What Does The Poppy Represent?

Today is Remembrance Sunday and you know what that means, you had better be wearing a British Legion red poppy or you’re a loony lefty traitor worse than Jeremy Corbyn meeting with the IRA and Hezbollah. The poppy has become so ingrained in the culture in the UK that it makes the news if anyone in the public eye, especially politicians, are seen in public without one on the run up to Remembrance Day and opens them to criticisms of hating either the UK or the soldiers that died in muddy fields to defend the country. Historically the poppy was a symbol of remembrance for the soldiers that died in the First World War and was quickly adopted by the Royal British Legion in 1921 but what this symbol represents has skewed slightly in the years since then, and now that this meaning has been overtaken this has influenced a desire to show respect and remembrance in other ways.

The inspiration for using the poppy as a symbol of remembrance can be traced back to the poem “In Flanders Fields”  that was written by Canadian physician John McCrae on the 3rd of May 1915, the day after he witnessed the death of his friend. The poem refers to the poppy’s growing amongst the graves of war victims in Belgium and is from the point of view of the fallen soldiers. Moina Michael, a volunteer working with the American YMCA Overseas War Secretaries Organization, was so inspired by the poem that she published her own entitled “We Shall Keep the Faith” in 1918. Afterwards she vowed to always wear a poppy in respect of those that fought in and assisted with the war effort and she would go on to campaign to have the poppy adopted as a national symbol in America, this was successful and by 1920 the National American Legion adopted the flower as their official symbol of remembrance. 

A key figure in bringing the poppy to the other allied nations was Madame Guerin. Noted at the time as one of the greatest of all war speakers she would raise funds for the ‘Food for France’ organisation as well as separately for French widows and orphans, veterans and the American Red Cross. The poppy was first linked to her when she was tasked by the French government with travelling to the US to found the American branch of the ‘American-Franco Children’s League’  in an effort to raise funds to help orphans in the war torn regions of France. This organisation used the poppy as its emblem, and she would start holding poppy days in which she would distribute paper poppies in exchange for donations. Her work would take her to Canada, Newfoundland and eventually to the UK in 1921. Here she approached the British Legion and explained her plans to have an ‘Inter-Allied Poppy Day’. They were sceptical at first but came around to the idea after Madame Guerin paid for the British Legions poppies herself, vastly helping the extremely poor organisation at the time. The rest is history, the poppies were incredibly popular in 1921 and so from 1922 onwards British veterans made Remembrance Poppies at The Poppy Factory to be sold every year to fund the British Legion. Madame Guerin was very rarely mentioned in the British press and when they did nod to the original makers of the poppy, they usually referred to them as French “peasants”, further obscuring her incredibly important contributions to the poppy movement.

As well as for remembrance of military personnel, the yearly poppy appeal is to raise funds for charity that supports both previous and current personnel of the armed forces. As stated on the British Legion website – 

‘We are the country’s largest Armed Forces charity, with 235,000 members, 110,000 volunteers and a network of partners and charities; helping us give support wherever and whenever it’s needed.’

This has caused some to feel uncomfortable with what the poppy has come to represent. The poppy appeal is directly sponsored by companies that profit from war such as BAE Systems and it has built a highly charged nationalist aura around the wearing of the poppy. It’s not only for remembrance of those lost due to wars it is to show how much you support the troops. An appeal to protect those who were victims of their own state’s militarism into a jingoist competition to show who loves their country most. For those critical of the way the army has been deployed over the last few decades this can make the symbol of the poppy a bit of a mixed legacy, and difficult to weld with your own political views. . 

In 2010 a group of Army Veterans sent an open letter in which they complained that the Poppy Appeal had become ‘excessive’ and ‘garish’. They said it was being used to gather support for military campaigns and to pressure people into wearing them. A few years later the same group held a separate remembrance service by walking to The Cenotaph with a banner that read “Never Again” and laid a wreath of white poppies to acknowledge not only the military cost of war but the civilian cost. They wore t-shirts brandished with the phrase “War is Organised Murder” on them, in an action far closer to the true, original meaning of the poppy. This is a quote from Harry Patch, the last survivor of the First World War. 

