This is the second in a short series of posts about the Historical Association Conference 2019, held in Chester in May.

The first general pathway session that I attended was given by Dr Tim Grady on ‘German Jews, the First World War and its Devastating Aftermath’. 

Gorlitz War Memorial is illustrative of German Jewish history in the aftermath of World War I.  It was erected in 1921 but it was later destroyed in the run up to World War II; the destroyed memorial was left in place but they recently replaced it with a new once.  The memorial shows the scale of Jewish participation in the First World War, and also tells us about the scale of loss from Jewish communities – 25 Jews from Gorlitz alone died in the war. But it also shows that German Jews were also heavily involved in the memorialisation of the war and finally it tells us about the rise of persecution between the wars as the memorial was destroyed.

Dr Tim Grady

Dr Grady asked why German Jews wanted to be involved in the First World War?  Many Jews and many other Germans didn’t support the conflict and opposed the war.  Once the war did start in early August, the picture changes to an image of total support.  German Jews rushed to volunteer.  They had good reason to be supportive – the war was against Russia which was at the time renowned for its anti-Semitic attacks.

The Kaiser declared that he only recognised ‘Germans’; not parties, not divisions.  This was a boost for German Jews who felt they had never been seen as proper Germans up to that point.  Moreover, no matter how they were seen by others, they saw themselves as Germans, so they wanted to defend their country.

Dr Grady argued that we can see the foundations of total war in the conflict.  Everyone in Germany would have been effected, and Jews were no exception.  They had little choice over this.  Nonetheless, they did their best to assist in the militarisation of the home front: they turned over buildings for hospitals; the Cologne Jewish community took in Belgian refugees; and it was Walter Rathenau, a Jew, who took steps to ensure that raw materials and food supplies were available, with his work central to the organisation of wartime supplies.  Jews also produced a lot of German propaganda. One example was Ernst Lissauer, who wrote the ‘hymn of hate’ against England, which was satirised in Punch.

There was, however, more to the war than just Germany defending its borders.  German Jews were fairly opposed to expansion for the sake of it, but they could see some sort of logic to an expansionist war because the more the military moved eastwards so the more Jews came under German control.  These were large areas with an east European Jewish population within them.  So a logic started to form that it would be an opportunity to rescue them from the Russians. 

Nevertheless, anti-Semitism was a defining aspect of the conflict.  This was a form of continuity from before to after the war, so maybe the Jews were naïve in thinking that the war would get rid of anti-Semitism.  The other question is whether the war exacerbated the problem, because the suffering and length of the conflict had a big impact.  Once food shortages began in 1915, Germans began to look for someone to blame.  People start pointing the finger at different regions, the establishment, women, and the Jewish communities.  Jews were targeted because they are seen to be shirking, not doing their duty, or profiteering.  From 1916 the archives contain anonymous letters to the war ministry ‘making them aware’ of Jews who weren’t fighting.  That summer the war ministry counted the numbers of Jews who were fighting so they could prove the nay sayers wrong.  But they weren’t counting Protestants or Catholics so it was in itself an anti-Semitic act.  It is sometimes seen as an indication of the change in attitudes, towards the Jews. But as Grady pointed out, this didn’t change their actual involvement in the conflict.

The fact that Germany lost the war left difficult legacies.  Dr Grady suggested that we need to examine the mismatch between the end of the war and people’s expectations.  There was no excitement or joy – it was more resignation.  This was a contrast to the way the war had been fought and the belief that a unified Germany would achieve great things.  There had been so much sacrificed for the war effort but attempts to grow Germany had failed.   There is no doubt that Jews made a complete contribution to the war effort, yet they start to be blamed very quickly for the problems at the war’s end.  There are soon claims that they shirked, profiteered, or were disloyal.  The finger of blame for the war’s failure points to the Jews – they stabbed the country in the back.

The horror of this is that German Jews had sacrificed themselves, they had shaped the war experience, they had set up the possibility of total war, and created propaganda which shaped people’s expectations.  In the end it was they who were reshaped as outsiders. 

Over lunch, the branches and members committee (of which I am vice chair) held a ‘meet and greet’ for HA branch members.  It was good to meet up with several old friends and make some new ones, and we had some interesting conversation about how branches work in different places.

The first lecture after lunch was from Prof Elaine Chalus on ‘Gender, Place and Power in Controverted 18th Century Elections’.    This was really interesting, as I know less than I should about the 18th century at the best of times, and even less about how elections worked in practice. Controverted elections are those which were fought all the way up to parliament.

Prof Chalus pointed out that the depiction of the election processions in the 18th century describe lots of participation. They were like celebrations, with processions and banner carrying which included the involvement of women and children. Women were not, as has been suggested, just part of the window dressing – they were part of the organisation, and in some places women could make their husbands into voters.  They sewed banners, provided food and benefitted financially from the increased business in towns at the time.  But they were also canvassed by candidates and were presumed to have influence over their husbands votes.  They were believed to be open to flattery and persuasion, or cowed into acquiescence (although they sometimes stood up against it). 

