Book Review – Will There Ever Be Peace in Our Time?

The Political Cartoons of Derso and Kelen: Years of Hope and Despair by Stefan Slater and David Macfadyen

“We bury a man of peace like Dag Hammarskjöld with military honours; we greet the arrival of the pope to the Holy Land with 21-gun salutes; we have no other ways to express our respect. Militarism is deep-seated in our brain and marrows,” wrote political cartoonist Emery Kelen (born in 1896), whose work – coauthored with Aloïs Derso (born in 1888) – is the subject of Stefan Slater and David Macfadyen’s fine book.


Derso and Kelen’s political cartoons, visually and textually commenting mainly on the activities of the League of Nations and interwar politics, offer strong criticism of militarism. However, they are also highly critical of appeasement which was found to be wanting in the context of the aggressive politics of the 1930s. Above all, these cartoons depict Derso and Kelen’s search for peace – “scribbling,” as Kelen put it, “in the interests of peace.”

Slater and Macfadyen explore selected aspects of the work of these two outstanding but largely forgotten political cartoonists without resorting to hagiography. They offer a critical visual history of the interwar period, accompanied by thoughtful commentary familiarizing today’s readers with the contexts within which the cartoons were produced, not all of which can be assumed to be familiar to current readers.

In addition to their aesthetic appeal and graphic innovation, Derso and Kelen’s cartoons offer deep insights into political dynamics – often, and quite problematically, derived from people’s appearance. Importantly, the cartoonists, while showing the League’s failure at maintaining peace, also engage with its other activities which are often ignored, for example “the League’s work in justice, trade, finance, intellectual cooperation, the protection of minorities, the forging of European cohesion, the reduction of trade barriers, and even the establishment of commodity agreements.”

The cartoonists sympathize with the League’s aims and objectives but they also note that, although aspiring to be universal “with positions open equally to men and women,” the League was male-dominated and Eurocentric.

The title of the fifth chapter of this book – But Will There Ever Be Peace in Our Time? – is ominously timely although the political cartoons discussed here were produced a long time ago. Slater and Macfadyen’s book shows that political cartoons, far from merely being funny stories, offer profound insights into political developments.

Ultimately, these are peace cartoons although they thematize the League’s failure to end war among nations, the collapse of democracy, the rise of fascist dictatorships, and the plight of refugees, most poignantly – and uncharacteristically – depicted in a cartoon titled Boots, Gloves, and Refugees published in the journal Ken on 8 September 1938: “Refugees flee in terror before the blood-dripping boots of the Nazis, but are restrained by governments, those white gloves of consular authorities barring sanctuary.”

London: Lund Humphries, 2023
160 pp

See also our review in International Affairs, Vol. 100, Issue 2 (March 2024):