"Patriotism is not enough."
October 12, 2015 7:01 AM   Subscribe

On this day one hundred years ago, the German army executed Edith Cavell. She was a British nurse who had worked in Belgium before the First World War, and then helped Belgian, French, and British men escape the country during the German occupation. A military court found her guilty of actively aiding the enemy in wartime, and ordered her execution.

In death Cavell became a powerful symbol for the allies, exemplifying German imperial brutality. This appears in numerous illustrations from the time.

Today she is viewed as either a propaganda symbol or as a heroine.
posted by doctornemo (26 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
It just seems so obviously propaganda now. It's not like the German accusations were false. She was guilty of aiding the enemy. (and likely was a spy) I"m sure the British would have done much the same thing to any Germans expats caught engaging in espionage. (well if they weren't already locked up in Alexandra Palace in north London.)
posted by mary8nne at 7:21 AM on October 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


I hiked Mount Edith Cavell near Jasper many years ago, and until this moment had never remembered to look up who she was and why she had a mountain named after her. This is much more interesting than I ever would have expected.
posted by saladin at 7:22 AM on October 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


Cavell clearly had the kind of bravery that I suspect few people are able to manage. But would there have been the same opportunity for propaganda if it had been Eric instead of Edith?
posted by Slothrup at 7:26 AM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


The irony is that Cavell herself should have been condemned for putting at risk any possibility of legitimate "neutrality" of the medical staff. - something that became very important for the Red Cross.
posted by mary8nne at 7:28 AM on October 12, 2015 [6 favorites]


She's today's life of the day on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, free to all to read. (link is to life of the day and will change to another bio tonight).
posted by immlass at 7:30 AM on October 12, 2015 [2 favorites]




But would there have been the same opportunity for propaganda if it had been Eric instead of Edith?
No, of course not. But women's citizenship was really contested during World War I, and so was Cavell's meaning as a symbol. On the one hand, she showed the brutality of the Germans: they even kill women! (Never mind that she was neither the first nor the last woman to be executed for aiding the enemy.) On the other hand, for advocates of women's suffrage, she showed that women, as well as men, could sacrifice and give their lives for their country. She was such a potent symbol totally because of her gender, but partly because there were such complicated ideas about what it meant to be a woman in wartime.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:45 AM on October 12, 2015 [22 favorites]


As mary8nne says, she's a questionable national heroine. Even if all she was doing was "helping over 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium" as the Cavell Nurses Trust puts it, that's actually "helping over 200 prisoners of war to escape and possibly return to active service" in reality. I wonder how many of the people idolising her today would be making the same fuss about a nurse who had been shipping Germans out of France and (potentially at least) back into the German trenches? If she was actively spying for the allies (see mary8nne's link), that's even worse. Yet the Facebook page for my hometown (where she spent part of her schooldays) has several people who are still seeing her through the lens of anti-Boche propaganda from a century ago.
posted by nja at 7:49 AM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Soon Edith was persuaded to make room for some of the unfortunates who were not wounded but merely fleeing the Germans.

Hindsight's 20/20, but I wonder why they didn't give these soldiers minor wounds to avoid suspicion?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:28 AM on October 12, 2015


I wonder how many of the people idolising her today would be making the same fuss about a nurse who had been shipping Germans out of France and (potentially at least) back into the German trenches?

Ummm… that's some really fucked-up moral relativism there.

Was there a memo about the Germans no longer being the bad-guys of WWI & II that I missed? Did they somehow not kick it all off?
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:42 AM on October 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


I got all choked up when they talked about the bells.
As the ship bearing the coffin arrived in Dover, a full peal of Grandsire Triples (5040 Changes, Parker's Twelve-Part) was rung on the bells of the parish church. The peal was notable: "Rung with the bells deeply muffled with the exception of the Tenor which was open at back stroke, in token of respect to Nurse Cavell, whose body arrived at Dover during the ringing and rested in the town till the following morning. The ringers of 1-2-3-4-5-6 are ex-soldiers, F. Elliot having been eight months Prisoner of War in Germany."
posted by corb at 8:42 AM on October 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


To clarify: bell ringing was physically exhausting, especially so many changes. Those soldiers showed an impressive and heartbreaking level of commitment to this woman who saved so many of their brothers.
posted by corb at 8:43 AM on October 12, 2015 [6 favorites]


The irony is that Cavell herself should have been condemned for putting at risk any possibility of legitimate "neutrality" of the medical staff.

But the German Empire didn't care about legitimate neutrality, that's why they invaded Belgium in the first place.

Besides that if I'm understanding things properly, she founded this nursing school well before the war, so it wasn't like the Red Cross as a third party venturing into a war zone. She was the head of a Belgian institution (nja's link claims that this was the first nursing school in the country) in occupied Belgium.

