We are creating a unified UKRI website that brings together the existing research council, Innovate UK and Research England websites.
If you would like to be involved in its development let us know.

Opposition to War

When there are events across the world marking the centenary of World War One, it can be easy to assume that, from 1914 to 1918, everyone in every country held similar views about the forthcoming military action, supportive of their government and their armed forces.

An AHRC-funded network is currently highlighting the experience of women in Europe at the time – bringing together experts on different topics and from different countries to create a much deeper and broader understanding of the war and its immediate aftermath.

Their research suggests people’s responses to the war were much more complicated than simple acceptance.

“What I’ve found really striking about the World War One commemorations so far is the absence of women generally in the representations of the commemorations,” says Dr Julie Gottlieb of Sheffield University. “And there’s a lack of interest in the role of those who were not gung-ho for the war - from conscientious objectors to women pacifists.”

She points out that in Britain, in August 1914, women were demonstrating against the war in the centre of London, but these peace rallies have been carefully erased from the dominant narrative.

“There’s a stereotype that everyone just went to join up,” she says.

It was the same in Germany, says network founder Dr Ingrid Sharp.

“It was very difficult to actually get anything published or into the public domain about anti-militarism in Germany because in common with most countries, they discouraged any kind of expression of anti-war sentiments, however supportively or carefully couched they were, because of the fear it would have a bad effect on other people,” she says. “There was really no open forum for the expression of doubts either about the war itself or about the way the government was going about conducting the war.”

That led to an absence of diverse voices in the press – but Sharp has identified one occasion where women pacifists were represented.

“Some members of a  women’s suffrage organisation set out  to organise a peace congress at The Hague, and this was reported in the press,” she says. “It did allow the idea to filter through that there were some German women, and quite a few of them, who supported the idea of an alternative to war and who were against this particular war. The call for participants in this congress was, I think, as far as I’ve come across, the most powerful anti-war expression that I’ve seen in the public discourse. They said the war was madness and those who were conducting it were in the grip of a psychosis. It was pretty strong stuff.”

Sharp highlights one of the defining ideas of this strand of anti-militarism in the women’s movement: the idea that war was an inevitable result of male governance.

“The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom saw it as a failure of male rule in general, and they felt that if men were to be allowed to continue to have the sole responsibility for the country, then there would just be war after war, because they were very sceptical about male nature,” she explains. “They thought that men were deeply irrational, driven by what they wanted rather than altruism; and they felt that women were just the opposite, that they were able to be altruistic, more clear-headed, and were able to see what was needed for the whole of society rather than just one small group of it.”

These women felt that if the status quo continued, so would the series of wars.

“They supported the League of Nations, even though they felt it was deeply flawed, because they felt it would lead to other ways of solving international conflict,” says Sharp. “For them, the most important thing was to stop this war, stop it now, and give women the vote so that they could be no future wars.”

These women argued very strongly that this change to the electoral set-up and the involvement of women in government would secure peace in the future.

“They saw this as a catastrophic breakdown, which showed that women should be allowed to be part of government, because if they were, there could be no more wars, because women would never vote for war, they would always follow the line of peace,” says Sharp.

Obviously with the benefit of hindsight that particular argument does not stand up, but at that time, while the campaign for suffrage was ongoing, the women’s movement were unaware of that, and could draw only on the widely-held ideas about essential gender characteristics – that men were by nature violent, and women were by nature nurturing and peaceful.

Yet the more mainstream women’s movements continued to be supportive of their countries’ war efforts. This division between patriotism and pacifism led to problems after the Armistice as organisations wanted to work together again within their own nations and across the continent.

“It gave rise to all sorts of problems in the post-war period because it was very difficult to move past this, and to actually forget, and work together again,” says Sharp. “It meant that in the post-war period, when it would have been rather good if they were able to work together, they simply couldn’t, because of this sourness in their relationship.”

And then as the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany and a second world war seemed inevitable, this created further schisms for the women’s movements committed to peace.

“As the threat from Germany became very obvious in 1930s, it did mean they found it very difficult to respond to this because of the attitude that violence is never a solution. What happens to a non-violent stance if you’ve got someone who is quite obviously committed to violence?” asks Sharp rhetorically.

This element of pacifism and anti-militarism during and between both world wars has been neglected in research – and Gottlieb concludes that this simply highlights the importance of the network’s collaboration, linking together experts on women’s organisations in different nations and comparing and contrasting their experiences.

“This World War One frenzy right now means we ignore some other things, which is why this aftermath project is so interesting,” she says. “It’s bringing attention to bear on the consequences of war, not the war itself.”

Article by Carrie Dunn

Return to features