Ring with all of its heldentenor fantasies of bonking one’s aunt.

        In terms of the British role in slavery, the real yardstick is not the genocides of the Nazis, but the Belgian atrocities in the Congo, which was run for a couple of decades from the mid-1880s as King Leopold’s private fiefdom. The number of Congolese who died when it was his estate ( including from starvation, deliberate destruction of crops etc ) is unknown, but credible current estimates run from a starting point of 6 million ( ie the Holocaust death total ) to perhaps 15 million. This is around the estimated global toll of the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic. There’s nothing in the historical record to suggest that the direct amount of deaths caused by the British slave trade approached anything like the Belgian Congolese atrocities, or the Spanish annihilation of the indigenous tribes of the Caribbean to which many African captives were transported.

    • Theo says:

      Songs of Praise is a long-running program loved by millions.

  • JohnG says:

    Hmm… whatever the politics of it, this is in rather questionable ‘form’ because using some definitely dodgy historical ‘reasoning’.

    Incidentally, I warmly recommend David Cannadine’s article on the Last Night of the Proms, currently available free of access via the Historical Journal. Cannadine is a first-rate historian who also happens to have a real interest in music, and he lays out clearly both the debate over the ‘Last Night’, essentially an ‘invented’ tradition by the time of its final form under Malcolm Sargent. It’s a really good and objective read – we need a bit more perspective in this.

  • Glazunov Fan says:

    A few people are only NOW waking up and condemning lyrics to famous songs?….these songs were proudly sung for generations with joy and WITHOUT judgement…and only NOW it is suddenly HORRIBLE to use…

    Flashback, Sir Arthur Sullivan, in 1900, wrote the “Boer Wars Te Deum”, which included the tune “Onward, Christian Soldiers”, which is NEVER sung by the choir in the work (orchestral only) and yet the piece was only recently performed and world-premiere recorded by Hyperion (basically censored for 100 years)…It is a great unknown work, by the way, Sullivan fans…In addition, peace-loving Christians in many churches have recently refrained from using Sullivan’s “Onward, Christian Soldiers” “war” song in their services (using his tune with alternative text only)…So, it’s been a crazy world for a long time and it is only getting crazier…

  • M McAlpine says:

    One then also reckons by this crazy reasoning that we ditch our National Anthem (also by Arne) and also the works of Handel as they were written at around the same time. So there goes the Fireworks and the Water Music written for royalty. And I’m sure the woke can find plenty in Handel’s other stuff that offends their sensibilities. In fact, let’s not have any music at all because it is bound to offend someone!

    • V. Lind says:

      Hmmm. There goes Oberlin’s Black Music Department!

      And there must be portraits in the National Portrait Gallery of people the woke might disapprove of — in fact I’d wager that the majority of portraits in there are of white men. They certainly were the last time I was there. Maybe just shut it down rather than “curate” it?

      Close them all. The V&A, after all, is named after two imperialists. And the other great galleries are bound to have pictures of incidents in history or social history that would “offend” the offendables. Not to mention all those pictures of white privilege — great houses, well-dressed people — forget that very few poor people commissioned portraits or pictures of their lands (and just ignore any Kathe Kollwitz works in any collections).

    • S Taylor says:

      Don’t be silly. You know it’s about the words.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      The offenderatti will never be satisfied. Throw them a fish and they’ll want a crocodile. It all smacks so terribly alarmingly of “peace in our time”.

      Spoilt brats should never be enabled; they only grow worse and they remind us that they’ve got this far in the first place because they’ve been able to use their voices since childhood.

  • Anon says:

    Unfortunately, the BBC seems to be no longer fit for purpose.

  • annnon says:

    Hmmm, how’d that work in lyrics?

    “Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the remainders,
    Brittons never, never, never shall be in gas chambers.”

  • annnon says:

    Hmmm, how’d that work in lyrics?

    “Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the Remainers,
    Britons never, never, never shall be in gas chambers.”

    • Karl says:

      Not bad. But should there be a hip-hop version? If it’s rap it’s OK to say anything.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        Yes, including descriptions of what their own mothers are good for!!

        “Mother f*****s” is still passing muster. The hypocrisy knows no bounds.

  • wasteland says:

    Once great empires fallen to impotence need odes of glory.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Why aren’t you simply more direct? Take your cues from Mrs. Clinton and call them by their right names: racist deplorables.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Self-hatred is a few steps from hell.

  • James Weiss says:

    What a horrid woman. The Holocaust was a singular event and should never be compared to anything else nor used as a metaphor. Period.

  • Le Křenek du jour says:

    As a matter of urgency, I propose that penance and reparations are overdue and exigible forthwith:

    i. To enslaved, indentured, uprooted, and exterminated Celts;
    from the descendants of privileged Angles, Saxons, Danes, Vikings, and, although latecomers to the party, Hanoverians.

    ii. To enslaved, indentured, uprooted, and exterminated Romans;
    from descendants of the above-mentioned.

    iii. To enslaved, indentured, uprooted, and exterminated Celts;
    from the descendants of Romans.

    iv. To enslaved, indentured, uprooted, and exterminated early Neolithic populations;
    from the descendants of the Bell Beaker invaders.

    v. To enslaved, indentured, uprooted, raped (for that, we have considerable DNA evidence), and exterminated Neanderthals;
    from all members of the Homo sapiens sapiens subspecies alive today.

    One more thing:
    Eukaryotes, you are kindly requested to return your mitochondria to the proteobacteria you stole them from.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      And don’t forget all those Brits who were kidnapped, enslaved, and raped by Moroccan pirates.

      • Le Křenek du jour says:

        Not sure “Moroccan pirates” is the preferred nomenclature, dude, nor even an acceptable one.
        “Anti-imperialist Maritime Social Justice Workers of the Maghreb Coast”, now that has a more correct ring to it.

        Also, the folks they captured mostly didn’t have the proper origin, religion, or pigmentation to be eligible for the term ‘enslaved’. They were ‘alternatively liberated’ in service to the Cause, in Woke Newspeak.
        For which I’m going to coin the neologism ‘wokelibbed’.

        In view of the staggering demographics — hundreds of thousands, maybe up to a million and a quarter ‘wokelibbed’, according to the most pessimistic estimates, tens of thousands according to the most ‘progressive’ revisions — the whole lucrative business of Involuntary Personnel Procurement cannot be allowed to have happened. Not on this side of the sea. Bet it soon won’t have.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Bwaaaaa; my ancestors were put on lice-infested ships and transported to Australia as indentured labour by the British government in the 18th century.

      I want my money!!!

  • marcus says:

    The National Anthem is surely next on the hit list with its dodgy second verse. I guess all those National Trust properties found to be built on the back of slavery need selling off for reparations too. Nutter will always be with us, but it’s surprising to find so many in positions of power and influence.

  • Stuart says:

    The second posting was at 1:49am – I often remind friends not to tweet in the early hours of the morning as their brains may be tired or possibly over medicated. People say the strangest things at two in the morning on Twitter.

  • Gustavo says:

    Germany has luckily got rid of most nationalist bullshit…but, like Britain, has conserved some of it…at least the last verse.

    • Le Křenek du jour says:

      The problem with Wokism-Tableraserism is its complete inability to grasp complexity, nuance, context, and above all, history.

      Exhibit A, which you kindly provide, the ‘Deutschlandlied’, more properly, “Das Lied der Deutschen”, by August Hoffman von Fallersleben.
      Hoffman von Fallersleben, born 1798 near Brunswick (an almost exact contemporary of Heinrich Heine), was a child of the Napoleonic wars, which took a tremendous toll on the peoples of what was not yet to be, for a couple of generations, a united Germany.

      Revolutionary ideals, liberalism, egalitarianism, republicanism were seen as impossible to achieve unless in a unified nation-state patterned after the French model. German revolutions in the 19th century were carried by an exacerbated nationalism. When Hoffmann penned his anthem in 1841, he was under the impression of recent French pretensions to occupy the Rhineland again. He wrote his lyrics expressly to Haydn’s gentle and elegant “Kaiserhymne” Hob. XXVIa:43 (cf. “Kaiserquartett” Hob. III:77), seeking to replace the quietly pious pro-Habsburg “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser”.

      As it was, the Deutschlandlied with Hoffmann’s lyrics didn’t gain universal traction until WW I; it was adopted as the national hymn only in 1922 at the behest of Weimar Republic’s first president, the Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert. When the Nazis came to power, the second and third stanzas were unofficially but firmly dropped: their tone and vocabulary was too democratic and brotherly for the Nazi’s intent. Not quite what all the “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” blaring Nazis in Hollywood war movie productions suggest.

      Exhibit B: to counter the “Heil Dir im Siegerkranz” German imperial hymn, here’s what the arch-democratic, arch-pluralistic, rational, moderate, peace-loving Swiss chose as their national anthem, as recently as 1961:
      For what it’s worth, the text was written by a Cistercian monk at Wettingen abbey in… 1841.

    • Brettermeier says:

      “Germany has luckily got rid of most nationalist bullshit”

      “Yay! 1, Boooh! 9”

      Finden die Leute hier offenbar voll Moppelkotze. Dann aber bitte nicht rumgreinen, wenn wir die Panzerproduktion wieder hochfahren und dann günstige Parkplätze im Osten suchen und/oder machen. 😉

      And this is why I hate people.

  • Dave Flynn says:

    Something a bit more obvious is missing from this discussion. Besides the lyrical context of slavery, the very title of this triumphalist song, “Rule Britannia”, is and always has been offensive to anyone whose people were brutally colonised by the British Empire (and that’s a LOT of countries). I have heard from British friends that the brutal nature of Britain’s colonial past is barely mentioned in the British education system. So perhaps it’s understandable that a lot of British people don’t get why ‘Rule Britannia’ irks us foreigners so much. I, like any sane person, have no problem with British people being proud of the many great things there are about Britain. ‘Rule Britannia’ is not something to be proud of though. Beyond its dubious cultural context, it has no artistic merit as a piece of music! I’ve hated ‘Rule Britannia’ since I first heard it as a child. For those of us from colonised countries it reminds us of the horrendous atrocities that were carried out against our people for centuries by the British Empire. Frankly Norman, I’m surprised you don’t understand this. Perhaps you don’t fully understand the horrors of British Imperialism.

    • M McAlpine says:

      By all means sir, don’t listen to it. Please do not listen to the National Anthem either which was also written by Arne.

      • Devil Eire says:

        We are not British folk, we are Irish. The Germans changed their anthem why not UK also?

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        But read again what is being said: he doesn’t want it, or can’t have it, and doesn’t want YOU TO HAVE IT.

        The abiding credo of the Left.

    • Allen says:

      You claim to speak for an awful lot of people. Don’t you find it strange that so many oppressed colonies joined the British Commonwealth, as it used to be known?

      I suggest you busy yourself with the shortcomings in your own history, unless it is purer than the driven snow, which I very much doubt.

  • Karl says:

    I knew Godwin’s law would hold true. Godwin’s law is an Internet adage asserting that as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1. That is the point at which the discussion should end.

    • Brettermeier says:

      “I knew Godwin’s law would hold true.”
      “That is the point at which the discussion should end.”

      Pretty easy when the initial post or tweet already contains “neo-Nazis”… *sigh*

      Btw., you managed to say: “Any discussion about Nazis or Hitler should end before it starts.”

      Pretty stupid, but your audience seems to like it. 😉

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      In Australia we call middle class critics “Karens”. That’s the current meme to describe the privileged person who complains about extremely trivial things.

      There are lots of “Karens” here on this site.

      • Devil Eire says:

        As an Irishman, I would disagree with you. These issues are not trivial. The British Empire was a bad idea. Australia’s treatment of Aborigines is appalling.

      • Marfisa says:

        Perhaps in Australia, but usually the meme is far more specific: the sort of white middle-aged middle-class privileged bossy woman who ‘calls the manager’. So use with care! (And have pity on women called Karen.)

      • V. Lind says:

        “We?” All Australians? I think a lot of them do not go around being abusive of other people, even if they disagree with them.

      • Alexander T says:


    • Player says:

      Poor old Howard has become a little deranged of late, on politics. And I speak as someone who had the great pleasure of having him come to my school to talk about music, where his dad was headmaster. He was just a musician and mensch then, and very cool as a result, not a pontificator.

    • Wesley says:

      Not really – he makes it clear that he regards Brexit supporters as subhuman morons and the rest of his “argument” flows from that assumption.

  • Finbarr says:

    As an Irishman, I would feel uncomfortable attending a flag waving jamboree with English folk singing Rule Britannia etc. My main reason is it quite ridiculous to sing about ruling the waves when one’s country does not anymore, nor does it have an Empire. They need to come into 2020 not 1720!

  • Finbarr says:

    She forgot to mention the Irish Famine, Britain did not lift a finger to help. 1 million died and another million emigrated many dying en route in the Coffin ships.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    British Empire was not the Third Reich. Like in most epochs in history it had its positive and negative elements. While the British people need not look back into their history with undue shame, ending a major festival with a song that connotes the Empire (hence colonialism) is utterly inappropriate, especially in our current heightened awareness of these issues. One should accept history without applying our values and ethical standards, but at the same time not celebrate it with naive nostalgia.

    • Devil Eire says:

      You are wrong, no Irishman would agree with you at all.

      • Marfisa says:

        Your comment does not make clear what precisely an Irishman would disagree with. But to take the first sentence: since De Valera went to the German Legation in Dublin to sign the condolence book on Hitler’s death, would the Irish have rather been part of the Third Reich than of the British Empire? Consult your fellow-Europeans on this question.

