British suffragettes and World War I


This video from Britain is called Mark Steel on Sylvia Pankhurst.

By Claire Eustance in Britain:

WWI didn’t end fight for women’s equality

Saturday 19th July 2014

Not all Suffragettes gave up the struggle for votes in 1914, says CLAIRE EUSTANCE

It is still all too easy to dismiss the scope and radicalism of the early 20th century British women’s movement. A case in point is the standard response to the question — what happened to the movement after outbreak of war in August 1914?

You are likely to hear comments along the lines of “Didn’t it all just stop?” or “The Suffragettes stopped attacking buildings and pillar boxes and instead started handing out white feathers to men who didn’t rush to join the military.”

If you are lucky you might find someone who knows something of the women suffragists who embraced the peace movement. Perhaps they might mention the International Congress of Women meeting at The Hague in the Netherlands in April 1915.

Surely the history of the women’s movement has more to it than this? What about the thousands of other women who had joined the myriad of women’s suffrage societies to campaign for an end to the exclusively — albeit partial — male parliamentary franchise?

My talk at the Tolpuddle festival, Keeping the Suffrage Flag Flying, focuses on one of these societies, The Women’s Freedom League (WFL), and considers the ways some of its 5,000-plus members responded to the outbreak of war and the impact the conflict had on them.

“Patriotism before politics” was the position adopted by the British Establishment in August 1914. The message to the suffrage societies was clear — it was selfish for women to continue to demand political rights when the country was at war.

And yet, while Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and other suffrage campaigners were won over by such sentiments, others were less convinced.

Among them was Charlotte Despard, the revered president of the Women’s Freedom League, who declared that war “was the decisive damnation of a corrupt society.”

Although many of her comrades found it impossible to follow her into the peace movement, a significant number agreed that it was vital to keep attention focused on women’s demands for an equal voice in the politics of the nation.

The Women’s Freedom League’s long-standing commitment to the principle of resistance to government without representation remained broadly intact through the years of war.

An example was the decision of one member, Florence Underwood, to continue to refuse to pay income tax on her earnings. The league also moved swiftly to accommodate the wishes of their members who wanted to offer service to their country by channelling some of their considerable organisational skills into supporting working women, mothers and children who had been affected by the war.

The Women’s Freedom League’s commitment to the principles of equality produced what might seem a rather incongruous stance on alcohol — viewed by many as a national scourge in wartime.

However, in Hartlepool in 1917, the entire branch membership rose en masse to protest at the exclusion of women from licenced premises at certain times of the day. It was they claimed “not only an injustice but an insult to women!”

The Hartlepool campaign was just one of many forays taken by the league into debates around civil liberties.

Other campaigns highlighted equal pay, prostitution, sexual abuse and the treatment of women by law courts — topics that are largely still relevant to feminists and radicals today.

Yes, war meant that the women’s movement in Britain was probably organisationally weaker. There was less accord, less publicity and less wealth.

And yet over the same period some important principles relating to women’s rights to work, equality with men, rights of mothers as well as meanings of national identity and citizenship, were tested by women and found wanting.

It was feminism as much, if not more, than suffrage that flourished after 1914. There are some lessons for us there today, surely.

Claire Eustance is senior lecturer in history at the University of Greenwich. She will be giving a talk at the Tolpuddle radical history school.

First world war in a German novel


This German video is called Edlef Köppen · Heeresbericht [German title of Köppen's novel, called Higher Command in English].

By Clara Weiss in Germany:

Edlef Köppen’s Higher Command: An important novel on the First World War

8 July 2014

In recent years, Edlef Köppen’s novel about the First World War, Higher Command, has again become available in a number of formats in German. It has appeared as a hardback and paperback book, as an audio book, and as an e-book. The novel is also available free of charge in German from the Project Gutenberg web site. The book appeared in English in 1931 and has not been republished since then.

In view of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, Higher Command is very relevant reading.

The novel focuses on a 21-year-old student, Adolf Reisiger, who, like many others caught up in a surge of patriotism and enthusiasm for war, volunteers for military service in the summer of 1914. The novel describes his experiences: first on the Western Front in France and then on the Eastern Front for a few months, until he lives through the final defeat of the German army in the summer of 1918. By then, he has risen to the rank of officer, but all his initial enthusiasm for the war has evaporated.

Reisiger experiences the first gas attacks in France. At first, the soldiers regard them as just another of the military’s technical innovations. The first reports of gas attacks are dryly received as “a lot of fuss about nothing”, but the devastating consequences soon become apparent.

