Charity, Racism and War

Since the Woolwich murder, there have been worrying scenes and disturbances as the English Defence League has sought to become associated with Help the Heroes. Such political difficulties and controversies are nothing new to the voluntary sector. Offering some historical perspective, Peter Grant takes a look back to the activities of the Anti-German League during the First World War.

The horrific death of Drummer Lee Rigby has triggered a particularly unfortunate backlash from certain elements in British Society.  Predictably the English Defence League have attempted to exploit the situation but their attempt to ally themselves to the Help for Heroes charity has been firmly rejected.

The circumstances have reminded me of the responses 100 years ago to German ‘atrocities’ during the First World War. The execution of Edith Cavell and, especially, the sinking of the Lusitania, 98 years ago this week, led to some violent anti-German demonstrations, notably in Liverpool, Manchester and the East End of London. German-owned or even German-sounding shops were attacked and looted. Though lasting several days and leading to further government restrictions on ‘aliens’ including increased internment the Lusitania riots were perhaps untypical. Nevertheless a number of more right-wing elements attempted to further exploit this anti-German feeling. Two ‘Anti-German Leagues’ were established in order to combat what one of them described as ‘Teutonic leprosy.’

The more ‘respectable’ version was the British Anti-German League based in Birmingham. A number of their supporters including Admiral Charles Beresford, Dr Ellis Powell (editor of the Financial News), Joseph Havelock Wilson (sometime Liberal MP and founder of the National Amalgamated Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union) and the future Conservative Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks later began the British Empire Union, which was one of the bodies that later metamorphosed into the British Union of Fascists so it would be interesting to see how its supporters later reconciled support for Hitler with their earlier anti-Germanic pronouncements.

The other was founded by E.J. Blasir Chatterton. He sought a million members though only achieved fewer than 5,000. In reality Chatterton was not a patriot but a fraudster. In April 1916, he was declared bankrupt and the following month was charged with fraud. He was tried and found guilty at the Old Bailey in July. It was then revealed that he had previous convictions for sending indecent literature through the post, a fact he failed to point out in his appeals, and he was sentenced to six months hard labour.

It is vital in difficult times to reject the toxic xenophobia of charlatans and fraudsters and the prompt response of Help for Heroes emphasises that they are fully aware of how important retaining both dignity and social solidarity are when we are tempted to react to terrorist violence. As the work of the vast majority of charities during the First World showed positive support for our armed forces and rejection of jingoist propaganda is the surest way of achieving victory.

Recent events have been reported in the Daily Mail, the Huffington Post and elsewhere.
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