Magazine article Contemporary Review

British Official Attitudes regarding Anti-War Protesters in Two World Wars

Magazine article Contemporary Review

British Official Attitudes regarding Anti-War Protesters in Two World Wars

Article excerpt

IN this article I will show that, while in the First World War 1914-1918 there was much less unanimity, much less uniformity in thinking about the causes, justifications and objectives of the war with Germany, but also much greater official intolerance of dissenting opinion, in the Second World War 1939-1945 there was an almost universal--admittedly not quite universal--acceptance of the need and duty to resist Hitlerite aggression, but at the same time a readiness to acknowledge that citizens had a right as individuals to disagree with government policy, almost as if people felt, 'What are we fighting for is the right of people to be pacifists if they want to'.

In 1914 Britain was governed by the Liberal Party, which for the previous sixty or so years had generally opposed the colonial military adventures of the Conservative Party and which depended for its electoral base to a considerable extent on Nonconformist Protestant organizations, Christian sects such as the Congregationalists and Baptists which generally opposed themselves to war on principle. When war came in August 1914 two Cabinet ministers, Lord Morley and John Burns, and a junior minister, Charles Trevelyan, resigned: two other Cabinet ministers tendered their resignations but later allowed themselves to be persuaded to stay on. Subsequently a number of Liberal Members of Parliament were active campaigners against the war, as was James Ramsay MacDonald who till the outbreak of hostilities led the Labour Party group in the House of Commons, which had generally supported the Liberal government. But it was not just political progressives who questioned the war: in November 1917 the Marquis of Lansdowne, a former Viceroy of India, one of the architects of the Boer War, and a member of Asquith's coalition War Cabinet in 1915-1916, caused a furore with a letter printed in The Daily Telegraph calling on the government to announced definite terms for a compromise peace: at a Conservative Party meeting next day he was, as he said, 'excommunicated'.

As in Germany in the same period, the widespread enthusiasm for the war in Britain in 1914 was not only fuelled by ignorance of what a major war really involved--Britain had not fought a European war since 1856--but also by the frustrations and fantasies generated by the sheer boredom and lack of sensationalism of peacetime life. And as in Germany, one detects an underlying hysteria. Prince Louis of Battenberg, who had been brought to England by his parents as a child and had joined the Royal Navy at the age of fourteen, was driven from his post as First Sea Lord--i.e. professional head of the Navy--because of his German title. Lord Haldane, the Lord Chancellor, who as Secretary of State for War before 1912 had masterminded the modernization of the British Army, was dropped from the government because he had been at a German university (Gottingen) and professed himself an admirer of German education. When the liner R.M.S. Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine in the spring of 1915 there were anti-German riots which consisted partly of attacks on, and looting of, shops owned by Polish Jews and, even more oddly, Chinese immigrants.

The same hysteria, amongst the official rather than the street-fighting, shop-looting classes, soon became evident in responses to continuing opposition to government war policy. It must be emphasized that unlike other western European countries, Britain had never had a system of compulsory universal military service, never had an organized system of censorhip or repression of political opinions. During the war against revolutionary France in the 1790s an attempt to put dissident leaders on trial had resulted in acquittals and the humiliation of the government, and though the ministers then resorted to detention without trial, the longer the war against France went on, the more people came to feel that repression was pointless.

Till 1914 British people were generally rather proud of living in a country where no-one (other than your employer, your landlord, your creditors etc. …

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