Next time anyone attempts to justify the current global arms spend of £1,134,320,000,000 a year, by citing the muddle we were in in 1939, send them the link to this enlightening discussion.
Christians (thoughtful Christians) always struggle to reconcile the teaching and example of Jesus with our present day military ethics and just war formulation, and never more so than on Good Friday. In discussion last night we came eventually to the World War II, 1939 question. What would you have done, or think you ought to have done, in that situation and at that time?
This is certainly a challenge, the more so because this one situation is a defining episode for our military culture. Growing up in the fifties and sixties it was part of our life – the lesson that had been learned the hard way and almost too late. One had to be prepared (in two senses of the word) to fight, and appeasement was a bad thing. However, it is time for us to recognise that this has become the paradigm that we are in; it affects every aspect of security policy in the UK and to some extent globally. It is as if all our wisdom is hinged on one historical situation.
Time to move on? Or at least, time to re-examine the criteria, just in case they are leading us to a global doom? I think so.
Susan Clarkson helped to enlighten us at a recent talk she gave to the Council on Christian Approaches to Defence and Disarmament (CCADD). The following is from the report of the discussion:
How can the pacifist position be sustained, for example in face of WW2 and Hitler?
A non-violent stance means working all the time towards it and living a life of non-violence when there isn’t a war. It does usually work. There were people even in this country who liked Hitler, but always there are people who believe that war is wrong. Some people, in some ways, effectively defeated Hitler by non-violent means, e.g. the Danes defeated a plan to round up the Jews by declaring that all citizens were Jews. Everyone knows that the seeds of WW2 were sown by the victors after WW1 and that a different approach after WW2 was hugely successful. We all have to face the question, for ourselves, of what we would have done at start of WW2, but far more important is what to do now. Start from here.
So if we can’t all be pacifists (or those Christians trying to really follow Christ) then we have to start from where we are now and judge the situation with the help of history; that means all the relevant history we can see, including the times when we made mistakes. If we base all our ideas and policy on one particular episode, then we really are in trouble.
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We really should stop using WW2 as the excuse and justification for the ongoing preparation for and promotion of war as a means of running the world. The propagation of the myth that this was the one unquestionably ‘moral’ war that we have fought (which then somehow justifies all subsequent conflicts) is actually allowing one more triumph of the evil that was Nazism.
In fact we did not go to war to confront Fascism (Franco was left to continue in power until he died; Stalin’s particular brand of fascism was responsible for the death of millions more, before, during and after WW2).
Nor was the war made more likely by our ‘weakness’ in the 30s (in fact expenditure in armaments in this country rose from £110m in 1929 to £406m in 1939).
Nor did we go to war to save the Jews. We had known about Hitler’s treatment of the Jews much earlier (concentration camps were instituted very soon after Hitler came to power), yet well into the 1930s the Daily Mail was running headlines about the ‘threat’ of Jewish immigration; and the British Jewish community, the Quakers and others working to bring Jewish children here on the Kindertransport had no easy time persuading the British government to let Jewish refugees in. British immigration policy was only liberalised after Kristallnacht and was shamefully tightened up at the end of the war to deliberately exclude Jews and non-white immigrants because they were thought to be ‘non-assimilable’. The worst of the holocaust – the Final Solution – was not known about until the liberation of the camps at the end of the war, and is now thought to have been triggered by the war. Six years of war failed to prevent the death of 6 million Jews, and of course led to the slaughter of many others on both sides. In fact the most effective resistance to the pogrom in any country came, as Susan mentions, from the Danish non-violent response to the demand that all the Jews wear the yellow star – the response being for everyone, from the King downwards, to wear the star.
Standing alongside those threatened with violence is so much more powerful than buying into the violence ourselves.
Thank you, we all need reminding that there is a bigger picture. It isn’t black and white but a whole complex area that needs a great deal of thought. I am as guilty as the next man saying, ‘don’t we need Nuclear Arms to protect us’. So thank you for your time and effort!
Was a primary reason that we fought Hitler not the fact that if we did not the Nazis would have invaded the UK? Once a repressive regime takes over they can be in charge for an awful long time; pertinent examples are the Roman empire and the British empire. Once in charge, if the Romans did not get their way they crucified a few of the local inhabitant. The Nazis tortured or shot them. If the British, Russians and Americans had not fought Hitler his regime could still be running our country.
