A decade-by-decade look at some people and events in the world-wide struggle against war and violence.


 Selected by Margaret Melicharova

  peace action worldwide


1940-1949 Candles in the Dark

   Dr Hermann Stöhr, pacifist secretary of the former German branch of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, refused to serve in the German army, and was executed in June 1940.
   Elisabeth von Thadden, Christian sister of a Nazi, was executed for anti-war activities.
   Pacifist minister Wilhelm Mensching openly spoke for peace and against Nazi racism; he was protected from imprisonment by the resourcefulness of his congregation.
   The priest Max Josef Metzger became a pacifist after the outbreak of war, and was executed in 1944. Austrian priest Johannes Ude openly and publicly quoted the Biblical commandment ‘Du sollst nicht toten’ (thou shalt not kill); he was arrested and charged with treason,    In occupied France, pacifists André and Magda Trocmé saved many people from prisons and concentration camps.
1940 The PPU’s journal ‘Peace News’ ran into difficulties: printers refused to print it, wholesale newsagents boycotted it, anti-pacifists called for it to be suppressed. Undeterred, ‘Peace News’ kept on appearing regularly, and legally, throughout the war, though reduced in size for a while.

1940 In America: the three ‘peace churches’ (Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren) set up a National Service Board for Religious Objectors, to co-ordinate pro-conscientious objection activities and negotiate with the government for an alternative civilian service scheme as well as for tolerance of total exemption from service. The churches were given the day-to-day management of unpaid alternative civilian service, and the first Civilian Public Service camp was opened in 1941.

CIVILIAN PUBLIC SERVICE IN AMERICA was wide-ranging and often positive. COs served in conservation and forestry camps, in hospitals and state training schools, at university laboratories and agricultural experiment stations, on farms and government surveys. They made roads, cleared trails, fought forest fires, dug irrigation ditches, built dams and fences, planted trees and uprooted weeds, did soil conservation experiments, tended cattle, built sanitation for poor communities, and cared for the mentally ill, the disabled and the disturbed. They worked on long-standing conservation programmes that the war might otherwise have interrupted. They took part in medical experiments with far-reaching results for medicine. They practised non-violent techniques in mental health institutions, and publicised poor standards of care.
   However, it was hard to organise these achievements without misplacing people – such as assigning an engineer to gardening, a research physicist to clear a marsh. The COs were subjected to restraints on freedom, like prisoners, and were prevented from overseas relief work. The government feared that too much achievement, responsibility and success would glamourise COs in the eyes of the public.

1941 In America, Liberal Republican politician Jeannette Rankin was the one member of the US Congress to vote against the war (and lost her post as a result).

TOYOHIKO KAGAWA (1888-1960) was a Christian social reformer, author and democratic leader in Japan who committed his life to helping the poor. He founded the Anti-war League in Japan, and in 1940 was arrested after publicly apologising for the Japanese invasion of China. In 1941 he visited America in an attempt to avert war between Japan and the US.

1942 In America: the War Resisters League published a pamphlet called ‘Pacifism and Invasion’ suggesting techniques of non-violent resistance if the US was invaded.

PACIFIST SOCIAL SERVICE IN BRITAIN took many forms during World War 2. Pacifists who were not ‘absolutist’ and therefore willing to do civilian work could be found all over the country, working on the land as farm labourers or foresters or market gardeners; in hospitals as porters, orderlies or ambulance drivers; in civil defence or the fire service; or doing social work, such as in the Pacifist Service Units set up to aid the disadvantaged in large industrial cities. Some of these projects were government-run, others were privately set up. Many pacifists felt that serving the community was part of their peace mission.

1943 UK Government minister Ernest Bevin said in Parliament: ‘There are thousands of cases in which conscientious objectors, although they may have refused to take up arms, have shown as much courage as anyone else in Civil Defence.’

1943 US George Hartmann of the War Resisters League, and Dorothy Hutchinson, a US Quaker, launched the Peace Now movement. They called for an immediate negotiated end to the war, to stop Nazi persecution of Jews.

