Banquet speech by Miss Margaret A. Backhouse, representing both Laureates, on the Nobel Dinner, Oslo, December 10, 1947
We have listened to Mr. Gunnar Jahn’s black picture of the state of international relationships at the present time, but I must not be tempted to enter into a discussion of this situation. The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to British and American committees of the Society of Friends. This is a religious organisation. It is not the function of the Society, as a body, to enter into political controversy. We must keep well informed on international and political issues if, as we desire, we may act as reconcilers in times of tension. We try to serve impartially endeavouring to understand all points of view in the hope that we may act as interpreters of the good-will that exists even if buried.
This is not the time to speak of the deeper aims of the Society of Friends, rather I desire to dispel two myths that have grown up concerning us. It is sometimes thought that Quakers are special people with qualities of particular brilliance or saintliness, but we are very ordinary people. With few exceptions we are not specialists but we have been able to choose men and women who are adaptable and courageous to enter into undertakings where conditions are unknown. Perhaps these qualities have been inherited from our Norse forefathers – for at one time we too were an occupied country. The work of the Society of Friends is shared by all its members, so when conscientious objectors to military service found themselves forced to leave their usual occupations they naturally sought constructive work under Quaker auspices. The work was administered by young people and mention of the normal employment of some of the leaders will illustrate the varied yet ordinary people available – an engineer, a school-teacher, an artist, a B.B.C. official, a social worker and a mother of a family, whose average age must have been about thirty, all were prominent.
Although these people were trained for their own occupations they had to undertake most unexpected tasks; for instance a young actor after a few months ambulance training in England went with a party to Ethiopia to help the country to re-establish itself. He was sent to take charge of a clinic, alone. It was evident that serious eye conditions were prevalent; he was not a surgeon, but the only hope for the patients’ sight was operation. He took the risk for the sake of the suffering people and he was so skilled that his fame was spread around bringing patients from all over the country.
It may be that instances like this that have given rise to the second myth; that the Quakers can do anything. Such is the faith of some that all manner of projects are suggested. We try to treat the proposers with sympathy, but often we have to reject the proposals with firmness. What we are able to undertake could not be considered if it were not for the most generous support of the public both in money and in active service. In Salonika we have a small boarding school for girls from the Macedonian villages. The women of Macedonia have enormous influence on the life of the community; thus the aim of the school is three fold, to improve the health of the girls, to raise the standard of living through education and most important of all, to deepen their spiritual life so that they learn the art of living in peace. They are chosen in small groups of five or six, so that they may support each other on their return, but the groups come from contending villages and in the school learn right relationships. Recently, owing to economic conditions in Greece and England, we greatly feared that we should have to give up this peace work, when quite unexpectedly we received a cheque of ten thousand pounds from an anonymous donor, who had the very slenderest connection with Friends. Part of this we were able to use for this project. This kind of help and such an unexpected gift as the Nobel Peace Prize make it possible to undertake a much larger scale of work than if we were only dependent on our own resources. There are even stranger happenings – perhaps they could be called coincidences – that give rise to the idea that Quakers can do anything. For instance, just before a small investigating delegation went to France at the invitation of the French Government in the autumn of 1944, they were informed by a well-known writer interested in the welfare of Polish refugees, that there were fifty tons of clothes available for Polish Displaced Persons. The delegation noted the information politely, but explained that its job on this occasion was among the French themselves. On reaching Paris via civilian channels, the delegation was hauled before the Allied Military Authorities to explain its presence, since S.H.A.E.F. thought it had taken every possible step to keep civilians away from impeding the conduct of the war. Before preceding to throw the Delegation out, the Colonel admitted that he had a problem which was causing a lot of anxiety. There were 50 000 destitute Poles in the Ardennes for whom clothing was badly needed, and he had no idea where to get it. The answer was easy. The Delegation stayed, its relations with S.H.A.E.F. became admirable; and the myth that the Quakers can do anything received irrefutable confirmation.
The Nobel Committee has honoured the Society of Friends by recognising its efforts towards peace-making, but I would repeat again that its members are very ordinary people and the world is full of ordinary people who long for peace. Governments must be the servants of the people and the will of the common people must be so directed to peace that it comes to the world.