WW2 was indeed a war about territory, as have been most of the wars we have fought, defensive or aggressive, and it resulted in Russia extending her territory (and the tyranny of Stalinism) over much of Eastern Europe. The point is that, while decades of the arms race served only to increase Russia’s defensive paranoia, what brought an end to that occupation was both a thaw in East-West relations and massive civil disobedience on the part of the subject populations. Just as, much of the British Empire crumbled not because of armed intervention by other nations but as a result of the civil disobedience of its ‘subject races’. A population that refuses to be governed is ungovernable. Let us suppose that Hitler had invaded Britain. People would have died (as they did in their thousands in the war); would have had to be prepared to die (as they were in the war) but it is impossible to shoot down a whole nation. Pacifism is not passive. Non-violent resistance and civil disobedience is hugely pro-active and very powerful. Yes it is a huge task to mobilise a whole nation (though we set ourselves to mobilise a nation to go out and kill), but isn’t it time we started somewhere? The alternative policy does not seem to have prevented mass slaughter or brought us any security; in fact has, by its own inexorable logic, brought us to the threat of mass extermination.
I was initailly responding to the question about what to do when faced with Hitler and the nazi threat. I entirely agree that this should not be used as a template for response to all threats of violence. As you say no group can impose their will indefintely on a population which is determined not to comply.
The Arab Spring has illustrated the passive resistance way forward in Egypt and elsewhere. This movement was largely inspired by the small book by the American Dr. Gene Sharp which lists 198 ways of resisting passively.(first published in 1973 the book is titled ‘The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Vol. 2: The Methods of Nonviolent Action)
Absolutely. We need to encourage ourselves by listening to experienced activists like this. There were some excellent interviews in Peace News last year with both Gene Sharp and George Lakey, both of them very wise commentators on making non-violent revolution. Go to http://www.peacenews.info and enter their names in the search box.
with good wishes Helen
I find the idea that a different situation has arisen after WW2, with the coming together of nations to form an organisation to outlaw war as most constructive. The question : What would you have done to confront the menace of Hitler? is now irrelevant, out of date. We have the solution, the United Nations, and now we have to do everything we can to support it.
Some very important issues are raised here.
My godfather, who is my inspiration, was active in the Peace Pledge Union from its very earliest days. He became an uncompromising pacifist. When he was called up he declined and it is believed he spent time in prison for it. He was a clerical worker at the Post Office Savings Bank and one way or another he finished up in a reserved occupation – farming.
Shortly before he died in 2001 he conceded that it would have been better to support the war effort in some non-frontline capacity since he still believed killing people over a disagreement was fundamentally wrong. He admitted that he had completely underestimated Hitler and the Nazis whom he believed could only ever have been deterred by force.
Even Neville Chamberlain’s much derided “Peace for our time”,was, according to some, not a pacifist surrender to Hitler’s guile but the pledge that Germany and the UK would never go to war was a part of diplomatic exploration and assessment that allowed space and time for necessary preparations. Not appeasement, a diplomatic staging post – a holding position necessary because Britain’s war preparations needed dusting off. German war preparations on the other hand were finely tuned and poised ready to go.
It could be argued that Britain should have been better prepared or that Germany’s rearmament should have been strongly resisted years before.
Tony Blair guilefully cited appeasement as the terrible lesson from WW2 that supposedly allowed Britain to fall unawares into Hitler’s trap and be caught out when his murderous intent finally emerged. He used this to build a case for subverting the will of the United Nations and for attacking Iraq before Iraq attacked with non-existent stockpiles of murderous weaponry, unleashing global instability and conflagration. Any fool should have seen the comparison with Nazi Germany and the lack of evidence of any serious stockpiles of weaponry was a smokescreen. Our emotional attachment to the legendary events of WW2 successfully stoked the war propaganda making it possible for Blair to achieve success in the UK parliament despite the evidence not supporting his case.
Generals are reputed to prepare always to fight the previous war with outdated thinking and strategy till reality hits. I think one very clear lesson of the Iraq war is that WW2 thinking was allowed to cloud reality.
The current emphasis on being armed to the teeth to resist a re-run of WW2 type threats is leading us into dangerous arms escalation globally and is obscuring other more positive steps that we should be exploring as a means of avoiding war and conflagration.