Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Harry Farr and hundreds of others pardoned: an empty gesture?

Some months ago I commented on the case of Harry Farr, one of many British soldiers shot for cowardice or desertion because they cracked under the unbearable conditions of trench warfare during World War I. His now 93-year-old daughter was appealing to the government for a pardon.

Now Defence Secretary Des Brown has announced (says the BBC) that he is going to seek a "parliamentary group pardon" for 306 men, including Farr, who were shot under similar situations. May this initiative fly up the order paper for a proper vote and Royal Assent. Farr's daughter, Gertrude Harris, is happy with the outcome, and I certainly hope that she lives long enough to see the actual pardon.

These World War I cases have attracted a lot of attention, leading not only to individual petitions but to such things as the erection of the "Shot at Dawn" monument pictured above, erected in Staffordshire, England, to commemorate soldiers shot by their own side.

Given this, I found the comments on this case by Niall Ferguson more than a little odd. Writing in the LA Times, Ferguson, a young star in the historical profession (you'll be hearing from him for decades to come), compares the case of Farr and Gunter Grass, the Nobel-laureate writer who has just admitted that in the final years of the Second War that he was a member of the notorious military wing of the Nazi SS -- albeit as a young draftee, and one never accused of war crimes. This is a big deal because Grass has been credited in the past for working hard to get Germans to come to terms with the Nazi past.

Ferguson himself works hard to excuse Grass' behavior -- which I have no opinion about, being quite ignorant about him, despite my claims to be an educated person -- stating that both Farr and Grass were "simply two tiny cogs in the monstrous mincing machines of total war." Perhaps true. But then he also says "Retrospectively pardoning World War I deserters, then, is as empty a gesture as retrospectively condemning World War II conscripts."

Well, tell Gertrude Harris that, Niall, if you've got the guts.


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