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Peace to end Peace

Angus Mitchell

The Anglo-German Correspondence of Vernon Lee and Irene Forbes-Mosse During World War I: Women Writers’ Friendship Transcending Enemy Lines, Herward Sieberg and Christa Zorn eds, Edwin Mellen Press, 480 pp, ISBN: 978-0773443136

Versailles 1919: A Centennial Perspective, by Alan Sharp, Haus Publishing, 320 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1912208098

“An appeal to the Intellectuals of Europe” is the title of a brief essay written by the philosopher Bertrand Russell to introduce a collection of anti-war writings called Justice in War-Time (1915). Russell’s view was uncomplicated: the war forced people to make a choice between principles and patriotism. Those, like himself, who chose principles, experienced war in a very different way from most of their fellow citizens. As the conflict dragged on, the actions of those who stood firm to their beliefs swerved into the realm of treason. But what made Russell particularly critical of the national psychology of patriotism was the development of indelible myths to do with both the origins, aims and potential outcomes of the violence.

Russell was convicted under the Defence of the Realm Act in the last months of the war and imprisoned for six months for making statements “likely to prejudice His Majesty’s relations with the United States of America”. He found prison life agreeable, largely because there were no distractions. From his cell he wrote his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy. But imprisonment did not “reform” him or dampen his appetite for peace. He would remain committed to the anti-war movement and would be jailed again in his later years for his support for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

His assistant, who undertook the research for much of his writings against war, was a young woman called Irene Cooper Willis. She was introduced to Russell by the writer, critic and polymath Vernon Lee. Russell’s efforts to seduce Cooper Willis resulted in a series of awkward rejections. She was more interested in carrying out research on his behalf, and she immersed herself in a thoughtful, if over-detailed, evaluation of the Liberal press. The work would turn her into a fierce opponent of both the government and the Liberal media.

Traditionally, the Liberal Party was opposed to warfare. So, when a Liberal cabinet took Britain into war, it needed to rationalise its actions to both itself and the public. This required a good measure of self-deception, supported by regular injections of propaganda. Cooper Willis showed how the case in favour of conflict had evolved before, during and after the war, and she charted how public understanding was manipulated at a press and political level throughout.

After the armistice, she published three pamphlets setting out her views: How we went into the war (1919), How we got on with the war (1920) and How we came out of the war (1921). These were later gathered together under the title of England’s Holy War (1928), dedicated to Vernon Lee. Cooper Willis made a strong case that delusion had played a critical role in how the conflict had been constructed in the public imagination. She was very much of the view that public perception of war had been massively distorted. For her, it was a collective madness.

England’s Holy War is a work that is rarely cited these days. It is part of the great forgetting imposed by commemorative historiography upon the anti-war movement. It has gone the way of other analogous interventions, notably Francis Neilson’s How Diplomats make War (1915), ED Morel’s Truth and the War (1916), Alfred Jay Knock’s The Myth of a Guilty Nation (1922) or Helena Swanwick’s Builders of Peace (1924). In the recent bombardment of writings about the First World War, those who fought for peace have been missing in action, so to speak. Recent historiography has disavowed this dimension of the intellectual opposition to mass killing and dismissed it summarily. Even though many of the wartime peacemakers saw their work as both patriotic and loyal to the wider cause of humanity, the anti-war movement has been ruthlessly “disremembered”. Various explanations may be given as to why this is. But those who opposed Britain’s declaration of war on Germany made their case on grounds that remain remarkably relevant. And to remember them can be construed as deeply discomforting and unsettling to the narrative that predominates today.

To encourage men to enlist the people were told that this was “the war that will end war”, the title of an essay by HG Wells published on August 1914th in The Daily News, where he stated:

This is already the vastest war in history. It is a war not of nations, but of mankind. It is a war to exorcise a world-madness and end an age … For this is now a war for peace. It aims straight at disarmament. It aims at a settlement that shall stop this sort of thing for ever. Every soldier who fights against Germany now is a crusader against war. This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war ‑ it is the last war!

As highly mistaken as this comment proved to be, the promise of everlasting peace on earth was an appealing millenarian vision – the new Jerusalem would be wrought from the slaughter and destruction of the apocalypse. But instead it did the opposite: it became the war that ended peace. This was the title of the 2014 study by the historian Margaret MacMillan on why the world went to war in 1914. It complemented her earlier work Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (2003). Both books were claimed as magisterial in their insight into the causes and outcomes of the war and became pillars in the edifice of historiography supporting the centenary commemoration.

