My father, a pacifist who wanted Britain to lose the war
Nicholas Tucker recalls the tolerance afforded his family in wartime, even though his father claimed he would offer the Germans tea rather than resistance if they invaded
‘Irenounce war.” So read the slogan on our garage door in Petts Wood, south-east London. It was put there in 1939 by my father, an ardent pacifist, who proudly sported his PPU (Peace Pledge Union) badge after signing up in 1934. Excused from military service because he was in a reserved occupation, he volunteered for fire-watching on the roof of an inner-London hospital. For this, he wore an old black tin hat on which he had painted the letters PSU. This stood for Pacifist Service Unit.
My brother and I, aged five and three when the war started, also wore tin hats, but these along with our rifles and pistols were just toys. Every day we blasted each other and our friends with imaginary gun noises. My father, often working at home and glad when we were not bothering him, never seemed to mind. For one birthday, he gave me a model tank made by a caretaker at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where here he worked as a specialist in East African languages.
Small in size, affectionate and usually mild-mannered, he could still on occasions erupt into outbursts of antiauthority recklessness. Our battered old car was stopped one dark night in 1940 by a member of the Home Guard who asked for my father’s identity card. “My English or my German one?” was his retort. My French grandmother, sitting in the back, remonstrated loudly and, in the confusion, his question went unanswered.
Another time, walking down a train corridor looking for a seat, we passed a carriage holding German prisoners of war. Hemmed in on both sides by British soldiers with fixed bayonets, they broke out into loud laughter after my father shouted “Schöne Ferien!”
(Nice holiday) as he was going by.
Given suspicions about fifth columnists at the time, he was lucky to get away with this. But, otherwise, Britain in 1940 was more sympathetic to pacifists and dissenters in general than was the case in 1914. No one complained about our garage poster. During the blitz, my father went door to door giving out leaflets calling for an end to hostilities. He was greeted with courtesy, except by one local resident, who later came round to apologise. He explained that, earlier that day, he had heard that his pilot son was missing and was understandably upset. My father responded with sympathy, as well he should.
When we moved to the Cotswolds to get away from the bombing, he soon had his camera briefly confiscated for taking photographs close to an airfield. After the war, when German prisoners were working the fields nearby, he once got into conversation with them in their own language. He took some of their home addresses, offering to write to their families saying they were well. This encounter ended with a scratch game of rounders in which everyone joined in, with no supervisors around to spoil the fun.
When we got older, my brother and I began asking him potentially awkward questions. What would he have done if the Germans had invaded and stormtroopers were thronging our road?
My father smiled. “I would have gone outside, offered them a cup of tea and then suggested that they go home.”
The notion of passive resistance, used to some effect by Gandhi, was always popular among British pacifists. But my father had spent some time in prewar Germany. He knew that Nazi soldiers under pressure would behave very differently from British military in India open to public criticism at home or abroad. So how could an intelligent man say something quite so stupid, especially someone who had worked tirelessly before the war helping German Jews escape from what he knew to be the terrible dangers facing them?
I got my answer to this question years later when I was having doubts about my own pacifist beliefs before finally abandoning them. He told me that he had always understood that the cup of tea policy was romantic nonsense. But then he added something he had never said before. He had wanted Britain to lose the war. He thought that adversity could bring out the best in us while warfare pandered to our worst instincts.
He had no time for the Nazis, but he did not want us to emulate any aspects of their inhumanity once it came to fighting fire with fire. Because he believed there could be no such thing as a good war, he wanted Britain to have no part in it and for our side to end the whole thing as soon as possible. And I have no doubt that he would have approached a stormtrooper with a cup of tea had that day ever come. Any martyrdom that might have followed he would have accepted, almost gladly. It was as if he wanted everyone to suffer, and in particular himself. Such suffering, he felt, would still have been morally preferable to taking part or supporting fighting in a war. These were his principles and nothing would ever shift them.
In 1934, the children’s author AA Milne wrote a popular pacifist book, Peace With Honour. He replaced it in 1940 with War With Honour and enlisted as a captain in the Home Guard. Everything in the first book he now saw as redundant simply by imagining the word “Hitler” scrawled across every page. My father had no such moment. A devoted but very private Christian, he sincerely felt he was making the same choice that Jesus would have made if required to take up arms.
Surely monumentally wrong-headed at this particular juncture of history, my father was still right on other issues. A wartime critic of Stalin when this was unfashionable, he also opposed and campaigned against carpet-bombing German cities, a view shared by many today. But however differently others may have thought at the time, he and the rest of us were never upbraided for his beliefs. For such tolerance when things were particularly hard, I remain profoundly grateful.
Nicholas Tucker, with a Jewish refugee named Hilda Oppenheimer taken in by his parents, and his older brother, Martin
Professor AN Tucker sporting his Peace Pledge Union badge