“Against the Cruelties in Syria”: Revisiting History to Understand Syria Today

Appeal from the "Against the Cruelties in Syria" committee, December 1925The war and terror in Syria has taken on horrific proportions, yet, and as sad as this may sound, this is nothing new to the country or region in itself. In 1925, the French mandate forces, which, in other words, was how the colonial powers rephrased their control over the colonies after the establishment of the League of Nations and with the Versailles Peace Treaty in 1919, brutally suppressed a tribal uprising in Syria. Similar to the situation in Syria today, numerous people (men, women and children) were affected by the military measures to bring order to the country, yet this time it was the French military. However, the consequence of these measures provoked a strong reaction in Europe, and became part of the nucleus that later would constitute the formation of the League against Imperialism (1927-37), a leading petitioner and protester against colonialism and imperialism during the interwar years.

The reactions on the disastrous situation and violence in Syria was concentrated in the committee “Against the Cruelties in Syria” (in German: Gegen die Greuel in Syria), the creation of the prominent German communist Willi Münzenberg (1889-1940) and the communist mass organization the Internationale Arbeiterhilfe (1921-35), who was (and still is) described and perceived as the leading persona during the interwar years in designing and shaping the propaganda campaigns of the communist movement, ideas which from time to time evolved into transnational enterprises. Yet the history of the “Against the Cruelties in Syria” committee is a short one. The committee was initiated in December 1925, and dissolved in the beginning of 1926, fused with the anti-colonial organisation the League against Colonial Oppression (LACO; in German: Liga gegen koloniale Unterdrückung), which later acted as the official organiser of the “First International Congress against Colonialism and Imperialism” in Brussels at Palais d’Egmont on 10-14 February, 1927. The congress also witnessed the establishment of the League against Imperialism.

The peculiar idea behind the Against the Cruelties in Syria committee was to get leftwing intellectuals and leading politicans in the European socialist movement to support the political message. Prominent people involved in the committee were, for example, Ernst Toller, Henri Guilbeaux, Weiland Herzfelde (brother to artist John Heartfield), George Ledebour.

The leading principle for the committee was to raise awareness by signing petitions, publish declarations of protests, and arrange public demonstrations. Hence, this is pretty much the blueprint of twentieth century political activism, however, activism these days rather transmitted through the dynamics of social media. Yet at this point, it was a question of acting and interacting for the sole reason of spurring some kind of reaction on what was happening outside of Europe’s borders and its power structures, particularly to illustrate and inform about dramas enacted in colonial and semi-colonial countries. This so-called Syria committee promised to, which it to some degree managed to do, raise awareness and material relief in Europe on the drastic and gruesome effects of the mandate system, i.e. the continuance of colonialism after the “Great War“.

What now is happening in Syria deserves a similar reaction from prominent individuals in Europe and beyond, or can just one simply say that there already exists an abundance of political and moral support that seeks a solution to the onslaught? The clock is ticking and so does the lives of ordinary men, women and children, caught in the maelstrom of violence due to the power struggle of the Syrian regime and the national liberation movement.