by Holly Williams
‘The conscientious objector is a popular trope in any drama touching on the First World War: Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs and more recently The Village have been awash with young men persecuted for their moral stance, the white feathers they were shamed with fluttering about TV screens as if war was a pillow fight.
As we approach the centenary of the First World War next year, we’ll no doubt hear a lot more about those that fought – and those that felt an equally powerful compulsion not to. But conscientious objection did not begin and end there: conflicts since, including the Second World War and the Vietnam war, have involved conscription, while countries as diverse as Finland, Israel, South Korea, Greece, Columbia and Turkey still require their young people to perform military service.
Getting an exemption on conscientious grounds is, even today, often an arduous process, potentially prompting the century-old accusations of cowardice. COs may face jail sentences or fines, despite a 2012 UN document stating that “conscientious objection … is based on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.
International Conscientious Objection Day took place this week, on 15 May, and in the UK, a ceremony was held at the CO Commemorative Stone in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury. Tomorrow, a small event will be held in the Peace Garden in Birmingham. The UK has also recently seen the opening of a new memorial to COs, at The National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. Last month, the Quakers erected a new circular limestone structure there to commemorate, specifically, the Friends Ambulance Unit – a Quaker-run body open to all COs – and the Friends Relief Service, which aims to relieve civilian distress in Britain.’
A man has been questioned by police after an image of a burning poppy was posted on Facebook on Remembrance Sunday.
Kent Police said the 19-year-old, from Canterbury, was detained on Sunday night on suspicion of making malicious telecommunications.
The force said in a statement: “A man (was) interviewed by police this morning following reports that a picture of a burning poppy had been posted on a social media website.
“Officers were contacted at around 4pm yesterday and alerted to the picture, which was reportedly accompanied by an offensive comment.”
The man was later released pending further inquiries.
His detention was met with disbelief on Twitter, where people mounted a fierce discussion over civil liberties.
Tom Williams, tweeting as @tomwilliamsisme, wrote: “The scary thing is, the man wasn’t arrested for burning a poppy – that’s not illegal. He was arrested for putting it online.”
Jamie’s Pants, under @thisisrjg, tweeted: “We do not have a right to not be offended. We certainly don’t have a right to lock up someone for offending some people”,
And Thom Lumley, tweeting as @Hotstepperrr, wrote: “Dear idiots at Kent Police, burning a poppy may be obnoxious, but it is not a criminal offence.”
David Allen Green, a journalist and lawyer for the New Statesman, tweeting as Jack of Kent, wrote: “What was the point of winning either World War if, in 2012, someone can be casually arrested by Kent Police for burning a poppy?”
Australian musician and comedian Tim Minchin also expressed his incredulity, tweeting: “You’ve a right to burn a (fake!) poppy. Whether I agree with the action is utterly irrelevant. Kent Police are out of line.”
Meanwhile, a man who skateboarded alongside a Remembrance Sunday parade wearing a pink outfit and horned mask has been charged under the Public Order Act.
Jose Paulo Da Silveria, 38, is alleged to have skateboarded beside marching troops as they made their way past the cenotaph towards College Green in Bristol city centre.
by Robert Fisk
The photograph – never published before – was apparently taken in the summer of 1915. Human skulls are scattered over the earth. They are all that remain of a handful of Armenians slaughtered by the Ottoman Turks during the First World War. Behind the skulls, posing for the camera, are three Turkish officers in tall, soft hats and a man, on the far right, who is dressed in Kurdish clothes. But the two other men are Germans, both dressed in the military flat caps, belts and tunics of the Kaiserreichsheer, the Imperial German Army. It is an atrocity snapshot – just like those pictures the Nazis took of their soldiers posing before Jewish Holocaust victims a quarter of a century later.
Did the Germans participate in the mass killing of Christian Armenians in 1915? This is not the first photograph of its kind; yet hitherto the Germans have been largely absolved of crimes against humanity during the first holocaust of the 20th century. German diplomats in Turkish provinces during the First World War recorded the forced deportations and mass killing of a million and a half Armenian civilians with both horror and denunciation of the Ottoman Turks, calling the Turkish militia-killers “scum”. German parliamentarians condemned the slaughter in the Reichstag.