Britain: About 60000 men (including about 1000 women after 1941) applied for exemption. 4.7% were granted unconditional exemption; 37.9% were required to perform alternative civilian service; 27.7% were sent to the Non Combatant Corps; and 29.7% had their requests denied, though half were accepted after appeal.
    Towards the end of the war some COs were sent down the coal mines. A number of CO tribunals made a point of making the work unpleasant, rough and hard, to reflect combatant experience.
    Women, who were in any case ineligible to fight at the front, could choose between the Women’s Services, civil defence, or industry.
    Although there was less intolerance – but fewer ‘absolute pacifists’ – than in World War 1, about 5000 men and 500 women were sent to prison. The main clash with the law was made by the 3600 who resisted call-up. 355 others refused to comply with orders to do alternative civilian service. All were imprisoned. Over 1000 were court-martialled and imprisoned in military jails.
   There were over 500 cases of men and 90 of women refusing to perform fire-watching duties; they received short prison sentences; so did the 610 men and 333 women who resisted industrial conscription.
   Prison conditions were primitive and unpleasant, but there was less of the harshness and hostility experienced by World War 1 internees. World War 2’s pacifists acknowledged their debt to the steadfast resistance to persecution shown by their predecessors.
In America there was little support for pacifists, and there are few available records of the COs and their treatment. One estimate suggests that over 100,000 objected. No-one was allowed unconditional exemption; the choice was between submitting, going to jail, or taking evasive action.
In Canada there was no unconditional exemption, but an alternative civil service scheme was arranged. There were 11000 Canadian COs, and some were allowed to join the Friends Ambulance Unit in China. ‘Canadian pacifists were especially proud of this role in this international relief effort.’
New Zealand had under 3000 objectors, who faced no exemption and no leave to appeal; those thought ‘genuine’ were assigned to civilian work or non-combatant duties; those who were not were confined in detention camps; those who refused either were jailed. In Australia there were even fewer COs, with similar difficulties, but the attitude towards them was less severe.
POCKETS OF RESISTANCE The Netherlands: The pacifist group ‘Church and Peace’ was suppressed during the Nazi occupation, but its members privately sustained their testimony of reconciliation, and participated actively in helping Jews. Some members were imprisoned. After the war the organisation became the Dutch branch of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Denmark: The government and people practised an almost Gandhi-style passive resistance under occupation. Danish pacifists expressed their beliefs openly, publishing their monthly paper ‘Aldrig Mere Krig’ (‘No More War’) in which they protested against Nazi treatment of Jews and oppression of neighbouring Norway.
Norway: Here the Nazis made sustained efforts to impose Nazi principles on religion and culture, and encountered a strong national unarmed resistance, in which pacifists took part. For example, institutions and sports facilities taken over by Nazis ceased to be staffed by Norwegians, and therefore closed; teachers refused to alter their teaching, and taught at home after the schools were shut down; clergymen resigned their posts, but continued to preach informally. Many Norwegians were punished with imprisonment, exile, torture and death, but the resistance was maintained.

1945 At the end of the war the Peace Pledge Union still had nearly 100,000 members. Throughout the war the PPU had worked to support conscientious objectors and starvation relief in occupied Europe, and had campaigned against saturation bombing of German cities.

VERA BRITTAIN (1893-1970) was a pacifist writer and campaigner who lived through two world wars. In the First World War she worked as a nurse in England and France. Her brother and her fiancé were both soldiers; both died. She recorded her experiences of that war in her autobiography ‘Testament of Youth’ (later to be made into a successful television drama series). She joined the Peace Pledge Union and spent much of the Second World War in London, publishing her fortnightly ‘Letter to Peace Lovers’ which gave support to anti-war workers and promoted ideas for overcoming the destruction and tragedy of war. She campaigned vigorously against the saturation bombing of German cities, such as Dresden, which massacred half a million civilians. She took part in the PPU’s Food Relief Campaign, which worked to get supplies to the starving in those parts of Europe which were occupied by the German army. Vera Brittain continued to work against the ‘insanity and cruelty’ of war until she died. [more]

1945 As one of the founding non-governmental organisations, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was represented at the first United Nations Conference in San Francisco to promote world security based on freedom and justice, not on military power and prestige.

THE UNITED NATIONS is an international organisation which was established by charter on Oct. 24, 1945, with the purposes of maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations on the principle of equal rights and self-determination, and encouraging international co-operation in solving international economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems.
1946 A number of British and American pacifist COs began to take part in post-war relief operations in Europe and in China, usually for organisations set up by the peace churches. Others returned to work in the peace movement; a small group became pioneers in developing, in future years, non-violent direct action for peace and justice.

1946-8 Socialist and pacifist Yrjö Kallinen was Minister of Defence in Finland, the first pacifist to hold such a post. He publicly promoted the idea of Finland’s unilateral disarmament to set the world an example.

1948 Members of the US War Resisters League formed a group called ‘The Peacemakers’ and announced a programme including non-registration for the draft (some burned draft cards in symbolic protest), refusal to pay taxes assigned to military purposes, and the development of non-violent techniques to achieve social change.

1949 The Peace Pledge Union set up a Commission for Non-Violence.





UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, on ‘absolute’ pacifists, 1939: ‘It is both a useless and exasperating waste of time and effort to attempt to force such people to act in a manner which is contrary to their principles.’

Vera Brittain (1893-1970. British writer and pacifist) on saturation bombing of German cities: ‘I am not responsible for the cruel deeds done by the Nazis in the name of the Germans, and much as I deplore them I cannot prevent them. But so long as the breath is in me I shall protest against abominations done by my government in the name of the British.’ [more]

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945. US President 1933-45): ‘The work, my friend, is peace. More than an end of this war – an end to the beginnings of all wars. Yes, an end forever to this impractical, unrealistic settlement of the differences between governments by the mass killings of people.’

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) (established to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture). From the UNESCO Constitution, 1945: ‘The Government of the States parties to this Constitution on behalf of their peoples declare, that since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.’ [more]




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