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Making war history?

There is something surreal about the holding of a Peace History conference attended by some of the country’s longest-serving peace activists right in the heart of the Imperial War Museum.

The outgoing director of the museum, Sir Robert Crawford CBE, welcomed us all to the two-day event, thanking Bruce Kent of the Movement for the Abolition of War, a conference organiser, for his cooperation over the years.
We then heard an array of speakers on a wide variety of topics, almost half of them biographical in nature (medieval peace advocate Erasmus; postwar Japanese peace activists Masaharu Oka and Yayori Matsui; General de Bollardière, the French general who turned to pacifism after the Algerian war).

March to Aldermaston

Alongside the talks (some illustrated, some not), there was a rare opportunity to see the 1959 film March to Aldermaston, directed by Lindsay Anderson et al and narrated by Richard Burton, which documented the first Aldermaston march in poetic black and white.
We heard a snatch of singing on the film, which turned out to have been backed instrumentally by the astounding Leon Rosselson, who sang a goodly number of his wonderful songs for us (watch this space for an interview with the great man).
Music was sprinkled throughout the proceedings, mostly provided by the delightful Sue Gilmurray, accompanying herself on keyboards, but in the evening also by the Raised Voices radical choir.

Hennessy-mania

There were interesting aspects to the presentations on the 1932 League of Nations Disarmament Conference and the 1915 European women’s peace conference, held during wartime (it led to the formation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom), but the outstanding event of the conference for many was the appearance of sceptical historian Peter Hennessy of London’s Queen Mary College, talking about his collection of declassified Cabinet documents published recently as Cabinets and the Bomb (reviewed in a future PN).
One intriguing element of Peter Hennessy’s talk was the centrality of British rivalry with France as a motivation for the retention of nuclear weapons.

Reflections

There was much to chew over in the various presentations (and a widely-expressed wish for more participatory sessions for collective chewing over by the audience - perhaps in small groups). The audience was a highly-experienced group of people; some with a record of anti-nuclear activism pre-dating the formation of CND. The organisers had hoped for more younger participants. If school-age children are going to be brought in, they will need a different design for some of the sessions, we think (having brought two teenagers ourselves).
A few of the illustrated presentations demonstrated the lingering grip of the text-based PowerPoint slide: “Please-read-on-the-screen-hundreds-of-words-that-I-will-also-read-to-you.”

Utopia

The most tantalising and intriguing morsel of the conference for us was the passing reference by Erasmus enthusiast Peter van den Dungen to the startling parallels between passages in Bartolome de Las Casas’ documentation of the horrors of slavery and war in the Spanish Americas in the sixteenth century, and sections of Thomas More’s unsettling novel Utopia (written shortly afterwards).
War and slavery in the ideal society of the future? That would truly be surreal.

The Peace History conference was organised by the International Peace Bureau and the Movement for the Abolition of War, in association with the Imperial War Museum: http://www.abolishwar.org.uk

Topics: Culture