Indeed, a German army medical officer, Armin Wegner, risked his life to take harrowing photographs of dying and dead Armenians during the genocide. In 1933, Wegner pleaded with Hitler on behalf of German Jews, asking what would become of Germany if he continued his persecution. He was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo and is today recognised at the Yad Vashem Jewish Holocaust memorial in Israel; some of his ashes are buried at the Armenian Genocide Museum in the capital, Yerevan.
It is this same Armenian institution and its energetic director, Hayk Demoyan, which discovered this latest photograph. It was found with other pictures of Turks standing beside skulls, the photographs attached to a long-lost survivor’s testimony. All appear to have been taken at a location identified as “Yerznka” – the town of Erzinjan, many of whose inhabitants were murdered on the road to Erzerum. Erzinjan was briefly captured by Russian General Nikolai Yudenich from the Turkish 3rd Army in June of 1916, and Armenians fighting on the Russian side were able to gather much photographic and documentary evidence of the genocide against their people the previous year. Russian newspapers – also archived at the Yerevan museum – printed graphic photographs of the killing fields. Then the Russians were forced to withdraw.
Wegner took many photographs at the end of the deportation trail in what is now northern Syria, where tens of thousands of Armenians died of cholera and dysentery in primitive concentration camps. However, the museum in Yerevan has recently uncovered more photos taken in Rakka and Ras al-Ayn, apparently in secret by Armenian survivors. One picture – captioned in Armenian, “A caravan of Armenian refugees at Ras al-Ayn” – shows tents and refugees. The photograph seems to have been shot from a balcony overlooking the camp.
Another, captioned in German “Armenian camp in Rakka”, may have been taken by one of Wegner’s military colleagues, showing a number of men and women among drab-looking tents. Alas, almost all those Armenians who survived the 1915 death marches to Ras al-Ayn and Rakka were executed the following year when the Turkish-Ottoman genocide caught up with them.
Some German consuls spoke out against Turkey. The Armenian-American historian Peter Balakian has described how a German Protestant petition to Berlin protested that “since the end of May, the deportation of the entire Armenian population from all the Anatolian Vilayets [governorates] and Cilicia in the Arabian steppes south of the Baghdad-Berlin railway had been ordered”. As the Deutsche Bank was funding the railway, its officials were appalled to see its rolling stock packed with Armenian male deportees and transported to places of execution. Furthermore, Professor Balakian and other historians have traced how some of the German witnesses to the Armenian holocaust played a role in the Nazi regime.
Konstantin Freiherr von Neurath, for example, was attached to the Turkish 4th Army in 1915 with instructions to monitor “operations” against the Armenians; he later became Hitler’s foreign minister and “Protector of Bohemia and Moravia” during Reinhard Heydrich’s terror in Czechoslovakia. Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg was consul at Erzerum from 1915-16 and later Hitler’s ambassador to Moscow.
Rudolf Hoess was a German army captain in Turkey in 1916; from 1940-43, he was commandant of the Auschwitz extermination camp and then deputy inspector of concentration camps at SS headquarters. He was convicted and hanged by the Poles at Auschwitz in 1947.
We may never know, however, the identity of the two officers standing so nonchalantly beside the skulls of Erzinjan.
In the midst of deepening austerity, David Cameron is desperate to play the national card. Any one will do. He’s worked the Queen’s jubilee and the Olympics for all they’re worth. Now the prime minister wants a “truly national commemoration” of the first world war in the runup to 2014 that will “capture our national spirit … like the diamond jubilee”.
So £50m has been found to fund a four-year programme of events, visits to the trenches from every school and an ambitious redevelopment of the Imperial War Museum. Ministers have promised there will be no “jingoism”, but Cameron says he wants to remember those who “gave their lives for our freedom” and ensure that “the lessons learned live with us for ever”.
In case there were any doubt about what those lessons might be, the Times has declared that despite the war’s unhappy reputation, Britain’s cause was “essentially just”, a necessary response to aggression by a “xenophobic and anti-democratic” expansionist power (Germany) and that those who fought and died did so to uphold the “principle of the defence of small nations”.