The novel’s senior-ranking German doctor, who shows the soldiers how to put on gas masks, assures them, “Of course, we adhere to the rules of international law, which have frequently enough been outraged by those swine over there, but we are making it as hot a hell for them as we can.” [Edlef Köppen, Higher Command (New York: J. Cape & H. Smith, 1931), p. 129]

A few pages later, Köppen languidly cites newspaper reports about a German gas attack on the French army: “The gas cloud swept over a sector of the front chiefly occupied by the French-Colonial Division between Bixschoote and Langemark, and spread terror and confusion in their ranks. 15,000 cases of asphyxiation occurred, of which 5,000 terminated fatally.” [p. 133]

Accounts of the mass slaughter during the war are conveyed in a simple and sober language. It is precisely this transparent narrative style that imbues the scenes of barbarity with such shocking force.

The description of one of the Allies’ cavalry attacks, for example, is as masterful as it is unsettling: “Machine-gun fire sprayed amidst the plunging horses, whose shattered stumps dragged along the ground. Shrapnels bursting in the air, then shells exploding on the ground, sheets of sulphurous flame, columns of brown smoke, jets of bleeding intestines as thick as a man’s arm, limbs and trunks of man and beast hurled skywards; such was the sight they witnessed all along the whole cavalry-front from Loos to the coal-dump.” [p. 198]

Reisiger and his comrades are increasingly unable to see any sense in the mass slaughter. By 1917, at the latest, the soldiers are war-weary to the point of exhaustion. In these months, Reisiger is transferred to the Eastern Front. Shortly before this, he has been promoted to an officer rank, although he has published pacifist poems in the left-socialist newspaper, The Action, in 1916. Now, on the Eastern Front, he witnesses the mass desertion of the Russian soldiers. The Soviet government, which came to power under the leadership of the Bolsheviks in October, brings the war to an end a few months later.

But even after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, whose harsh conditions were forced upon the Soviet government, the German government continues the war. Reisiger is again commissioned to the Western Front, where the German High Command hopes to deliver the Allies a crushing blow. As an officer he is involved in the preparation of the offensive in the summer of 1918, which ends in a devastating defeat for the Germans. The relative strength of the Allies, now reinforced by American troops, has grown to 7 million combatants, compared to 2.5 million on the German side.

After the German army is virtually overrun by the Allies, Reisiger deserts. He tells his superiors that the war was the greatest of all crimes and that he no longer wants to be part of it. On account of this, he is put into an asylum.

What makes Higher Command exceptional is that contemporary documents are woven into the narrative throughout the whole novel: excerpts from German newspaper articles, dedicated to maintaining the tide of war propaganda; statements from generals and Kaiser Wilhelm II; encyclopaedia entries; censorship ordinances; the call for peace, made by the Soviet government to the peoples of the world after the victorious October Revolution of 1917.

The battles, in which Reisiger participates, are not only reported from the narrator’s perspective; their horror and significance is enhanced by the inclusion of pertinent newspaper articles and quotations from historical works that were written later.

This technique enables the author to reveal not only the striking contrast between the propaganda and the brutal reality of a war that destroyed the lives of millions of people. The reader also gains a rarely communicated insight into the contemporary political and cultural climate.

This almost documentary character of the novel largely succeeds in making comprehensible the tremendous shock to the consciousness and world view of millions of soldiers and civilians during the war. Many soldiers as well as civilians believed the propaganda at the beginning of the war. But the brutal reality of front-line warfare, mass poverty, hunger and the despair of families left behind obliterated these illusions in the prevailing order.

The author, Edlef Köppen, was born in 1893 and, like Reisiger, fought in the war for four years. During the 1920s, he worked as a radio editor and published poems. He wrote his strongly autobiographical novel in the late twenties. It appeared in 1930, two years after Erich Maria Remarque’s famous All Quiet on the Western Front.

The onset of the global economic crisis in 1928 once again made the First World War a hotly debated topic in the Weimar Republic. In 1930, the book market began to be flooded with right-wing patriotic war novels, partly in response to Remarque’s anti-war book, of which hundreds of thousands of copies were sold in the first few years.

These circumstances, as well as the overwhelming popularity of Remarque’s novel, pushed Higher Command into the background. Nevertheless, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. The German writer Ernst Toller wrote: “Köppen’s book must find hundreds of thousands of readers, in Germany and in all other countries.”

Although the work then appeared in English in 1931, it has never become as well known as other anti-war novels either in Germany or abroad.

The Nazis burned the book in 1933. Köppen was able to publish some works in Berlin newspapers under a pseudonym, but he soon withdrew—as did many oppositional intellectuals—into the film industry. He started to work with the TOBIS film producer, but came into serious conflict with the Nazis when the film producer was subordinated to Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry.

Köppen refused to join the Nazi party and work on anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi films in the party’s programme. In February 1939, a few months before the beginning of World War II, he died from the lingering effects of a war injury at the age of only 46. His novel was largely forgotten. It didn’t appear again in German until the 1970s.

Although Higher Command is artistically different in every respect from All Quiet on the Western Front, it in no way falls short of the literary quality of Remarque’s famous novel. Under conditions in which the imperialist powers are again preparing for a world conflagration and the media are again beating the drums of war, Higher Command deserves a wide readership.

