Clare Mulley, the award-winning historian and broadcaster, tells Historia about some astonishing news which led her to speak to one of the first child survivors of World War One who was helped, over a century ago, by the newly-formed Save the Children.
History often holds remarkable surprises, but only rarely does it seem to circle back to take your hand.
When I was researching my first book, The Woman Who Saved the Children, a biography of Eglantyne Jebb, the once controversial founder of Save the Children, I was already working at the charity she had established almost a century earlier. I filled my evenings and weekends doing what Antonia Fraser calls ‘optical research’, visiting the places that Eglantyne knew, and trying to see the London squares and Swiss mountains, the rooms and dinner plates, through her eyes.
Ever more obsessed, I paced the streets where she was once arrested, interviewed her great nephews and nieces, discovered secrets inside her girlfriend’s former home, unearthed her will in Switzerland, and even slept in her childhood bedroom. I always knew, however, that there was no known living connection to Eglantyne. She had no children of her own, not being fond of ‘the little wretches’ as she once referred to them, and had died young in 1928.
So I was astounded when Save the Children in Berlin told me they had been in touch with a gentleman whose life had been saved by Eglantyne’s first relief project, in 1919. With the considerable help of Save the Children’s Susanne Sawadogo, I interviewed Erich Karl, now 107*. Waving cheerily at me from his easy chair through a thick pair of glasses and the magic of Zoom, we connected briefly across not only 700 miles, but also the history of two world wars and two global pandemics.
One of six children, Erich was born into humble circumstances in the city of Weimar, just before the First World War. His father survived his frontline service, and became a casual labourer. His mother worked doing laundry in a neighbour’s basement, “difficult and unpleasant work” to Erich’s mind, but at least she had meals provided and could sometimes pass some of her food up through a cellar window to Erich, then six years old, waiting in the street above.
Young Erich was often hungry in the long months after the war, when hundreds of thousands of people faced starvation across Europe. Humanitarian observers inside Germany reported on ragged street children, ‘pale and thin as corpses’, and infants in hospitals whose bodies had been unable to develop on their meagre diets and whose bones were too soft to support them. By April 1919, an estimated 900 Germans were dying through starvation and related disease every day.
This desperate situation had been exacerbated by the British government’s decision to continue the economic blockade to Europe as a means of pushing through the desired peace terms. While Erich was trying to stretch out his turnips and cabbage, or on better days savouring his mother’s noodle broth, Eglantyne was in London, lobbying the government with the ‘Fight the Famine Council’.
When that seemingly had little impact, she printed hundreds of leaflets featuring photographs of starving Austrian infants, and started handing them out in London’s Trafalgar Square, the traditional site of political protest.
Arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act, Eglantyne stood trial that May. She knew she had little hope of being acquitted, but insisted on conducting her own defence so that she could focus on the moral case, and give the court reporters plenty to fill their columns. Although found guilty, she was fined just £5, a sum hastily given her by the contrite public prosecutor. Taking his note, Eglantyne donated it to her and her sister Dorothy’s new ‘Save the Children Fund.’ The story made headlines, and public donations soon enabled the sisters to organise their first relief projects, delivered through the Quakers.
Erich was still only six years old when some ‘women in aprons’ first arrived at his school, in the poorer part of town, to ladle out cocoa enriched with rice, sugar, condensed milk and lard. It was an odd kind of soup, he thought, that you were supposed to drink, rather than eat with a spoon. Although this was over 100 years ago, he still remembers the look of the ‘cocoa soup’ in his small tin bowl. When I asked whether it tasted good, he diplomatically replied: “Let’s just say, nobody threw it away. Everybody was happy that they got something to eat.” As a child he never considered who organised or paid for the cocoa; it just filled his stomach, enabling him sleep at night and keep coming to classes on the following days.
Back in England, the launch of a campaign to raise money for children in countries that barely six months earlier had been at war with Britain, especially when there was obvious need at home, was courageous. Some of the first to lend their support were returning English servicemen, who had seen the desperate need in Germany. Yet a few well-connected ladies from Save the Children’s first committee resigned at the news that funds were being spent in Germany. “I do not desire their recovery,” Lady Norah Bentinck wrote. “Only half-hearted patriots would wish to relieve enemies… or wish to see Germany and her allies strong enough once more to attempt renewing their atrocities.”
“There are those who do not believe the children are worth saving, and those who do not believe they can be saved,” Eglantyne wrote. The way she saw it, all children had a right to a dignified life and future, irrespective of who their parents had been or whether they had won or lost the war. “The problem is not money, but attitude of mind,” she decided. “We have to devise a means of making known the facts in such a way as to touch the imagination of the world.”
She had soon signed up support from well-known figures such as Thomas Hardy, AA Milne, and the playwright George Bernard Shaw who claimed that, like the Jebb sisters, he “had no enemies under the age of seven.” Eventually Eglantyne won the support of aristocrats and factory girls, the Pope and the Welsh mining unions, and even the wife of the British Prime Minister who had organised the wartime economic blockade.
Eglantyne died ten years later, aged just 52, having established the international Save the Children federation, and drafted the pioneering statement of children’s human rights that has since evolved into the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, now the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history.
Lady Norah had no doubt been thinking of her own newborn son when she had expressed her concerns so vividly. Henry Bentinck would indeed be wounded, although not killed, during active service in the Second World War. Erich Karl served on the other side of the conflict, having been drafted at 26 in the summer of 1939.
Posted to the intelligence service in Eastern Prussia, he was saved from the horror of Stalingrad because his education had enabled him to become a precision engineer, and in 1943 his skills were required in Berlin. “I was lucky,” he says today. “The English bombed of course, with all the trimmings. But that was only half the truth… the Germans had started it, the Germans invaded.”
Has the world learned from the work of humanitarians like Eglantyne Jebb, I asked Erich as the light started fading in his front room. “To a certain extent,” he says, “let’s put it that way.” In 2014 a container village for refugees from Syria and Afghanistan was set up in the woods beyond Erich’s senior citizens residence, where he still walks with his zimmer frame most days.
There were some demonstrations, and certain local people “were forever ranting about how this city was going to change,” he admits. But Erich understood that the incomers had fled from danger, scarcity and chaos, the sort of misery he remembers from personal experience. ‘Let them come first, let us wait and see how it goes’, he told his neighbours. “After all, they’re people in need.”
As a living witness to both the worst and the best of humanity, Erich has mixed feelings about the future. “Nothing can shake me,” he has said in the past, but he believes that the world would be a better place if people thought less about politics, and focused more on simply helping those in need. If more people had shared Eglantyne’s principles and priorities, perhaps history might have been written differently.
“People should support each other,” Erich says; read books, study hard, learn languages, and remember that “what you have in your head, nobody can take away”. Then he smiles broadly, waves goodbye through the ether, and gets ready for a hot chocolate before he turns in for the night. “I’m not too keen on it,” he confesses, but he still drinks some every day.
*Erich Karl died in June 2021, just a couple of weeks after this interview. His story is also told in Save the Children Germany’s book, I Am Alive, featuring one person whose life was saved by the charity in every one of the last ten decades.
Clare Mulley is chair of judges for the HWA Non-Fiction Crown 2021.
Historia spoke to Clare when her book was republished; you’ll find much more about Eglantyne and the history of Save the Children in her interview.
Clare’s book The Spy Who Loved was one of the sources that inspired Carolyn Kirby when researching her novel When We Fall. The two writers spoke about Krystyna Skarbek, the subject of Clare’s biography, and women spies during the Second World War in another Historia interview.
Clare Mulley with copies of The Woman Who Saved the Children; Erich Karl; leaflet showing a starving baby; Eglantyne Jebb: all supplied by the author