A British Quaker who worked against Nazism in the 1930s has been honoured by the UK government, undermining the common perception that Quaker pacifists failed to stand up to tyranny.
Bertha Bracey died in 1989, but has now been posthumously awarded a medal, inscribed “In the Service of Humanity”.
After the Nazis came to power in Germany, she campaigned for a relaxation of immigration controls for the sake of Jews and other persecuted groups.
She is one of 27 individuals to have been given the award, although many of them were posthumous. Two of the recipients – Denis Avey, 91 and Nicholas Winton, 100 – collected them in person at a Downing Street reception.
Today (10 March), Bracey’s award was warmly welcomed by Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM), the organising body for the Religious Society of Friends – as Quakers are more formally known – in Britain.
Together with Jewish representatives, Bracey persuaded ministers to alter immigration controls, thus assisting refugees fleeing Nazism. Much of the right-wing press at the time opposed immigration from Germany.
As Secretary of the Friends Committee on Refugees and Aliens, Bracey’s work was central to the establishment of the Kindertransport. This scheme brought 10,000 children, mostly Jewish, to Britain from mainland Europe in 1938 and 1939.
Despite the role played by Quakers and other British pacifists, the peace movement in the 1930s is often portrayed as having aided Hitler by refusing to support war against Germany. The writer George Orwell described pacifism as “objectively pro-fascist”.
Others point out that many peace activists in Britain consistently opposed policies which appeased fascism, as well as those that prepared for war. After Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, Quakers called for an arms embargo on Italy, but the arms industry successfully lobbied ministers to prevent this.
While welcoming Bracey’s award today, British Friends were keen to emphasise that German Quakers took huge personal risks during the Third Reich, hiding Jews, sitting with people awaiting deportation and helping others to emigrate.
Several Quakers were interned in prisons and concentration camps in Nazi Germany.