In 2018, MacMillan was invited to give the prestigious BBC Reith Lectures. She chose for her title The Mark of Cain and delivered five talks which argued from different positions that war was an “innate and inescapable aspect of humanity”. She contends: “We like to think of war as an aberration, as the breakdown of the normal state of peace. This is comforting but wrong. War is deeply woven into the history of human society.” And after a century of war and hundreds of millions of people killed through violent action, she perhaps had some justification for making such a claim. But in making the case that war is the natural lot of men and women, other causes of conflict, such as secret diplomacy, the arms trade, gender, social and racial inequality, the deepening levels of secrecy to protect national security and the increasing influence of industrial capitalism to profit from misery, perhaps get off rather lightly. The argument helps to validate that collective madness and make it seem not quite so mad. 

Historians generally agree that in the decades before the war the world entered a period of seismic social change. The ruling imperial structures of Europe faced internal disorder on a massive scale. The United Kingdom was heading towards civil war in Ireland. There was widespread industrial unrest and polarisation between left and right, especially in France. Liberalism was in crisis and socialist and syndicalist power was on the rise. The women’s movement had adopted the tactics of violent direct action and hunger-striking. Marxists have long made the argument that it was domestic crises that really led to the war. European empires diverted their escalating internal dramas into a global conflict and thereby brought rebellious factions back into line. The First World War, in this interpretation, is understood as a counter-revolutionary strike by the ruling elites of Europe: a final stand to hold onto their power. By imploding the world into an emergency determined by international diplomacy, the domestic crisis was stalled and, in a way, decommissioned. For threatened imperial governments, world war was a preferred option to civil war.

But the idea that war was used as such to preserve the existing order is one that finds little favour these days. It has gone the same way as Cooper Willis’s observations about the Liberal press. The duty (and duty it has been) of many First World war historians of the last one hundred years has been to rationalise the war as either “just” or a “sacrifice” and driven by “a cause worth dying for”. In vindicating the millions of brutal deaths, arguments are made for the positive outcomes of industrialised slaughter. The war is seen to have delivered “progress”, “modernity”, “Votes for Women”, and greater levels of equality. But what the war certainly did not do is what it had promised to do from the start: it did not end wars.

In fact it did the opposite. War and destruction have become so crucial to the framing of our world that advocates of peace – pacifists –have become the heretics of our time. War is now an intrinsic part of the system of global trade and interconnection. Peace-keeping has been appropriated as a term for waging war. The rendering of war as normative is the logical outcome of a century in the defence of the First World War as justified, necessary and natural, rather than what Cooper Willis considered it to be: a collective madness.

In the 1930s Cooper Willis became executor of the literary estate of Vernon Lee. She was one of a few who recognised Lee as one of those dissidents who had sacrificed everything to condemn the war as a grotesque aberration: a betrayal of the innate goodness in the human spirit. Lee’s name or work is rarely mentioned now outside a close circle of specialised academics who see her as one of the great cosmopolitan intellectuals of the pre-war period; a bridge between Victorian aestheticism and modernism. She was admired by many other writers of that age, most notably Henry James and Virginia Woolf. If she is remembered today, however, it is generally for her ghost stories or the work she carried out on empathy.

But as her experimentation and writing on empathy developed, the horizon of war grew ever darker. On the outbreak of conflict in the summer of 1914, Lee found herself stranded in London and unable to return to her beloved home in Florence – Villa Il Palmerino – and she remained in England writing with sound and fury against the killing. She became an active committee member of the Union of Democratic Control (U.D.C.), the movement established by an anti-war cluster of politicians and dissidents. In 1915, she published an essay, Peace with Honour: Controversial Notes on the Settlement. This was an argument that advocated unequivocally for peace. Lee rightly recognised that the only reason for fighting a war was the peace that came at the end. “The good or bad result of a war depends upon the settlement thereof,” she reasoned. In other words, any war, every war, was defined by the peace that brought about its end.

Lee’s anti-war writings were not confined to journalism and published essays. In 1915 she wrote an experimental play, The Ballet of the Nations. A scathing allegory, it was performed a couple of times in Chelsea and a fine edition published with line drawings by Maxwell Armfield. (A creative co-operative company based in Bristol called “Impermanence” has just adapted the play into a fifty-minute choreographed film narrated by Billy Zane.) After the war, Lee developed the work into a longer book Satan–The Waster. This was reviewed negatively almost everywhere except by George Bernard Shaw, who used his appraisal of Lee’s work to strike a blow at the duplicity of the prime minister David Lloyd George, comparing him unfavourably with Lee, whom he described as “the noblest Briton of them all”, adding that she had “by sheer intellectual force, training, knowledge and character kept her head when Europe was a mere lunatic asylum”.’

