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Konni Zilliacus


Konni Zilliacus, was born on 13th September 1894. His father, Konni Zilliacus Senior, had been involved in the struggle to obtain the independence of Finland from Russia, and was at the time living in exile in Japan. His mother, Lilian Grafe, was from the United States.

Zilliacus attended schools in Sweden, Finland and the United States. In January 1909 the family moved to England and Konni and his brother Laurin were sent to Beadles School near Petersfield. While at school Zilliacus became friends with the sons of Josiah Wedgwood. He spent several vacations at the Wedgwood home and it was here that he first developed an interest in politics.

In 1912 Zilliacus entered Yale University where he studied science, social science and history. As soon as he graduated in 1915 he returned to England in order to take part in the First World War. He tried to join the Royal Flying Corps but was rejected because he was a Finnish citizen. He therefore enlisted as a medical orderly and served in a military hospital in France. After a year he was taken ill with diphtheria and was forced to return home.

Shocked by what he had seen on the Western Front, Zilliacus joined the Union of Democratic Control. He also worked as an aide to Noel Buxton before becoming private secretary to Norman Angell. Zilliacus also wrote articles on foreign affairs for The Nation.

In January 1918, Robert Cecil sent Josiah Wedgwood to gather intelligence concerning Bolshevik power and influence in Siberia. Wedgwood took Zilliacus with him as he could speak French, German, Italian, Swedish and Russian. When General Alfred Knox arrived in Vladivostok he appointed Zilliacus as his intelligence officer. Zilliacus disapproved of British intervention in the Russian Revolution and when Winston Churchill lied in the House of Commons about what was going on in Siberia, he leaked information to C. P. Scott at the Manchester Guardian and Leonard Woolf of the Daily Herald.

On his return to London in December 1918, Zilliacus joined the Labour Party "because it was fighting intervention in Russia and stood for a sane peace settlement and a strong League of Nations." The following year he joined the League of Nations as a member of the Information Section of the League Secretariat.

The League had no armed forces and had to rely on boycotts (sanctions) to control the behaviour of member states. In January 1923 France occupied the Ruhr. Six months later Italy bombed the Greek island of Corfu. When the League of Nations discussed these events, the governments of France and Italy threatened to withdraw from the organization. As a result, the League of Nations decided not to take any action. Zilliacus wrote to his friend Norman Angell: "I feel depressed and fed up. Who could have imagined things would turn out as badly as this?"

In 1924 the League of Nations was given a boost when James Ramsay MacDonald, Arthur Henderson and Edouard Herriot, leading politicians in Britain and France, visited Geneva in 1924. Hugh Dalton, wrote enthusiastically, "The League seemed to have come to life again, and to have gained a new significance."

The League of Nations also had success in adverting wars in the border disputes between Bulgaria-Greece (1925), Iraq-Turkey (1925-26) and Poland-Lithuania (1927). It also had noticable success in the areas of drugs control, refugee work and famine relief.

In 1931 Philip Snowden, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, suggested that the Labour government should introduce new measures to balance the budget. This included a reduction in unemployment pay. Several ministers, including Arthur Henderson, George Lansbury and Joseph Clynes, refused to accept the cuts in benefits and resigned from office.

Ramsay MacDonald was angry that his Cabinet had voted against him and decided to resign. When he saw George V that night, he was persuaded to head a new coalition government that would include Conservative and Liberal leaders as well as Labour ministers. Most of the Labour Cabinet totally rejected the idea and only three, Jimmy Thomas, Philip Snowden and John Sankey agreed to join the new government.

In October, Ramsay MacDonald called an election. The 1931 General Election was a disaster for the Labour Party with only 46 members winning their seats. Zilliacus was completely opposed to the National Government. He was especially opposed to its foreign policy and argued "that they are not only making the next war inevitable, but losing it before it has begun."

The League of Nations faced a fresh crisis in September 1931 when the Japanese Army occupied large areas of Manchuria, a province of China. The Chinese government appealed to the League of Nations under Article 11 of the Covenant. China also appealed to the United States as a signatory of the Kellogg Pact. Eventually it was agreed that the League of Nations would establish a commission of inquiry under the chairmanship of Lord Lytton.

The Lytton Report was published in October 1932. The report acknowledged that Japan had legitimate grievances against the Chinese Government. However, the report condemned the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and refused to recognise Manchukao as an independent state. When the League adopted the report Japan resigned from the organization.

Zilliacus continued to campaign in the Labour Party for the League of Nations. He became a close advisor to Arthur Henderson and helped to influence the views of Clement Attlee, Hugh Dalton and Walter Citrine. Zilliacus, along with Philip Noel-Baker, also helped Henderson write the book Labour's Way to Peace (1934) and the foreign policy section of Labour's 1935 election manifesto For Socialism and Peace.

Zilliacus believed that Germany and Italy posed the greatest threat to world peace. He argued for the creation of an "inner ring" of states within the League of Nations, led by Britain, France and the Soviet Union. He also proposed the election by proportional representation of a new international debating chamber of the League. His views influenced some leading British politicians such as Arthur Henderson, Clement Attlee, Herbert Morrison and Hugh Dalton, but the idea was rejected by the government led by Stanley Baldwin.

In October 1935 Benito Mussolini sent in General Pietro Badoglio and the Italian Army into Ethiopia. The League of Nations condemned Italy's aggression and in November imposed sanctions. This included an attempt to ban countries from selling arms, rubber and some metals to Italy. Some political leaders in France and Britain opposed sanctions arguing that it might persuade Mussolini to form an alliance with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Over 400,000 Italian troops fought in Ethiopia. The poorly armed Ethiopians were no match for Italy's modern tanks and aeroplanes. The Italians even used mustard gas on the home forces and were able to capture Addis Ababa, the capital of the country, in May 1936, forcing Emperor Haile Selassie to flee to England.

Zilliacus was devastated by the League's failure to prevent Italy conquering Ethiopia. He was also angry about the League's failure to influence events during the Spanish Civil War. Zilliacus personally supported the right of the Republican Government to purchase arms in defence of the open intervention of Germany and Italy in the conflict, arguing that the struggle was "a further development of the international fascist offensive against socialism and democracy."

In the 1930s Zilliacus wrote a series of books and pamphlets about foreign affairs. As he was an official of the League of Nations he wrote under the pen-name Vigilantes. This included The Dying Peace (1933), Abyssinia (1935), Inquest on Peace (1935) and The Road to War (1937). The last two books were published by Victor Gollancz and his Left Book Club.

In September 1938, Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, met Adolf Hitler at his home in Berchtesgaden. Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia unless Britain supported Germany's plans to takeover the Sudetenland. After discussing the issue with the Edouard Daladier (France) and Eduard Benes (Czechoslovakia), Chamberlain informed Hitler that his proposals were unacceptable.

Benito Mussolini suggested to Adolf Hitler that one way of solving this issue was to hold a four-power conference of Germany, Britain, France and Italy. This would exclude both Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, and therefore increasing the possibility of reaching an agreement and undermine the solidarity that was developing against Germany.

The meeting took place in Munich on 29th September, 1938. Desperate to avoid war, and anxious to avoid an alliance with Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier agreed that Germany could have the Sudetenland. In return, Hitler promised not to make any further territorial demands in Europe. Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier and Benito Mussolini now signed the Munich Agreement which transferred the Sudetenland to Germany.

The League of Nations remained silent on the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Zilliacus now resigned from the Secretariat in protest against the way the matter had been dealt withby the League. He wrote at the time that "the League was dead and the fight was now at home. I knew there was no hope any longer, that no power on earth could avert war." Over the next few months Zilliacus wrote two pamphlets about the crisis in Europe, Why the League Has Failed (1938) and Why We Are Losing the Peace (1938). He also attacked Neville Chamberlain and his foreign policy in Appeasement and Armageddon (1939).

During the Second World War Zilliacus worked in the censorship division of the Ministry of Information. His main responsibility was to censor the reports written by Swedish journalists based in Britain. After the Soviet Union entered the war on the side of the Allies he also worked for the Ministry of Information's Soviet Relations Department. Zilliacus was also a member of the Home Guard in London and a regular contributor to Tribune.

Zilliacus was also a member of the 1941 Committee. One of its members, Tom Hopkinson, later claimed that the motive force behind the organization was the belief that if the Second World War was to be won "a much more coordinated effort would be needed, with stricter planning of the economy and greater use of scientific know-how, particularly in the field of war production." Other members of the group included J. B. Priestley, Edward G. Hulton, Kingsley Martin, Richard Acland, Michael Foot, Peter Thorneycroft, Thomas Balogh, Richie Calder, Tom Winteringham, Vernon Bartlett, Violet Bonham Carter, Victor Gollancz, Storm Jameson and David Low.

Zilliacus stood as the Labour Party candidate in Gateshead in the 1945 General Election. He won 36,736 votes and had a majority of 17,719 majority over Thomas Magnay (National Liberal). In the House of Commons Zilliacus was a great supporter of the United Nations and urged it to get involved in settling the political disputes in Cyprus, India, Indonesia, and Iran.

In the House of Commons Zilliacus associated with a group of left-wing members that included John Platts-Mills, Ian Mikardo, Lester Hutchinson, Leslie Solley, Sydney Silverman, Geoffrey Bing, Emrys Hughes, D. N. Pritt, William Warbey, William Gallacher and Phil Piratin. Zilliacus continued to write articles on foreign affairs for a variety of radical newspapers and magazines including Reynold's News, Daily Herald, Daily Worker, Tribune, and New Statesman.

Zilliacus was highly critical Ernest Bevin, Britain's foreign minister: In a speech in March 1946 he criticized the decision to spend one third of the national budget on defence. He then went on to point out: "Since the general election there has been no sign of any realistic insight into what is happening in the world, no sober appraisal of our own position or the limitations of our power ... We have sunk into ancient ruts, running back to the nineteenth century, and punctuated by two world wars. We are trying to make the ghost of Palmerston walk again."

