Going Beyond the Tale of a Boy and His Horse
Posted on Feb 29, 2012
By Adam Hochschild, TomDispatch
War resisters were also thrown in jail in Germany and Russia. But the country with the largest and best organized antiwar movement—and here’s where the creators of those film and TV costume dramas so beloved by Anglophile American audiences miss a crucial opportunity—was Britain.
The main reason opposition to the war proved relatively strong there was simple enough: in 1914, the island nation had not been attacked. German invaders marched into France and Belgium, but Germany hoped Britain would stay out of the war. And so did some Britons. When their country joined the fighting on the grounds that Germany had violated Belgian neutrality, a vocal minority continued to insist that jumping into a quarrel among other countries was a disastrous mistake.
Keir Hardie was a prominent early war opponent. A trade union leader and Member of Parliament, he had, by the age of 21, already spent half his life as a coal miner and he never went to school. Nonetheless, he became one of the great orators of the age, mesmerizing crowds with his eloquence, his piercing, heavy-browed eyes, and a striking red beard. Crushed with despair that millions of Europe’s working men were slaughtering one another rather than making common cause in fighting for their rights, his beard white, he died in 1915, still in his 50s.
Among those who bravely challenged the war fever, whose rallies were often violently broken up by the police or patriotic mobs, was well-known radical feminist Charlotte Despard. Her younger brother, amazingly, was Field Marshal Sir John French, commander-in-chief of the Western Front for the first year and a half of the war. A similarly riven family was the famous Pankhurst clan of suffragettes: Sylvia Pankhurst became an outspoken opponent of the conflict, while her sister Christabel was from the beginning a fervent drum-beater for the war effort. They not only stopped speaking to each other, but published rival newspapers that regularly attacked the other’s work.
Britain’s leading investigative journalist, Edmund Dene Morel, and its most famous philosopher, Bertrand Russell, were both passionate war critics. “This war is trivial, for all its vastness,” Russell wrote. “No great principle is at stake, no great human purpose is involved on either side.” He was appalled to see his fellow citizens “swept away in a red blast of hate.”
He wrote with remarkable candor about how difficult it was to go against the current of the national war fever “when the whole nation is in a state of violent collective excitement. As much effort was required to avoid sharing this excitement as would have been needed to stand out against the extreme of hunger or sexual passion, and there was the same feeling of going against instinct.”
Both Russell and Morel spent six months in prison for their beliefs. Morel served his term at hard labor, carrying 100-pound slabs of jute to the prison workshop while subsisting on a bare-bones diet during a frigid winter when prison furnaces were last in line for the nation’s scarce supply of coal.
Women like Violet Tillard went to jail as well. She worked for an antiwar newspaper banned in 1918 and was imprisoned for refusing to reveal the location of its clandestine printing press. And among the unsung heroines of that antiwar moment was Emily Hobhouse, who secretly traveled through neutral Switzerland to Berlin, met the German foreign minister, talked over possible peace terms, and then returned to England to try to do the same with the British government. Its officials dismissed her as a lone-wolf eccentric, but in a conflict that killed some 20 million people, she was the sole human being who journeyed from one side to the other and back again in search of peace.
Why We Know More About War Than Peace
By the war’s end, more than 20,000 British men had defied the draft and, as a matter of principle, many also refused the alternative service prescribed for conscientious objectors, like ambulance driving at the front or working in a war industry. More than 6,000 of them were put behind bars—up to that moment the largest number of people ever imprisoned for political reasons in a western democracy.
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