Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Poppies Red or White?

Poppies Red or White? - partnership event with Headingley Festival of Ideas
7pm Headingley Library Tuesday 6 May

Síle Moriarty writes:
 Poppies, red and white, have become potent symbols and in this event (chaired by Richard Wilcocks) they provoked a wide ranging discussion on the themes of war and pacifism:
·       Is war valid?
·       Is war inevitable?
·       What is pacifism?
·       Is being a pacifist the same as being anti war?
·       What significance does pacifism have in the current world and domestic political climate?
·       What can we do?

Sylvia Boyes, Richard Wilcocks (Chair), Ingrid Sharp
Sylvia Boyes started the evening by exploring the origins and meanings of red and white poppies and she freely and frankly shared her own pacifist convictions with us. She explained how red poppies were originally sold by women in Northern France as a means of raising money and how their use gradually spread. Today they are still used as a fundraising device for ex-servicemen and their families (this later provoked a discussion on how poorly this country has always looked after its ex-servicemen and women) but in her view they are now being increasingly surrounded by militarism and because of that she feels she can no longer wear both a red and white poppy as she once did.

She explained how the Co-operative Women's Guild made and sold white poppies in 1933 before its wider adoption and promulgation by the Peace Pledge Union. The white poppy is a symbol of peace and the search for an alternative to war and was never intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War - a war in which many of the white poppy supporters lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers - but as a challenge to the continuing drive to war.

Movingly, Sylvia said she would willingly remember the soldiers at the cenotaph but without the military paraphernalia.

Ingrid Sharp explored the anti war movement in Germany, both before and during WW1, revealing how a robust movement pre-war (comprised of groups such as the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP), German Women’s groups and other Christian and pacifist groups), changed once the war, which was presented as necessary to defend the German way of life, started. This was because of determined censorship and because, once war was declared, people and political parties (the SDP was one of them) then focussed on supporting the war effort. However some anti war efforts did continue, often via international connections (e.g. the International Congress of Women at The Hague in 1915) but its voice remained small. There was also no provision for conscientious objectors although there was some unofficial tolerance of those who wanted to undertake non-combatant roles.  It was interesting to hear the German perspective and this was re-enforced during the discussion by a German member of the audience who explained how in Germany remembrance (which mainly concerns WW2 and the holocaust) is focussed on peace.

In the ensuing discussion opinions ranged from those who said that ‘sometimes you have to fight for something’ to those who saw pacifism as the only rational way forward. The discussion was passionate, respectful and wide ranging and it was a privilege to take part. The audience comments below speak for themselves.

Audience comments
1.     Ingrid and Sylvia were good speakers. Well chaired by Richard. Nice informal group.

2.     Both speakers gave very interesting presentations. The first speaker concentrated with personal fervor on her campaign for the selling of white poppies, arising partly from her Quaker convictions. Ingrid sharp from Leeds Univ. gave a detailed account of WW1 as it was seen in Germany, where ideas of ‘pacifist resistance’ were taboo. The short lectures then promoted an intense discussion among members of the audience, many of whom had deep personal views on WWI and war in general. An excellent start to the new Festival of Ideas (and fine closing event for the very successful 2014 LitFest).

3.     Good idea as a topic for discussion. Ingrid Sharp’s presentation was superb, do bring her back to talk on other topics. Some people (a few) seemed to dominate the discussion.

4.     A very interesting debate and positive start to the Festival of Ideas. 

5.     Just to say that I thought that this was a really good discussion. Also I hope that Headingley Festival of Ideas will become a regular event. One issue that could be considered is whether the time is right for a big push to eliminate nuclear weapons, which can never serve any useful purpose.

6.     Interesting and lively debate.

7.     Interesting information on something I’d never come across i.e. white poppies. Great to have that opportunity.

8.     War is not inevitable. There are alternative ways of solving problems. Do what you can, where you are, with what you have got.

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