The war had separated Lee from her close friend, the writer and translator, Irene Forbes-Mosse, the daughter of a Prussian ambassador, married to a British army colonel, who was forced to reside in Munich during the war. She was a close relative of the German economist and pacifist Lujo Brentano, a great Anglophile and an advocate of social democracy. Lee and Forbes-Mosse corresponded regularly during their years of separation and their letters are now rigorously edited in a publication that has hardly reached beyond a busy circle of Vernon Lee scholars and aficionados. For those interested in the study of emotions and trauma this exchange provides an astonishing insight into personal feeling and public psychology. Mapping out a unique woman’s war narrative, the correspondence reveals a raw and bilious anger, that sense of despair and betrayal felt by two non-combatants caught in a conflict they abhorred.

As one of the editors, Christa Zorn, comments in her introduction: “Letter writing during World War I … could supplement or even replace a dysfunctional public sphere”, and she claims this correspondence as part of an alternative dialogic domain, where deeper truths about the impact of war can be understood. There is a critical honesty about this conversation in its dealings with questions to do with friendship, patriotism, censorship, diplomacy, atrocity propaganda and state secrecy. Further commentary on the International Women’s Congress in The Hague in 1915 and Lee’s involvement with the U.D.C. offer valuable new insights into the intersection between the psychological, private and societal. The uncut and uncensored substance of this communication incites subtle re-evaluations of orthodox perceptions. Both women were remarkably well-informed about what was happening and were networked into structures of political and social power. Though Forbes-Mosse was more loyal to her German diplomatic origins, Lee’s internationalism enabled her to transcend narrow national ideologies and seek wider perspectives that anticipated, as Zorn argues, some of “today’s feminist, post-colonial or multicultural points of view”.

Lee, Russell, Cooper Willis and Forbes-Mosse were part of a European circuit of anti-war dissidents that networked across borders and behind lines. If their intervention is hardly recognised today, it is because it offers a highly critical insight into the politics of violence. In their eyes, they read the interminable killing on the Western Front as an attack on humanity, on fundamental truths, on the foundations of moral order. Throughout those years of despair, they did their uttermost to structure a dialogue of peace in a time of total war.

When statesmen from around the world met in 1919 in Paris to discuss terms of the settlement, key elements of that discussion on peace had been rehearsed in the underground debates among the European pacifist and anti-war dissidents. For instance, Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the hopes for a League of Nations and the aspiration to national self-determination were in different ways worked through by those intent on shaping the peace, as the histories of the U.D.C. demonstrate. But the old order won out in Paris. Wilson was worked on. Efforts by the anti-war movement to spread the burden of guilt for the war among the competing imperial powers were ignored. Germany was severely punished and forced to pay reparations. The perpetuation of myths about the conflict as a struggle between good and evil and right and wrong were reinvigorated. Old diplomacy won over the new. Those who hoped to shape the peace were defeated. The most public critic was the economist John Maynard Keynes, who stormed out of the negotiations and went on to write The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), where he criticised the basic lack of compassion towards Germany and Central European nations and predicted a dark future based on the settlement that was agreed.

Some commentary around the time of the centenary of the armistice last year posited that the world we inhabit in 2014 is the world created by the “Great War” and the peace that followed. It is hard to ignore the clear continuities and contingencies between then and now, most obviously in the situation of the Middle East. The crisis in both globalisation (empire), and (neo)-liberalism; the massive inequality that divides the world; and the concentration of power in the hands of a few oligarchs like Presidents Putin and Trump. We nevertheless keep telling ourselves that the blood sacrifice of the 1914-18 war was for “democracy”, for “freedom”, for “small nations” and for “civilisation”. But a century on from that historic peace, it is hard to make any great case for “progress”. We may have advanced in technological terms but the structures of white, patriarchal, industrial capitalism remain steadfastly in place.

Alan Sharp is one of a small cluster of historians based in Ireland who has played a prominent role in shaping public understanding of the First World War and its aftermaths. He has made a career out of writing about the peace of Versailles and international relations between the wars. His command of the facts is incontrovertible, and he connects key moments with confident authority. His academic study on the Versailles settlement is now in its third edition. In his more mainstream perspective on the negotiations, he looks at the big themes of international relations in the twentieth century. He provides punchy factual chapters on the threat of Germany to the rest of Europe; efforts to create a new world order through the League of Nations and the United Nations Organisation; the turbulence caused by decolonisation and national self-determination; and efforts to bring about disarmament and international law or human rights. These he sees as the principal outcomes of the peace. In a final chapter on the Pax Americana, he shows how the Fourteen Points of Woodrow Wilson evolved into the 140-letter tweets of Donald Trump. In conjuring a sense of order from the chaos of collapsed empires, Sharp argues, like MacMillan, that Versailles made a decent enough job of a pretty much impossible situation.

