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The peace movement and the First World War
George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress.

The peace movement and the First World War

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip triggered a terrible war which was to be waged on an unprecedented scale and to drag on for more than four years

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip triggered a terrible war which was to be waged on an unprecedented scale and to drag on for more than four years. An estimated 20 million people died, and a similar number were injured. All the major powers of the day were drawn into this 'Great War'. Within Europe, only Spain, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland managed to stay out of it. The first few months were marked by patriotic fervour. But from the outset, there was also resistance to the war, which, as the war became deadlier and more atrocious, increased. That resistance came from various circles: socialists, trade unionists, pacifists, feminists, anarchists, religious people, intellectuals, and so on.

In the run-up to the war, tensions between countries became severe. The great powers entered into changing alliances and concluded various military agreements, many of them secret. This ultimately led to the establishment of two great alliances: the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, although the latter was to leave the alliance upon the outbreak of war, after which Turkey became a member) and the Triple Entente (France, Britain and Russia). A fragile equilibrium was reached, which ultimately failed. The colonial ambitions of the great powers led to mutual rivalries. Industrialisation compelled countries to constantly seek sources of raw materials and markets for their goods and also caused disputes about access to sea routes. Colonial powers regarded their colonies largely as dependent fiefdoms to be exploited for purposes of their own economic development. The increased political tensions and industrialisation led to accelerated modernisation of military machines and the introduction of new military technologies. Ultimately, reactionary governments with little or no democratic legitimacy were confronted with internal tensions emanating from a dissatisfied, impoverished working class which derived little or no benefit from the capitalist system. All the portents were in place for a chain reaction which would lead to a military confrontation on an unprecedented scale.

On 28 July, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Two days later, Tsarist Russia, which supported Serbia with the aim of gaining access to Mediterranean ports, ordered a general mobilisation. Germany declared war on Russia the next day and then, on 3 August, on France as well. Germany's violation of Belgium's neutrality with the aim of attacking France was the final argument to induce Britain in turn to declare war on Germany. That opened the floodgates.

The troops would soon learn that the character of warfare had changed for good. Because of the industrialisation of the battlefield, the war saw slaughter on a scale rarely paralleled in human history to this day. In the battle of Verdun (February to December 1916), some 750 000 men were killed or wounded, in the battle of the Somme (June to November 1916) more than a million and at Passchendaele (July to November 1917) some 500 000, all to gain a few miles of territory.


The war was an extreme expression of competition between great national capitalist powers. The whole of industry was set to work to arm speedily established mass armies. In many countries, conscription was introduced or extended. In Germany, there was already a system of general military service which had proven its value during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71. France, which itself had been operating a form of conscription ever since the French Revolution, adopted a law in 1913 introducing three years' military service for men from the age of 20, in an attempt to catch up with the German army. Limited military service was even introduced in the Algerian colony. Belgium, too, introduced general military service the same year. The number of enthusiastic volunteers signing up fell as the true nature of the warfare became clear. At the same time, the large number of deaths generated a growing demand for fresh troops. Various countries found themselves compelled to introduce general conscription: Britain (1916), New Zealand (1916), the USA (1917) and Canada (1917). Only South Africa, Ireland (which was occupied) and Australia did not follow suit. In Australia, Prime Minister Hughes (Labor Party) proposed conscription in October 1916 in a referendum which gave rise to a heated public debate and a split within the Labor Party. The majority of the Australian people voted against conscription, and they did not change their minds when a second referendum was held, either. Britain's plans to extend conscription to Ireland met with stiff resistance from the Irish and led to an unprecedented national strike movement. Conscription was not introduced, although a good many Irish people had already volunteered.

Conscription created armies with millions of soldiers. In 1914 the British army had 710 000 men. As a result of the propaganda to recruit volunteers, followed by conscription from January 1916 for men aged between 18 and 41, by the end of 1918 a total of 5.7 million men had seen service. In addition, millions of workers, both men and women, were employed in the war industry. This turned the home front into a military target as well. The arms race created ever more murderous armaments. Cavalry was replaced by thousands of tanks. In 1914, the British air force had only 63 aircraft. By 11 November 1918, the Royal Air Force was the most powerful air force in the world with 22 647 aircraft. Industrialisation and mass conscription altered the character of the war, as huge massacres took place. Industrial capitalism was thus not only responsible for the imperial rivalry which led to the war but also, by means of mass production, supplied the instruments of destruction.

