Pacifism and Conscientious Objection
‘Conscientious Objection’ originated in sects such as the Society of Friends (whose members were better known as ‘Quakers’) that refused to bear arms on account of their distinctive religious scruples. Their stance later found some support within other Christian denominations and churches and in due course also among those without formal religious beliefs, including anarchists and socialists.
During the First World War, when those who refused to be conscripted into the army hit the headlines, pacifism and conscientious objection became increasingly synonymous – especially in the English-speaking world, since it was only here that pacifism in the absolutist sense was sufficiently recognised for any kind of legal provision to be made for conscientious objection.
Canada, New Zealand and the United States
In Canada, New Zealand, and the United States exemption was provided, but only for historic peace sects, and only from bearing arms. And in these young, settler societies most citizens resented as shirkers those seeking such privileges, and treated them with hostility. Thus after the United States entered the conflict in April 1917, 64,693 claims of conscientious objection were made, of which 58,830 were accepted. Those religious sectarians thus exempted had first to undergo a medical examination. Then, if deemed fit as 20,873 were, they had to enter an army camp, where such social coercion was applied that four fifths gave in and accepted combatant service.
The situation in Britain
In Britain, where conscription was introduced in 1916, the law was significantly more liberal, in principle exempting those of any or no religious affiliation, and doing so from alternative (non-combatant or civilian) service too. And, although many Britons disapproved of such generosity – as shown by the reluctance of many military-service tribunals both to recognise secular objections and to grant total exemptions – they hounded ‘conchies’ only in moments of military anxiety. Objectors totalled 16,500, four fifths of whom were awarded some kind of exemption by their tribunals; yet because an unexpectedly high percentage sought total exemption and only 350 were granted it, a third of those allocated to non-combatant units rejected this ruling. Almost 6,000 objectors were thus inducted into the army, though after a few weeks of harsh treatment – which famously included 34 death sentences, none of which was however carried out – they were handed over to the civil authorities, which resulted in compromise on both sides, as most objectors agreed to undertake non-military work of national importance under a new Home Office scheme.
Many of those who before 1914 had called themselves pacifists continued so to regard themselves, despite acquiescing in the war effort. Those on the radical wing of Britain’s ruling Liberal Party and in the mainstream of the Labour Party called for foreign policy to made accountable to parliament and for the post-war territorial settlement to respect the wishes of the populations affected. Mainstream Liberals campaigned for a league of nations to prevent future conflicts – a campaign that bore fruit once the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, had become a convert. And those on the left of the Labour Party increasingly saw the introduction of socialism as the way to abolish imperialism and war – a view given impetus by the Bolshevik Revolution and Russia’s subsequent decision to make peace. However, these three groups shared a linguistic problem: pacifism having become largely identified with conscientious objection and absolutism, there was no word to describe their reformist approach to the abolition of war.