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Emily Hobhouse: Pacifist and patriot


On 4 August 1914, a surge of patriotic fervour swept the nation, Germany was marching through Belgium: young men rushed into war. But not everyone was happy. Emily Hobhouse believed in her country. She believed in it as the leader that had kept the peace in Europe for a hundred years and she loved it dearly. She believed that it should do the right thing. She had strong ideas of what had to be done and she did not waver.

Some considered her a traitor for her actions but her country’s enemies never considered her anything other than English.

True, some officials in South Africa in the Anglo-Boer war 1899-1902 had considered her too sympathetic with the women whose homes had been destroyed in Lord Kitchener’s sweeps across the countryside. Thousands of homes had been burnt, including their contents, barns and equipment; stock had been captured or destroyed, and women and children herded into camps where conditions were so unpleasant that a quarter of the inhabitants, mainly children, died. Emily had gone to South Africa to bring relief but what she found made her realise that large scale improvements could only be had with an immense push from the home government in London. Finally a Ladies Commission was sent out and at last sufficient improvements were made that the death-rate fell.

Emily Hobhouse believed international disputes had to be solved through dialogue. In the journal she wrote following her remarkable journey to Belgium and Berlin in June 1916. She said:

‘Holding as I do, that War is not only wrong in itself, but a crude mistake I stand wholly outside its passions … My small means are devoted entirely to help non-combatants who suffer in consequence of war and in supporting every movement making for peace. I believe it useless to soften or civilise war – that there is no such thing as “civilised war”; there is war between civilised peoples certainly but as we now see that becomes more barbarous than war between barbarians. I believe that the only thing is to strike at the root of the Evil and demolish War itself as the great and impossible Barbarity…’

To Emily, war had to be seen as realism. One had to be truthful. Exaggerations by the press of atrocities said to have been committed by the advancing enemy in Belgium were not helpful. War needed no help. She wanted to see the places believed destroyed for herself and the picture of those wretched homes in South Africa was ever in her mind. It was in the cause of realism and truth that while in Switzerland in the Spring of 1916 she asked the German authorities to let her go to Belgium to give a clear and accurate account of the damage done. At the same time she wished to go to Berlin to see the conditions of the camp for interned British civilians to report on the conditions she would find, and she wished to see for herself the effect of the British food blockade on the German population. In her mind, if the hype could be taken out of the war it would make it easier for negotiations to start, to restore peace in Europe.

By June her request was granted. And she was able to do more. While in Berlin she saw the Foreign Minister, and realised that he was willing to talk peace – on humanitarian grounds. She produced a plan of how talks could get started without loss of face to which he agreed, but he did not want the British to know he had agreed as it could be taken as a sign of weakness. She returned to Britain in a fervour of excitement but try as she might she was unable to get the Government to listen to her and even her writing was turned against her. She was not imprisoned – or worse – as some hoped, but she had no opportunity to rebut the stigma that remained with her till her death. It was a noble effort. She deserved better.

By Jennifer Hobhouse Balme

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