Thursday, 15 May 2014

Five common myths about conscientious objectors

Source: Peace Pledge Union archive

Today is Conscientious Objector Day, and I thought I would use the opportunity to debunk five common myths about conchies here in the UK. My facts are drawn from interviews with former conscientious objectors, the Peace Pledge Union archive, the Quakers and the Imperial War Museum in London.

1. Conscientious objection is a World War One issue. In WW2, everyone fought.

There were 60,000 conscientious objectors in World War Two. After the horrors of World War One, public opinion became much more receptive to pacifist ideas. In 1935, an Anglican priest called Dick Sheppard founded the Peace Pledge Union along with Aldous Huxley and others. They received 100,000 postcards from men across Britain pledging not to fight, though some of these men later changed their minds.

2. Conchies are basically cowards and shirkers

During World War Two, conscientious objectors risked their lives as ambulance workers, as hospital workers, as human guinea pigs for new vaccines, and in many hazardous jobs fighting fires and clearing rubble in British cities during the Blitz. So many young pacifists wanted to serve in ambulances and hospitals that there was a waiting list.

Clifford Barnard, a young Quaker working for the Friends Ambulance Unit, risked his health and life as one of the first aid workers to enter the liberated Sandbostel Concentration Camp in north-west Germany, caring for the inmates in the midst of a typhus epidemic.

Bertha Bracey, a Quaker, helped organise the Kindertransport, which rescued 10,000 mainly Jewish children from the continent and brought them to Britain. Another woman, Gertrude Wijsmuller, personally confronted Eichmann when he was head of emigration in Vienna, and negotiated the permit for the first Kindertransport.

Indeed, many WW2 pacifists had fought in the previous war. As one conscientious objector wrote in his application to be exempt from military service, in 1941: "The sufferings I observed during the war of 1914-1918 caused me to reflect upon the horror and futility of it all." (See picture - archive material from the Peace Pledge Union).

I interviewed Sheppard's daughter, Rosemary, who recalled that many veterans attended his services, glad that someone acknowledged their trauma rather than trying to glorify it. 

3. They were all Quakers, or posh

I have read archived tribunal applications from Quakers, Socialists, Jehova's Witnesses and Anglicans, from university students, printers and window cleaners. One of the former conchies I interviewed, Noel Makin, decided to be a pacifist because of one formative literary experience: he read All Quiet on the Western Front as a boy.

Applications on religious grounds did stand a better chance at being approved than applications on political grounds (eg Socialists, "brotherhood of man"). Jehova's Witnesses were sometimes given a quick exemption because they had a tendency to use the tribunal as a preaching opportunity, and tried to convert the judges.

4. Conchies in WW2 did nothing to fight the Fascists

I have already mentioned the Kindertransport and humanitarian aid workers. Something else struck me when I read certain grassroots publications from the 1930s, such as student magazines, which reflected a wider range of opinions than the big newspapers. Pacifist student societies were very active in supporting refugees from the continent, trying to find sponsors for Jewish students stuck in Germany and later, Austria. This was at a time when many right-wing editorials ranted against letting in so many refugees. 

The WW2 pacifists did not always get it right: many simply underestimated the German threat. With hindsight, their efforts can seem naive. But one things we can learn from them is that humanitarian work and support for refugees is never just a footnote to "real war" - it's a crucial part of fighting against evil.

5. Conchies are a source of shame

Are they? If so, they shouldn't be. Britain ought to be proud of its conchies. In Germany, where I am from, pacifists were brutally persecuted by the Nazis. Many were arrested and thrown into concentration camps.

Every single totalitarian regime has hounded conscientious objectors as traitors, saboteurs, the enemy within. The fact that Britain in principle provided an official status for them during WW2, and the opportunity to serve in a peaceful capacity or even opt out altogether, marks a proud moment in British history. It is testament to Britain's liberal tradition. Whether you agree with conchies or not, their stories show the value of freedom of conscience in a democracy.

A note from a pacifist window cleaner in WW2. "My heart was not in window cleaning." World peace through Esperanto. Naive, maybe, but heart-breakingly sincere. Source: Peace Pledge Union

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