Monday, 2 November 2009

White Poppies

The idea of decoupling Armistice Day , the red poppy and later Remembrance Day from their military culture dates back to 1926, just a few years after the British Legion was persuaded to try using the red poppy as a fundraising tool in Britain.(1)

These white poppies did not get very wide distribution until 1934, when the Peace Pledge Union took up the case. As Wikipedia Notes:

The Peace Pledge Union (PPU) took part in its distribution from 1934, and white poppy wreaths were laid from 1937 as a pledge to peace that war must not happen again. Anti-war organisations such as the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship now support the White Poppy Movement.(2)

The Peace Pledge Union was the brainchild of an Anglican priest, the Rev. Dick Sheppard, who wrote a "Peace Letter" in October 1934:

In it he asked other men who agreed with his resolve never to support another war to send him a postcard stating this agreement. The response was tremendous, despite the fact that only three national dailies published the letter. Within a few days a postal van had to be used to deliver replies. Twelve months later some 80,000 cards had been received, and they were still coming in at the rate of 400 a day. Encouraged by these results, Sheppard organized the Peace Pledge Union, which he hoped would direct this vague but powerful expression of pacifism into more effective channels. The organization held its first meeting on 22 May 1936, and soon made its presence felt... In June 1936, membership was opened to women, and although the initial response was good - some 13,000 joined in the last four months of that year - they never equalled the number of men. Nevertheless, membership grew steadily and totalled almost 130,000 by the outbreak of war in 1939. (3)

The horrors of the First World War undoubtedly contributed to the success of the PPU, and many famous names would join the organisation - Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, Rose Macaulay, Vera Brittain, MPS George Lansbury and Lord Ponsonby, and clergymen such as such as Donald Soper and Charles Raven.

It seemed the right way to go. War was a horror, an abomination, and anything could be better than war. It must be remembered that this was a general attitude as well - the term "appeasement" changed in meaning in one short decade, but it actually reflected a positive message in its initial use. It is hard to understand that meaning now, because we are so used to the later meanings, that we instinctively read that back.

But in the 1930s, not only was "appeasement" a positive word, but so was "fascism". The British fascists used the term proudly, as a mark of dignity and respect. It was as the failure of appeasement, and the dark side of the fascist programmes became more widespread, that the meaning shifted to terms of abuse.

Yet the Peace Pledge Union played its part in this, with the best will in the world, to stretch points when it came to Germany, and German grievances.

Some PPU literature reflected a willingness to go to extraordinary lengths to redress Germany's alleged grievances. In 1938 the Union published a pamphlet by Clive Bell in which he stated that 'I see no reason why Germany should not have colonies and hegemony too', and went on to say that 'we welcome the idea of a United States of Europe, even though that Europe be policed by Germans'.(3)

This was, of course, after the the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which deprived Jews of citizenship and prohibited marriage between Jews and other Germans. It was clear that these laws constituted one more stage in a systematic racist programme, one more turn of the ratchet:

People defined as Jews could then be barred from employment as lawyers, doctors or journalists. Jews were prohibited from using state hospitals and could not be educated by the state past the age of 14. Public parks, libraries and beaches were closed to Jews. War memorials were to have Jewish names expunged. Even the lottery could not award winnings to Jews. (6)

But the Peace Pledge Union was so fixated on peace that it was blind to this happening. Then when Germany invaded and began to dismember and take control of Czechoslovakia in 1938, the PPU again came out against war:

The Union threw its weight in the scales for peace, but at the same time Peace News gave fairly strong support to Germany's case. In August and September it ran a series of articles disparaging the Czech people and state, while the anonymous author of the weekly column on 'Public Affairs' consistently took a strong line against the Czechs. He maintained that the German Government had a 'moral case', that the boundaries of Czechoslovakia were unjust, and that the country had ignored its minority problem; he praised Hitler's work for peace and asked for 'some appreciation of Germany's contribution'.(3)

As Poland loomed large in European affairs, the PPU again was prepared to lean over backwards in suggesting that the territorial aspects of Hitler's threat to invade Poland were justified by the punitive concessions of the Treaty of Versailles.

Sympathy for Germany's position on Poland was expressed to some extent in the editorial columns, but even more strongly in two columns called 'The Plain Man' and 'A Pacifist Commentary', which by and large took the view that the Poles were too aggressive in defending their national sovereignty, that the disputed lands were probably more German than Polish, and that there was a danger that the Poles would drag Europe into a conflict over their parochial claims. There was no suggestion that perhaps the crisis was largely due to the territorial ambitions of Hitler.(3)

The Peace Pledge Union never acknowledged its mistakes, never saw that peace at any price could lead to the suffering of countless millions. But in Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the greatest theologians of his day, could see that peace alone was not enough.

He understood, to not allow himself to become guilty of violence might be the greatest guilt of all. "The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts," he wrote several months before his arrest in 1943. Germans faced a situation in which "every available alternative seemed equally intolerable, repugnant, and futile".(4)

And he saw the dangers of being idle, of collusion, and not raising a voice against the tyrant; of how not to act would not be a matter of acting ethically, but of being guilty by placing principles ahead of people:

"The church confesses that she has witnessed the lawless application of brutal force, the physical and spiritual suffering of countless innocent people, oppression, hatred and murder, and that she has not raised her voice on behalf of the victims and had not found ways to hasten to their aid. She is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ."(5)

The wearers of the white poppy say that the red poppy is tainted by its associations with war, with the call to arms, to the patriotic drumbeat. Yet the history of the white poppy itself is not without its associations. The white poppy wearers of the past, of the Peace Pledge Union, were not guilty of making war, or a false patriotism, but they were guilty of neglect.

They passed by the victims of violence on the other side of the road because unlike the Samaritan, they were so concerned for an ideal of peace that they forgot to see people suffering. And all the time, hidden by a willful blindness, they ignored the plight of the Jews, those mentally handicapped, and any who opposed the madness that was the Nazi ideal, who were being systematically persecuted, and then exterminated.

I am not opposed to the white poppy, but I think the wearers should be more aware of some aspects of its past, that were less than noble.

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out-because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out-because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out-because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me-and there was no one left to speak out for me.
- Martin Niemöller

(3) British Pacifists and Appeasement: The Peace Pledge Union, David C. Lukowitz, Journal of Contemporary History 1974
(4) ADVENTIST PEACE FELLOWSHIP, Essay #2 - December 2004, Bonhoeffer's Pacifism by Ronald Osborn
(5) Bonhoeffer, Ethics p 50

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"And he saw the dangers of being idle, of collusion, and not raising a voice against the tyrant; of how not to act would not be a matter of acting ethically, but of being guilty by placing principles ahead of people..."

Very timely for Jersey. Complacency is dangerous on an island where healthy judicial checks and balances are too often dismissed as unpatriotic.