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A different legacy: lessons in peace from the First World War

War & Peace
poppy field

WazimoU under a Creative Commons Licence

Exactly one hundred years ago, on 28 July 1914, socialist representatives from across Europe gathered in Brussels. Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia. Much of the rest of Europe was expected to join in.

French socialist leader Jean Jaures stood with his arm around the co-chair of the German Social Democrats, Hugo Haase. They insisted that whatever governments and capitalists might do, working-class people must refuse to fight each other. Thousands of people marched against war in cities throughout Europe.

A few days later, Jean Jaures was shot dead by a pro-war French student in a Paris restaurant. The French socialists, like their counterparts in Germany and Britain, split over the war, with the majority in all three countries voting to support it.

If you believe certain historians, that was the end of the opposition to the war. Recently, other historians have drawn attention to the peace movements that some are so keen to overlook. In Britain, the semi-illegal anti-war newspaper The Tribunal had 100,000 readers at its height, while over 6,000 people were locked up for opposing the war. Anti-war feeling played a major part in the revolutions that ousted the rulers of Russia and Germany, as well as in anti-colonial rebellions from Mali to Ireland. The French government only narrowly survived a string of mutinies in 1917. The US socialist Eugene Debs was still in prison for anti-war campaigning when he received over a million votes in the presidential election of 1920.

As we campaign for peace today, what can we learn from our predecessors of a century ago?

Firstly, any peace movement must be international. ‘We do not recognize the Austrian, the Serb, the Russian, the Italian or the French,’ declared a German syndicalist newspaper on the eve of war. ‘We know only brother workers. To prevent this enormity we hold out our hand to the workers of all countries.’ The next year, activists from countries at war endured police interrogations and public suspicion to travel to the Women’s Peace Conference in the Netherlands. The event proved that solidarity across boundaries is more than possible.

For a modern equivalent, have a look at the Facebook pages of Israel-Loves-Iran and Iran-Loves-Israel, set up by Israelis and Iranians who believe they have more in common with each other than with warmongers in either country.

Secondly, we must not be fooled by justifications for war. In 1914, many on the left were dismayed to find that so many of their comrades supported the war. In Germany, pro-war socialists argued that they had to fight against Russian Tsarist autocracy. In Britain, the pro-war left claimed to be fighting against imperialism in resisting the German invasion of Belgium.

As we have seen with Iraq and Afghanistan, there are always some on the left who are persuaded that this time war is different, that this time we must unite with capitalists and oppressors to fight different capitalists and oppressors. It’s about time we learnt from history and stopped believing it.

Thirdly, we can be united despite differences. The British peace movement was split, not between socialists and Christians as is sometimes assumed (many peace campaigners were both) but over the question of accepting ‘alternative work’ to military service. Some were prepared to do so if the work did not help the prosecution of the war. Others argued that even working on a farm freed up a farmworker to go and kill. These ‘absolutists’ formed the majority of the thousands imprisoned in Britain for their anti-war views, although they were joined by others locked up for illegal activism. Despite sometimes bitter differences, records show a remarkable understanding of other activists’ positions. The No-Conscription Fellowship, the leading anti-war group in Britain, managed to keep its diverse members broadly united against militarism.

By now, you may be shouting at your computer screen, ‘But they were not effective! They didn't stop the war!’ I have no illusions about the failures of the World War One peace movement. But to dismiss them as ineffective is to overlook the rebellions seen in Germany, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Elsewhere, negativity about war became a far more acceptable attitude by the end of the war than it was at the beginning. Public sentiment in Britain forced the government to abolish conscription and most wartime censorship, despite a clear desire on the part of several ministers to keep them both.

Yet, as Israeli bombs rain down on Gaza and the Western media talks up a new conflict with Russia, we could be forgiven for thinking that nothing has changed. That’s why we must learn from the activists of 100 years ago, building peace campaigns that are united, diverse and international. If we don’t learn from our history, we are condemned to repeat it. 

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