Beatrice and Cornelis (“Kees”) Boeke were pioneers in the international war resistance movement and also steadfast war tax resisters. I covered a bit of their story , but aside from what is there I wasn’t much able to satisfy my curiosity about them from on-line sources.
But I’ve just finished reading through Fiona Joseph’s new biography of Beatrice Boeke née Cadbury — Beatrice: The Cadbury Heiress Who Gave Away Her Fortune — which gives a much fuller and more nuanced picture of the Boekes’ quest to live a life in line with their ideals.
The Quaker couple already came from a tradition that promoted service, international missionary work, charity, and pacifism. In addition, Beatrice had financial independence because of her inheritance of part of the Cadbury chocolates company. The couple gave away a lot of money to international charity, and also helped to nurture the international peace movement — both War Resisters International and the International Fellowship of Reconciliation had their founding meetings at the Boeke home in Holland (where the couple settled after Kees was expelled from England during World War Ⅰ for preaching pacifism and for his suspicious contacts with pacifists on the other side of enemy lines).
Another major figure in the international peace movement at the time, and a major influence on the Boekes, was Swiss pacifist Pierre Cérésole (see The Picket Line, ). He was present at the meetings of international war resisters at the Boeke home, and soon afterwards the Boekes began to contemplate war tax resistance, which Cérésole had already been practicing for several years.
Cérésole, like Beatrice Cadbury, had inherited shares of stock. He, however, refused to accept them, not being willing to live on unearned wealth while trying to maintain solidarity with the working class. “To live on one’s invested income is as debasing as to own slaves,” he wrote, “in fact it is the same thing.” He believed that the best thing rich Christians could buy with their money was freedom from possessing it: relinquish it, give it away, and remove the barriers it puts up between them and other people.
This made for a challenge to the Boekes, who were sensitive to charges of hypocrisy while being very public in their idealistic (and increasingly revolutionary Marxist) proclamations. In the couple were imprisoned for refusing to pay their fines after being arrested for unlicensed street preaching — Beatrice while in the last month of pregnancy.
Later that year Beatrice decided that she would give away her Cadbury shares to the workers at Cadbury. It was harder than she expected. Other members of the Cadbury family were opposed to the move and there were legal obstacles (the voting shares she had hoped to give away as a way of giving workers greater control over the company were legally-restricted to Cadbury family members, and the law might allow the Boeke children to successfully challenge such a gift when they came of age). It was not until that she was able to construct a Boeke Trust that satisfied her wishes to relinquish control of the shares and also seemed to cover the legal bases.
By that time the Boekes had adopted a forthright anarchism. Kees published a pamphlet entitled “Break with the State” and, following its advice, the couple began resisting taxes. Here is an excerpt from Joseph’s book about their tax resistance:
During the many conferences in Bilthoven, the couple had been exposed to different forms and methods of political activism, one of which struck them as very valid and effective: tax resistance. They had long been unhappy at the thought of their taxes being used in part to fund the military, and Kees had already tried the novel, though unsuccessful, approach of sending his tax payment directly to the Queen with the request that it be used for charitable purposes. Sources told him that the Queen had sent the money on to the Finance Minister, where it had been absorbed into the general tax system. So this tactic was deemed a failure, and more radical action was needed.
The withholding of tax for reasons of conscience had a long history and was regarded by pacifists as a fair form of non-violent resistance. Pierre Ceresole had done it, and so would the Boekes. First, Kees wrote to Queen Wilhelmina again to say that they were willing to pay tax, but would withhold the amount that went to the Defence Tax for military purposes (thought to be 42%).
On hearing no response, Beatrice and Kees decided they would refuse to pay tax altogether. To begin with, reminders came through the letterbox about their outstanding tax bill. Then further demands arrived, followed by fines for non-payment, which Kees continued to ignore. Soon the Boekes’ tax bill, along with the accumulated fines and added interest, came to four hundred pounds. The authorities ordered a forced sale of their assets: the date was set for .
The morning of the sale was grey and drizzly. Dark clouds loomed in the sky, threatening storms at any moment. Beatrice opened the door to a sober-looking tax official with a group of bailiffs standing behind him. The local policeman accompanied the group to ensure there would be no trouble.
The tax official explained to Beatrice that they were going to take goods from the house up to the value of the sum that they owed, and then auction them off. The sale had clearly been advertised in Bilthoven because many people came, either to gawp or in the hope of getting a bargain.
Although Het Boschhuis was furnished in a simple manner, the bailiffs found plenty of items to remove. The children were sent upstairs to Helen’s bedroom and listened, no doubt anxiously, as the house was looted.
Almost every removable item was put under auction: the tables and chairs, all the bed frames (although, with some heart, the bailiffs left the mattresses), cupboards, kitchen crockery, the books. The curtains were taken down from the windows and sold to the highest bidder. The rugs and strips of linoleum were ripped up from the floor and sold. Eveline intervened to stop the bailiffs taking the cupboard with the children’s clothes and the local policeman, Berkhoff, in a surprising show of support towards the family, hid some of their silver.