The white poppy has been used since the 30’s as an alternative symbol of remembrance for all victims of war and to reject the glorification of militarism and its consequences. Nowadays in the UK the Peace Pledge Union distributes white poppies and holds an alternative remembrance service called the ‘National Alternative Remembrance Ceremony’. As they state on their website – 

‘White poppies commemorate all victims of all wars, including wars that are still being fought. This includes people of all nationalities. It includes both civilians and members of armed forces. Today over 90% of people killed in warfare are civilians.’

With the red poppy becoming a symbol for support for the harmful military industrial complex, having alternative ways to show respect to those that have lost their lives due to conflict are especially important. The last justifiable war that the UK has taken part in was the fight against fascism in the Second World War, most subsequent involvement in wars have been about power or money. As a society we should reject the endless wars that serve the interests of the rich.

To support the peace pledge union and find out how to get involved check out their website here.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Audrey and the Dutch Resistance

Audrey Hepburn. The name alone conjures up images of elegance and the romance of old Hollywood. Being one of the few people to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award there is no question why Audrey is so tied to the golden age of American Cinema.

But before she was a world famous actress Audrey lived another, altogether quite different life providing support for the Dutch resistance during The Second World War.

In 1939, when Audrey was just 10 years old, Britain declared war on Germany and soon Hepburn and her mother were fleeing to the Netherlands from their native Belgium. Hoping that this war would play out like the Great War before it, where the Dutch managed to maintain their neutrality, Audrey and her mother set up shop in Arnhem. This plan to avoid the war would unfortunately fall apart, as the Nazis invaded the Netherlands less than a year later.

By all accounts, this occupation was brutal. Audrey herself said that “had we known that we were going to be occupied for five years, we might have all shot ourselves”, going on to say that the only thing that kept them motivated was the belief that the war was constantly just a few weeks from ending.

Audrey’s family, being privileged Dutch aristocrats were not spared from Nazi cruelty; her half brother was be deported to a Berlin work camp and in 1942 her uncle would be assassinated by the Germans for his support of the nascent resistance movement. This would prove to be a pivotal moment for Audrey and her mother, and both fought desperately against giving in to nihilism, leading them to take up their uncles cause and support the resistance from that moment on.

This was a surprising change of heart for Audrey’s mother especially, who had previously openly supported fascism; she wrote columns in support of Mosley’s Union of Fascists in paper “The Black Shirt”, joined the far right movement and even personally met with Hitler. This was all done alongside Audrey’s father, who had abandoned the family years before the war. He had also been an avid supporter of the far right ideology, but for him there would be no redemption or renunciation. He spent the entire war in prison for his support of the Third Reich. 

 

Audrey eventually fell in with Dr. Visser ’t Hooft, a charismatic and intelligent leader of the local resistance. Taking the young rebel under his wing, he later described her as his star pupil. It was under the doctor’s encouragement and urging that Audrey, who had studied ballet in England, would have her strange entrance into the performing arts. In an attempt to raise morale and funds for the resistance, Audrey set up the “Black Evenings”, secret dance shows and charity evenings. These were highly illegal and if caught, the audience, performers and organisers would all likely be facing down a Nazi rifle squad. To hide the events they were often performed in basements, with blacked out windows, thus the name, and audiences weren’t allowed to cheer or clap. Audrey said later in life say “the best audiences I ever had made not a single sound at the end of my performance”.

This is an image that stuck with me after reading on the subject: a young girl with barely enough food in her belly to keep the pangs of hunger away, dancing her heart out to a silent audience, hidden away from the prying eyes of the evil occupying force. A young girl that, during peacetime, should have been in school instead literally pushed onto centre stage through grief and loss to put on performances in an attempt to keep the flicker of hope alive.

These funds were sorely needed by the resistance, who had been carrying out various anti German acts, one of the most famous being the bombing of a public records office by Willem Arondeus, who hoped to protect Dutch Jews by making it much harder for the Nazis to track them down. Among their other activities was an underground railroad for escaping Dutch Jews, dissidents and captured allied airmen. Audrey would play a part here too; the resistance made use of young members to pass around messages and supplies as children and teenagers could get around without provoking the notice of the occupiers. In 1944, Audrey- playing the part of messenger for the resistance- supplied food to downed airmen hiding in the Dutch woods under cover of night. 

