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The ‘King and Country’ Debate, 1933: Student Politics, Pacifism and the Dictators

  • Martin Ceadel (a1)

On 9 February 1933 the Oxford Union debated and carried by 275 votes to 153 the motion ‘That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country’. After a few days this became a major news story, first in Britain then also in the world press: the British embassies in Madrid and Santiago cabled the Foreign Office in alarm at the appearance of the story in the Spanish and Chilean press. The motion was taken up also by student debating societies all over Britain and overseas: in the United States, for example, any pledge to take no part in war came to be known as the ‘Oxford pledge’ or the ‘Oxford oath’. Since the debate, which took place ten days after Hitler had become chancellor of Germany, appeared to contrast British liberal, pacifist effeteness with fascist martial virility it was seized on in Germany and Italy. The Liberal M.P. Robert Bernays told the house of commons how he had been asked about the debate later in 1933 by a prominent Nazi youth leader: ‘There was an ugly gleam in his eye when he said: “The fact is that you English are soft.”’ And on 7 July 1934 Alfred Zimmern, professor of international relations at Oxford, wrote from Geneva to the former Union president responsible for the debate: ‘I hope you do penance every night and every morning for that ill-starred Resolution. It is still going on sowing dragons’ teeth. If the Germans have to be knocked out a second time it will be partly your fault.

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The Historical Journal
  • ISSN: 0018-246X
  • EISSN: 1469-5103
  • URL: /core/journals/historical-journal
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