Resistance to this absurd and cruel war grew. In many places, the propaganda of the ruling elites, which fed the people with enemy stereotypes and patriotic sentiments, encountered resistance from the working class, which saw its class interests as taking precedence over national hate propaganda. From 1917, a wave of protest and revolution passed through the military ranks. Russia withdrew from the war after the revolution of 1917. Germany too fell under the spell of revolutionary ideas, which shortly after the war became a serious threat to the ruling elite.

The peace movement

The peace movement which came into being at the end of the 19th century took various forms. On the one hand there was the antimilitarism of socialist groups and parties which regarded war as excrescences of capitalism. They saw the answer in the creation of a revolutionary workers' movement which they expected to put an end to the existing order. In addition, there was the very diverse 'civilian' peace movement, which sought to achieve its aims within the existing order and addressed appeals and proposals to governments. In practice the two approaches were often found in combination. Within each of the two groups, for example, there were anti-war activists who were not necessarily opposed to violence as a means of defence or in order to overthrow the capitalist order. There were also radical pacifists who rejected violence of grounds of principle or for ethical or religious reasons. The latter included the 'Fellowship of Reconciliation', set up first in Britain (December 1914) and then in Germany at the initiative of Henry Hodgkin, a British Quaker, and Friederich Siegmund Schultze, a German Lutheran who was sentenced to death for it but then pardoned. The British section already had 1 500 members at the beginning of 1915 and its ranks were swelled to 7 000 by 1917.

The civilian peace movement

Within this colourful movement, there was a major shade of opinion which took the view that in the long term it would be necessary to involve governments worldwide or to cooperate with them in order to achieve the aims of the peace movement. In 1899, William Randall Cremer, a British pacifist and Member of Parliament, and Frédéric Passy, the founder of the French Ligue de la Paix and likewise an MP, set up the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). In 1914 one third of all MPs in 24 countries were members of the IPU, whose aim was to settle conflicts peacefully, inter alia by establishing an arbitration system. The IPU, which until 1911 was based in Brussels, is still in existence, but based in Geneva. The IPU's aims were partly responsible for the idea of setting up an 'International Forum' where governments could discuss their disputes instead of resorting to violence.

The International Peace Bureau, which was set up in 1891, was one of the first initiatives aimed at cooperation within the peace movement at international level. The well-known Austrian pacifist Bertha von Suttner was Vice-President until her death in 1914. She was the author of the pacifist novel 'Die Waffen nieder' (1889). The IPB advocated the establishment of an international organisation for peaceful conflict resolution. After the First World War, the IPB was very active in the 'No More War' campaign organised by the War Resisters' International (WRI) movement. The WRI was a radical organisation established in 1921 by pacifists who had been very active during the war years. The organisation's first secretary, Herbert Runham Brown, refused to serve during the war and was imprisoned for two and a half years for doing so. The WRI's central principle was that war is a crime against humanity.

Influential anti-war women's movement

In response to the outbreak of the First World War, American feminists set up the Women's Peace Party (WPP) in January 1915. They organised direct action and public demonstrations. The WPP's platform formed the basis for the establishment of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), which was set up with Jane Addams as its president after an international women's congress from 28 to 30 April in The Hague attended by 1 136 women from many of the warring countries. The two principal themes of the congress were women's suffrage and the principle of arbitration to resolve international conflicts. The congress members sent a text to US President Woodrow Wilson containing 18 'recommendations for ending the war and promoting peace', such as the right of self-determination of peoples, disarmament, arbitration in international conflicts, etc. These recommendations inspired Wilson to draft his own 14 Points, which were to serve as a basis for the establishment of the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations.

The women's movement was very active in resistance to the war. At the end of 1914, 101 British suffragettes signed an Open Christmas Letter to German and Austrian women, who had previously appealed for the 'criminal war, which has been revived' not to divide women around the world in their 'common campaign for personal and political liberty'. The correspondence which followed was to lead to the above-mentioned international congress in The Hague.

The revolutionary anti-war movement

The most important, or most threatening, opposition during the war came from socialist and trade union circles. To them, the war meant workers allowing themselves to be killed for a war which served their bosses and capitalist interests. From the end of the 19th century, the Second International held a series of congresses where antimilitarism was constantly a major theme. At the Congress of Stuttgart in 1907, Gustave Hervé (a subsequent convert to the cause of National Socialism) proposed that the International should call for a strike if war broke out. The German social democrat August Bebel considered militarism to be the product of capitalism. It was necessary to overthrow the capitalist system in order to eliminate war. But the distinction which he drew between 'defensive' and 'offensive' wars would in due course split the Second International. Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin were the leaders of the radical wing who considered that the workers' movement must, come what may, seize the opportunity of the war in order to expedite the fall of capitalism. They won their battle.

