Thursday, 4 February 2016

Natsume Soseki, Ireland's Easter Rising and China's Cold War

In a few weeks time, on April 24, Ireland will commemorate the centennial anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, when over 1000 Irish patriots launched a surprise attack on strategic buildings in Dublin and other locations in Ireland and proclaimed an Irish Republic. The nationalists managed to hold out for a week before, faced with overwhelming British military superiority, surrendering. The Rising left over 450 people (mostly civilians) dead and thousands injured. The British government - in the midst of its life-and-death struggle with the Central Powers in the First World War - responded to the uprising by arresting 3500 people and executing 16 of the Rising's ringleaders.

The traditional interpretation of the Rising is that although it failed, it served to both galvanize and radicalize Irish nationalism, particularly because the British executed the ringleaders turning public opinion in their favour. Violent resistance to British rule would immediately erupt again in the Irish War of Independence of 1919-21 leading to the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. Since that time the 1916 Rising has been enshrined as part of the very foundation myth of modern Ireland, as witnessed by copies of the 1916 Declaration of Independence (image at top) hanging proudly in many Irish pubs across the world.

I generally like to celebrate Ireland from the safe remove of distant lands rather then drench myself in its history. Yet it's curious how in our inter-connected world, going to the farthest reaches of the planet can offer you new insights on the part of the world you (or in my case, my forebears) first came from and I want to write here a little bit about how delving into the literature of Japan can offer a surprising insight into subjects like the 1916 Irish Rising despite on the face of it having no obvious connection.

The first and long-standing Irish leader Eamon de Valera did a very successful job in recreating Ireland as he saw it - agrarian, spartan, obeisant to the Catholic Church. This was supposed to have been Ireland in its natural state, having shook off the oppression of the British. It comes as a shock however to learn of all the other multitudinous possibilities that Ireland may have grasped back in the 1920s had the visions of other freedom-loving aspirations come to the fore. Many wanted Ireland not to be a backwater, but to be a modern Utopia, a beacon of progressive ideals to the rest of the world. Indeed it's only really now, a hundred years after the 1916 Rising, that this 'other Ireland' is finally beginning to be realized. Endless waves of sexual abuse scandals involving Catholic Brothers and Priests has forever undermined the power of the Church in Ireland and opened up a new liberal space. The national plebiscite in favour of changing the constitution to grant gay marriage was a turning point and would doubtless have de Valera spinning in his grave.

At the same time as this turning away from conservative nationalism however, there has also been a questioning of the 1916 Rising itself. Two years ago, former Taoiseach (prime minister) John Bruton dared to speak the unspeakable when he asked in a speech if the 1916 Rising was actually necessary. After all - and this is a key point - the Home Rule for Ireland bill had already passed all three stages of the British Parliament and was on the brink of being enacted when the First World War broke out, causing it to be postponed until the end of the War. Was it really worth the 450 lives lost and thousands injured in 'The Rising', not to mention the descent of Ireland into years of internecine civil war for years afterwards, when self-government could have been delivered peacefully?

Bruton (pictured right) was careful to note that he did not doubt the 'sincerity' of the men of 1916, though some historians have been overtly critical of the agenda of those ringleaders who would be later effectively canonized as 'martyrs'. I won't pretend I know enough about the background of the 1916 rebels and the dizzying complexity of all the Irish nationalist groups of those days to pass comment, but I do think there is a very important element of the debate - indeed of our understanding of the First World War as a whole - which is ignored and it's at this point that I think turning to the unlikely source of Japanese literature is extremely instructive.

At the beginning of 1916, the great Japanese author Natsume Soseki penned a series of pieces in the Asahi newspaper called Tentoroku (which means 'New Year Chronicle'). Japan had a relatively minor role in the First World War, allied to the Entente Powers and mopping up some of Germany's colonies in the Far East. Generally speaking though it seems remarkable how little Soseki - the most famous author in the country and the star writer for the nation's leading newspaper - actually ever mentions the war. For Soseki it just seemed to be like business as usual and he continued serializing novels until his unexpected death in December 1916.

In his 'New Year Chronicle', Soseki refers to how another 'big war' has broken out (Japan had fought its own 'big war' with Russia in 1904-5) and talks about what seems like a relatively minor point, that Britain was about to start introducing conscription. Soseki goes on to say how unexpectedly strong Germany had proved to be in the conflict and that to combat that strength Britain was having to abandon her libertarian traditions and adopt German methods. In that sense, Soseki remarks, Germany was winning the war.

The standard interpretation is that Soseki (pictured below) simply did not understand how utterly momentous the First World War was, and perhaps this is understandable given how far away Japan was from the main theatre of conflict, how relatively slight was her involvement and of course that Soseki died midway through the war.