 

In that same year, Nazis would subject the Netherlands to their worst cruelty yet: aiming to punish the Dutch for helping the allies, the Germans cut off food supplies to the already impoverished and starving country. The Dutch Winter of Hunger had begun. Starvation swept the nation and millions were affected, Audrey among them. At this time she was just a teenager and the lack of food severely affected her development throughout the rest of her life. The young girl who danced for silent audiences would never grow up to be the ballerina she had dreamed of being when she had started to dance all those years ago in England. 

As we know, Audrey still found success, albeit as an actress instead of a dancer. Her acting career brought her the chance to meet a fellow survivor of the occupation, Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank. Otto met with Audrey hoping to convince her to play Anne in a film about the Dutch girl’s life. He had been inspired by the role Audrey had played during those long years of struggle, although ultimately Audrey turned down the offer. She said she had felt connected to the young girl after reading her diaries, saying that “it’s a little bit as if this had happened to my sister”. She wouldn’t be able to give Anne the performance she deserved, feeling she would be overcome with grief. 

Outside of her incredible acting career, Audrey became a UNICEF ambassador, travelling the world even as she suffered from cancer. Peace was important to her, in the way that it often is for survivors of war.

On the evening of 20 January 1993, in her home in Switzerland, Audrey Hepburn passed away peacefully in her sleep. 

I find it strange, especially so after researching more on the topic of her life, that Audrey Hepburn- so emblematic of the glamour of the movies- inspires me more by the story of her own life than by any story she starred in on the silver screen. Audrey is rightfully remembered as one of the greatest actors to have ever lived, but I think we should also remember her as the young girl, who refused to give into fear, dancing to a silent audience.

The Ayrshire Boy Who Tried to Kill Hitler.

Small as it may be, Saltcoats has its share of heroes and history. Everyone knows that the town got its name from the salt harvesting industry which formed it. Some might know it was once home to Colin Hay of Men At Work fame (however he did quickly relocate to a Land Down Under). Perhaps fewer people know that it was the only place in Scotland where the Italian ice cream shops didn’t get their windows tanned in amidst the anti-Italian sentiment that swept through the country during WW2. Interestingly enough, it’s got another claim to fame, being the birthplace of one of the men that tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944.

That man was Otto Kiep, born in Saltcoats in 1886 while his parents were on holiday there. The family were already well respected within Glasgow society, with Otto’s dad working within the Imperial Consulate at the turn of the 20th century. Otto’s cousin would even go onto serve in the British Army. Otto however eventually returned to Germany to study law and take up a job within the German civil service after World War 1.

Otto Kiep (7 July 1886 – 26 August 1944)

Despite inadvertently being part of the Nazi government, Otto was not happy serving under Hitler or following the Nazi party line, once losing his job because he attended a dinner in New York in honour of Albert Einstein. Celebrating an openly socialist, anti-Nazi Jewish German academic was not something a member of the German administration at that time was meant to be doing. Otto recovered from losing his position however and returned to a government role, secretly joining the “Soft Circle”, a German resistance organisation that would work from within the German government and attempt to bring down the Nazis. Their meetings would discuss the on-going war and occupation of Europe as well as organising aid to Jews and political dissidents across Nazi Europe. This group included Germans from all across the political spectrum (at least the parts that weren’t already apprehended) and all walks of life that were opposed to Hitler.

Unfortunately Otto- along with most of the Soft Circle- was later betrayed by a Gestapo informant. For nearly a year Otto was held in prison where he faced abuse and torture.

Otto was, however, also part of another group of German resistance, the far more militant Kreisau Circle. Composed mostly of military men, this group had a more focused idea on how to topple the Nazis and kill Hitler. While there were many plans, the most notable- especially in regards to Otto- was the July 20th incident, where a member of the Kreisau Circle placed a bomb in Hitler’s bunker. The bomb unfortunately failed to kill the Fuhrer, and Otto, despite being in jail at the time of the attempt on Hitler’s life, would soon be killed for his involvement with the group. Around 4000 others would face the same fate in the aftermath.

From this point onwards we know the rest of the story. Hitler would be dead less than a year after Otto, and the Soviets would go on to occupy Berlin, ending the war in Europe.  We do have to ask ourselves how would history have been different if Otto hadn’t been caught along with the rest of the Soft Circle, and if the attempt on Hitler had succeeded? Would the war have ended sooner? Would more lives have been saved?

Today Otto is remembered by the German Resistance Memorial Centre for his opposition to the Nazis, and I think with him being an Ayrshire boy, at least by birth, he should be remembered by us as well.