Parting with Pacifism: In the Mid-1930s Many Millions of British People Voted Overwhelmingly against Any Return to Conflict. but Events in Spain Changed Public Opinion and by 1939 It Was Widely Accepted That Fascism Could Only Be Opposed Successfully through Military Action

By Overy, Richard | History Today, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Parting with Pacifism: In the Mid-1930s Many Millions of British People Voted Overwhelmingly against Any Return to Conflict. but Events in Spain Changed Public Opinion and by 1939 It Was Widely Accepted That Fascism Could Only Be Opposed Successfully through Military Action


Overy, Richard, History Today


The British government's pursuit of appeasement in the years before 1939 has often been attributed, among many other things, to strong antiwar or pacifist sentiment among the wider public. This presents an evident paradox, for if there was so much popular resistance to the idea of war in the mid-1930s it is necessary to explain why public opinion swung round to wide support for confronting Hitler in 1939. The answer to that question is often assumed to be the nature of the threat that Hitler posed to European order, but the transition from pursuit of peace to pursuit of war was seldom so straightforward.

The evidence for widespread support for peace in the mid-1930s is to be found in the results of the so-called 'Peace Ballot' conducted by the League of Nations Union, with the support of 34 further organisations, in the winter of 1934-35. It was organised like a general election, by constituency, and relied on the volunteer efforts of a remarkable 500,000 people who went from door to door asking households to answer a number of questions. The result, announced in July 1935, saw 96 per cent of an astonishing 11.6 million votes in favour of continued League membership. This outcome was taken by the organisers to mean that a large minority of the electorate favoured the idea of resolving disputes without war, although 6.8 million said 'yes' in answer to the question of whether in a last resort the League should use collective force.

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The same month a Peace Pledge was launched by Dick Sheppard, the popular Canon of St Paul's Cathedral, asking men (women were only admitted a year later) to sign a card saying that they renounced war absolutely. In May 1936 Sheppard founded the Peace Pledge Union (PPU--still in existence today), which enrolled around 130,000 people to spread the gospel of absolute pacifism. In the autumn of 1936 the International Peace Campaign was launched, presided over by Lord Robert Cecil, who was also president of the League of Nations Union. Propaganda for peace and hostility to armaments and military preparation reached a broad constituency by the mid- 1930s and was led by an array of distinguished churchmen, politicians and literati. Although the government gave little active encouragement, the new administration under Neville Chamberlain formed in May 1937 brought to high office a man who had a strong principled hostility to war which in his view 'wins nothing, cures nothing, ends nothing'.

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By the summer of 1939 the situation had changed sharply. The main anti-war and pacifist organisations had lost ground in the intervening years. The International Peace Campaign was close to collapse and the League of Nations Union, which boasted one million members in 1931, was reduced to 264,000 by 1938 and riven with sectarian disputes between pacifists and those who favoured collective military action. The PPU still had around 130,000 supporters but it was regarded suspiciously as a pro-German organisation for its refusal to accept the necessity for war to stop Hitler. Pacifism was increasingly viewed as a dirty word. In the summer of 1939, around 75 per cent of respondents to the first Gallup polls were in favour of military action against Hitler's Germany if he used force to gain what he wanted. Even Chamberlain, though so often regarded as a man of peace at any price, had decided by 1939 that force would be the only remedy Hitler would understand.

How is this change to be accounted for? The obvious explanation lies in the perceived threat of German expansion and no doubt this did convince an unquantifiable number of anti-war supporters to reverse their commitment once it was clear that negotiation or appeasement had failed following the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939. But foreign aggression was not a sufficient explanation; the high-point of British pacifism in the early- and mid-1930s coincided with the Japanese war in China, the Italian campaign in Ethiopia and the first German steps to tear up the Versailles settlement of 1919. …

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