Because I’m bad at vacation, over the long weekend, I finished Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars, his history of World War I that focuses on people who resisted the conflict, through pacifist appeals to the solidarity of all working people, protests against conscription, or work towards the humane treatment of people who experienced shell shock or as-yet-unnamed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on the battlefield. It’s a striking book to read in the context of our current debates about everything from the Justice Department’s obtaining phone records for Associated Press, potentially to try to learn who provided information for a story about a terror plot, to the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes in targeted killing operations. There’s no question that the American War on Terror and World War I are significantly different conflicts, whether because the first is poorly defined by the borders between states while the latter saw states fall like dominoes through their complex alliance agreements, or because the former has been fought with volunteers, while the latter involved massive conscription. But in the midst of one conflict that’s been described as existential, it’s remarkable to look backwards at another one, and at the enormous compromises that Britain made, along with the ones we’re making today.
When World War I began, Hochschild explains that it did so in an environment where radical British movements were already highly mobilized around issues like workers’ rights and female suffrage, and that the war gave members of those movements opportunities to test their commitment to their own principles—or to move to the political mainstream. “[Women's Social and Political Union] suporters,” Hochschild wrote, “shrinking in number but ever more extreme, set on fire an orchid house at Kew Gardens, a London church, and a racecourse grandstand; blew up a deserted railway station; and smashed a jewel case at the Tower of London. They cut the telephone wires linking London and Glasgow, and slashed the words NO VOTES, NO GOLF! into golf course greens and then poured acid in the letters so grass would not grow.” But WSPU founder Emmeline Pankhurst calculated that the millions of men and pounds that were going into the war effort would matter more to the British government than the half-million pounds in damage radical suffrage actions cost in private property and repositioned herself as a militant supporter of World War I, while her daughter Sylvia continued prioritized economic solidarity and anti-war sentiment, leading to a split within the family. “Only a year earlier Emmeline Pankhurst had been in prison for inciting the blowing up of Lloyd George’s house, but now both were smiling as they appeared together before the cheering crowd,” Hochschild notes. “For months afterwards, newspapers celebrated the odd new couple. As one headline put it: ‘The Ablest Woman, the Ablest Man in England, Once They Were Enemies, War Has Made Them Friends.’”
The existence of those radical movements weren’t the only element at play in the British government’s treatment of war resisters, of course. The idea that conflict between Britain and Germany would be existential was stoked by popular culture: