The Internet has opened many unexpected doors. One of these has been the door to genealogy. Whilst family trees have long been cherished by those few inheriting family bibles or recorded by Debretts, new technology has made it possible for just about anyone to find out about previous generations. Heroes and villains; long-lost cousins; births, marriages and deaths, all available to uncover from past censuses and dusty archives. This has opened a new pastime for many.
In the last few years, this also has opened a route to overcoming the loss of freedom of movement within our neighbouring countries. Entitlement to a European passport was a right until Brexit, changing prospects for many with homes in the sun or interesting careers. For some, though, online genealogy has reopened the door to Europe as they have been able to prove a grandparent from Ireland or Germany, for example, allowing renewed access to a purple passport – their freedom of movement restored.
Danger in the world of genealogy
There is danger, too, in the apparently benign world of genealogy. In October, the violent deaths of thousands of near neighbours on either side of an artificial border at the Eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea shocked and alarmed, not only those directly affected, but millions around the world. Each death was a tragedy for the individual, family and community concerned and a loss to humankind. Perpetrator and victim as in so many conflicts almost certainly did not know one another at all, let alone sufficiently for personal hostility. Neighbour killed neighbour they did not know simply because of their genes. No internet search was needed, just the evidence of where they lived, the language they spoke, the god they worshipped, their name, which sufficed to identify ‘the other’.
When nationalism is once more on the rise across the world, ‘belonging’ to a tribe you believe to be special takes on a guise of superiority, which may morph into ‘othering’ those with different DNA. This may encourage the notion that people of common ethnicity or religion should separate themselves into isolated States rather than mix as multi-ethnic humanity, though there is little historic evidence that such isolationism delivers benefits for people or nation.
Nationalism claiming exceptionalism makes no sense
It is worth recalling that most nations’ boundaries are the results of map-drawing convenient for negotiators rather than based on the cohesiveness of populations. Parts of the United Kingdom, of Belgium, of Spain, which have linguistic or cultural as well as geographical specificity, constantly eye separation from the parent State. (It is ironic that today’s gene-based analysis may include a description of ‘English’ DNA which is really a short-hand for a mongrel mixture stemming from centuries of incomers from other parts of Europe. English nationalism claiming exceptional ethnic qualities is fanciful indeed.)
Whilst the tools of today are new, this pastime is not. A century ago, it was in vogue for darker reasons. During the 1920s and ‘30s, amid the rise of National Socialism, residents of Germany and Austria in particular were increasingly aware of ethnicities. To some, there was a desire to locate and prove Aryan ancestry as credential for Party approval. Others’ research was deadly. Thousands of people were engaged to prove or disprove the ethnic right of individuals to remain in employment.
The wrong family name for a maternal grandmother could be a death sentence.
It remains interesting to know whence we came but there is neither merit nor shame in anyone’s DNA. For one thing, whatever we are born with we did nothing to earn or choose, including the identity of our parents. Tracing of ‘bloodlines’ to prove, say, an aristocratic superiority or membership of any given tribe, is exceptionalist nonsense. Nobody’s blood is superior or inferior to anyone else’s, but the perception that it can be is deeply rooted in the divisive caste systems of this and other countries and often leads to terrible conflicts and events such as that on 7 October and the huge loss of life that has followed.
Hating and killing is wrong
Hating and killing people whose lineage is unconnected to one’s own is simply wrong. Can we not celebrate our antecedents without claiming or perceiving superiority? Can we not accept that people should freely and legitimately choose aspects of life differing from ours and enjoy communities of mixed cultures? Then everyone can not only take pride in their own familial ancestry but also be interested in others’.
A diverse but cohesive society run inclusively for the good of all is surely what most nations are or aspire to be. We should be able to look at our family trees without the shadow of the swastika at our shoulder.