It surely must be right to commemorate what was by any reckoning a human catastrophe: 16 million died, including almost a million Britons. It touched every family in the country (and many other countries besides), my own included. Both my grandmothers lost brothers in the four-year bloodletting: one in Passchendaele, the other in Gaza.
Seventy years after the event, one of them would still cry at the memory of the postman bringing the death notice in a brown War Office envelope to her home in Edinburgh. My grandfather was a field surgeon on the western front, who would break down as he showed us pictures he had taken of lost friends amid the devastation of Ypres and Loos, and remembered covering up for soldiers who had shot themselves in the legs, to save them from the firing squad.
But it does no service to the memory of the victims to prettify the horrific reality. The war was a vast depraved undertaking of unprecedented savagery, in which the ruling classes of Europe dispatched their people to a senseless slaughter in the struggle for imperial supremacy. As Lenin summed it up to the Romanian poet Valeriu Marcu in early 1917: “One slaveowner, Germany, is fighting another slaveowner, England, for a fairer distribution of the slaves”.
This wasn’t a war of self-defence, let alone liberation from tyranny. As the late Eric Hobsbawm sets out in his Age of Empire, it was the cataclysmic product of an escalating struggle for colonial possessions, markets, resources and industrial power between the dominant European empires, Britain and France, and the rising imperial power of Germany seeking its “place in the sun”. In that clash of empires, Europe devoured its children – and many of its captive peoples with them.
Set against that all-destroying machine of 20th century industrial warfare, the preposterous pretext of the rights of small nations and the violated neutrality of “plucky little Belgium” cannot seriously be regarded as the real driver of the war (as it was not by British and other politicians of the time).
All the main warring states were responsible for the brutal suppression of nations, large and small, throughout the racist despotisms that were their colonial empires. In the years leading up to the first world war an estimated 10 million Congolese died as a result of forced labour and mass murder under plucky Belgian rule; German colonialists carried out systematic genocide against the Herero and Nama peoples in today’s Namibia; and tens of millions died in enforced or avoidable famines in British-ruled India, while Britain’s colonial forces ran concentration camps in South Africa and meted out continual violent repression across the empire.
The idea that the war was some kind of crusade for democracy when most of Britain’s population – including many men – were still denied the vote, and democracy and dissent were savagely crushed among most of those Britain ruled, is laughable. And when the US president, Woodrow Wilson, championed the right to self-determination to win the peace, that would of course apply only to Europeans – not the colonial peoples their governments lorded it over.
As the bloodbath exhausted itself, it unleashed mutinies, workers’ revolts and revolutions, and the breakup of defeated empires, giving a powerful impetus to anti-colonial movements in the process. But the outcome also laid the ground for the rise of nazism and the even bloodier second world war, and led to a new imperial carve-up of the Middle East, whose consequences we are still living with today, including the Palestinian tragedy.
Unlike in 1940, Britain wasn’t threatened with invasion or occupation in 1914, and Europe’s people were menaced by the machinations of their masters, rather than an atavistic tyranny. Those who died didn’t give their lives “for freedom”; they were the victims of an empire that was a stain on humanity, the cynicism of politicians and the despicable folly of the generals. As Harry Patch, last British survivor of the trenches who died three years ago, put it, the first world war was “nothing better than legalised mass murder”.
Since the 1990s, direct conflict between great powers that reached its cataclysmic nadir in the world wars has been replaced by a modern version of the colonial wars that preceded and punctuated them: in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Unable to win public support for such campaigns, the government has tried to appropriate the sympathy for the troops who fight them as a substitute: demanding, for example, that poppies be worn as a “display of national pride” (or as Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely, the now ex-British Legion president, described Remembrance Day, a “tremendous networking opportunity” for arms dealers).