There certainly was tons of propaganda going on, and no one was being particularly principled in WWI, but the British government catching someone engaging in espionage in Britain seems somewhat different from the Imperial German General Government of Belgium executing someone for not pretending that Belgium actually belonged to Germany; I would think it's more analogous to the Vichy government during WWII executing a British member of the French Resistance.

Or maybe a better analogy would be with the people executed in British India as a result of the Hindu–German Conspiracy, though since that involved lots of assassinations and mutinies and blowing up arms shipments I don't know if any of the executions were specifically for spying.
posted by XMLicious at 8:50 AM on October 12, 2015 [10 favorites]


Was there a memo about the Germans no longer being the bad-guys of WWI & II that I missed? Did they somehow not kick it all off?

There's a difference between the way they were the bad guys of WWI and WWII. In WWI the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand kicked it all off, followed by Austria sending ultimatums to Serbia, and then the network of shifting european alliances that were the Mutually Assured Destruction of the day all cascaded like dominoes. Not saying the Germans wer good guys in the slightest. Just that the whole thing was a mess.

In WWII the major good guys included Joseph Stalin's empire, the land of Jim Crow, Chairman Mao's faction, and a major racist and exploitative empire on its last legs. And the bad guys were bad enough to make that collection look very good by comparison.
posted by Francis at 9:04 AM on October 12, 2015 [10 favorites]


Was there a memo about the Germans no longer being the bad-guys of WWI & II that I missed? Did they somehow not kick it all off?

The whole thing with a secret agreement to carve up the Ottoman Empire, involving details like the British promising Palestine to both the Arabs and the soon-to-be-Israelis at the same time, and all the bearing that has on many of our 21st-century geopolitical problems, would seem to be strong evidence that the Central Powers weren't the only bad guys in WWI.
posted by XMLicious at 9:08 AM on October 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Chairman Mao's faction

Chiang Kai-shek would like a word with you.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 9:25 AM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Chiang Kai-shek who?
posted by Aravis76 at 9:35 AM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Chiang Kai-shek would like a word with you.

Yeah, and He'll probably say "that Mao was such an effective and popular guerilla commander, operating against the Japanese, that I spent the war years warning everybody who would listen that the communists were the major threat to nationalist China's security and not the Japanese who I assumed would be defeated anyway. Also, although I hate to admit it, his military experience and that of his commanders was instrumental in his stunning victories over my forces during the Civil War."
posted by Dreadnought at 11:46 AM on October 12, 2015


a major racist and exploitative empire on its last legs

But enough about France... You left the British off your list!
posted by biffa at 1:01 PM on October 12, 2015


As an English person, I applaud and salute her bravery, for saving some of my people.
posted by marienbad at 2:32 PM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


There certainly was tons of propaganda going on, and no one was being particularly principled in WWI, but the British government catching someone engaging in espionage in Britain seems somewhat different from the Imperial German General Government of Belgium executing someone for not pretending that Belgium actually belonged to Germany; I would think it's more analogous to the Vichy government during WWII executing a British member of the French Resistance.

Yes, this. You can argue the complex rights and wrongs about WWI without trying to take something away from a woman who showed great personal bravery. I like the distinction in the BBC article-- it's propaganda to make her look like a victim, not to acknowledge her heroism.

Remember that the Germans were invading a neutral third country as part of the Schlieffen Plan. They were furious because they believed that Belgium had caused their hope of taking Paris quickly to fail (almost certainly true). Cavell is one of many many many who were executed for what the Germans perceived as illegal opposition in Belgium (estimates put the executed at around 5000). WWI was incredibly complex in its roots and rights and wrongs, but you can't possibly make the Germans out to be either principled or just in the way they occupied Belgium. There was propaganda from the British, for sure (Bryce report) but there also really were atrocities from the German side.
posted by frumiousb at 4:00 PM on October 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


My mother gave me a book of Great Nurses when I was a pre-teen. Edith Cavell was in there as was Nightingale, Clara Barton and that Australian nurse who flew around the outback. It didn't make me want to become a nurse like my mom but it was nice to have an entire book of female heroes to admire.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:51 PM on October 12, 2015


that Australian nurse who flew around the outback

Sister Kenny?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:25 PM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Could the book have been Nurses Who Led the Way? I had that book as a young girl, and reread it many times.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:39 PM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yes! Sister Kenny and Nurses Who Led the Way. Wow, good catch, Underpants Monster. I see it was published when I was 4 so I probably got it for Christmas when I was around 8 or 9. Eeek! 50 years ago. No wonder I couldn't remember the title.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:15 PM on October 12, 2015


I think Edith Cavell herself would probably have been quite disappointed in how her death was used as a propaganda tool, given that the quote referenced in the title continues: "I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone".
posted by ianso at 10:58 PM on October 12, 2015


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