Although at the extraordinary (peace) Congress of Basel (1912) 'war against war' had still unanimously been proclaimed, significant sections of the Second International supported the war policies of their governments when the First World War broke out. The German SPD, which as late as 25 July 1914 had called for demonstrations against the impending war, voted in favour of the war appropriations once war broke out on 4 August. The French Section of the Workers' International (SFIO) likewise adopted the argument that it was a 'defensive war' as a reason for voting for war appropriations. However, a few days earlier Jean Jaurès, one of the party leaders, had published an impassioned article against the war in the party newspaper L'Humanité. A young nationalist assassinated him the same day, on 31 July, in a café in Paris.

The split within the Second International occurred during the Conference in Zimmerwald (Switzerland, 5-8 September). This conference was organised at the initiative of the Italian Socialist Party, which called on all socialist parties and workers' movements which supported the class struggle and were against the war to participate. The final manifesto was written by Leon Trotsky and Robert Grimm, condemning the imperialist aims and characteristics of the war. It called on the workers of all countries to start a civil war against the capitalist class instead of joining in the 'imperialist massacre'. But the 'centrists' did not agree with the revolutionary parts of the manifesto. The radical wing, led by Lenin, set up the Third International after the war.

Conscientious objectors

In all the warring countries, there were people who refused to serve in the armed forces. In countries such as Britain or Canada, it was possible to apply for an exemption or alternative service, but that was not a particularly easy option. In Britain, 16 000 men submitted such applications. Many of them took on non-combat roles in the army or worked at civilian jobs which were seen as useful in support of the war. However, a group of 'absolutists' refused to do any work which would support the war. They were treated as soldiers who had refused to obey an order, and were dealt with harshly, with a succession of prison sentences. A number of them faced the threat of the death penalty. Around 80 conscientious objectors died in prison. In 1915, even before conscription was introduced, the British No-Conscription Fellowship published a manifesto stating that the 'ties of brotherhood' between people of different nations could not be betrayed. It was therefore necessary to make sacrifices in the cause of peace.

The front

At the front too, there were signs of resistance to the war, for example the so-called Christmas truces. On Christmas Eve 1914, German troops began to decorate their trenches around Ypres, lit candles and sang Christmas carols. British troops in their trenches responded with Christmas greetings. There were meetings in no man's land and exchanges of all manner of gifts, such as food, tobacco and alcohol. A football match was even played, which was allegedly won by the Germans. That night the artillery ceased to fire.

The allied and German commanders responded with fury, regarding the Christmas truces as a form of mutiny and high treason. The following year, in 1915, despite threats from officers, fresh Christmas truces were held, accompanied by fraternisation. In the autumn of 1916, the army command threatened that there would be summary executions and that soldiers would be fired on by their own side if they acted in a friendly manner towards the enemy.

At first the press embargoed news about the Christmas truces. The embargo was first broken in the New York Times on New Year's Eve. Only then did a few cautiously favourable reports appear in certain British newspapers. But in Germany the tone adopted in the newspapers when reporting on the Christmas truces was quite negative and in France censorship ensured that readers were kept largely in the dark about them.

The response of the army command, politicians and large sections of the media was exceptionally hostile because there was a danger that the actions of the infantry at the front would seriously undermine the existing 'war order'. In the later years of the war, moreover, the spirit of revolution made itself felt in the trenches and resistance to the madness of the war grew.

From anti-war strikes to revolutions

Growing opposition to the war and the capitalist order was the basis for the Russian revolution of 1917. Immediately afterwards, the new Russian Soviet Republic withdrew – to some extent out of necessity – from the war by concluding the Peace of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918) with the Central Powers. The spirit of revolution also spread to Austria and particularly Germany. The people were tired of the war. On 19 January 1918, there was a general strike in Vienna. On 28 January 1918, 100 000 workers in Berlin went onto the streets to demand an end to the war. Under the leadership of the Independent Socialists (USPD) and the 'Spartakists' (Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Clara Zetkin), a major anti-war strike was called with its epicentre in the munitions and metal plants of Berlin, which was joined by some 400 000 workers. Most of the pamphlets were written by Rosa Luxemburg and smuggled out of the prison where she had been detained since June 1916. She generally signed her pamphlets with the slogan 'Peace! Freedom! Bread!' The Berlin strike movement was emulated in other German cities such as Düsseldorf, Kiel, Cologne and Hamburg. The German Government and the army responded by declaring a state of emergency on 31 January. The leaders of the strike were imprisoned and tens of thousands of workers were sent to the front.

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