Lessons in peace from the First World War

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Lessons in peace from the First World War

By Symon Hill


WazimoU (under a Creative Commons Licence)

Exactly one hundred years ago, on 28 July 1914, there was a meeting in Brussels. Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia. People expected that most of the rest of Europe would join the war.

French socialist leader Jean Jaures had his arm around the Hugo Haase from the German Social Democrats, Hugo Haase. They said that, whatever governments and capitalists do, working-class people must refuse to fight each other. Thousands of people protested against war in cities across Europe.

A few days later, a French student shot Jean Jaures dead in a Paris restaurant. The French socialists, like socialists in Germany and Britain, did not agree about the war. Most in all three countries voted to support it.

Some historians say that was the end of people fighting against the war. Recently, other historians have talked about the peace movements that some people want to ignore. In Britain, there was a semi-illegal anti-war newspaper The Tribunal. This newspaper had 100,000 readers. And more than 6,000 people were put in prison because they did not agree with the war. Many people were against the war in Russia and Germany, and this feeling was a big part of the revolutions there. Also, there were many people fighting against colonial rule, from Mali to Ireland. Many groups fought against the French government in 1917, but the government just survived. The US socialist Eugene Debs was still in prison for campaigning against the war when he got over a million votes in the presidential election of 1920.

As we campaign for peace today, what can we learn from these people a hundred years ago?

1) A peace movement must be international. ‘We do not think it is important to be Austrian, Serb, Russian, Italian or French,’ said a German trade union newspaper just before the war. ‘We know only brother workers. To prevent this terrible war we want to connect to the workers of all countries.’ The next year, activists from countries at war were questioned by police. Police did not like them going to the Women’s Peace Conference in the Netherlands. But this showed that solidarity across the boundaries of countries is very possible.

Today, we have, for example, the Facebook pages of Israel-Loves-Iran and Iran-Loves-Israel. Israelis and Iranians started this. They believe they are more similar to each other than to people making war in the two countries.

2) We must not believe all the reasons people for give for war. In 1914, many socialists were very sad that so many other socialists agreed with the war. In Germany, many socialists said that they had to fight against the power of the Russian Tsar. In Britain, many socialists said they were fighting against imperialism by trying to stop the German invasion of Belgium.

We have seen with Iraq and Afghanistan that there are always some people on the left who think that this time war is different. That this time we must join with capitalists and oppressors to fight different capitalists and oppressors. We have to learn from history and stop believing this.

3) We can be united even if we have differences. The British peace movement was divided, not between socialists and Christians as many people think (many peace campaigners were both socialist and Christian). What they could not agree about was the question of accepting ‘other work’ if they did not do military service. Some people agreed to do work if it did not help the war. Other people said that even if they work on a farm, this means that a farmworker was now free to go and kill.

These people were called ‘absolutists’. And most of the thousands of people put in prison in Britain because they did not agree with the war were absolutists. Other people were put in prison for illegal activism. They sometimes disagreed, but mostly they agreed with other activists. The No-Conscription Fellowship, the most important anti-war group in Britain, kept its many different members generally united against militarism.

By now, maybe you are shouting at your computer screen, ‘But they were not effective! They didn't stop the war!’ I know the World War One peace movement was not successful. But we cannot say they had no effect. There were rebellions in Germany, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And, in other countries, it was far more acceptable to be anti-war at the end of the war than it was at the beginning. Because of public feeling in Britain, the government stopped conscription (forcing people to serve in the army) and most wartime censorship, even though many ministers wanted to keep both of these.

But now, as Israel bombs Gaza and the Western media talks about a new conflict with Russia, has nothing changed? We must learn from the activists of 100 years ago. We must create peace campaigns that are united, diverse and international. If we don’t learn from our history, we will repeat it.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/blog/2014/07/28/world-war-one-peace-activists/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).