The following year Zilliacus joined Richard Crossman, Michael Foot and Ian Mikardo to produce Keep Left. In the pamphlet the authors criticized the cold war policies of the United States and urged a closer relationship with Europe in order to create a "Third Force" in politics. This included the idea of nuclear disarmament and the formation of a European Security Pact.

Zilliacus travelled widely in Europe and in 1949 met Joseph Stalin and Josip Tito. He disliked the Soviet leader and told his wife: "There is not a scrap of humanity in Stalin." He got on well with Tito and gave him his full support in his struggle to obtain the independence of Yugoslavia from the Soviet Union.

In April 1948 John Platts-Mills organized a petition in support of Pietro Nenni and the Italian Socialist Party in its general election campaign. He gained support from 27 other MPs including Zilliacus. This went against government policy and Platts-Mills was expelled from the party and Zilliacus was warned about his future conduct. He was sent a letter by the Labour Party's National Executive Council listing examples of how his speeches and writings had included "attacks on the Labour Government's foreign policy." Zilliacus replied that it was his "prime duty as a Member of Parliament to stick to the foreign policy statements and pledges on which I fought the general election."

Ernest Bevin signed the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington on 4th April 1949. Zilliacus completely opposed the treaty arguing that it went against the charter of the United Nations, would accelerate the arms race and make it more difficult to achieve a united Europe. On 12th May, 1949, Zilliacus was only one of only six Labour MPs to vote against the signing of the NATO treaty. Four days later Zilliacus, along with Leslie Solley, were expelled from the Labour Party.

At the Labour Party Annual Conference held in Blackpool the following month, delegates appealed for the National Executive Council to reverse its decision on expelling Zilliacus and Solley. Geoffrey Bing argued that MPs must be allowed to have the freedom to express their true opinions on political issues. Sydney Silverman added that if the Labour Party expelled Zilliacus and Solley for "exercising the right of dissent, we shall be doing damage to the cause of social democracy."

Zilliacus and the other four expelled Labour MPs, John Platts-Mills, Leslie Solley, D. N. Pritt and Lester Hutchinson formed the Labour Independent Group. However, Zilliacus broke with this group in 1949 when they supported Joseph Stalin in his criticisms of Josip Tito and his government in Yugoslavia.

In October 1949 Zilliacus published I Choose Peace. In the book he traced the history of the Cold War, starting with the Allied invasion of Russia in 1918. To bring an end to the division in Europe he advocated withdrawal from NATO, direct negotiations with the Soviet Union, and closer links with other governments in Eastern Europe.

In the 1950 General Election Zilliacus stood as a Labour Independent candidate in Gateshead. Although people such as George Bernard Shaw and J. B. Priestley campaigned for him, he won only 5,001 votes compared to the 15,249 achieved by Arthur Moody, the official Labour Party candidate.

When the Labour government was defeated in 1951 General Election, left-wing critics of Britain's foreign policy were no longer seen as dangerous political figures. Zilliacus was readmitted to the Labour Party in February 1952 and soon afterwards he was adopted as the prospective candidate for Gorton, an industrial suburb of Manchester. In the 1955 General Election Zillacus won the seat by 269 votes.

On 2nd November, 1957, the New Statesman published an article by J. B. Priestley entitled Russia, the Atom and the West. In the article Priestley attacked the decision by Aneurin Bevan to abandon his policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament. The article resulted in a large number of people writing letters to the journal supporting Priestley's views.

Kingsley Martin
, the editor of the New Statesman, organized a meeting of people inspired by Priestley and as result they formed the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Early members of this group included Zilliacus, J. B. Priestley, Bertrand Russell, Fenner Brockway, Frank Cousins, Frank Allaun, Donald Soper, Vera Brittain, Sydney Silverman, James Cameron, Jennie Lee, Victor Gollancz, Konni Zilliacus, Richard Acland, A. J. P. Taylor, Canon John Collins and Michael Foot.

In February 1958 Zilliacus joined Stephen Swingler, Jo Richardson, Harold Davies, Ian Mikardo, Walter Monslow and Sydney Silverman, to form Victory for Socialism (VFS). Soon afterwards Zilliacus wrote the VFS its first pamphlet, Policy for Summit Talks. In the pamphlet Zilliacus argued in favour of Britain ceasing to be a nuclear power and using its influence to replace NATO and the Warsaw Pact by an all-European security treaty.

Zilliacus continued to upset the Labour Party with his political opinions. In February 1961 was suspended for writing an article for a magazine based in communist controlled Czechoslovakia. An attempt was made to get Zilliacus reinstated. This was led by Tom Driberg, a member of the National Executive Committee, however, his suspension was not lifted until September 1961.

Zilliacus, like others on the left, was against Britain joining the European Economic Community (EEC). He argued that this the EEC would divide rather than unite Europe and that it was "part of the cold war policy that had produced NATO."

In 1965 Zilliacus joined Michael Foot, John Mendelson, William Warbey, Russell Kerr, Norman Atkinson, Stan Newens, and Sydney Silverman in protesting against American intervention in Vietnam. However, Zilliacus and his friends were unable to persuade the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, to condemn US policy on Vietnam.

Konni Zilliacus died of leukemia at St Bartholomew's Hospital on 6th July 1967.

John Simkin


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