Although they themselves didn’t or vote, women could shape the outcome of elections.  The more hotly contested the election, the more likely it was that women would be involved.  For women of the political elite there were two aspects:

  • socio-political – going to court, hosting dinners, visiting, and marrying for political ends;
  • directly political – serving as their husbands agents, running election committees, canvassing, standing in for men who were away.

What I had never realised was that where the vote was attached to property, if a women owned the property technically she could vote, but she didn’t and appointed a proxy.  This meant that women might be canvassed for their proxy vote. Prof Chalus then gave examples of cases where women’s influence really mattered because the elections went all the way through the contest. 

Prof Elaine Chalus

Canvassing was the crucial point of contact.  There were public or personal canvases.  Public canvasses took place early in the campaign, to introduce the candidates and see if there were enough support for different candidates to contest the election all the way to the polls.

After a processional entry, there would be introductions, speeches, and a procession round town.  They mopped up the easy votes – those who ‘plumped for’ or promised their 2 votes to one candidate were given a sweetener.  But the more difficult votes were pushed for by agents, through private canvassing, often in people’s homes.  They were the most intense and intimidating experiences, not least because sometimes the canvassers visited when they knew the men were out. 

Prof Chalus used the 1830 Taunton election as a case study.  Taunton was a potwalloper borough where everyone who wasn’t on the poor relief had a vote. The franchise went right down the social scale to include artisans and traders.  The borough had 2 MPs. In 1830, we can recapture some female voices and we can tell that they knew how the system worked. They thought of some votes as theirs, in that their husband had one, they ‘had’ the other.  They also know they might be intimidated if they don’t vote the way the canvasser wants.  She argued that we can use the records of controverted political campaigns to help restore the personal dimension of 18th century elections.  They bring voices back from those who are otherwise voiceless.

Friday evening’s keynote was given by Dr Yasmin Khan on ‘The Raj at War’.  This session had resonances with Tim Grady’s lecture on the German Jews in the First World War, as it was based on commemorative work which wants to restore black and Asian voices to the narrative. Dr Khan pointed out that the publishers’ first version of her book had a man in a spitfire on the cover.  She challenged the design, saying that she wanted to emphasise minority voices, and the published version now has an Imperial War Museum poster of two Indian women in the Home Guard.  

Dr Yasmin Khan

Although the Japanese swept across Asia into Burma, India itself was not invaded.  Many soldiers from all over the world mobilised in India ready for the fight in Burma.  George Orwell, like many, feared that India might fall, and for 10 weeks in 1942 it became the centre of the war.  At the same time, however, the Quit India campaign was working to force independence before they aided the war effort.  So during this time, many of the Congress Party including Gandhi and Nehru were imprisoned, to be released at the end of the war.

Dr Khan described how 2.5 million men volunteered for the Indian army, making it the largest ever volunteer army.  Like Tim Grady, she asked why they joined up? 

  • In some areas there was a family tradition of joining the British army and these areas were nurtured by the British by ensuring the fields were irrigated and education was provided.  But in the 1940s they needed more men so the recruiters had to go to other areas too.
  • A way of securing independence from their background.
  • For many, it was the salary which was sent straight back to the family.  An army job came with meals too.

Meanwhile, women served on the home front, even down mines and building roads with picks and shovels.

The Indian famine was caused by inflation as prices rose and wages didn’t keep up. Then a major cyclone in Calcutta wiped out the rice harvest. Although there had been shortages before, this one was different because, due to the war, they couldn’t import rice from Burma.  People started to hoard, and because there was no rationing until 1944 there was no way of equalising supply. Churchill was not keen on sending supplies to relieve the problem, and Dr Khan described the attitudes behind preventing the relief of the famine as ‘a horrible cocktail’.


Dr Khan then turned to the experiences of individuals, noting that for British officers and soldiers we have many documents, but its difficult to find rank and file soldiers for whom you can trace a lot of documents across their life, or even across the war.  She presented 4 case studies:

  1. Aruna Asaf Ali joined the Congress, but was not rounded up in 1942 with the other congress leaders because she was not seen as troublesome even though her husband was arrested.  This radicalised her and she turned to violence with the Quit India campaign, conducting acts of sabotage.  Her husband was horrified because he followed Gandhi, but she became a popular hero, working against the war effort.
  2. Clive Branson was a communist,  and a very vocal anti-fascist, from an elite family.  He was conscripted and sent to India.  He is interesting because, like of lots of men from Britain, he saw things that he wouldn’t ordinarily have seen.   He wrote home, and his letters were collected and published by his friends when he was killed on the Japanese front in 1944.  He saw the problems with colonialism, and wrote about the maltreatment of servants, men visiting brothels, and the effects of the famine, but he was also a soldier fighting for that colonial power.
  3. Bhajan Singh was court-martialled and sent to the Andaman Islands penal colony.
  4. Walchand Hirachand seized opportunity to make money. He had a lot of ships so turned them over to the army to ship troops and materials. He managed to gain a $4million dollar investment into an aircraft factory, yet he constantly complained that he was overlooked in favour of British suppliers.  He was a supporter of independence and siphoned off some of the money to support the independence campaign.

Dr Khan concluded by remarking that although we think we know everything on the Second World War, there are whole areas that are untapped which can take us beyond celebrating the soldiers – there are contradictions and complicated relationships with empire which need exploring.