Everything else was sold in the street for a pittance and the amount raised was still insufficient to clear the debt of four hundred pounds.
Worst of all, for the Boeke children watching in distress from the upstairs window, was the sight of Daddy’s grand piano standing out in the street with no protection from the spattering rain. Nine-year-old Helen was particularly upset. Beatrice’s engagement present to Kees, the valuable violin also went under the hammer.
Then the bailiffs started on the Brotherhood House next door, removing the beds and any other furniture they could.
Throughout this episode Beatrice and Kees remained calm. They had the support of their friends, and God was on their side. These were only material possessions after all, they reassured themselves. The vulture-like buyers assumed that the couple would want to buy everything back again. Kees refused, much to their chagrin, and they were forced to find vans and carts to take it all away.
In a remarkable show of composure and quiet determination, Beatrice and Kees went to a public meeting in Utrecht that evening. They returned to find their friends, the Fletchers, had made the best of the situation. Eveline had tidied up Het Boschhuis as best she could, cleaning the stone floors from top to bottom to remove the muddy footprints made as the bailiffs had trooped through the house. She had improvised some curtains by hanging old blankets and a donated bedspread up at the windows. Beatrice was almost moved to tears to see Ernest’s makeshift table, made out of a wooden trestle. An old packing box from the cellar did service as a lamp table. The children were worn out, and fast asleep upstairs as they huddled together on a shared mattress on the floor.
The events of the day had left the couple frustrated but more determined than ever to carry on their fight.
The Boekes felt that in order for their tax resistance to be consistent, they must also refuse to use state-run monopolies like the postal service and railways, relinquish their passports, stop contributing to retirement accounts, and renounce any claim to the protection of the police, courts, and military. The following year, Kees stopped handling money, and Beatrice joined him in this a year later.
They had also adopted an “open door” policy at their home — anyone was welcome at any time, no need to knock, and the doors were never locked. This led to frequent thefts — even of the family’s food (though sympathetic friends would sometime sneak food in the same way) — and eventually to the occupation of the family home by vagrants. Being unwilling to either kick out their new guests themselves or to apply to the police to do it for them, the family — including seven children — abandoned their home and left to live in tents elsewhere.
The Cadbury family, concerned for the welfare of the Boekes and especially for their children, devoted a lot of time and energy to figuring out ways of providing for the Boekes without appearing to do so. While the Boekes would have angrily rejected any blatant Cadbury family charity, Joseph notes that “[a]lthough Beatrice had relieved herself of the burden of her inheritance, the Boeke family were now dependent on their friends to help and support them.”
In addition, at the Boeke Trust that Beatrice had established to relinquish any claim on the Cadbury fortune and to give control to the workers to pursue their agendas, the welfare of the Boeke children was in fact a top concern. “Every meeting” of the Trust, Joseph writes, “started with the same agenda item: ‘Care of the Boeke Family.’ ” The trust voted in to pay the Boekes’ back taxes without their knowledge.
The family had also become increasingly isolated. Their refusal to use the railways or the postal service, and their relinquishing of their passports, meant that they were no longer as able to participate in the international peace movement — and the occupation of their property by ne’er-d’ye-wells meant that they could no longer host gatherings themselves.
Meanwhile their children were living in squalor, and visits from their family resembled interventions from social workers — for instance, taking the children aside out of view to look them over for signs of malnutrition.
They eventually realized that they had gone too far and that in their attempts to patch up any hints of hypocrisy and inconsistency in their lifestyle, much common sense had slipped through the cracks. Joseph: “They had wanted to humble themselves before God, to prove that He would provide their daily bread. All they had actually done was to cause hardship for the children and put the responsibility for their welfare onto the shoulders of other people…”
Finally they gave in. They accepted some help from the Cadbury family in setting up a modest new home, and they began to compromise with some of their earlier-drawn lines in the sand. By they were using money again and had reapplied for passports.
Among the steps they had taken over the years was to withdraw their children from school when the government took over private schools and made them tax-funded. They homeschooled their children, and Kees in particular discovered a talent for teaching and an interest in the reform of education. What had begun as homeschooling blossomed into a small school that attracted parents enthused by Kees’s methods or theories and also orphaned Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied countries.
This enabled the Boekes’ to shelter some of these children during the Nazi occupation of Holland (for which the couple were later enshrined in the “Righteous Among the Nations” list of the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority).
The school they founded was so well-considered that after the war, Dutch Princess Juliana sent her children there (including now-Queen Beatrix).
Fiona Joseph’s story of the Boekes is a fascinating look at a quest for purity and righteousness — both in its pitfalls and its promises — and would be a good and humbling meditation for anyone who has ever considered “going all in” and uncompromisingly living by the standard of their most idealistic hopes.