Archive for October 12th, 2008

1915: Nurse Edith Cavell, “patriotism is not enough”

2 comments October 12th, 2008 Headsman

Early this morning in 1915, the German military occupying Belgium shot aid worker Edith Cavell at Brussels for aiding the British war effort.

The matronly nurse had been condemned only the day before by a German military court for helping Allied soldiers escape from behind German lines — charges Cavell readily admitted. The British chaplain who attended her the night before her death reported her saying (not actually her last words, but recalled as her parting sentiment, as it were):

But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward any one.

So naturally, she immediately became the Entente’s bloody banner of the barbarous Hun, helping dramatically ramp up recruitment for the other team’s set of moral cretins.

The thing is, the Germans actually had a point. Cavell ran a nursing school in Brussels, and courageously stuck around when the Germans smashed through Belgium as World War I opened. She’s sometimes remembered as getting in hot water for treating the wounded regardless of nationality, but she did a lot more than that: she got involved with an underground railroad funneling Allied soldiers back to enemy countries.

It was one of those impossible trials of conscience that wartime brings: Cavell, whose hospital was subsumed by the Red Cross during the war, should technically have remained neutral; her actions did bring material aid to Germany’s foes.

However, Belgian, French and English troops caught behind lines by the Germans’ lightning advance were in danger themselves of summary execution, as were civilians who harbored them. Neutrally treating them and handing them over as POWs might have been tantamount to killing many of them, especially in the first few months of the war. Though Edith Cavell said that “I am happy to die for my country,” her actions look more humanitarian than nationalistic — the best choice to be made when no good ones are available. Patriotism of a higher order, if you like.

Probably Cavell’s was a case tailor-made for executive clemency, but Germany was keen to send one of those proverbial messages: civilians in occupied countries had best stay out of the war. Despite the frantic lobbying of England’s ambassadors (and, ominously for Germany, those of the United States), the sentence was carried out on both Cavell and a fellow-traveler in her network, Belgian Philippe Baucq.

Clumsy propagandists, the Kaiser’s boys badly misjudged the message so sent.

In the face of intense international outcry, Germany soon found itself defending its actions (.pdf), and then commuting the sentences (.pdf again) of Cavell’s other collaborators.

None of this abated Cavell’s stupendous propaganda value to Germany’s enemies. And — holy wow, the graying 49-year-old gets made over into quite the heartbreaker in most of these.

The nurse’s repute — and she was said to have struck a Joan of Arc-like chord in those parts — caused a renaissance for the name “Edith” among French and Belgian newborns, most notably singer Edith Piaf (born in December 1915). While Cavell’s sacrifice did nothing to stem her name’s declining Anglo (or at least American) popularity, there is a Mount Edith Cavell named for her in Canada, and a plethora of monuments and public spaces dedicated to her throughout the Allied powers’ lands. (Here are just a handful.) And she still packs enough symbolic punch for the current British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to deploy her in the propagandist’s subtler modern arts.

There’s plenty more about her online, but world headquarters (with information about the Cavell Festival) is edithcavell.org.uk. There’s also a stupendous collection of text and images (several already used in this post) at the sometimes slow-loading but endlessly fascinating site The Great War in a Different Light.

Dutch speakers might enjoy this podcast:

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Germany,History,Language,Martyrs,Military Crimes,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Shot,Wartime Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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