British anti-World War I Sassoon poem was censored


This video from Britain is called Suicide in the Trenches by Siegfried Sassoon: Read by Stephen Graham | Remembering World War 1.

From daily The Independent in Britain:

Unpublished Siegfried Sassoon poems get first reading – and show anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication

Phrases like ‘you’re great at murder’ were later scratched from ‘Atrocities

Claudia Pritchard

Sunday 06 July 2014

Two unpublished poems by Siegfried Sassoon will be given a public reading for the first time today by the actor Samuel West, among them the first draft of “Atrocities”, in which Sassoon is much more direct about the visceral act of killing the enemy than in the later, published version.

Phrases that were later scratched include “you’re great at murder”. And the final lines, which the owner of the original manuscript, Annette Campbell-White, says finish “quite limply” with “still talking big and boozing in a bar”, contain the phrase “gulp their blood in ghoulish dreams”. Where Sassoon originally wrote “How did you kill them?”, he later revised this to “How did you do them in?”

Ms Campbell-White, a Sassoon specialist and collector, bought the poems at auction last year. “The war department or publishers thought that ‘Atrocities’ was a little too harsh, and so when it was published it was modified,” she said. At the time of the Bonhams sale she also acquired a large exercise book, Sassoon’s “daybook” from the 1920s, containing two dozen or so poems illustrated by the poet himself. Among them is a homage to Beethoven – “hail him heroic, honour him as great” – which West will also read at a music and poetry event in Buckinghamshire.

“The poems are very good. I am amazed they have never been published,” said Ms Campbell-White. “They are about all aspects of life, nature … a sort of poetic diary.”

Today’s event, called “Peace in Our Time?” forms part of the Garsington Opera summer season in a theatre in the grounds of the home of millionaire art collector Mark Getty, heir to John Paul Getty, at Wormsley, near High Wycombe. Garsington has an association with Sassoon through the socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell, owner of Garsington Manor from 1914 to 1928. It was at the manor that the operas were staged, from 1989 to 2011, before moving to Wormsley.

At Garsington Hall, which he visited regularly, Sassoon was encouraged by Lady Ottoline to take a stand against the way in which the First World War was proceeding. He had served with distinction until openly questioning the purpose of the war in 1917. He had received the Military Cross, but threw his medal into the Mersey. Only admission to the psychiatric hospital at Craiglockhart near Edinburgh spared him a court martial. He died in 1967.

Garsington was a haven for artists, intellectuals and conscientious objectors, including D H Lawrence and Lytton Strachey. Conscientious objectors, including members of the Bloomsbury circle, escaped prosecution by working on the farm there.

In 1917, Sassoon wrote a letter called “Finished With the War: A Soldier’s Declaration”. In it he said: “I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects… would now be attainable by negotiation.”

“Sassoon’s best poetry was written at the time of the war,” said Ms Campbell-White. “It was something to do with the stress, adrenaline and terror of that time that made the writing of the First World War poets so extraordinary. Sassoon remained a fine poet, but if Rupert Brooke, for example, had come back, what would he have become?”

Dave Sherry tells Tomáš Tengely-Evans he wants his new book Empire and Revolution to take on the elite’s attempt to whitewash the First World War: here.

Archduke shot in Sarajevo, World War I started 100 years ago


This video says about itself:

Was World War I the error of modern history?

Oxford historian Niall Ferguson reviews the world’s oldest motives for war, and concludes in his book, “The Pity of War” , that World War I was unnecessary. (Originally aired November 2000).

By David North in the USA:

One hundred years since Sarajevo

28 June 2014

Today marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the event that triggered the outbreak of World War I. On a Sunday morning, June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand—nephew of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef and heir to his throne—was assassinated as his motorcade made its way through Sarajevo on the final day of a state visit to Bosnia. Despite the shocking character of the shooting, which also claimed the life of the Archduke’s wife Sophia, it was not expected that the killing of the scion of the Hapsburg dynasty would have particularly significant consequences.

However, in the course of July 1914 the crisis that followed the assassination steadily escalated. The response of the major European capitalist states was conditioned by tensions generated by conflicting geopolitical and economic interests that had been building up over the previous decade. The reactionary Hapsburg monarchy seized upon the assassination as a pretext for an attack on the Serbian regime, whose nationalist aspirations challenged the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s domination of the Balkans.

In Berlin, the regime of Emperor Wilhelm II gave the Austro-Hungarian government a green light to confront the Serbs with an all but unacceptable ultimatum that would lead to war. It took this action knowing that an Austrian invasion of Serbia would lead to an intervention by the Russian Empire to protect its interests in the Balkans. The German regime saw the prospect of a major war with Russia as an opportunity to establish its dominance in Eastern Europe and, thus, change the balance of power throughout the continent.

