Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

The Impact of the Pre-Great War Anti-War Movement

1913 Anti-War Cartoon

We can now look forward with something like confidence to the time when war between civilized nations will be considered as antiquated as the duel.

Historian J.P. Gooch, 1911


We pictured it as a chivalrous passage of arms, which would limit itself to establisn the superiority of one side in the struggle, while as far as possible avoiding acute suffering that could contribute nothing to the decision.

Sigmund Freud, 1915

An Excerpt from " Changing Attitudes Towards War: The Impact of  the First World War"  by  John Mueller, Rochester University

The experience of the First World War clearly changed attitudes towards war  in the developed world. In an area where war had been accepted as a fixture  for thousands of years, the idea now gained substantial currency that war  was no longer an inevitable fact of life and that major efforts should be made  to abandon it. [It was the first major war to be preceded by substantial, organized anti-war agitation.] The war marked, as Arnold Toynbee points out, the end of  a 'span of five thousand years during which war had been one of mankind's  master institutions'.  In his invaluable study of wars since 1400, Evan  Luard observes that 'the First World War transformed traditional attitudes  toward war. For the first time there was an almost universal sense that the  deliberate launching of a war could now no longer be justified'.  There is  no way to quantify this change except perhaps through a rough sort of content  analysis: before the First World War it is very easy to find serious writers,  analysts and politicians in Europe and the United States who hail war 'not  merely as an unpleasant necessity', as Roland Stromberg has observed, 'but  as spiritual salvation and hope of regeneration'. After the war, similar writers (e.g., Benito Mussolini) become extremely rare.

. . . While the costs and horrors of the First World War may not have been notably  unusual in historical perspective, the war seems to have been truly unique  in that it was the first in history to have been preceded by substantial anti-war  agitation. There have been individual war opponents throughout history, but  organized peace groups appeared for the first time only in 1815 and they  achieved significant public notice and momentum only by For some forty years before 1914, then, there had been a voice in European  and American politics urging that war was repulsive, immoral, uncivilized and  futile.

Constructed on arguments that had been around for centuries and were  sometimes related to other thought patterns of the era like liberalism and the  idea of progress, the anti-war movement of the late nineteenth century was  a shifting, and sometimes uncomfortable, coalition of voices calling for the  elimination of war. There were the moralists, like Quakers, who found war,  like other forms of killing, to be immoral. There were those whose objections  were essentially aesthetic: they found the carnage and destruction of war to  be disgusting and repulsive. There were those who felt war to be uncivilized,  a throwback to a barbaric past that the progressive, cultured sophisticates  of nineteenth-century Europe ought now to reject. There were those whose objections were primarily practical: war and conquest, they had come to believe,  were futile and counterproductive, particularly from an economic standpoint,  and, as an institution of international contest, war ought now to be replaced  by trade and the commercial spirit. These war opponents were joined by socialists and others who had concluded that war was essentially a mechanism through  which the capitalist class carried out its disputes, using the working classes  as cannon fodder. Among their activities, the various elements of the anti-war  movement were devoted to exploring alternatives to war such as arbitration  and international law and organization, and to eveloping mechanisms, like  disarmament, that might reduce its frequency or consequences.

The anti-war movement was growing substantially at the turn of the century,  but it was still very much a minority movement. Its voice was largely drowned  out by those who still held war to be a method for resolving international  disputes that was natural, inevitable, honorable, thrilling, manly, invigorating,  necessary and often progressive, glorious and desirable.

But while the anti-war people were often ridiculed, their gadfly arguments were persistent and unavoidable, and the existence of the movement probably helped Europeans and Americans to look at the institution of war in a new way when the massive conflict of 1914-18 entered their experience. The First  World War served, therefore, essentially as a catalyst. It was not the first horrible war in history, but it was the first in which people were widely capable of  recognizing and being thoroughly repulsed by those horrors and in which they were substantially aware that viable alternatives existed.

The First World War, of course, shattered the optimism of the peace advocates even as it gave them new credibility and caused them to redouble their efforts. But even in retrospect some of its members remember the prewar era with satisfaction and one of them, Norman Angell, whose famous anti-war book, The Great Illusion, became a colossal international bestseller after 1909, argues in his memoirs that if the war could have been delayed a few years, 'Western Europe might have acquired a mood' which it to 'avoid the war.'

Angell might be right: the anti-war movement may have  of gathering an unstoppable momentum like the anti-slavery movement of the previous century. Ultimately, however, it seems likely to carry the day it was necessary first for war to discredit itself: the Great War, or something like it, may have been required for the ending of war  to emerge as an idea whose time had come.

The central problem was that before 1914 the institution of war still carried  with it much of the glamour and the sense of inevitability over the millennia. Despite the remarkable and unprecedent 19th century peace in Europe, war still appealed not only to woolly militarists, but also to popular opinion and to romantic intellectuals. . .

Source: Originally Presented in the British Journal of Political Science, January 1991.  Full article HERE. 


  1. The graphic at the top of this article should be constantly seen all over the globe. David Beer

  2. Quite the harem there. Recruiting females?