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Editorial: peace delegations

Heading off for our first joint peace delegation (one of us has been to Iraq, the other has been on a Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation to Iran before), we’ve been reflecting on the history and purpose of peace delegations.

In his monumental book about the anti-war movement in Britain during the First World War, Against All War, Adam Hochschild tells the story of Emily Hobhouse, who had exposed the horrors of the British concentration camps during the Boer war. In 1915, well into the war, she was one of three British women able to attend the 1,500-strong Women’s International Peace Conference at The Hague in Holland (another 180 British women tried to go, but were blocked by various obstacles).

After the conference, Hobhouse spent months on the Continent doing follow-up work, then in June 1916 she managed to get to Berlin, where she met with the German foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, who she had known before the war. She also met two other ‘high authorities’ who suggested that Germany might be willing to make peace by returning Alsace and Lorraine to France.

This was all wishful thinking, but Hobhouse did use the experience to leverage contacts with the British government, putting forward ideas for a civilian prisoner exchange (other than men of military age) which the British foreign office was forced to admit was ‘quite sensible’. She received no credit, but the foreign office did subsequently put a civilian prisoner exchange proposal to parliament, and this was then agreed with the German government.

There was less official interest in her suggestions for partially lifting the British blockade to allow desperately-needed food into occupied Belgium.

Hochschild comments on Hobhouse: ‘however hopeless her lone-wolf diplomacy, and however naïve she was about what she saw [on a German-supervised tour] in Belgium, in the entire course of the deadliest conflict the world had ever seen, she was the sole person from any of the warring countries who actually journeyed to the other side in search of peace.’ (Travel to Germany was made illegal after her return).

We suspect that few British peace delegations since the First World War have ended by telegraphing the foreign secretary to try to arrange a meeting on their return (as Emily Hobhouse did in 1916). We’re not sure whether this lowering of expectations is a good thing. What we are sure of is that person-to-person contact is invaluable, and that the power of peace delegations to humanise ‘the Other’ is desperately needed when war propaganda is swirling.