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Pacifism, which literally refers to making peace (from pace and facere) is often mistakenly understood as passivity.


Demonstrations in New York after the destruction of the World Trade Center

There was a lot of interest in the media in 2005 - the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the last time when old soldiers will gather in any large number to parade their medals or to reminisce over ‘old, unhappy far off things, and battles long ago’, as the poet William Wordsworth wrote. But what of those who opposed the war? What did they do, and what did 1945 mean to them?

The Peace Pledge Union was founded in 1934 to try to stop the war from happening. It merged with the No More War Movement, founded in 1921 as a reaction to the First World War. The coming of war in 1939 was a huge disappointment, but membership continued to increase. There was much to do.

The war meant the return of military conscription. Pacifists had campaigned against it, but when it came, the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors was set up to co-ordinate work on behalf of all objectors, 'absolutists' (total resisters) as well as 'alternativists', both positions being recognised in the legislation, but not always by the tribunals. Out of 60,000 objectors, some 3000 went to prison, but many objectors worked in farming (some even ran their own farms as experiments in community living), in forestry, in hospitals and in social service - a new form of social work was pioneered amongst very deprived families by the Pacifist Service Units, which continue today as Family Service Units. The 100 COs who went to work on farms in Jersey came under German control when the Islands were occupied; about half of them were later deported to civilian internment camps in Bavaria, where they played a lively part in camp life; some went outside to help local farmers grow food; some married local women and settled in Germany (pacifism has no frontiers). Tribunals sometimes allowed objectors to continue their own jobs such as teaching, but employers sometimes refuse to keep them (the BBC dismissed all its conscientious objector staff). Some 400 objectors volunteered for work clearing unexploded bombs. A few objectors undertaking relief work abroad were killed on the fringes of battle, and a few more were killed when working in civil defence or when their prisons were bombed. Conscription was extended in a small way to women, giving rise to 1000 women objectors, and both men and women civilians were subject to direction of labour, sometimes leading to a conflict of conscience for which the law did not properly provide.

Other pacifists sometimes had problems. Six leading members of the PPU were prosecuted for displaying a poster ‘War will cease when men refuse to fight. What are YOU going to do about it?’, but were not dealt with harshly. There were difficulties in attempting to campaign for a negotiated peace; a woman was imprisoned for a month for publicly advocating nonviolent resistance. But then the PPU found more urgent work.

It was realised by 1942 that children in some of the German-occupied countries of Europe, particularly Greece and Belgium, were starving, and that an Allied blockade was making matters worse. The PPU ran a Food Relief Campaign, pressing for lifting the blockade, under the auspices of the Red Cross, to enable food to be sent in, with the assurance that it would feed the children and not the occupying troops. From the same origins came the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, still operating, as Oxfam, today.

Another campaign of the PPU was against the intensive bombing of German towns. The intention was publicly announced by the head of Bomber Command, Arthur Harris, to ‘dehouse’ Germans, which was a euphemism for mass slaughter. Although many people were killed in the Luftwaffe's Blitz on Britain (the British adopted the German word), the PPU argued that both sides targeting civilians did not make either of them right, and, in any case, the German bombing raids never reached the intensity of the firestorms of Hamburg and Dresden caused by Allied bombing - "methods of barbarism", as the author and PPU activist Vera Brittain described it. It was not possible to stop the policy, but consciousness was raised in Parliament and among the public in a debate that was to be rerun fifty years later, when Bomber Command veterans raised a statue to "Bomber" Harris, and the PPU led the campaign against it.

Meanwhile, the morale of pacifists was maintained by several hundred PPU groups in towns and villages around the country, often meeting weekly, and arranging the selling of the weekly paper Peace News on street corners. At its height Peace News had a circulation; of 18,000, distributed informally because commercial outlets refused to handle it. For two weeks in 1940 the type was hand set because the printers were afraid of prosecution for hindering the war effort. Then new and sympathetic printers were found, and the paper continued without problems (apart from the strict rationing of paper, in common with the mainstream press), commenting critically on events and reporting news of conscientious objectors and PPU's campaigns.

Sometimes reports came through from Germany and occupied Europe. The magazine of the War Resisters International reported the first execution of a German conscientious objector in September 1939, and the magazine of the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors carried later news of German objectors and pacifists in concentration camps. The WRI, based in Britain, was able, by various means, to receive news from Germany and the occupied countries: conscientious objectors steadfastly facing execution; others writing from prison; the Danish section continuing its monthly paper, sometimes carrying reports from Norway.

When the war finally came to an end, there was a momentary sense of relief, but then a realisation that yet more urgent work was needed. Even whilst the 'Big Three' - Truman, Churchill and Stalin - were conferring at Potsdam in July 1945, the composer and PPU member Benjamin Britten organised a 'foodless lunch' to draw attention to the starving people of Germany amidst the chaos and ruin of 'victory'. This was followed by the call of the Jewish publisher Victor Gollancz to 'Save Europe Now' in a campaign to relieve the poverty and distress of large parts of Europe caused not only by the war, but by the realignment of borders and the consequent 'displaced persons' - would we now call them the 'ethnically cleansed'? - herded in makeshift camps. A photograph in Peace News in March 1946 showed ten women and children huddled on an open snowbound Berlin railway platform - the only survivors of 150 malnourished Germans summarily deported in an unheated train from the East. Pacifists not only urged the government to give priority to sending food to Europe rather than increasing the food ration at home, but also saved food from their own allowances to send to Germany and other countries.

Some pacifists joined work camps in Germany to help in reconstruction, and others volunteered for longer-term relief work. Motivated by photographs such as that in Peace News of a six-year-old girl, as late as 1948, sitting barefoot on a mountain of rubble in Ludwigshafen - her only playground - pacifists arranged for children from Austria, Germany and the Netherlands to come to Britain on group holidays for both psychological and physical recuperation. Links were made with the Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft and other re-emerging pacifist groups.

Pacifists campaigned for repatriating German and Italian prisoners of war rather than keeping them effectively as slave labour. Meanwhile, they were befriended, with invitations to a family meal on Sunday and Christmas parties and other social events organised.
The PPU campaigned against war crimes trials, seeing them essentially as 'victors' justice', in which 'crimes' such as Hamburg and Dresden, not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were overlooked. As the PPU pledge reminds us, war itself is the crime against humanity, and if there were to be any judgement, all who prepare and carry out war need to be weighed in the balance, Pacifists naturally opposed the executions, believing that no-one has the right to take another's life. None of this meant that pacifists in any way condoned or minimised the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, but they deemed the overriding issue to be the urgent need to create a world community in which all human life is valued. The concept of a truth and reconciliation commission had not yet been developed, but it was the kind of process towards which pacifists were struggling to find a way. Certainly, some Holocaust survivors found in the PPU their moral home.

Following the horror of the Holocaust was the new horror of atomic war - seen by the PPU as the result of the relentless logic of war in which each side attempts to outmanoeuvre the other with ever more lethal weapons. The PPU published the first British anti-nuclear leaflet in October 1945, and held the first No Atomic War public meeting in March 1946.

There was also the problem of conscription. Pacifists failed to prevent its continuation into 'peacetime' - which quickly became the Cold War, but were successful ensuring that the same rights for conscientious objectors were maintained, despite an attempt by the government to withdraw the possibility of absolute exemption. The account of how after fifteen years the government abolished conscription in order to concentrate on the British nuclear 'deterrent' is another story.

Sixty years on, when we look at Iraq and the Middle East, and Afghanistan and the Balkans not so long ago, it is small wonder that we still ask , When shall we ever learn?

Bill Hetherington

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