Walter Wolfgang RIP
Donald Trump flies into the UK next week, and we will be treated to the surreal spectacle of a widely reviled president meeting a defeated prime minister amid scenes of pomp, ceremony and protest.
For all the high-level meetings he will attend, the president would gain far more by staying home and learning about the life of my friend Walter Wolfgang, who died this week at the age of 95. A lifelong peace activist, he was preoccupied in his final days by Trump and his growing belligerence towards Iran.
Walter’s life story reads like a history of the last century. He was born to Jewish parents in Frankfurt in 1923, a year before the city elected its first Jewish mayor, Ludwig Landmann. But by 1937 he had to flee from the Nazis to Britain, a teenage refugee. Walter’s parents remained in Germany, only to lose everything when their business was confiscated. His father was taken to Buchenwald concentration camp. Although he was able to escape Germany for Britain with Walter’s mother in 1939, Buchenwald destroyed his health and caused his premature death in 1945 – the same year that Mayor Landmann died of malnutrition while in hiding from the Nazis.
“As a refugee from Nazi Germany,” Walter later said, “I saw at first hand the terrible consequences of a political doctrine based on hatred and racism.” It was this experience, and a further political awakening when his family was interned like other Germans in England in 1940, that gave Walter a determination to fight prejudice against all peoples and classes. He did not want anybody else, anywhere in the world, to suffer exploitation or oppression, as he and his own family had.
This struggle went hand in hand with his commitment to peace. His political beliefs were underpinned by his Jewish faith – “the Jewish aim of human brotherhood”, as he put it, and a desire to make real the Hebrew prophets’ vision of a world without war.
In 1948, having been naturalised as a British citizen, he joined the Labour party. Walter gravitated towards the left, partly as a consequence of his opposition to the Korean war. In 1956 he helped organise a momentous demonstration in Trafalgar Square against the invasion of Suez – one of the occasions on which he found the Labour leadership was on his side.
Walter was horrified by the cold war and the prospect of nuclear annihilation. In 1958 he was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and helped organise the first Aldermaston march to Britain’s Atomic Weapons Research Establishment – an occasion he remembered for the presence of bands and music and an unexpectedly good turnout.
He stood as a Labour candidate for Croydon North East in the 1959 general election. He did not win, and was prevented from standing again due to his anti-nuclear views. Unperturbed, he dedicated the rest of his life to that cause – a level of commitment that was recognised when CND made him its vice-president for life.
In later life, Walter campaigned vigorously against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and became celebrated for an incident at the 2005 Labour party conference, when he was forcefully ejected from the hall after heckling “Nonsense” at foreign secretary Jack Straw as he extolled the virtues of the British occupation of Iraq.
The footage of an 82-year-old man being manhandled and then detained under anti-terrorism laws caused widespread outrage and became symbolic of the growing intolerance of open debate in the party. Next morning Walter was readmitted to the conference hall to a standing ovation from the floor and, later, an apology from Tony Blair. A year after the debacle, in a fitting riposte from the grassroots to the party hierarchy, he was elected to Labour’s national executive.
To me, Walter was always a dear friend and a courageous moral leader. I visited him in hospital shortly before he died. He was very ill but his mind was still sharp. I asked him to record a message on my phone. He said: “The objective of the Labour party and the peace movement is a peaceful world without exploitation.”
I very much doubt that President Trump will hear similar sentiments from Theresa May next week, but there will be thousands on the streets to amplify Walter’s message. I know that if he was still with us, he would be there too, back in Trafalgar Square, standing up for peace.
• Jeremy Corbyn, the MP for Islington North, is the leader of the Labour Party
This article originally appeared in the Guardian