1920-1939 | Appeasing Hitler

11 MAY


Alfred Rosenberg had placed a swastika wreath at the cenotaph. ( Photo: Das Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia )

[ 11 May 1933 ]

On 11 May 1933, Captain James Edmonds Sears, a First World War veteran and a prospective Labour Party candidate for South West St. Pancras, was fined forty shillings at London’s Bow Street magistrates court. His offence, according to the sentencing magistrate, was his ‘very ill mannerly and improper’ behaviour when he removed a giant swastika wreath from the base of the Cenotaph in Whitehall and passed it to a driver with instructions to throw it in the Thames.1

The wreath of lilies and laurel leaves, arranged around a large black swastika, had been placed there the previous day by Dr Alfred Rosenberg, one of Hitler’s most trusted and ruthless senior officials.  A few days earlier The Times, under the headline ‘Dr Rosenberg to Visit London‘ had explained that ‘Herr Rosenberg… is the special champion of the theory of “eastward expansion” for Germany which is the basis of Nazi foreign policy,’ and added that ‘his numerous books show him to be a convinced anti-Semite.’2  By the time of his visit he was already a key architect of Germany’s campaign of persecution against the Jews.3

What shocked the British establishment, however, was that someone should dare remove Dr. Rosenberg’s swastika wreath.  Even the relatively progressive Manchester Guardian expressed its dismay,  insisting that ‘the new regime of wrangling and wreath snatching round the Whitehall Cenotaph seems rather unedifying and not very appropriate to the true purpose which the memorial is supposed to serve.’4 Several regional newspapers as far away as Yorkshire also took a strongly disapproving tone, with the Leeds Mercury expressing its surprise at the magistrates lenient comments, noting that ‘the magisterial epithets “ill mannerly and improper” were very mild for the action of removing (the swastika wreath) and throwing it into the Thames, even though it was done by a Parliamentary candidate of irreproachable reputation.’5

Sears’ act of resistance cost him a hefty fine, which no doubt would have been harsher had the offender not been a person of similar privilege and reputation. However, his was not the only gesture of defiance. Shortly before Sears had seized the swastika wreath, a passer-by had placed a card along with a single lily at the cenotaph, but it had been deemed offensive and was quickly detached and removed by a police constable. It was from an American veteran and read:

‘If the Unknown soldier could speak to this unknown American he might voice his preference for this single flower to the wreath of a murderous dictator which now desecrates this memorial.’6


  1. ‘Wreath Flung in Thames,’ The Yorkshire Post, 12 May 1933 p. 5 and ‘Dr Rosenberg’s Wreath,’ The Times, 12 May 1933 p. 11 from The Times Digital Archive accessed on 17 July 2017.
  2. Our Special Correspondent, ‘Nazi Foreign Policy – Dr. Rosenberg to Visit London,’ The Times, 4 May 1933 p. 11 from The Times Digital Archive accessed on 17 July 2017.
  3. Klaus P. Fischer, Nazi Germany: A New History, Constable, London, 1995, p. 119.
  4. ‘The Cenotaph,’ the Manchester Guardian, 13 May 1933, p. 11.
  5. ‘Herr Hitler’s Wreath,’ the Leeds Mercury, 12 May 1933, p. 6.
  6. ‘Cited in ‘A Lily and a Card,’ the Daily Mirror, 13 May 1933, p. 20. See also ‘Another Cenotaph Incident,’ the Hull Daily Mail, 12 May 1933, p. 9.

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