Sunday, July 12, 2015

"I would get in between"

Continuing to read The Golden Age of Murder I come across this description of British politics just before World War II:
.... On 9 February 1933, a few days after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, a student debate was held by the Oxford Union Society. The Gothic grandeur of the debating chamber was familiar to many members of the Detection Club, including Knox and Bentley, two former Presidents of the Union. The motion was that 'this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and country' and the proposer argued: 'It is no mere coincidence that the only country fighting for the cause of peace, Soviet Russia, is the country that has rid itself of the war-mongering clique.'

Douglas Cole spoke in favour of the motion. When an opponent demanded to know what he would do if a German tried to rape his wife, he replied, 'I would get in between.' This answer, according to one witness, 'brought the house down'. What Margaret thought about Douglas' jaunty riposte is unknown, since she chose not to mention the debate in either her own memoirs or her biography of him.

The pacifists won the day, with the motion passed by 275 votes to 153. Even in 1933, the Oxford Union was scarcely a microcosm of British society, but the outcome caused a furore. The Daily Express was incensed: 'There is no question but that the woozy-minded Communists, the practical jokers, and the sexual indeterminates of Oxford have scored a great success.' Someone sent the Union a box containing 275 white feathers, one for each vote for the motion, but this condemnation of cowardice lacked sting, given that the sender did not have the courage to give his or her name. Pacifism was a popular cause, and plenty of voices were raised in support of the students who voted for the motion.
Stanley Baldwin
Among them was A.A. Milne's. Although he had fought during the war, his health had suffered, and over time his long-held pacifist views hardened. In 1934, he published Peace with Honour, a passionately argued attack on the value and inevitability of war. He misread Hitler and Mussolini, but although his idealism was misplaced, he had personal experience of the horrific nature of fighting in battle, and did not want others to go through what he had endured. In the same year, the canon of St Paul's Cathedral, Dick Sheppard, invited men (not women) to send him postcards containing the pledge: 'I renounce war, and I will never support or sanction another.' This initiative resulted in the formation of the Peace Pledge Union, which soon attracted more than one hundred thousand supporters.

At Westminster, Baldwin struggled with the question of rearmament, which was hugely expensive and deeply unpopular. Churchill, a voice crying in the wilderness, said the government was 'decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent. So we go on, preparing more months and years - precious, perhaps vital, to the greatness of Britain - for the locusts to eat.'

'Supposing I had gone to the country and said that Germany was rearming and we must rearm,' Baldwin retorted. 'Does anybody think that this pacific democracy would have rallied to that cry at that moment? I cannot think of anything that would have made the loss of the election from my point of view more certain.' Churchill thought this a 'squalid confession', but it was at least frank. When Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, Britain probably could not have stopped him, even had the political will to do so existed. ....

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