This prospect, however, frightened the ruling class in France, which had entered into an alliance with Russia to block the growth of German power. In the event of a war between Germany and Russia, the French bourgeoisie was convinced that it could not stand aside and accept a German victory. At the same time, the German regime had prepared, long in advance, detailed plans for an attack on France if war broke out with Russia.

The crisis led to a catastrophic denouement. By the first week of August, the major powers in Europe—Germany and Austro-Hungary on one side and France, Russia and Great Britain on the other—were in a state of war.

There have been countless volumes written analyzing the sequence of events that led from the assassination in Sarajevo on June 28 to a full-scale European war by the first week of August. Much of this literature has sought to establish which regime bore primary responsibility for the outbreak of war. But while the research has led to the discovery of important information related to the war aims of one or another government—such as, for example, the far-ranging ambitions of the German regime—the essential causes of the war require a deeper level of analysis.

The assassination in Sarajevo was no more than a spark that ignited the highly inflammable structure of European and international geopolitics. While it is possible that war might not have broken out in August 1914 if the Archduke had not been assassinated, some other event would have led—sooner rather than later—to a general war.

In fact, during the years preceding the outbreak of World War I, there had been a series of “war scares” arising from conflicts between the major capitalist powers over colonial and financial interests. The political climate of Europe had become increasingly tense. State spending on armaments had risen dramatically during the first decade of the twentieth century.

The growing socialist movement of the working class—under the banner of the Second International—became increasingly alarmed at the dangers posed by capitalist militarism. The potential for war between the “Great Powers” had emerged from the nature of the capitalist system. As early as 1902, the Marxist theoretician, Rudolf Hilferding, warned that the “sharpening of the struggle for the world market cannot remain without consequences for the foreign policy of the capitalist nations.” He noted that “increase in armaments, growth of the navy, internal reaction, violence and threats to peace in foreign relations, those are the necessary consequences of the newest phase of capitalist commercial policy.” [Cited in Discovering Imperialism: Social Democracy to World War I, edited by Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido (Chicago, 2011), pp. 348-49]

As the decade progressed and the disastrous implications of imperialism became more and more apparent, the struggle against war was placed at the center of the work of the Second International. At its congress in Stuttgart in 1907, the Second International denounced colonialism, declaring that it “must lead to enslavement, forced labor, or the extermination of the native population of the colonialized regions. The civilizing mission that capitalist society claims to serve is no more than a veil for its lust for conquest and exploitation.” [Ibid, p. 28]

Five years later, at its Congress in Basel in 1912, the Second International issued a manifesto in which it declared:

If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved… to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective… In case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.

But when the war broke out less than two years later, the leaders of the Second International repudiated their solemn commitment. On August 4, 1914, the largest and most politically influential section of the International, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), voted to grant financial credits to the government, enabling it to prosecute the war. This act of political treachery marked the end of the Second International as a revolutionary force. The task of rebuilding a revolutionary International fell to those who opposed the capitulation of the Second International to the national ruling classes and to imperialism. Vladimir Lenin played the leading role in this struggle. His opposition to the war and defense of socialist internationalism laid the foundation for the victory of the socialist revolution in Russia in October 1917.

In opposition to all those in the Second International who justified their betrayal by absolving their own governments of responsibility for the outbreak of war, Lenin insisted that the war had grown out of the politics and economics of imperialism, and that all the governments were guilty. Subsequent research has confirmed Lenin’s indictment. Each government was determined to defend the global interests of the capitalist class of its own country. As one historian has written, “For virtually all of them, war was no longer the worst option.” [ The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War, by David G. Herrmann (Princeton, 1996), p. 226]

The World War was not an accident, the unintended result of policy mistakes. It arose inexorably from the contradictions of the capitalist system and the system of national states. Shortly after the war began, another revolutionary opponent of the betrayal of the Second International, Leon Trotsky, explained the historical significance of the war:

The War proclaims the downfall of the national state. Yet at the same time it proclaims the downfall of the capitalist system of economy…

The War of 1914 is the most colossal breakdown in history of an economic system destroyed by its own inner contradictions.

One hundred years have passed since Sarajevo. In the course of a century, humanity has passed through two devastating world wars that cost the lives of tens of millions. The innumerable local wars incited by imperialism since the end of World War II have cost the lives of tens of millions more. And now, yet another global conflagration is being prepared.

Mankind cannot survive another world war, which would inevitably be waged with nuclear weapons. Such a catastrophe must be prevented.

Scottish peace movement against Cameron ‘celebrating’ World War I


This video from Britain is called BBC’s Jeremy Paxman calls David Cameron “a complete idiot” [about Cameron's plans to 'celebrate' the start of World War I].

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Anti-war activists to confront militarist ‘celebration’

Monday 23rd June 2014

ANTI-WAR activists are to confront David Cameron’s “celebration” of Britain’s war dead on Armed Forces Day in Stirling this Saturday.

