From Pacifist to Panzer-killer, and Onwards
by Gwydion M. Williams
You shouldn’t need to learn about your own father from someone else’s biography. But the events of the 1930s that culminated World War were traumatic. It was not clear until years afterwards that a much better new world had emerged from the destruction. A better world if you were not part of the old European ruling and empire-running classes: most of those people moaned about it at the time and those still alive have not stopped moaning.
Dai Smith’s Raymond Williams, Class Warrior tells my father’s story up to 1961, and beginning with his family’s background. His father – my grandfather – was a railway signalman whose signal-box was in the little village of Pandy. He had a garden that was almost a small farm. Interestingly, my father created two characters in his novel Border Country out of his father’s varied life. Not just the dying signalman but also the rural entrepreneur, which was what Harry Williams actually was. I hadn’t realised that and it’s one of many interesting insights in the book. (The historic part tells of the situation of three railway workers in a rural signal-box who do decide to join the General Strike of 1926.)
My father grew up on the borders of Wales and it was a fairly equal society. The local small farmers might seem well-off in terms of the value of their property, but that property was also their living and their whole life. Something I heard him say several times was that they were on a level with his father, though on paper they could seem rich. Owning your own ‘means of production’ is very different from owning the same amount of property but getting your income from something else.
My father showed talents very early. The local school had a Welsh Nationalist outlook, but very different from what you have had since the 1960s. Welsh nationalism as he encountered it then seemed backward-looking and a lost cause. There was a different spirit at the grammar school in the nearby town of Abergavenny, where he went next. This was a school that fed bright pupils into the British education system, with Oxford and Cambridge as the ‘twin peaks’.
One feature that seems ordinary in Britain is that the Welsh saw their gifted school-children as champions and made sacrifices to help them. If some got absorbed into ruling-class values, a lot more did not. And all of them were an advertisement for the nation. This was true of Scots and Irish as well as Welsh, modified by Catholicism for the Irish and by the desire to establish a distinct identity. But always the impulse was positive and the educated were a source of pride.
A weak and poor nation or minority group can rise in status if it values education: if it doesn’t it won’t. It’s also true of part of the English working class, but by no means all of it. Since Thatcher we have seen the spread of a weak and dismal outlook where the highest aspirations are to be a successful entertainer, sports-person, wheeler-dealer or crook. The notion that you could actually control your own destiny is dying out among ordinary English, though one can always hope for a recovery. Globally, nations are doing well if they have learned that lesson, or if it was always part of their tradition. Note also that it isn’t really a European invention: China had competitive exams as a doorway into the secular elite, long before any other state had it. But in Europe, there was no coherent ideology that could satisfy most people.
In Wales the Chapel / Nonconformist tradition was strong back in the 1920s – its disappearance since then and the vanishing also of English Nonconformism is one of the great untold tales of 20th century Britain. But at no time did the Chapel tradition have control, many were attached to the Welsh branch of the Church of England. Both my father and his father were closer to Church than to Chapel, got on well with the local clergyman but were not believers. The story of moderate Christianity in Britain seems little known to those who were not part of it: easier to make a dramatic tale about extremists who had much less influence. The book says a bit but there is a lot more that could be said.
My father was sufficiently influenced by Christianity to be a pacifist as a teenager, influenced by the widespread revulsion after the terrible experience of World War One. Christian pacifist was influential, based on what the original Christians wrote and believed. (The self-styled fundamentalists in the USA follow the direct opposite of actual Biblical teaching, on this and much else, something I plan to detail elsewhere.)
My father was sufficiently clever and successful to get to Cambridge, but it was a bad time to be young. Everyone found their lives overshadowed by the rise of Nazism and by their clear intent to fight another war. There was also good reasons to think it was the end of Western civilisation. Good reason to think that International Communism was the best chance of bringing something decent through the era of incompetent old imperialists and brutal new fascists. Fascism was intent on rolling back most of the European Enlightenment, rooting out the notion of ‘Universal Humanity’ that was the Enlightenment’s best idea (however imperfect in practice). Imperfect practice was also the feature of the incompetent old imperialists – definitely including the USA, which had a solid hegemony over places like Cuba and the Philippines, a looser but definite rule over most of Latin America. Then and up to the 1960s, the USA was firmly racist, with official segregation in the South and informal separation in the North. Meantime Britain saw the Empire as central, at least its ruling class did. Only the Communist Party, part of the Labour Party and some marginal centrists and rightists rejected this vision
Most Tories had been quite happy to go along with the rise of Nazi Germany, you could even say they encouraged it. A notable junior among the appeasers were future Tory Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas Home – Neville Chamberlain’s Parliamentary Private Secretary when he sold Czechoslovakia to Hitler. Another was Quintin Hogg, the pro-appeasement Tory candidate at a famous Oxford by-election in 1938, and prominent in Tory politics well into the Thatcher years. That was mainstream Britain in the 1930s, and with Labour weak and divided, the Communist Party looked like the only solid alternative. I won’t make any concessions to the silly ex-Leftists who now sneer at the choices made by people living through those dark times. Particularly since those who’ve ended up influential have combined a bunch of evil intentions with a gross incapability to realise their schemes. Their various faults happen to have cancelled each other out, but this bunch – much wider and more diverse than just the mad little NeoCons – do not merit being taken seriously as thinkers.
