Friday, 11 November 2011

The PPU and the Jersey Connection

In the Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever", the ship's surgeon "Bones" McCoy travels back in history and saves the life of a tireless worker in the slums, Edith Keeler. She would have died, but lived, and her movement met with Roosevelt to keep America out of the war. As a result, Nazi Germany did not lose the Second World War, and became the dominant power in the western world. Kirk puts history right, after going back in the past, and falling love with Keeler, he has to stop Bones from saving her, and let her die.

Kirk: "She was right; peace was the way." Spock: "She was right...but at the wrong time."

There was some talk on the radio this morning about white poppies, which are promoted by the Peace Pledge Union. This came about when, in 1934, the Reverend Canon Dick Sheppard invited men who cared for peace to send him a postcard. The card was to say: "I renounce war, and I will never support or sanction another."

Why should such an invitation be resisted? To what, after all, did it commit you beyond the act of posting a card? Within a year 80,000 people had renounced war, and the Peace Pledge Union had been founded by those who had signed a pledge which, when war came, was honoured no more than are most temperance pledges. Most of those who joined the Peace Pledge Union, however, did so in the belief that if they gathered enough members war would become impossible. There could be no doubt that the movement was an enormous success. (1)

By November 1937, Peace Pledge Union had 133,000 members and a journal called "Peace News" was launched. Some people wore white poppies on Armistice Day, and some both red and white poppies. But as Germany re-armed, and Hitler prepared for war, the Fascist movements, both in Germany and Britain, saw the Peace Movement as a means by which they could prevent any action being taken against Germany.

For the Fascists, and at the time "fascism" was a word which was often worn with pride, the great enemy was communism. The Catholic Church in Spain had committed itself to Franco's fascism because it feared communism, and the same was happening with the Peace Pledge Union. George Orwell, always more of a political realist than an idealist, saw this happening very clearly:

The most interesting development of the anti-war front has been the interpenetration of the pacifist movement by Fascist ideas, especially anti-Semitism. After Dick Sheppard's death British pacifism seems to have suffered a moral collapse; it has not produced any significant gesture nor even many martyrs, and only about 15 per cent of the membership of the Peace Pledge Union now appear to be active. But many of the surviving pacifists now spin a line of talk indistinguishable from that of the Blackshirts ("Stop this Jewish war" etc), and the actual membership of the PPU and the British Union overlap to some extent. (2)

When the Chamberlain government was looking to avoid war at Munich, the government accepted an invitation to meet with pacifist groups, such as the PPU, as it was thought these groups would be "disposed rather to support than to criticize" Chamberlain's actions at Munich. But in fact the PPU wanted to go further still:

Despite the initial support granted by the Peace Pledge Union, Munich did not satisfy pacifists. Indeed, by the time of the deputation for a new peace conference in March 1939, pacifist groups were demanding that the government be more active in realizing a "constructive" initiative for peace.(3)

As Zara Steiner noted, "it was paradoxical, if understandable, that as the real war-clouds gathered, the PPU became more absolute in its 'pacificism'."

The links between Blackshirts and Peace can be see in the case of Eric Pleasants. He had been a member of Mosely's Fascist Blackshirts and joined the Peace Pledge Union where he ended up in Jersey to avoid conscription - not many people realise that there were around 100 conscientious objectors sent over to Jersey to work on farms.

Pleasants met with Dennis Leister who between them and two other unsavory characters managed to set up a black market enterprise after the German Occupation. They got into trouble with the police, and attempted to return to England after trying to steel a motor boat.

But they were captured by the Germans and charged with stealing German petrol. They both received two year prison sentences and were moved to Romanville prison near Paris. After being transferred to Kreuzberg, Upper Silesia, they pretended to be captured Merchant Seamen and were eventually transferred to Milag early 1944, where they joined the British Free Corps.

SS-Mann Eric Reginald Pleasants
SS-Mann Dennis John Leister

Both men were mostly motivated by the opportunity to better food, alcohol and access to women. Pleasants frankly admitted later that he "was in it to have a good time."

Pleasants ended up being captured for espionage by the Russians in June 1948, and was repatriated to England in 1954.

In his autobiography, historian G. G. Coulton warned of the dangers in the late 1930s where "real peace would be gambled away for false peace", and described exactly the kind of person like Pleasants:

This Peace Pledge Union required nothing more than the cheap promise not to do what scarcely any sane man ever wishes to do except under extreme necessity. It implied no other moral code whatever. So far from endangering the signer's life, it offered the most obvious escape from such suffering or violent death as might fall to the lot of the ordinary unsigning citizen. In short, it was as convenient to the slacker or the coward as to the most lofty idealist.

(1) The Thirties: A Dream Revolved. Contributors: Julian Symons, 1960
(2) My Country Right or Left, 1940-1943. Volume: 2., George Orwell,Sonia Orwell, Ian Angus, 2000
(3) Arms Limitation and Disarmament: Restraints on War, 1899-1939, B. J.C. Mckercher, 1992
(4) The Lights That Failed: European International History, 1919-1933, Zara Steiner, 2005
(7)Fourscore Years: An Autobiography. G. G. Coulton, 1944

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