Reflections on Rosika

Impersonating Rosika Schwimmer, Robin Lloyd delivered this reflection on her life during World War 1 to a history class at the University of Vermont, fall 2015.

My name is Rosika Schwimmer: I’m from Hungary: born in 1877……I come from the upper middle class…but due to financial problems, at the age of 18 I had to work as a bookkeeper……

Women’s suffrage was my first passion… I became known to the international world of activism when I organized, in 1913, in Budapest, a gathering of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance. Because of my organizing work and travel as a journalist, I had become fluent in 9 languages. So, as a result of my work, 3000 women came from around Europe. Its been called the largest and most brilliant of women’s Conferences. I formed friendships with important women in Europe and the United States.

In the summer of 1914 I was living in England as a suffrage organizer and correspondent of important European newspapers, …when….Gavilo Princip fired his gun in Sarejevo. I could see immediately what could happen. I had breakfast a week and a half later with Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George: he wrote our meeting up in his War Memoirs: “…some time in July, I met with an influential Hungarian woman who said that the assassination could lead to all out war……however, official reports did not seem to justify the alarmist view she took of the situation”.

How was it that I was the only one who could foresee the immense catastrophe that lay ahead?

I knew that a war started AND ENDED by capitalists and militarists – ie fought to the bitter end – meant a peace dictated by military elites, with new causes for future conflict.

My first pamphlet – my desperate plea – started “to all men, women and organizations who want to stop the international massacre at the earliest possible moment…” I appealed to the countries not yet involved to offer continuous mediation to the belligerent governments. Many people endorsed my plan, and feminists invited me to the US to meet with President Wilson. We met him on Sept. 18th, 1914 – the first battle of the Marne had just taken place- and presented him with the International petition which urged him to call a Neutral Conference for Continuous Mediation. He was polite but non-committal.

I travelled, with a British feminist, to 22 states urging people to contact the president: “If you do not help us put an end to the war in Europe, you too will be drawn in!!” It was in Chicago that I met Lola Maverick Lloyd, Robin’s grandmother on Novermber 20, and she took me to see Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House, one of the first settlement houses in the country that served immigrants and the poor…to make a long story short, the flame of peace had been lit between us: we travelled to Washington DC for an extraordinary gathering of women that became the Women’s Peace Party. Together we hammered out a draft peace settlement which called for a number of terms of post-war settlement that were later embodied in President Wilson’s 14 points.

Young men in European countries were receiving the call to join the war effort: we at the Peace Party meeting received a call to join the peace effort; an invitation to a conference of women to propose ways out of the slaughter…..and indeed it happened: over 1100 women from neutral and belligerent countries travelled across dangerous borders or across the ocean (in my case), and met for 4 days at the Hague, Holland: we proposed a conference of neutral nations that would offer continuous mediation, without demanding an armistice; …and…this was the unique part, – that we should carry these demands right then and there to the belligerent and neutral countries. The Conference was at first deadlocked on this idea – women felt it was unrealistic, and they feared potential ridicule - but I appealed to them: “it is time to allow our hearts to speak. When our sons are killed by the millions, let us, mothers, simply try to do good by going to kings and emperors: we face no other danger but a refusal!”

Well, we did it, to no avail: though one official said “these are the most sensible words I have heard spoken in this room for six months!”
We came back to the US and we implored President Wilson, again, to call a Neutral Conference. We issued a manifesto declaring that all nations were waiting for the United States to make the call, being the most powerful neutral country, without whom no peace move could be successful.

Then, a most surprising person entered the fray. The leading capitalist of America, Henry Ford began speaking out against military preparedness – even though he was going to make a lot of money from it later on. I read his comments in the NY Times: “the word ‘murderer’ should be embroidered in red letters across the breast of every soldier…I am opposed to war in every sense of the word!” He said, “I have prospered much, but I am ready to give much to end this constant, wasteful ‘Preparation”.

Well, we managed to meet with him , and he endorsed my idea of a peace ship to Europe that would start the process of an unofficial conference of mediation. Like many millionaires, he took direct action: he reserved all the first and second class rooms on the Scandinavian-American line, the Oscar 11. He hoped the boat and the publicity around the boat would ‘get the boys out of their trenches and back to their homes by Christmas Day.”

We initially hit it off, tho he revealed himself to be an anti-semite, and as I am Jewish, that led to estrangement later on.
There is a whole long story to tell about these idealistic efforts… let me just say that in my opinion, they capsized on the shoals of a cynical and irresponsible press and on the timidity of national leaders to stand up to the forces of uber patriotism and profiteering that had been unleashed by the war.

Id like to close with two comments: Wilson’s choices are often portrayed as a choice between isolationism and joining the war effort: I submit that the tragedy of his life was in not pursuing the third choice: an aggressive proffering of mediation to the belligerent powers….he would have had the support of the neutral countries behind him as well as the eternal gratitude of humanity.

Secondly, one hopeful thing that came out of this global disaster was the refusal of women to let war and peace be exclusively a men’s game: and their determination to play a greater role in foreign policy. The women who met in the Hague in 1915 founded an organization - the Women’s Intl League for Peace and Freedom - which exists to this day. My sister colleagues have created a film to celebrate our 100th anniversary: