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

The Guardian - Family - - Family -

‘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

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