In People Power: Fighting for Peace, the Imperial War Museum London presents the UK’s first major exhibition to explore the evolution of the anti-war movement from the First World War to the present day. Craig Austin presents a very personal response to the exhibition, drawing parallels between the source material and today’s political and cultural mood.
‘You dirty sniffling coward – don’t dare to call yourself British. You forefit [sic] any claim on this country’ – Anonymous hate mail sent to WWII conscientious objector, Reginald Porcas
It feels depressingly pertinent to be visiting an exhibition dedicated to the power of protest on the same morning that the nation’s evidently most influential (and undoubtedly most mean-spirited) newspaper has actively sought to vilify half of the UK’s population as ‘saboteurs’, a seemingly treacherous rump of repellent disobedience that demands to be not just defeated but ‘crushed’.
A mania has descended upon the nation. A toxic strain of contemporary McCarthyist fantasy that makes relics of youth and convinces men with gossamer-soft hands – those who have never raised their spindly fists in anger, let alone been in an actual fight – that they are somehow warriors. Like an impetuous and insecure teenager who has failed to convince even himself of the preposterous corner into which he has backed himself the nation’s feverish default setting would now appear to be to lash out in response to the merest hint of either slight or criticism; to mindlessly vilify and suppress those who would seek to rein in the most extreme tendencies of this national self-immolation.
It is with this unfortunate and ugly contemporary backdrop – and, let’s not forget, with the very real prospect of a nuclear-inspired skirmish never being far from recent headlines – that the Imperial War Museum challenges us to explore how peace movements have influenced perceptions of war and conflict throughout the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, a sobering commemoration of those who have been courageous enough to say ‘no’.
From conscientious objectors to peace camps People Power: Fighting for Peace painstakingly brings to life the stories and resilience of impassioned people over the past one hundred years and the struggles and personal sacrifices they have withstood in support of the enduring anti-war cause. It is manifestly a labour of love for its curators, one that in equal measures is both inspirational and heart-breaking, and a defiantly bold move for the Imperial War Museum to have made in this, its centenary year. This is no mere history of pacifism however, seeking as it does to explore the often ambiguous strands of conviction that the prospect of military conflict can generate, a hand-written letter by Winnie the Pooh author A A Milne outlining his struggle to reconcile pacifism with the rise of Hitler being especially poignant.
It is an exhibition that is both delicately pitched and teasingly provocative, not least in its presentation of a 1935 general election poster depicting a small child whose tiny face is encased within a gas mask. Its stark and unembellished slogan, ‘ Stop War! Vote Labour’, referencing as it did the growing fear of war and the general rise in peace sentiment in the mid-1930s. A rallying call now permanently shrouded by the bloody folly of the war in Iraq, an all-consuming conflict whose venomous legacy fittingly concludes People Power not with a full stop but with a bleak and ominous question mark.
The urgency and relevance of this material, over three hundred objects and artefacts that take in paintings, literature, posters, placards, banners, badges and music revealing the breadth of creativity of anti-war protest movements, is depressingly imperative. The mass denigration and abuse of those prepared to take a personal stand against actions they believe to be against the best interests of the nation, the wider world, and future generations is once more alive and kicking; the sulphurous by-product of an emerging new world order of craven snake-oil pedlars and their reptilian enablers, one whose stock of shameless mendacity and inflammatory rhetoric has never been higher.
As a man who has never actively sought to bear arms, this writer recently came close to reaching for a tranquiliser gun at the ludicrous spectacle of a former Conservative party leader publicly discussing the seemingly real possibility of engaging in armed conflict with a European partner. A farcical and inflammatory intervention on Michael Howard’s part that nevertheless acted like reactionary catnip for the more deranged elements of the national press who immediately scuttled off to their dusty archive of ‘Jane’s Fighting Ships’ like the 1950s schoolboys whose starchy school uniforms they’ve never truly discarded; their fantasy arsenal trained not just upon an imaginary foe across the water, but equally those within their own country who stubbornly refuse to drink from the government’s fountain of state-endorsed Kool-Aid.
As I explore the more disconcerting elements of People Power – the smearing of Reginald Porcas as ‘a skunk’ and a ‘white livered cur’, the vilification and abuse suffered by the women of Greenham Common – it becomes more and more evident that the idea of what it means to be a ‘troll’ is hardly a contemporary one dependent on possession of a Twitter account. To make a stand against war, against The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice, as the exhibition’s powerful and all-too prescient 1934 painting by C R W Nevinson would have it, has always carried with it an inherent existential conflict – one that has poisoned the waters of public debate since time immemorial; the notion of what it means to be a patriot.
For Britons, this has little to do with democracy, nothing to do with the supposed ‘will of the people’, and is often predictably reflective of the nation’s collective failure to relinquish the historical trappings of its empirical past and a fallacious in-built sense of national pre-eminence – it is with no degree of irony that with time the ever-progressive IWM is far more likely to relinquish the ‘imperial’ element of its self-image than the nation is.
People Power provides us with the context of, and warning from, history that today’s politicians would do well to heed. At a time when the mere hint of political and/or personal defiance lays itself open to charges of treachery and betrayal, it is both moving and humbling to revisit the history of those whose creative expression changed not just mind-sets but also the course of history itself.
At the point of the exhibition’s exit visitors are invited to add a personal Post-It note to a collage of contributions intended to reflect what ‘fighting for peace’ means to those who have reflected upon the cultural mood of each era. Amongst the various deifications of Jeremy Corbyn and the hand-drawn images of Gerald Holtom’s inimitable nuclear disarmament symbol I am struck by the handwriting of a small child, a child who wishes to make clear that ‘my friend ELLIOT thinks nuclear war is bad’. A pencil-scrawled primal scream in the faces of those who hold his very future in their cynical and impetuous hands: ‘LISTEN TO ELLIOT!’ it implores.
People Power: Fighting for Peace runs at the IWM London until 28 August 2017
All images appear with the kind permission of the Imperial War Museum