Guest blogger this week is Helen Kay, from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). She is writing about the recent centenary of the iconic 1919 Zurich meeting of WILPF and her visit to the TUC Library.
Two weeks ago I found an amazing box of original newsletters in the TUC Library at London Metropolitan University – an assorted collection of newsletters of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) 1919 – 1924. I read them eagerly before participating in the 2019 re-enactment of 1919 WILPF Congress in the same hall, Glockenhof, in Zurich, 100 years later.
In 1919 the political leaders of the world were meeting in Paris to formulate a Peace Treaty to formally bring an end to the First World War. Supported by hundreds of civil servants, they lived in the luxury of the best hotels, meeting to discuss where to draw lines on the maps, setting new national boundaries. Civil servants listened to the many petitioners seeking support for their claims of self-determination, trusting in the 14 points articulated by President Wilson and adopted as the basis for Armistice in November 1918.
The four powerful leaders of the triumphant nations retreated to their private rooms to negotiate settlements – Clemenceau of France, Lloyd George of Britain, Woodrow Wilson of USA and Orlando of Italy were careful to protect their own interests in the complex negotiations. The German people were not represented: the leaders of all the defeated nations were excluded from the Peace talks.
The suffragist women, who had met in 1915 in The Hague to condemn the slaughter of the war and to propose mediation to bring the war to an end, had planned to meet at the same time and in the same place as the peace negotiations. However, they were unable to meet in Paris as people of the defeated nations were prohibited from travelling in France – so the Internationally minded women met in a neutral country, even as the political leaders appeared unaware of the hypocrisy of holding ‘peace talks’ which excluded the defeated protagonists.
When the WILPF women met in Zurich in May 1919 they were shocked to hear of the starvation of peoples in the defeated countries, and see the evidence in the bodies of the emaciated German and Austrian women – they sent a telegram to Paris, urging that the food blockade be lifted immediately.
And when the terms of the Peace Treaty were published, the women sent another telegram criticising the terms of the Treaty: the women said it would bring ‘discord and animosities all over Europe which can only lead to future wars’. To reinforce their criticisms, they sent six international delegates (including Charlotte Despard and Chrystal Macmillan of Britain) to lobby the men of the Paris Peace Conference. But the women’s resolutions and advocacy of mediation to reach a just peace settlement were ignored.
The women in Zurich last week, in May 2019, were determined that the work of these brave women should be acknowledged and honoured. A gathering of 200 international women met to commemorate the centenary of the WILPF 1919 Congress in Zurich. In 2019 we remembered the resolutions passed by the women in 1919, and sadly acknowledged that there is still much work to do as militarism and self-interest continues to hold sway in political and diplomatic thinking – and little thought is being paid to planning for the likely upheavals and movements of people due to climate change.
How did these WILPF documents arrive in TUC Library? Perhaps, they originally belonged to Ellen Wilkinson who was a member of WILPF and one of the British delegates in Zurich in 1919.
20 May 2019
For more details of 2019 WILPF project to commemorate 1919, see https://womenvotepeace.com