My father joined the Communist Party at Cambridge, and his most notable contribution was working on a pamphlet about the Russo-Finnish War, along with Eric Hobsbawm. There has been a remarkable about of tittle-tattle about this, combined with a puzzling failure to actually put the document up on the web for all to see – copies have been found, even though Hobsbawm seemed to think it lost. I’ve not yet been able to get hold of a copy, but I think the main point was a suggestion that joining the Russo-Finnish War was not a good idea at a time when Britain was supposed to be fighting Nazi Germany.
Britain planning to join Finland against Russia seems crazy in the light of the alliance that actually happened, the Soviet Union becoming the force that actually broke Nazism. But there were plenty of Britons at the time who thought the antagonism with Nazi Germany was a bit of an accident whereas the antagonism with the Soviet Union was fundamental. Everyone who’s looked seriously at the question agrees that Hitler was happy for the British Empire to continue, albeit under Germany’s general hegemony. Britain could have had something like the deal that Portugal had from the early 19th century, with Portugal running its own global Empire but on the understanding that they were under Britain’s protection and did not work against British interests. Britain at the time would have seen such a deal as humiliating if they were the inferior member of the partnership. Getting involved in the Finnish War would have made some sense if it were seen as a possible stepping-stone to peace with Germany on a more-or-less equal basis.
Russia had been defeated by Poland in 1920. Poland had fallen to Nazi Germany in less than a month, even though the Germans had to keep a lot of their army in the west facing France and Britain (which did nothing at the time). It was far from obvious in 1940 that the Soviet Union would be the main force in defeating fascism and would emerge much stronger than Britain and on a level with the USA.
There were other issues besides Russia. Dai Smith tells of a debate in which my father was arguing that women should have the same rights as men. Arguing against was the curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum, and my father said that the man might better be an exhibit than a curator. Maybe ruder than you should be in academic debate, but it also anticipates modern attitudes, and the contrary view was far from marginal as late as the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn’t only left-wingers who argued for equality, but they were the vast bulk of those advocating equality and eventually making the society come into line.
Another issue was China, which had been attacked by Japan in 1937, with the West doing very little about it. My father had read Edgar Snow’s famous Red Star Over China. One of his arguments over Finland was that China was much more deserving of support. As it happened, Finland got through the war quite well, sharing with Italy the distinction of having fought on both sides and emerged allied with the victors. China emerged vastly damaged, though this had benefits because it discredited the useless Kuomintang regime and paved the way for Mao, who got China moving after centuries of stagnation. (There was no net economic growth under the Western-style Republic. Mao tripled the economy in the face of a hostile world and laid the foundations for success under later leaders.)
Back in 1940, my father had doubts about whether the immanent war would be justified, and in the end decided it was. But in 1941 he wrote what sounds like a very interesting short story, in which a Home Guard patrol and find a German survivor of a plane crash. The German describes the contradictions of war:
“A hero in my own country… But, over here, the symbol of everything to be hated… Because I cross a frontier… I change from hero to devil.”
My father was selected for an anti-tank regiment – tanks designed for destroying other tanks. His regiment was sent to France on the 23rd June 1944 – D-Day was 6th June and the fighting in Normandy was bitter and uncertain until the Allied break-out in mid-June. My father never said a lot about it, but it seems he wrote a lot at the time, a still-unpublished diary. Dai Smith quotes a remark he made much later, about “army discipline and the extraordinary sense it instils that the rest of the world outside your own unit cease to exist.” Also “you do function on a fighting animal level. I do not think you ever sort it out afterwards.” And “an army functions so much
Those were later reflections. Towards the end of 1944, he wrote to my mother “I didn’t date tell you at the time that on my second day in France I blew myself up on a mine, with only very slight effect.” That’s the nature of mines – pure chance. He described it to me once that you could be right next to a mine and be unhurt, or twenty feet away and killed by a flying fragment.
My father was a lieutenant in charge of a unit of four tank-killing tanks – two of which went missing after one incident: whether separated or destroyed he never was able to discover. He kept a diary about fights with the German army, portions of which are quoted in Dai Smith’s book. Without knowing a lot about the matter, it seems to me that the diary as a whole would be suitable for publication, maybe edited by someone who knows the military details. Combining that with his earlier and later writing on military matters could make a very interesting book. Current tastes are mostly for people well away from the actual operation of a military machine, though nominally part of it. A view as an independent-minded individual within the machine is much more significant, because it is there that wars are actually won or lost.
There’s a lot more, including his adjustment after the war and his long search for a way to say the things he wanted to say about life, eventually successful in Culture and Society which made his name and The Long Revolution which took him into new territories. I won’t try to summarise it, except to mention that while he was engaged in this quest, the Korean War happened and the army tried to make him rejoin the army. I’d been told about that and was under the impression he got off because he could point to the fact he’d already done a lot of fighting in Normandy. It seems he actually claimed at the time that he’d gone back to his earlier pacifism. He definitely wasn’t a pacifist later on, and I’d see nothing wrong with telling a pack of lies to people trying to send you half-way round the world to a war that has nothing to do with Britain. The pro-US Koreans were anyway mostly the people who’d been contentedly part of the Japanese Empire while Japan ruled them. Almost all of the anti-Japanese resistance was done by the people who ended up in North Korea, but that is another story. My father’s own part in those years is told in the biography, you should read it.
Raymond Williams A Warrior’s Tale by Dai Smith. Library of Wales, May 1st 2008.