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
For the third time since the War ended I have the honour to address you at the dinner given to celebrate the distribution of the Nobel Peace Prize. On these occasions I have tried to give a survey of happenings in the last year, as I saw it.
A year has passed, and it has not on the whole given us much confidence in the ability of the statesmen to handle the international problems. The General Assembly of the United Nations just concluded did not contribute very much to international understanding and in London the Big Four seem to advance rather slowly with the peace treaties with Austria and Germany.
At the same time the economic development has not as a whole been a happy one. For even if the production- and unemployment figures in many countries do not indicate a serious set-back, the inflationary tendencies are undermining the economic and social stability in most countries. The scarcity of raw-materials is felt very strongly and the drought this summer has made the food situation very difficult. Famine is raging in several countries and is threatening in others. In India, having obtained her independence some months ago, racial struggle has led to the massacre of thousands of people, in the Near East racial struggle is going on between Jews and Arabs and as a consequence of the division of Palestine this struggle may develop into a war. In Italy and in France strikes are threatening order and stability, in the Eastern European countries opposition against the existing governments is oppressed, and in China civil war is still going on.
The situation looks indeed very gloomy. But we must remember that it is not more than 2 1/2 year since the War was over and 2 1/2 year is a very short time. Remember the situation in 1920/21, 2 1/2 year after the Armistice, the economic crisis in The United States, the inflation in Austria and Germany, the famine in Russia: We were also at that time very far from what we may call a world of peace. It takes time to rebuild what has been destroyed and to lay the foundation of the industrial life of people and to rebuild the confidence between nations, between races and between men.
We may learn from experience, but even though we should not settle down thinking that time cures every wound. It is worse than folly to shut our eyes to the danger which threatens the peace. We must face the world as it is and realize that we are further from that spirit of cooperation, the spirit of conciliation than we were a year ago, that spirit without which no lasting peace can exist.
In my address at the Nobel Dinner two years ago I drew the attention to the difference between the atmosphere in 1918 and in 1945. In 1918 it was generally said: “This is the last war.” – In 1945 it was whispered: “When does the next war come?”. We have heard the last words more than often since then. I have asked myself: “What is wrong with nations, what is wrong with humanity, what is wrong with every one of us?”
We are told that our education of the youth has been wrong and we must admit that education in more than one country has fostered the spirit of chauvinism. No one can be blind to the fact that much can be achieved through education, but I refuse to believe that we can alter the mentality through an education which only gives facts and is based upon a development of the sense of reasoning. The reason has never been a stronghold against emotional provocations and those who are call-‘ng for strife and war appeal to emotional qualities more than to reason. Therefore we cannot hope to conquer the spirit of war only through progress of knowledge. We must endeavour to strengthen in man the feeling that every one is his fellow citizen.
Many times the same has been said and the answer always was: “It is hopeless to alter the nature of man.” – But that is wrong. It is not a question of altering man’s nature, it is the question of appealing to the feeling of fellowship, a feeling which is deeply rooted in the heart of every normal being. The feeling of fellowship does manifest itself in many ways in the ordinary day of life. I am sure it is not necessary to alter the nature of man, but to develop what is there already.
But this is not quickly done, and in the meantime war or peace depends on the foreign policy of states, and this policy is at present governed by the idea of sovereignity rather than the idea of cooperation. Therefore, up till now there has been a very little success in creating an atmosphere of confidence between states.
But even if the statesmen succeed in constructing a better international order, it will not have a firm foundation if man has not imbibed the true spirit of fellowship. – How to achieve that, is the great question.
We know that it can be done. We have seen that a small group of people has demonstrated in a practical way the spirit which does away with the occasion of war and shown that unselfishness and goodness exist and that there are people who do not discriminate between races, between fellow countrymen and foreigners, between enemies and friends.
How many have learned that lesson? We cannot tell. Such things do not happen in a hurry. But the seed is sawn. Might it grow.
You Miss Backhouse and you professor Cadbury, are here as representatives of this small group of women and men who have shown the world that it is possible to build up in a spirit of love what has been destroyed in a spirit of hatred.
I ask you all here present to thank Miss Backhouse and professor Cadbury for what they have done, for the example they have given to all of us.
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