After the outbreak World War One, British philosopher, journalist and political campaigner Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) set out his objections to the conflict in a series of essays. In 1916 these essays were published together in Justice in War-Time.
Written in an accessible style, Russell’s essays question the ethics of war. What motivates war? How do those in power justify war? What are its costs? Russell views World War One as essentially irrational, futile, and egotistical. He writes that it is ‘trivial, for all its vastness. No great principle is at stake, no great human purpose is involved on either side’. In ‘An Appeal to the Intellectuals of Europe’, Russell describes the nature of World War One in stark terms:
Never before have so large a proportion of the population been engaged in fighting, and never before has the fighting been so murderous.
The war is fed, he argues, by a process of myth-making which dramatises the enemy as evil – ‘partly through the deliberate action of newspapers and governments, but chiefly through … strong collective emotions’. Thus, for example, ‘The sufferings of Belgium are attributed to the Germans, not to war, and thus the very horrors of war are used to make men desire to increase the area and intensity’.
Connections between Bertrand Russell and Wilfred Owen
The influence of Bertrand Russell’s pacifist ideas can be traced in Wilfred Owen’s war poetry. It is likely that Siegfried Sassoon, who moved in the same social circle as Russell, introduced Owen to the philosopher’s work. Russell’s influence is particularly strong in ‘Strange Meeting’, which imagines a face-to-face exchange between two dead enemy soldiers in ‘that sullen hall’, Hell. There, the ‘enemy’ soldier speaks of ‘the undone years, / The hopelessness’ of war,
the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
Like Russell’s essays, ‘Strange Meeting’ makes the case that the war is not justified. Instead, ‘nations trek from progress’; this world is now a ‘retreating world’, where the soldier sees an archaic landscape of citadels (fortressed cities) and blood-soaked chariots reminiscent of an ancient Roman era.
- Full title:
- Justice in War-Time
- estimated 1916, Manchester, London
- Bertrand Russell
- © The Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation Ltd.
- Usage terms
- Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial licence
- Held by
- British Library
- Article by:
- Randall Stevenson
- Literature 1900–1950, Capturing and creating the modern, Power and conflict
Randall Stevenson describes how the violence and loss of the First World War affected modernist writers’ attitudes towards nature and time, as well as shaping their experiments with language, literary form and the representation of consciousness.
- Article by:
- Martin Ceadel
With particular focus on conscription, Professor Martin Ceadal discusses instances of pacifism and conscientious objection during World War One in Britain, the US, Canada and New Zealand.
- Article by:
- Santanu Das
- Power and conflict, Literature 1900–1950
Santanu Das examines the crafting of one of Owen’s most poignant poems, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, and shows how Owen’s war poems evoke the extreme sense-experience of the battlefield.
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