If Cameron and his ministers try the same trick with the commemoration of the 1914-18 carnage, it will be a repulsive travesty. Among the war’s real lessons are that empire, in all its forms, always leads to bloodshed; that state violence is by far its most destructive form; that corporate carve-ups fuel conflict; and that militarism and national chauvinism are the road to perdition. Celebrate instead the internationalists, socialists and poets who called it right, and remember the suffering of the soldiers – rather than the cowards who sent them to die. Attempts to hijack the commemorations must be contested every step of the way.
Seumas Milne’s book, The Revenge of History: The Battle for the 21st Century, was published last week
New York Central Railroad (via Smithsonian)
This remarkable photo, taken in 1918, shows employees of the New York Central Railroad at a celebration in Victory Way, showing off a pyramid of recovered German helmets in front of Grand Central Terminal. There are two cannons in the shot, one on either side; and there is a statue—possibly of Greek goddess of victory, Nike—on top of the pile. But seriously: that is a pretty crazy amount of helmets.
“Victory Way” was set up after World War I ended—captured German war equipment was displayed on Park Avenue just near Grand Central to help raise money for the 5th War Loan. Each end of Victory Way had a pyramid made up of 12,000 German helmets. The helmets were supposedly going to be given away to large contributors to the 5th War Loan. One can only imagine the reaction if such a display of war souvenirs was put up today.
THE owner of the wreck of the Lusitania has rejected the findings of a €1.5m documentary into what caused the liner to sink so fast.
Greg Bemis told the Irish Independent he was now looking for permission from the Government to organise a second dive to the wreck — some 16km off the Old Head of Kinsale.
Mr Bemis was speaking in Cork, where he attended a special event to mark the worldwide launch of the National Geographic documentary ‘Dark Secrets of the Lusitania’ — the most ambitious underwater film project ever attempted here.
“I believe the truth is vital, we need to pursue the truth in all major historical events,” Mr Bemis said.
The Lusitania was struck by a single torpedo from the German submarine U-20 on May 7, 1915 off the Cork coast.
However, a second explosion was reported just minutes later, and the ship sank in less than 18 minutes.
A total of 1,198 people died. There were just 761 survivors.
The British and American authorities wrongly accused the U-boat of having fired a second torpedo at the stricken ship.
The second explosion was then blamed on coal dust in a bunker igniting, and the new TV documentary speculates that a boiler blew up when cold sea water rushed into the hull following the torpedo strike.
But Mr Bemis said he remained convinced that Allied munitions being carried by the liner was the real cause.
“They (National Geographic) used insufficient data when they made their decision,” he said.
“In fact, they did not have all the information they should have had — they used a computer analysis to get their theory and a computer is only as good as the garbage you put in. You put garbage in, you get garbage out,” he said.
Mr Bemis said a second dive with full access to the hull was now required before the Lusitania centenary.
“You have to understand there were two different types of munitions being carried — there were three million rounds of .303 (rifle) ammunition on the ship.
“But they would not have caused the second explosion. That was caused, in my opinion, by explosives stored in a magazine at the base of the ship. This was in the bow in a converted coal bunker.”
President Vladimir Putin has put the blame for Russia’s defeat in the First World War on Bolsheviks’ policy that he called ‘national treason’.
Speaking in the Upper House of the Russian Parliament Putin said the Bolsheviks, especially the ruling elite of the party, betrayed Russia’s national interests and allowed Germany to win the war with Russia even though eventually Germany was defeated. The President added that Bolsheviks had been so reluctant to admit their mistakes that in the Soviet period the First World War was called “the Imperialist War” and the authorities deliberately ignored the heroism of Russian soldiers in art and propaganda. Putin added that in reality the First World War was not an imperialist one.
The topic was raised when the upper house discussed the possibility of funding the maintenance of the Russian necropolis in Serbia – the burial place of at least 3,000 Russians, including 124 generals of the Tsarist Army. Putin stressed he supported the idea to fund the monument.
President Putin traditionally opposes the Communist Party of the Russian Federation – the heirs to the CPSU, but at the same time he has called the breakup of the Soviet Union ‘the biggest geopolitical disaster of the century.” Recently Russia is taking steps against what it sees as the ‘revisionism of history’ – manipulations that question the universally accepted opinion on most questionable issues of the past.