Military top brass will gather at Stirling Castle for what organisers describe as “one of the brightest and most colourful celebrations this city has ever seen.”

The Tory PM notoriously described plans for this year’s World War I centenary commemorations as “like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.”

But Scottish Peace Network convenor Eric Chester told the Morning Star that demonstrators from across the country would march to challenge the “insensitive and ill-timed” spectacle.

He said the event would ignore the reality of Britain’s recent military history — the last decade’s assaults in Iraq and Afghanistan killed “enormous” numbers of ordinary people.

“This is why a display like Armed Forces Day is so deeply insensitive and ill-timed,” he said.

Marchers are expected to assemble outside the Stirling Smith Museum, Dumbarton Rd at 11am.

This is a video in French about World War I. More about it is here.

New Zealand historian against government’s glorifying of World War I


By Tom Peters in New Zealand:

New Zealand historian discusses government’s book glorifying World War I

7 June 2014

The World Socialist Web Site recently spoke to historian Stevan Eldred-Grigg about the government-produced book, New Zealand and the First World War 1914–1919, published last November. The Ministry of Culture collaborated with the Defence Force and hired the ardent militarist Damien Fenton to write the book, which is one of about a dozen being produced as part of the country’s centenary commemorations of WWI.

Stevan Eldred-Grigg

Stevan Eldred-Grigg

The WSWS review characterised the book as pro-war propaganda, based on falsifications, omissions and distortions, designed to numb the consciousness of workers and youth in order to prepare them for future wars. WWI was an imperialist war, caused by the breakdown of the capitalist system, expressed in the struggle between the major powers in Europe, Asia and America for domination of colonies, markets and profits. More than 10 million people were killed, including 18,500 New Zealanders, and millions more were maimed. New Zealand’s ruling elite joined the war, as a junior partner in the British Empire, in order to expand its wealth and colonies in the South Pacific.

Fenton falsely presents the war against Germany and its allies as an altruistic endeavour. He celebrates New Zealand’s involvement, including its seizure of German-held Samoa, and its share in the plunder from Nauru. He concludes that WWI was “largely successful and profitable” for the country.

Eldred-Grigg is the author of The Great Wrong War: New Zealand Society in WWI (Random House, 2010), which examines the disastrous impact of the war on the country. He has written several other works of history and novels, including The Rich: A New Zealand History, New Zealand Working People, and Oracles and Miracles.

Tom Peters: As a historian, what do you make of Fenton’s book as a whole?

Stevan Eldred-Grigg: The fact that such an uncritical text is one that gets the official imprimatur is, of course, depressing—deeply depressing. It’s not surprising that it’s got the government, or the prime minister’s backing. But they [the researchers at the Ministry of Culture] should know better than that. They’re proper historians. Basically, he’s not a historian. He’s an antiquarian. Antiquarians are those who gather all the information they can about a subject and don’t know what to do with it, don’t know how to argue, how to critically appraise or analyse.

TP: There’s virtually no discussion of New Zealand’s invasion of Samoa at the start of the war.

EG: It gets one little box, and the carve-up of Nauru gets half a line—where it’s described as beneficial, as you pointed out in your review. No mention of the gross exploitation that was going on in Nauru. By the end of the war, one Samoan historian argues, Samoa had just become one big prison camp. There were curfews and very strict racial segregation of four groups: the whites, the Cantonese coolies (who were the bottom of the heap), the Samoans and the afekasi (part Samoan, part white).

Until The Great Wrong War, no New Zealand historian had discussed—in any mainstream history of New Zealand or about the war—our seizure of Samoa. Fenton should have integrated what I said about it. He hasn’t taken any account of my book. It’s not in the bibliography.

TP: You point out that there were long-standing designs on Samoa, Nauru and other places throughout the Pacific, even Hawaii at one stage.

EG: The New Zealand governing groups, the Liberals and Reform, both seem to have been equally strong on the idea of a New Zealand colonial empire in the Pacific. That actually seems to have been quite an important strand in the political elite’s thinking when we decided not to join the Federation of Australia—the sense that New Zealand should look towards the Pacific, that we had our own “manifest destiny.”

TP: Fenton claims New Zealand went to war partly because it faced a naval threat from Germany and relied on Britain for protection.

EG: That’s of course nonsense. Historians of the right have argued that our trade depended on Britain. Fenton accepts that. I went to a great deal of trouble to show that the largest market for our wool exports may well have been Germany, and they were also an important market for frozen meat. The German shipping line Norddeutscher Lloyd, one of the largest in the world, was also going to break the British shipping monopoly between Europe and New Zealand.

Then there’s the military defence argument: that we depended on the British navy to keep the seas clear of other navies, because if they didn’t do that, all those other predatory powers that wanted us would take us. Who exactly were those predatory powers? The only ones that had the capacity were the US and Japan. Japan was an ally, the US was neutral and became an ally. France, Britain and Germany were of no account in the Pacific by 1914.