That interpretation is mistaken. In fact Soseki's observations are strikingly acute. It's curious that in the plethora of commemorations currently taking place throughout the world to remember the First World War, this key issue of 'conscription' is hardly ever mentioned and yet it is absolutely essential in understanding a watershed moment in the history of the British Empire.

It's almost completely forgotten today that until 1916, Britain was the only combatant in the First World War not to rely on conscript armies. Indeed in its entire history, the British Empire - defended by its all-powerful navy - had never had recourse to conscription, proudly maintaining a tradition that it could rely on volunteers to willingly die in the name of King and Country. Whatever the reality of the situation, the British Empire presented itself as a sort of kindly, patrician gentleman's club, inspired by civilization and high-minded ideals, in which 'primitive peoples' were looked after rather than coerced or exploited. It crucially relied on the members of the empire also sharing this vision of freedom under the flag and the common good.

Conscription changed all of that forever. It was one thing for Australian prime minister Andrew Fisher to declare in September 1914 when asked if Australia would back Britain in the war that they would 'defend her to our last man and our last shilling', but that relied on a vision of Australians volunteering their services and lives for the empire (recruitment poster below). When in 1916, the Australian government under pressure from the British attempted to introduce conscription, it was narrowly rejected by national plebiscite (and rejected again by a greater margin in 1917). Australia remembers today as part of its foundation the blood sacrifice of Gallipoli, but arguably just as significant was the attempt to impose conscription. Nothing quite focusses the mind on your relationship with 'The Motherland' as the thought as having to die for them whether you wish to serve or not.

The same was exactly true in Canada, where attempts to introduce conscription in 1917 met with riots and forceful protests from the Francophone Quebecois community.

In Ireland, the conscription issue was crucial. It was one thing to be told that the implementation of the Home Rule bill was to be put on a back-burner until the end of the war, but the British Government then attempted to link the promised implementation with Irish accession to conscription. Of course, from the British Government's point of view, sending out in 1914 a professional army of 100,000 men to meet a German conscript army of 5 million, it was quickly obvious that large-scale recruitment of men was desperately needed. Many in Ireland - as in Canada and Australia and throughout the British Empire - freely and bravely volunteered to fight in the war (or else were lured into it by thoughts of 'adventure' and 'mateship'). But for Irish nationalists, who may have been content to sit out the war and wait for the implementation of Home Rule, the spectre of imminent conscription in 1916 was unquestionably the event that concentrated minds on a 'Rising'.

Indeed, rather than predominantly see the British government's execution of The Rising's ringleaders as the key event that radicalized Irish nationalism, I would argue that it was actually the proposed introduction of conscription in 1916 and a further attempt in 1918 (anti-conscription rally right), when Britain was even more seriously short of men and staggering following the success of Ludendorff's 1918 Spring Offensive, that pushed Ireland into urgent demands for independence.

Soseki's analysis of what was happening in the war in 1916, far from being a concentration on a minor topic, acutely analyzes something that would presage the entire downfall of the British Empire. Never again would the Empire be able to operate under the mystique that it was about freedom and volunteers, rather than land and coercion. Indeed it's significant that 1916 was also the year of the Sykes-Picot agreement, in which a covert agreement was drawn up between Britain and France to carve up the Middle East after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Britain, which had entered the war in 1914 outraged by German atrocities in Belgium and determined to uphold civilization and freedom from the German aggressor, had by 1916 adopted German methods of waging war with the ultimate goal of wholesale imperial expansion. En route however the purported ideals of the Empire had been fatally undermined.

It's instructive too, I think, to apply Soseki's analysis to the current situation in which Japan finds itself. While not a 'hot war' like the First World War, Japan is currently engaged in a major 'Cold War' with China, with each side viewing the other with profound suspicion and enmity. For some years now, a debate has raged in Japan about the need to revise the country's Peace Constitution, prohibiting the country from having a regular army, in order to adequately defend itself from the perceived Chinese threat.

These concerns are not to be dismissed, particularly in the light of an ever more assertive China and with the power of the US, Japan's protector, in seeming retreat. Many indeed argue that the Peace Constitution was an American imposition to start off with.

Yet to adopt Soseki's analysis, for Japan to change its very constitution in the light of a threat from China, is not a 'natural' development, but one forced upon it by China. In that sense, again to mimic Soseki, China could be thought to be 'winning'. As shown by Britain's experience in combatting Germany in the First World War, making such changes may succeed in their primary objective, but often have completely unforeseen, long-term consequences that can sow the seeds of one's own destruction.

On the occasion of the centennial anniversary of Ireland's 1916 Uprising, I think it's time to look again at the causes of it, not in a narrowly nationalistic light, but to trace its connections to events around the world and consider what insight those events might lend us to some highly pressing political issues in the world today.

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