Ellen Wilkinson is forever associated with the famous 1936 crusade for jobs during her time as MP for Jarrow.
But a new book by Matt Perry attempts to put Wilkinson’s story in a wider political and historical context, including her role as a minister in the 1945 Labour government.
‘Red Ellen’ Wilkinson: Her Ideas, Movements and World explores the life of a multi-faceted woman who met political figures including Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Mahatma Gandhi, as well as writing fiction and journalism and witnessing at first hand the rise of Germany’s Third Reich and the Spanish Civil War.
Mr Perry, a reader in Labour history at Newcastle University, told the Gazette: “I wanted to deepen our understanding of her commitment to the causes of working people, women, anti-fascism and peace, as well as her journey from rebel to the Cabinet.
“In so doing, I try to challenge some myths about her, but I think my portrayal shows there was nevertheless something heroic about her life.”
The detailed biography, drawing on years of research and running to more than 400 pages, explores the twists and turns of Wilkinson’s life from her birth in Manchester in 1891 to her death in 1947, still believed by many to have been suicide.
• The Gazette has 10 copies of the book to give away.
To stand the chance of winning one, answer the following question: In what year was Ellen Wilkinson selected as Parliamentary candidate for Jarrow?
Send your entries to the Shields Gazette, 7 Beach Road, South Shields, NE33 2QE.
n In phrasing the question yesterday we mistakenly asked in what year Miss Wilkinson was selected as candidate for South Shields.
AN EXTRACT FROM THE BOOK
In early 1936, Ellen Wilkinson visited Germany as a journalist and returned with a dramatic scoop that Hitler planned to march into the Rhineland that was demilitarised under the terms of the treaty after the First World War.
During the parliamentary recess, Wilkinson visited Berlin for the Sunday Referee.
Wanting to gauge the atmosphere and meet one or two former acquaintances, she found that death and imprisonment had dispersed several of her contacts.
The Referee’s headline presciently warned: ‘Hitler prepares to march on Rhine: “we can mobilise in 24 hours”: Wilkinson flies to find the truth.’
A certain dash of sensationalism was added to the description of Wilkinson’s trip:
‘[…] red-headed, pocket-sized MP [...] took her life into her hands when stopping only to cast her vote in the House of Commons division, she flew to Germany on a special mission of investigation ... . [She] was forbidden entry into Germany for speaking the truth about the Nazi regime – defied the ban to go ... .’
Wilkinson flew from Hendon, early on Friday morning. The paper noted the Third Reich’s surveillance of her and the threat of arrest and expulsion.
Armed with only her notebook and pencil and ‘a native ability for calling an opponent’s bluff’, she returned to Berlin after a year’s absence. Terror had intensified with a recent wave of arrests.
She met up with an acquaintance, whom she had first met at an international student congress in 1921.
He had since become a Nazi and was working in a ministerial office in Wilhemstraße.
War filled his imagination, anticipating a re-division of global geopolitics in which Japan would seize territory from the Soviet Union and Germany would be ready for a conflict after only another year’s preparation.
He explained that the regime had the detailed plans to march into the Rhineland and although this would not happen until after the summer Olympics in Berlin, they were ready at 24 hours’ notice and would certainly do so that year.
He expected the French government to protest vociferously but not to mobilise without British support.
Three weeks later, the Wehrmacht did indeed march into the Rhineland, thereby breaking the terms of the Versailles Treaty, just as Wilkinson had warned.
She heard further evidence of Germany’s military intentions with Hitler’s speech at an international car exhibition where he boasted of Germany’s new technical advances in synthetic rubber and petrol; as Wilkinson reflected ‘the two great essentials in modern warfare. [...] We are nearer the abyss than we think.’
Years later, Victor Thompson revealed that she had telephoned the article to her editor under her bedclothes as she suspected that her hotel room was under surveillance. She started packing immediately after the call.
In New Dawn, she noted the contrast in Berlin’s bohemian quarter, whose lively cafés were transformed, with their intellectuals now scattered across the concentration camps.
She then searched for an old trade union friend, doubling back on herself to ensure that she was not being followed.
She found him ‘shrunken and grey’ as a result of a year in a concentration camp reduced from the typical ‘big, bouncing, jovial’ German working man.
With the shop that he was working in empty, they were able to go into the sitting room in the back; his wife closed the blinds. He was pessimistic.
The Nazis were adept at using the distribution of jobs and winter relief to divide the workers.
With a joke about Hitler’s visit to a big factory, Wilkinson’s friend highlighted the regime’s contradictory support.
Asking how many socialists, Communists and democrats worked in the factory, Hitler was told 40%, 40% and 20% in turn.
A terrified Hitler—demanding ‘were there no Nazis then?’—was informed that they were all Nazis, of course.
‘Breitmann’ asked her whether she thought Hitler would last.
She observed that the curious silence of the German working class could only be understood in the context of censorship and press conformity.
He then told her of a veteran trade unionist who kept a duplicator and produced illegal socialist literature.
Discovering this, his son took the machine to protect his father but was denounced and died from the beatings that he received in the police station.
Wilkinson contrasted for New Dawn’s audience the accusation of sensationalism that greeted such stories in Britain, with the sheer routine and mundane character of these grim realities for her old trade union friend.
‘Breitmann’s’ wife was becoming anxious lest they were discovered so Wilkinson had to leave.