Then they always add: the great majority of New Zealanders emotionally identified as British.

TP: Which is what he says.

EG: First of all, you have to take out the 10 to 12 percent Catholic Irish, who certainly did not see themselves as British, and saw the British Empire as a very dodgy enterprise. You have to take out most Maori, who—unlike what he says—did not flock to the colours, but stayed away in droves. You have to take out German and Scandinavian New Zealanders, for the most part, and a large number of Croat New Zealanders, and you have to take out Chinese New Zealanders.

Then there’s our colonial peoples, who had to be shovelled in to fill the recruitment quotas. Kalaisi Folau and Margaret Pointer have written a really moving work about the poor Niueans. Some of them volunteered, some got brow-beaten. They had terrible experiences. Most of them just got sick. In return, the whole community of Niue got a type-written letter with a mimeographed signature from the war minister, and some portraits of the king and queen to hang in a village hall.

You’ve still got an overwhelming majority of Anglo-Scots, something like 75 percent. But then of course you can start doing your class analysis.

TP: Fenton doesn’t discuss class at all.

EG: No, of course, class doesn’t exist, we’re all one united people. He talks about “New Zealand” as though it’s an organic unity.

It was really polarised. If you read the private papers of wealthy, conservative people before the war, there was a widespread anxiety about revolution—as there was everywhere in the capitalist world. There was also the very strong idea that “the people”—the working class—had become too prosperous, too demanding, and had lost touch with reality, and that war would restore true values. That was very widespread in New Zealand among conservatives, just as much as it was in Prussia, England, France and St Petersburg.

TP: And it was a very militarised society, as you explain.

EG: It was. One of the things I was struck by, when I first began looking at newspapers before the war, was the salience of military and naval images. The governors wore military uniforms. Children, boys and girls, wore naval uniforms. There was a lot of anger about compulsory military training among working class people and among Methodists and Baptists from the middle class. Those were the stalwarts of the peace movement.

In fact, in the years before the war, pamphlets were being published back in Britain, by New Zealanders, warning British working class people not to accept the blandishments of the New Zealand government giving them assisted migration, because their sons would end up being turned into cannon fodder.

TP: One of the shocking aspects of the book is that he completely endorses all the repressive measures taken by the government.

EG: Yes. Ostensibly, of course, a war fought for democracy and freedom, that’s what they kept banging on about. And the first thing you do, as soon as war breaks out, you bring in a whole lot of regulations to suppress democracy and freedom. As the war went on, the measures got sterner, and sterner, and sterner. They were continuing to strengthen them towards the end of the war.

TP: Anti-war meetings were prohibited.

EG: Anti-conscription meetings were prohibited as well, once it was introduced. And you couldn’t even speak in private against the war, so people were self-censoring.

Amelia Turnbull, an ordinary citizen, while seated at the family breakfast table, heard her son-in-law say something about not caring if Germany won the war. She dobbed him in, and he was sent to prison for twelve months. A bewildered old Norwegian woman, on the railway station at Palmerston North, who was having trouble with her baggage, began to abuse “you Britishers”, and she was sent to prison for six months.

So you couldn’t speak out, even in your own home. Of course, people did anyway, not everyone had that sort of mother-in-law.

The tradition which I grew up in, in my mum’s family, the unskilled working class, was that the whole thing was stupid: a stupid war. Mum had about eight uncles and of them one got into uniform. The others wagged, they ran away, they messed up the medicals. These were not idealistic conscientious objectors. These were just men who felt: this is stupid, it’s a fat man’s war, nothing to do with me.

A lot of people ran away to Australia or the US, especially the Irish. That’s another thing Fenton doesn’t touch on, the Catholic Irish opposition.

TP: He says there was a tiny proportion of people who resisted conscription.

EG: He doesn’t make any reference to the women’s riot in Christchurch that I looked at [1]. The government was very careful to phase in conscription: first of all targeting the single, then later on the young married with no children. By the time the married with children were being conscripted in 1917, the anger was widespread, and you got those huge crowds protesting about conscription and wartime inflation.

I was born in Blackball, a working class mining town, and in Blackball there’s a well-known story. There were a lot of men running away from conscription, or who’d deserted from the army. Some cops arrived in town to try and track some of them down, and some people from the miners’ union led the cops to the top of a big limestone bluff over what’s called Coal Creek. And they said, “See down there? It’s a long way, isn’t it? If you come back here doing this again, you’ll find yourself at the bottom.” That was the feeling in places like that.

There were quite a lot of strikes, because there was this increasing sense as the war went on that the working class were being shafted to pay for it. So they began to try to claw back some of their losses.

Blomfield cartoon, from the National Library of New Zealand

Blomfield cartoon, from the National Library of New Zealand

TP: Fenton claims that this cartoon from the Observer [see left] in December 1916 “illustrates the public anger at the prospect of coal miners and workers in other essential industries using wartime conditions to win higher pay and better conditions.”

