A Crusade For Peace: George Lansbury’s Worldwide Trip for Peace, 1936-37

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George Lansbury

George Lansbury was perhaps the greatest idealist of his generation. He was an absolute pacifist who believed sincerely that war was the greatest evil ever to fall on mankind. During the 1930s, as fascism reared its ugly head and began to threaten peace, Lansbury clung even further to his pacifist beliefs. In 1936 and 1937, he engaged in an extra-party crusade for peace and disarmament, nonplused by the darkening world situation. Despite being an old man (77 years old), he made several worldwide trips pursuing peace, meeting presidents as well as dictators, in a frantic, last-ditch effort for peace.

On February 5, 1936, he moved a motion in Parliament [1] that declared:

That this House reaffirms its profound belief in the futility of war, views with grave concern the world-wide preparations for war, and is of opinion that, through the League of Nations, His Majesty’s Government should make an immediate effort for the summoning of a new international conference to… establish the peace of the world on a sure foundation. [2]

In the debate, Lansbury insisted that the British Government

The greatest imperialist Power in the world, should go to Geneva [the League of Nations] and say: “Let us give up all this tomfoolery about guns and poison gas; let us get rid of all questions about armaments and get down to the bedrock of why we want to arm and why the nations want to pile up arms in the way they are doing. [3]

He concluded his speech, saying:

Finally, I would say this. War is futile. War is hopeless and inefficient in settling anything, because it is an action against the law of morals, of religion, and of God. It does not matter how we twist it round and talk of wars of defence and wars of offence…. [4]

In the debate that followed, Lansbury’s position was attacked by Mr. Barnays, a Conservative MP, who asked him:

Is there anything for which the right hon. Gentleman [Lansbury] would put up a show of resistance? There appears to be nothing. I am not sneering at the right hon. Gentleman; I admire enormously his sincerity and courage –

Mr. Lansbury: I do not want you to admire it.

Mr. Barnays: I think it is true that there is nothing for which the right hon. Gentleman would fight.

Mr. Lansbury: I have made it clear that there is nothing for which I would take the life of another human being. There are other methods of fighting (other) than killing somebody, and I would not in any circumstances do it. [5]

After 1935, Lansbury was singularly driven in his pursuit of peace. Along with [Anglican] Canon H.L.R. “Dick” Sheppard, he founded the Peace Pledge Union in late 1935, which grew immediately to become the largest pacifist organization in the country, boasting a membership of several hundred thousands within a few months. [6] Two months later, when Sheppard died unexpectedly, Lansbury became the organization’s president. He was instrumental in mobilizing the largest peace movement that Britain had ever seen, which became a political factor which the National Government could not ignore. [7]

In April and May of 1936, Lansbury went on a speaking tour in the United States, visiting 27 cities in six weeks, quite an accomplishment for a man of 75. [8] At the end of May, he met President Roosevelt, who talked about holding a world conference after the 1936 Presidential Elections, so long as the major European powers attended. Lansbury promised Roosevelt: “I will get it [European participation] for you.” [9]

From America, Lansbury continued on to France, where he met Léon Blum, the socialist Popular Front Prime Minister. Then he went on to Belgium, and the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. [10]

Lansbury had done more than any other pacifist to capture Britain’s attention, indeed the world’s. [11] Dr. Alfred Salter [12] exclaimed that “George Lansbury is doing more for real peace than all the official politicians of all the camps put together.” [13] However, he had not yet visited the dictators. They were the ones who were causing much of the renewed warmongering that he was struggling to avoid.

In March 1937 the problem was rectified when Hitler invited Lansbury to see him in April. Without any hesitation, Lansbury accepted. On April 19, 1937, the two met face to face for about two and a half hours. [14] In the interview, which Hitler demanded be kept secret, the two casually talked about world issues and war and peace. Lansbury gushed afterwards:

There was no long speech from him. It was a real conversation. We discussed the whole gamut of subjects over two hours and a quarter. The whole talk was as satisfactory as those with Blum and Roosevelt. Hitler treated the interview very seriously. I think he really wants peace. [15]

Lansbury was one of many who were fooled by Hitler’s act during 1937. Nineteen Thirty-Seven was the year when Hitler played the role of peacemaker. [16] It was a year in which no aggressive action was taken by him [save covert operations in Spain]. It was the proverbial “lull before the storm.” Lansbury was conned into believing that Hitler wanted peace, that he was sincere. Later, Lansbury even wrote that:

I think history will record Herr Hitler as one of the great men of our time. He appeared to me to be a man free of personal ambition, not at all ashamed of his humble start in life, simple in his mode of living…. I am told that he has no love of pomp or show, [!!!] is a total abstainer, non-smoker, vegetarian, and lives in the country rather than a town. He is a bachelor and likes children and old people…. In spite of the past, it seemed to me that he could listen to reason, and I felt strong enough to believe that Christianity in its purest sense might have a chance with him. [17]

It is considered incredible today that anyone could have actually believed as Lansbury did, but he did. In July he went to Rome, where he met Mussolini, and again pleaded for peace. He remarked afterwards that “the cynics might say that Signor Mussolini’s assurance [of peace] was only to “cod” a silly old man, but [he preferred] to take people at their face value.” [18]

Lansbury doggedly pursued the mirage of peace, even trying to seek it from those, like Mussolini and Hitler, who desired war. This pursuit was indicative of the fervent, but many times unrealistic, idealism which had permeated his life up to that point. This pursuit would lead to many of his friends watching “with dismay as his pacifism drove him to even greater muddle and confusion.” [19]

Footnotes:

  1. [1] The prerequisite for initiating parliamentary debate.
  2. [2] 308 H.C. Debs., 5 February 1936, col. 209.
  3. [3] Ibid., col. 214.
  4. [4] Ibid., cols. 215-16.
  5. [5] Ibid., col. 234.
  6. [6] Jonathan Schneer, George Lansbury: Lives on the Left, (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), p. 179.
  7. [7] Ibid., pp. 177, 180.
  8. [8] Ibid., p. 180.
  9. [9] Ibid., p. 181, quoting Fenner Brockway, Bermondsey Story: The Life of Alfred Salter, (London: 1949), p. 198.
  10. Salter was a fellow Labour pacifist who accompanied Lansbury on his speaking tour.
  11. [10] Ibid.
  12. [11] Ibid.
  13. [12] See note #9.
  14. [13] Ibid., quoting Brockway, p. 198.
  15. [14] George Lansbury, My Search For Peace, (London: Michael Joseph, Ltd., 1938), p. 140.
  16. [15] Ibid., p. 187.
  17. [16] Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, 3rd ed., (NY: Harper Perennial, 1991), p. 199.
  18. [17] Lansbury, p. 141.
  19. [18] Scheer, p. 190, quoting Lansbury, The Manchester Guardian, July 19, 1937.
  20. [19] Michael R. Gordon, Conflict and Consensus in Labour’s Foreign Policy, 1914-65, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969), p. 68, quoting Raymond Postgate, The Life of George Lansbury, (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1951), p. 308.
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