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remembering objectors

There are many reasons why supporters of the peace movement are critical of conventional Remembrance ceremonies: the tendency to glorify war rather than regret it; the emphasis on military ‘sacrifice’ rather than the taking of civilian life; the parading of weapons rather than accounting how much war might be averted by diverting arms expenditure to feeding the hungry, housing the homeless or healing the sick.
Amongst these alternative views there is also the Remembrance of those who have stood out against war in whatever way they could and those in particular, ‘men and women conscientious objectors to military service from all over the world and in every age, who have maintained and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill’. The wording is taken from the Conscientious Objection Commemorative Stone in Tavistock Square, London, unveiled in 1994, where for the second year running a brief ceremony was held on International Conscientious Objector’s Day, 15 May.
Supported by the Raised Voices choir, whose singing questioned how killing people can teach that killing people is wrong, we were reminded by Amnesty how, although military conscription is slowly being abolished in western Europe, in eastern Europe and other parts of the world conscientious objectors can still be unrecognised and harshly treated. As late as 1949 two objectors in Greece were executed, and there is still no proper provision for recognition. There is also no provision in Serbia, but, with the support of soldiers’ mothers’ organisations and the Women in Black, it was known that a number of Serbian men were trying to avoid involvement in the war. Sir Roy Shaw contrasted his own mild experience as a Second World War British Conscientious Objector but pointed out that the personal decision was as important as any hardship undergone. White flowers, symbolic of peace, were laid in commemorative solidarity.

One week after International COs’ Day a plaque was unveiled naming a group of new houses in Croydon Charles Cobb Gardens in honour of a local man who died in 1919 shortly after release from over two years in prison as a conscientious objector. His family could not afford a tombstone, and he lay in an unmarked grave in Croydon until 1988, when posthumous friends erected a gravestone for him.
Cobb was one of 73 British WW1 conscientious objectors who died as a result of the way they were treated. They are specially commemorated on a wooden plaque in the Peace Pledge Union offices, which was originally erected in Berlin in 1924, but actually survived the war and was brought back to Britain in 1958.

The transnational story of the plaque will have its part in a major exhibition of European conscientious objection, from the beheading of Maximilian, a Roman, in 295 AD to the refusers of the Balkans today, now being planned for the Peace Museum at Stadtschlaining, Austria, to be opened early 2000.
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At about the same time, on the site of the former Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, wreaths of flowers were also laid in memory of thousands of men who deserted from the Wehrmacht, the WW2 German army. Most of them were executed, and others were held at Buchenwald; only in 1997 were these men rehabilitated from the penalties for withdrawal from the Nazi system.
The wreaths carried messages from many European countries, including Britain, the latter message calling to mind August Dickman, executed in 1939, and Franz Jagerstaetter, beheaded in Berlin in 1943.

Bill Hetherington

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