EG: “The public anger”! Rather than capitalist anger… It’s worrying. The first task of a historian is to look at a piece of evidence and ask: who wrote it? Why did they write it? Who were they trying to persuade, of what, for what purpose? And he just doesn’t do that. He just accepts the newspapers!

TP: What do you think of how Fenton writes about the fighting itself? He praises the British general Douglas Haig and French general Henri-Philippe Petain, among others.

EG: I just find it so distasteful. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the world of historiography was largely liberal and left, we were being told that these people were wholesale slaughterers of the working class. But then there was a reaction against this. The New Right came in and stripped off, quite quickly, the thin skin of leftish liberalism on a lot of people.

So by the 1990s there were some historians in the old British Empire who were beginning to argue that the 60s and 70s response was just a sentimental, wet response, and a dry way of looking at it was: Britain won the war. That’s good, because Britain is good, it stands for justice. So, how did it do it? By killing millions of its soldiers, but by killing even more millions of the other people’s soldiers. Ipso facto, it was worth doing.

Some historians also began to stress what had previously just been regarded by the liberal left as the British rationale for intervention, which was the invasion of Belgium and the violation of an international treaty. So I went to some pains to point out how Britain violated two international treaties as soon as the war broke out.

TP: By attacking German colonies in Africa…

EG: Also, the British illegally and unilaterally, within a few months of the outbreak of war, defined contraband to mean anything going to the enemy, even to feed the civilians. But that’s not discussed by Fenton.

TP: He generally sanitises the fighting and New Zealand’s role.

EG: He doesn’t talk about the violence and exploitative behaviour of the New Zealand soldiers towards the Egyptians, which was all through the war. It was sustained and systematic.

He talks briefly about what has become glamorised as a romantic interlude: the riot in the Cairo brothel district. This is “our boys” attacking a lot of sex workers, who are making a really crap living. There’s no suggestion that the men, by buying these sexual services, are exploiting them. Then they get beaten up for their pains and have their houses burnt down.

TP: He says there was “mutual hostility” between the Egyptians and the Allied soldiers.

EG: Yes, as though it equals out. Rather than the New Zealanders being in an occupation force, with the population naturally enough not wanting to be occupied. The accounts of people who were there, written subsequently, talk about a lot of nasty stuff: New Zealand soldiers taking pot shots at Egyptians from the trains—things like that.

TP: What do you think of the images in the book, which are a large part of it?

The battle of Chunuk Bair

The battle of Chunuk Bair [2]

EG: The pictures are easy to look at and hardly any of them show the cost. Look at this painting of Gallipoli [see above]. Where’s the blood? Where are the body parts? That was a really disgusting battle. Within an hour or so, there were all these body parts everywhere. This is just total propaganda: good-looking young men, well dressed, not an intestine to be seen, not an eyeball hanging out.

It doesn’t show what it’s like to be killed or maimed in a pointless, bloody war. And what’s it like for the people left behind, who’ve got to carry the can. It’s just so heartless, it’s emotionless, its passionless, it has no real love of people.

TP: Why hasn’t it been criticised by anyone? The reviews all praise it.

EG: The Great Wrong War was my most unpopular book ever. All the reviews were very, very hostile. Because what you’re implying is that “our boys” suffered needlessly.

People haven’t really been encouraged to think critically about the two world wars. In the 1990s there was a lot of anxiety about how boys were not succeeding in the education system. So the content of New Zealand history was looked at, and it was decided to try to hook in boys by putting war in there. One unfortunate consequence has been that all these kids are now being taught war history in a quite an uncritical way.

A unit called “The Origins of the First World War” was taught at School Certificate level in the 1960s. It was great! It looked at imperialism, capitalism and all states aggressively manoeuvring, and all equally culpable.

The way it’s taught in schools now is that the war was like a tsunami, a natural force that came to New Zealand. Sort of dark, sad, but at the same time there were elements of heroism, and it drew us together and we did well and were brave. I think that’s a big part of why young people turn up in growing numbers for Anzac Day. It’s social engineering.

Note:

[1] See The Great Wrong War, pp. 373–374. Thousands of women rioted one afternoon in May, 1918, outside the King Edward Barracks in Christchurch. They shouted down officers who were attempting to take a roll call of conscripts, and called on the men not to go to camp.

[2] “The battle of Chunuk Bair, 8 August 1915.” The sesquicentennial gift to the nation from the New Zealand Defence Force. By Ion G. Brown, Major, Army artist. [Wellington, New Zealand Defence Force, 1990] http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=40955

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World War I, art exhibition in The Hague


This is a video about German anti-war artist Käthe Kollwitz.

