Shirkers and conchies: how governments tried to silence WWI resisters

Peace activists faced enemy treatment but left a legacy of perserverance, writes Tim Gee

June 6, 2014 · 8 min read

fenner2This year it’s difficult to avoid politicians of various hues reminding us of the 100th anniversary of the first world war. For them it’s an opportunity to retell history, and to hark back to a time when patriotism, nationalism and empire were at the fore of national consciousness. For peace activists it’s important too, marking a century since the birth of some lasting institutions and providing an opportunity to reflect on the experience of our predecessors.

Before 1914, the centre-left political parties were the natural home for advocates of peace. Pacifists in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) – most notably Keir Hardie – had been instrumental in founding the Labour Party in Britain only 14 years before. But the hope that those parties might provide a principled pro-peace position was dashed, when, alongside Woodrow Wilson’s US Democrats, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the French Socialist Party and the British Labour Party all reneged on their previous policy and backed the war.

One result was a growth in anti-war groups. In Germany, Rosa Luxemburg formed the Spartacus League – a reference to the famous leader of the Roman slave rebellions. In the US, the Socialist Party of America grew in popularity, and prominent anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman established the No Conscription League.

In Britain, Independent Labour Party member Fenner Brockway co-founded the No More War Fellowship, and fellow ILP-er Ramsay MacDonald resigned as chair of the Labour Party to establish the Union of Democratic Control (UDC), which called for parliamentary votes on foreign policy, and advocated that, at the end of the war, negotiations and peace terms should be arranged in such a way so as to decrease likelihood of future hostilities. Perhaps the second world war could have been avoided as well if they’d been listened to.

Some Christians reasoned that killing was incompatible with their spiritual teachings, which held more authority for them than national leaders. Resistance was rooted in faith for two friends across enemy lines – English Quaker Henry Hodgkin and German Lutheran Friedrich Siegmund-Schultze – who pledged to one another on a railway station platform in Cologne, ‘We are one in Christ and can never be at war.’ They went on to establish The Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international pacifist organisation which had spread to the US by 1915.

Pushed to the margins

It was in the interest of states to dissuade war resistance, ensuring not too many people refused to fight, but imprisoning objectors ran the risk of making martyrs of them. Alongside this strategy, governments waged skillful propaganda campaigns to boost nationalist sentiment and marginalise opponents.

This shines through war recruitment posters of the era, some so iconic they remain well-known today. Lord Kitchener points at readers on a poster declaring ‘Your Country Needs You’. Commissioned in Britain at the start of the war, it later appeared in the US with the picture changed to ‘Uncle Sam’. In another ad, a guilty-looking middle-aged man stares into the distance. At his feet his son plays with toy soldiers, and his daughter asks, ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?’393px-Daddy_in_the_great_warPropaganda came alongside physical coercion of dissenters. In the US, 101 members of the anti-war Industrial Workers of the World were tried, found guilty and sentence to prison in 1918. The previous year, 249 Russian-born activists were arrested and deported, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.

The British government pursued a similar approach. The press cast the UDC as extremist, despite its reformist politics and constitutionalist methods. In 1915 the Daily Express printed ‘wanted’ posters of its most prominent members, Ramsay MacDonald and ED Morel. The John Bull magazine went further, demanding that MacDonald should be tried by court-martial and condemned as ‘an aider and abettor of the King’s enemies’. MacDonald lost his seat at the following election. Morel suffered a worse fate. His house was raided by the authorities. When it was discovered that he had technically broken the law by posting a UDC pamphlet to a friend living abroad, he was sentenced to prison for six months, and died shortly after his release.

The government encouraged people to shun anti-war activists – and suggested that women give white feathers (a symbol of cowardice) to men not enlisted. On the streets, anti-war activists faced taunts of ‘coward’, ‘shirker’ and ‘conchie’ for refusing to join the forces.

In an anthology of anti-war voices stored at the Imperial War Museum, Harold Bing, a conscientious objector, recalls how difficult life became: ‘On the whole, apart from a few friends and sympathisers, people’s attitudes towards me were distinctly hostile. This would be the ostracism of neighbours who knew I was going to appeal to be a CO or a critical attitude of my employers who terminated my contract after my tribunal and refused to reinstate me.’ Indeed many peace campaigners lost their jobs, including renowned philosopher Bertrand Russell who was dismissed from his post at Cambridge University.

The war played hard on Keir Hardie. In the early days he made efforts to organise a Europe-wide strike against the hostilities. But the call was not taken up and many within the very party he had helped to found came to regard him as a traitor. He died a short while later. In her memoirs, his partner, the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, wrote that ‘the great slaughter, the rending of the bonds of international fraternity, on which he had built his hopes, had broken him.’

Fighting for a new narrative

In most countries the anti-war cause was hampered by the pervasive ideology of nationalism. However in Ireland and Canada (particularly Quebec), nationalist sentiment aided the anti-war cause. Vibrant campaigns against conscription became an important step for the independence movements within both countries. In Australia, at the time still a part of the British Empire, the population voted narrowly against conscription in two referenda, in part due to nationalist sentiment.

In Russia, anti-war campaigning had a very different character. It fused with broader economic concerns and class identification, paving the way for the Russian Revolution, the downfall of the Tsarist regime and a new government negotiating its exit from the first world war.

Those events gave confidence to class-based movements in other countries too, most notably Germany. In October 1918, sailors in Kiel mutinied and formed their own worker-soldier committees. By November the rebellion had spread. A general strike was called in Berlin and armed groups took to the streets.

In Scotland, too, a number of strikes in munitions factories took place alongside mass demonstrations on the streets in what has become known as ‘Red Clydeside’. In the end both German and Scottish initiatives were brutally put down. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered in 1919, following a further uprising by workers. The Scottish protests were suppressed by placing tanks on the streets of Glasgow.

States did more than repress individuals: they exercised control over society’s narratives. Michel Foucault’s idea that elites ‘discipline and punish’ – installing ‘common knowledge’ about right and wrong in the process – can be clearly seen in WWI history. Howard Zinn sums up the dynamic in A People’s History of the United States, writing that the justice system of the era was used to demonstrate how certain elements of resistance ‘could not be tolerated’.

A legacy for the peace movement

Though they didn’t ultimately stop the war, peace activists who confronted the war ideologies of their time gave birth to the independent peace movement we know today. Many who followed, from historians to activists against later wars, gradually helped to chip away at the nationalist worldview.

fennerPeace institutions founded by WWI resisters have lived on. Six members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation have won the Nobel Peace Prize over the years, as have the Quakers. Bertrand Russell’s Nobel Prize for literature recognised his humanitarianism. In 1985, a statue of Fenner Brockway was erected in London’s Red Lion Square to mark a life that also included the co-founding of the anti-poverty organisation War on Want and campaigns against colonialism. In 1998, Britons whom soldiers had shot as punishment for ‘desertion’ or ‘cowardice’ were honoured at London’s Cenotaph for the first time.

This is not the version of history evoked by today’s elites. Conservative politicians would have us look back with fondness at a time when nationalism and imperialism were even more deeply entrenched. Labour politicians would rather we forget the moment when their party ceased to be a party of peace. But the rest of us can learn that even when our actions seem to ‘fail’ in the short term, they could still change, in the long term, how people perceive and understand the world.

Tim Gee’s book Counterpower: Making Change Happen is available from New Internationalist

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