Citizen Action Monitor

“Counterpower” by Tim Gee – Pt 8: How governments crushed the anti-war movement of The Great War

No 386 Posted by fw, January 11, 2012

For the most part, governments attempted to ridicule the anti-war movement of World War 1. As resistance movements began to exert their Counterpower, the government fought back with physical power too. But fighting a movement does not simply mean repressing it.” —Tim Gee

For those who may not have read previous posts in this series, they are all based on Tim Gee’s Counterpower: Making Change Happen. Each successive post features a selection of highlights from a section of the book. The purpose is to help today’s activists understand and overcome the tactics used by government and corporate power elites to thwart Counterpower movements.

The previous post, Part 7, How governments thwart action on climate change, featured selected excerpts from Gee’s Chapter 3, How governments respond to Counterpower. It sampled the kinds of tactics that governments and power elites have used to restrict the scope of decision making related to climate change.

This post, Part 8, drawing again on selected excerpts from Chapter 3, highlights how governments of The Great War era were able to crush the anti-war movement.

How Governments Crushed the Anti-war Movement of The Great War

As Gee noted in Part 6, “. . . there is no inevitability about the eventual victory ahead. Government and other sources of elite power have a whole raft of tactics available to them.” As activists were to discover, during wartime governments were not about to tolerate any protests that might negatively impact the troop recruitment or military morale. The noted US historian, Herbert Zinn, put it this way — the courts and jails were used “to reinforce the idea that certain ideas, certain kinds of resistance, could not be tolerated.

Thus, the early anti-war opposition to The Great War faced a daunting challenge – the full power of governments determined not to allow anything to compromise military victory on the battlefield or recruiting success on the homefront.

Here’s a small sample of governments’ tactical arsenal which was deployed against anti-war activists —

  • Considerable idea power to frame their message and influence public opinion – Governments had at their disposal the intellectual, economic, legislative, judicial, and communication tools and resources to define what kind of behaviour is ‘normal’ and what is ‘deviant’– in essence to determine who is and is not a ‘criminal’. Governments used this power during The Great War to —
    • Define anti-war campaigners as ‘deviants’
    • Collude with mainstream newspapers, churches and establishment figures to romanticize and honour those willing to sign up and fight, emphasizing notions of patriotism, nationalism and empire, all of which resonated with the masses
    • Capture the moral high ground by claiming that “the purpose of the war was to defend democracy and the national way of life
    • Overwhelm the anti-war movement with their uncontested idea power. To give just one example of the influential impact of pro-war propaganda, even President Woodrow Wilson reneged on his election campaign promise to stay out of the war
  • Skilful use of propaganda posters marginalized War protesters – Anti-war resistance surfaced on many fronts among a variety of groups. Legitimate, leftist political factions sprang up in Germany, the US and Britain. Religious-based organizations, including Christians, Quakers, and German Lutherans, emerged. A pacifist organization, The Fellowship of Reconciliation, formed at the outbreak of war. “Governments responded with skilful propaganda campaigns playing to nationalist sentiment that marginalized opponents of the war.
    • For example, Britain and the US used propaganda posters to play to nationalist sentiments – Britain, with its “Your Country Needs You” and the US with its equivalent “Uncle Sam Wants You” posters.
    • And in Britain there was the infamous “stigma of shame” poster portraying a guilty-looking middle-aged man, with his son playing at his feet with toy soldiers, and his young daughter at his side asking “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?
  • As the resistance movements began to exert their Counterpower, the government fought back with their own brand of physical power.
    • Anti-war protesters were imprisoned, deported or humiliated in forced walks, wearing handcuffs and leg chains, through the streets of their home towns
    • Class-based rebellions of workers and soldiers, that erupted in Russia, Germany, Scotland, the US, and elsewhere over social and economic disparity, were brutally put down by governments. Challenges to government authority were not to be tolerated.
  • Pro-government newspapers and magazines campaigned against legitimate reformist politicians and conventional constitutional procedures. For instance, Britain’s Daily Express printed ‘Wanted’ posters targeting prominent anti-war political figures, and the John Bull magazine called for court-martials of any so-called “enemies of the King”. Government authorities used vile intimidation tactics against activists: the home of one anti-war politician was raided; another was sentenced to six months for sending a pamphlet to a friend living abroad.
  • The British Government encouraged citizens and employers to participate in humiliating anti-war protesters. Actions ranged from the benign, such as shunning anti-war activities, to the despicable: women urged to give white feathers (symbol of cowardice) to men who had not enlisted to fight; anti-war activists taunted as ‘cowards’ and ‘shirkers’ for refusing to fight; and peace campaigners were terminated. Even the renowned philosopher, Bertrand Russell, was dismissed from Cambridge University.

Keir Hardie

Keir Hardie: The man who gave his life for a cause that, in the end, broke him

Some more than others paid a high price for their opposition to the war. Keir Hardie was one such man. Hardie, a pacifist, was appalled by the First World War. In the early days of the war, he, along with socialists in other countries made a valiant effort to organise an international general strike to stop the war. Tragically, his stance was not popular, even within his own Labour Party.

Gee pays this tribute to Hardie:

The call was not taken up and many within the very party he had helped to found came to regard him as a traitor. He died a short while later. In her memoirs Sylvia Pankhurst recalls that ‘the great slaughter, the rending of the bonds of international fraternity, on which he had built his hopes, had broken him.’”

In wrapping up this section of Chapter 3 on how governments crushed the anti-war movement, Gee concludes:

“ . . . the anti-war campaigners played a part in the birth of a movement promoting concepts of peace and justice in opposition to the dominant ideas of imperialism and nationalism.”

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This entry was posted on January 11, 2012 by in anti-war action, evidence based counterpower, social movements and tagged , .
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