    • S Taylor says:

      Well said. I’m amazed there are two disapprovals. ‘Naive nostalgia’ – I’ll use those wordsl

  • Alexander T says:

    Not entirely without merit.

  • Is it at all conceivable that the German National Anthem, Deutschland Ueber Alles which takes its lead from Haydn is parallel and there’s no foreseeable removal of it by Germany.

    • karajanman says:

      As far as I know, the Germans dropped the offensive first two verses of their National Anthem after World War Two (for obvious reasons) and now only sing the mild third verse.

  • M2N2K says:

    There are two issues here: 1) Rule Britannia and its survival as a song, 2) Holocaust and its appropriateness as a comparison to other tragedies. The first is for UK citizens to decide and I have no opinion to share about that. Regarding the second, as a child of Holocaust survivors most of whose families where murdered, I do not personally agree with an absolutist position expressed here for example by “James Weiss”. While the subject of Holocaust must certainly be treated with utmost respect, I believe that sometimes it may be permissible to mention it in certain powerful contexts. In this particular case however, the Holocaust comparison was definitely flawed and was not used with adequate sensitivity.

    • V. Lind says:

      You’re quite right. On both counts. The word “holocaust” did not gain currency as the definitive term of reference (as in “Holocaust Studies,” which we all now recognise to be about that period and those deeds) for the appalling genocide of the Jews in World War II until the 60s. It may well have been used occasionally, as it was about Nanjing and other catastrophic treatments of people by man or nature.

      And The Holocaust has occasionally been compared to other assaults on a whole people, such as during the Pol Pot regime and one or two others.

      But while there is a great deal to be said about the abuses of slavery that I suspect most people prefer not to face head-on, I think linking the issue to this song is grossly disproportionate. Paul Brownsey, in another thread, gave an excellent analysis of the context in which RB was written. And, to the Irish above, as I have also said in another thread, I love Irish rebel songs, though I certainly do not endorse all their views.

      Songs that give pleasure are just that. They are not being sung in a political context at the Proms; they are just part of what someone has called “an end-of-term jolly.” As Andrew Marr put it in The Spectator this morning: “‘Rule, Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ are both vainglorious, out of date and, to be honest, somewhat embarrassing. But to ban them suggests you think some people take them literally — which is more embarrassing still.”

  • Devil Eire says:

    The British Empire died because those who were colonised demanded self determination. Ireland was the straw that eventually broke the Camel’s back.

  • Bea says:

    The reference to slavery is bad enough. But the aggression and jingoism is worse. OK, it was written before the Brits took on gunboat diplomacy as a tactic, but singing it endorses attacking and colonising other countries, not just defending our own.

  • Bea says:

    Has anyone got the lyrics for “Britannia Waives the Rules”?

    • V. Lind says:

      Rule, Britannia, Britannia waives the rules,
      English never, never will wear masks in schools.

      Wait a minute, has Boris changed his mind,
      Was there ever a PM so weakly spined.

      Kids of England, he’s such a silly chump,
      Just thank God he’s only Boris, not D. Trump.

  • FrauGeigerin says:

    Oh, please…

  • Devil Eire says:

    While the appalling atrocities of the Holocaust have been well documented and many of those involved have been punished, the same cannot be said for the legacy of the John Bull’s British Empire which continues to cast its malignant shadow into the 21st century.

    O what has made that sudden noise?
    What on the threshold stands?
    It never crossed the sea because
    John Bull and the sea are friends;
    But this is not the old sea
    Nor this the old seashore.
    What gave that roar of mockery,
    That roar in the sea’s roar?

    The ghost of Roger Casement
    Is beating on the door.

    John Bull has stood for Parliament,
    A dog must have his day,
    The country thinks no end of him,
    For he knows how to say,
    At a beanfeast or a banquet,
    That all must hang their trust
    Upon the British Empire,
    Upon the Church of Christ.

    The ghost of Roger Casement
    Is beating on the door.

    John Bull has gone to India
    And all must pay him heed,
    For histories are there to prove
    That none of another breed
    Has had a like inheritance,
    Or sucked such milk as he,
    And there’s no luck about a house
    If it lack honesty.

    The ghost of Roger Casement
    Is beating on the door.

    I poked about a village church
    And found his family tomb
    And copied out what I could read
    In that religious gloom;
    Found many a famous man there;
    But fame and virtue rot.
    Draw round, beloved and bitter men,
    Draw round and raise a shout;

    The ghost of Roger Casement
    Is beating on the door.
    W B Yeats