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Going Beyond the Tale of a Boy and His Horse

Posted on Feb 29, 2012
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

By Adam Hochschild, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

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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By gerard, March 3, 2012 at 11:17 am Link to this comment

Who remembers with me the impact of the horror reading Erich Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front”? That did it for me for the rest of my life!

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By gerard, March 3, 2012 at 11:02 am Link to this comment

truedigger3:  I suggest you send your comment in to Wikipedia and see if it will pass muster with their researchers and be incorporated in the Wiki article I was quoting. (My personal opinion is that the real cause of all wars is stupidity, but nobody wants to admit that because wars stimulate the production of billions of dollars worth of weaponry and stupid people don’t think twice about making money out of killing people.)

bernhiem: I think you overstate the case regarding humanity’s lack of ability to benefit from accumulated knowledge, and relating that to Manning and Assange.  It is precisely because the government fears that American people (and indeed, people worldwide) DO have “the ability to benefit from the WikiLeaks revelations” and become wiser about what goes on behind the scenes, that they rush to try to indict Manning and Assange. Anytime anyone documents evil, that person can expect retribution—and the need arises for masses of people to rise at once to the defense of heroes.

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By berniem, March 2, 2012 at 2:54 pm Link to this comment

Just further proof that humankind is incapable of benefitting from accumulated knowledge of any but that of a frivolous or greed driven nature. How else to explain the current persecution of Bradley Manning as well as Julian Assange? Also, we concoct scurillous and irrational reasons for the ever worsening conditions scene throughout the world and never address the ultimate cause of humanity’s woes, namely an unbridled and insane growth of the world’s population with all of the destruction it portends! Oh, and please spare me all of the theological BS as arguement against this reality. Don’t for a moment believe that those clerical parasites out there think a whit about the fate of humanity beyond maintaining their priveleged status as arbitors of all things “spiritual”!

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By truedigger3, March 1, 2012 at 9:45 pm Link to this comment

Re: By gerard, March 1 at 4:47 pm

gerard wrote quoting wikipidia:

“historians from the same culture have been shown to come to differing conclusions on the causes of the war.”
For each war there is the real cause and there is the bullshit cause.
The real cause for the WWI was that Germany at that time, was a rising formidable industrial, scientific and military power and with its poor diplomacy scared and antagonized everybody.
What more atagonized everybody of its colonial neighbors aka the British, French and the Russians is that Germany demanded a share in the loot from the colonies.
It was very easy for the British with their superb cunning diplomacy to unite almost the whole of Europe against Germany.
The US sided with the British and their allies because if Germany would win, then the US will have to confront in the future a united Europe under the Germany with more population and resources from the colonies.

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By jimmmmmy, March 1, 2012 at 8:00 pm Link to this comment

gerard the flu epidemic started at a supply dump /troop transfer point called etaple in france in late 16 or early 17. i think it actually ended in 23-24 at least in scotland. in canada where i live 100000 natives are thought to have died of the flu in the twenties no one was counting or treating it on the reserves or in northern canada, so anecdotal evidence is used to make this estimate, grave yard numbers and interviews.

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By gerard, March 1, 2012 at 5:47 pm Link to this comment

Brief summare from Wikipedia:  “In attributing causes for the war, historians and academics had to deal with an unprecedented flood of memoirs and official documents, released as each country involved tried to avoid blame for starting the war. Early releases of information by governments, particularly those released for use by the “Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War” were shown to be incomplete and biased. In addition some documents, especially diplomatic cables between Russia and France, were found to have been doctored. Even in later decades however, when much more information had been released, historians from the same culture have been shown to come to differing conclusions on the causes of the war.”

“In 1918 an international influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than the Great War, known today as World War I.”  I still remember the gold-framed sepia photograph of proudly-uniformed Cousin Laurence on the enamel mantel over the fireplace in the livingroom of what was once his home. He lived through the war, but died of “flu” before they could ship him back to the States.

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By frecklefever, March 1, 2012 at 5:13 pm Link to this comment


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By Jim Yell, March 1, 2012 at 3:36 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The only point of contention I have with this article is the statement that the better educated were hit disportionatley hard in WWI. At lest they usually had incomes and financial worth to cushion the injuries and loses, which the poor largely did not have. Their families were living on the edge and then lost their main wage earner to the war which should never have been.

I had a great Uncle who was raised a solid farmer in the middle of the country and he was repeatedly gassed in the trenchs and contracted TB as a result. He spent the last 10 years of his life battling TB and spending much of the time ill. He died at 33 young years.

I have a cousin, the son of my second Great Uncle who also served in the trenches and spent his life suffering from PTS. His sisters families state he kept them awake at night on visits, screaming. He never married and worked his life as farm labor.He was 47 when he died.

All their years fought for a war that destroyed so many and impoverished a large part of the world. All for Arrogant Men who thought they were in control. All because of knee-jerk patriotic manipulation and inspite of everything the powerful still use the same strategy with the same disasterous results, except for the wealth that the patriotic industrialist and investor makes upon the mayhem.

I think we all want to be proud of our country and our culture, but if we keep allowing ourselves to be led around by the nose by incompetent leaders, well whose fault is it?

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By frecklefever, March 1, 2012 at 1:18 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


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By joan moore, March 1, 2012 at 11:04 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Where is the great screen writer who will bring the heroic and little known epic story of Eugene Debbs to the screen?  I have often thought that his story had everything…drama, politics, race, religion, war.  He was a remarkable man with a body of amazing work that would make a really important statement about American history.  All those years ago when I saw Warren Beatty in “Red”, I thought that the Debbs story would have been so much more interesting and relevent to USAmerican history buffs.
USAmericans are undereducated and not very curious.  We need stories.  That is why the movie industry has been so important to our culture.  Of course, it is a mixed bag.  Bad history is the norm, in the movies (ie The Alamo… in it’s various incarnations).
We are approaching the centenial of The Great War.  Perhaps there will be some good art to come from it….one can hope.

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By Jason Logan, March 1, 2012 at 10:28 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The various British “Royals” began to intermarry with Protestant European nobility following the House of Stuart’s tendency to revert to Catholicism. So Queen Mary was wed to William of Orange (Holland) and subsequently Germany’s House of Hanover provided the Georges -First, Second & Third. Queen Victoria later married Prince Albert of the House of Saxe Cobourg -
Gotha (changed to Windsor in WWI). The British monarch is also the head of the Church of England .(Episcopal Church in the U.S. had to realign its apostolic authority through Scottish bishops beginning with the American Revolution to avoid swearing allegiance to the English crown).

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By jimmmmmy, March 1, 2012 at 9:06 am Link to this comment

another stunningly informative article, thanx

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By jimmmmmy, March 1, 2012 at 9:02 am Link to this comment

the british royal family was of german origin ,hanover , haps-coburg.they changed their surname to windsor in 1917, because of their suspected german ties.

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By rumblingspire, February 29, 2012 at 8:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Soldier.  Lay down your gun.  Be a real hero!

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