One of the problems in trying to explain the peace negotiations in Versailles is that the event is so incommensurate with the scale of suffering felt by those who experienced war and were left with its legacy. The carnage and destruction of the battlefields inhabits a different dimension to those six months in Paris. The world of silk top hats and frocks milling around the quai d’Orsay leading to that optical crescendo: the signing of the treaty in the Hall of Mirrors on June 28th, 1919 is blindingly paradoxical. Given this divide, it is unsurprising that much of the analysis about Versailles looks forwards and not backwards. It is constructed as a new beginning, not as a fateful end. If the utopian element, aspiring towards peace and disarmament embodied the optimism that a new moral order was possible, such hopes ignored the fact that the existing structures would not voluntarily disintegrate and would instead do their best to undermine hopes for collective peace on earth. Western anxieties about the Soviet Union saw a new front open against the left and its various incarnations as moderate socialism, communism or revolutionary Marxism. Peace may have been a core value of many messianic movements, but it has also been a core value of the left and for that it is still seen as inimical to the order imposed through the neo-liberal/neo-conservative paradigm.

A small gesture to the peace movement might be detected in the preamble to the UNESCO constitution: “Since wars begin in the minds of men it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” That aspiration has been traced back to those peacemakers like Vernon Lee, who saw war as an obscenity: a total abnegation of our essential humanity. How many times Christian congregations around the world have blithely repeated: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Yet, in truth, peacemakers seem to have been nothing but a blessed nuisance. Our modern “civilization” has been built upon the military-industrial complex, territorial and economic ambition, the endless scramble for resources and the turning of active citizens into passive consumers. On December 31st, 2018, the US government withdrew from UNESCO because of its objection to the organisation’s support for the Palestinian people and opposition to the illegal and continuing occupation of their lands by the state of Israel.

After a century, hindsight shows us that international relations have been driven by the maintenance of the paradigm supporting war and the capitalist realism that promotes violence as natural. Anyone who watched the film by Amir Amirani We are Many (2014), about the global protest in February 2003 against the Iraq War will recognise that even if there is a great transnational appetite for peace, there is no political will or visionary leadership to bring it about. War and oil are structural essentials of the twentieth-first century. They are the bedrock that makes it easier “to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”, as the utopian critic Frederic Jameson said. Nothing illustrates the limits of global governance more starkly than the recent civil disobedience and direct action campaigns by Extinction Rebellion.

Our disavowal of the peacemakers, those intellectuals, conscientious objectors and political dissidents who stood out against the war, remains part of the unwritten history of the First World War. Their narrative still defies the logic bolstering the careful regulation of the official version and those myths about the origins that Russell, Lee and Cooper Willis found so objectionable. Most history is still organised within a patriotic framework, between right and wrong, good and evil. Within this paradigm, the Germans are still to blame. Those who persist in thinking about the war in all its unfathomable complexities recognise the dilemma in “truth-telling” evident in that much quoted comment from a 1917 entry in the diaries of CP Scott: “If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know, and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and the censorship wouldn’t pass the truth. What they do send is not the war, but just a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds.” Scott, who had witnessed the scale of the horror on the Western Front, realised that there were “known unknowns”, truths that could not be enunciated.

And that “pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds” is a dominant myth that endures. If in the 1920s there was a turn against the official version as to the origins of the war, and some level of support for the views of the anti-war activists, this did not last long. With the defeat of Nazism, the German historian Fritz Fischer provided diplomatic evidence and a thesis to show that Germany had a master plan: a continuous strategy linking the Kaiser’s imperial ambitions to Hitler’s Third Reich. The Fischer thesis enabled the First World War to be justified as part of a long struggle for “freedom” and indeed “peace” and not as a needless, mechanised atrocity, an industrial-scale slaughter of innocents, a crime against Europe, a collective madness or a counter-revolutionary strike.

A century on and the Versailles treaty has been assimilated into the contemporary logic of modernity. The framing of much history of the First World War has been to fashion a narrative that has explained both our dependence upon war and the good that comes of it. This is the version commonly agreed upon, and one that Alan Sharp explains well.

These two volumes together make us understand the dynamics of peace-making in very different ways. Sharp’s perspective is the culmination of a rational teleological explanation of an event that still haunts our present in aspects that we will never fully understand. And anyone who finds their way to the letters of Vernon Lee will discover a prophetic source exposing the dehumanising and irrational logic of total war revealed by a brilliant feminist dissident, who refused to align herself to the military-industrial complex that became intrinsic to our modern world.


Angus Mitchell is the author of Roger Casement in the 16 Lives series. His latest book is an edition of Casement’s German Diary: One Bold Deed of Open Treason: The Berlin Diary of Roger Casement 1914-1916, published by Merrion Press. Image: Vernon Lee by John Singer Sargent.