Translated from NOS TV in the Netherlands:

World War I in art

Thursday, May 29th 2014, 07:25 (Update: 29-05-14, 08:01)

By our reporter Jeroen Wielaert

The craters, soldiers with gas masks, a clenched fist with the caption No More War. They are moving drawings about the First World War. Historical documents by Otto Dix and Käthe Kollwitz, part of the collection of the Gemeentemuseum, along with lesser-known Dutch work. Hell opens on Ascension Day, in the Berlage Cabinet of the The Hague museum. The exhibition is called simply “The Great War in pictures”.

Otto Dix was a German soldier; still optimistically, he entered the war and came out of it full of grim specters. He made numerous striking drawings about it. In The Hague there are only a few to see, but they all impress strongly, as critical hits full of commentary on the war.

Käthe Kollwitz lost a son already early in the war. He was killed in Flemish Diksmuide. On her posters she protested vehemently against the violence and its consequences. She drew widows, begging children. [Museum director] Tempel: “She campaigned against war, as if she sensed there would be another one.”

The Netherlands

The First World War in the Netherlands was very palpable, despite the neutral stance of the government. The artist Jan Toorop, who lived in Domburg in Zeeland, saw refugees from Belgium there and heard their stories. In pastel, he made an impressive picture of people in disaster, in a bombed city: Belgique Sanglante, Bleeding Belgium .

The Hague contemporary artist Harald [sic; Harold] de Bree leaves a little more to the imagination. A collage of him in the exhibition shows the barrel of a gun, a photograph of an internment barracks, a noose for strangling and a few strips of barbed wire.

Skulls

One wall is covered with front pages of the magazine De Nieuwe Amsterdammer. Piet van de [sic; der] Hem drew in April 1915 a skull with a long nose from which a gas stream descends into a trench full of soldiers.

Tempel also points to the hourglass on the cover of the magazine’s New Year edition. Skulls start to roll again, with the caption: “We start again from scratch.”

It is a century later, there is fighting in many places; war has not been eradicated yet.

See also here. And here.

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British anti-militarist died on D-day


This video is called Conscientious Objectors in World War One.

By Peter Lazenby in Britain:

My ‘conshie’ uncle who died in Normandy

Monday 19th May 2014

This month’s commemoration of British conscientious objectors prompted family memories for PETER LAZENBY

I NEVER knew my uncle Ken Mortimer. He died in 1944, five years before I was born.

I can picture him though — I regularly saw his photo on the mantelpiece of my paternal grandparents’ home at Menston, outside Leeds, when I visited them as a boy in the 1960s.

He had jet-black, wavy hair, round, black-rimmed spectacles and a cheery, slightly chubby face.

In the second world war Uncle Ken had been a “conshie.”

A man of deeply held beliefs, he refused to take up arms. His principles of non-violence were rooted in religion. He was a devout Baptist, a lay preacher at his local chapel.

Early in the 1940s he married my dad’s elder sister, auntie Ivy, who shared his Baptist faith.

When call-up time came he declared himself a conscientious objector, and said he would not carry or use weapons.

Instead, he became a medical orderly. Although he would not kill or injure, he dedicated himself to providng aid to the wounded.

He was sent to Normandy on D-Day, June 6,1944.

He was transported in on a landing craft. The ramp fell forward, splashing into the sea. Uncle Ken leapt out. He was carrying more than 60llbs of medical provisions on his back. The landing craft had not gone in far enough. The water, which should have been at most chest-high, engulfed him. He drowned.

His body was recovered and he was buried in Normandy.

My auntie Ivy never re-married. She became a highly respected district nurse and spent the rest of her life working for the National Health Service, and eventually caring for her ageing parents. (Her father Tom, my grandfather, had been in the trenches in France in the first world war, and on return became an active and militant trade unionist in Leeds, and was blacklisted from his skilled engineering job for his role in a strike).

A few years ago I knew an ex-military man who ran a pub at Morley, outside Leeds.

The pub was bedecked with military memorabilia — regimental insignia, medals, items brought in from old and current conflicts, donated by customers.

I told him about my Uncle Ken. He frowned. As an ex-military man, unsurprisingly he had little time for “conshies.”

Then I told him uncle Ken had been a lance-corporal.

His eyes widened. He looked puzzled.

“He must have been a bit special,” he said. “They never promoted conshies.”

He took it as a mark of the calibre of my uncle Ken that he had been made a lance-corporal, despite his refusal to fight.

Auntie Ivy maintained the Baptist beliefs she had shared with her husband until she died in her eighties around 20 years ago.

She attended a Baptist chapel in the town of Ilkley in the most southerly of the Yorkshire Dales, Wharfedale.

Inside the chapel is a wooden crucifix, about six feet high. On its rear side is a plaque, dedicating the crucifix to Uncle Ken.

I have no religion. But attending the chapel for auntie Ivy’s funeral, I looked at the plaque and the memorial to the “conshie” who had died at Normandy and I was moved close to tears for the uncle I never knew.

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