Concepts of peace: from 1913 to the present.

Author:Young, Nigel

Over the next few years much will be made of the hundred-year anniversary of the breakdown of the European peace into a thirty-one-year civil war that did not fully cease until 1945. In 2012 the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of the fact that there has been no war within its borders for the past sixty years, and today the Union stands as a model for regional peace. But the consequences of the "Great War" and the disastrously unsuccessful "peace" of 1918 are still with us. Like Andrew Carnegie, Alfred Nobel recognized that it is essential that political decision-makers and a wider public act with an awakened sense of the everyday significance of world events.

It was not clear to most observers between 1918 and 1930 that "the war to end all wars"--far from stopping the recourse to arms--presaged many new wars, as well as the terminal weakening of Britain and France, the start of Pax Americana (culminating in 1939-1945), and the beginning of a nuclear-armed cold war (1945-1989). Yet, in another sense, World War I, insofar as it has come to be seen as one archetype of war--an icon of the absurdity of wars of mutual attrition--has had a profound and worldwide cultural impact. The Great War and its imagery imprinted itself on the human imagination. In poetry and prose, photography, art, film, and other modes of expression, its influence on cultural memory and identity, on modern meaning and human sensibility, has been remarkable.

The Great War, a watershed moment in the evolution of modernity and contemporary civilization, had a climactic effect in shaping our idea of peace in the modern world. Carnegie's greatest monument, the Hague Peace Palace (1913), was the last great site of the nineteenth century international peace movement. After the war, the purpose of the palace had to be reinvented to accommodate the Versailles system of predatory armed states that followed the collapse of four old European empires and the terminal weakening of others. The Hague became host to the International Court of Justice, a seat of international law and tribunal of war crimes, but not a center of peace activism or ideas.

Beginning in 1940 the killing of civilian noncombatants became the norm of war. Whereas the continental United States enjoyed a century of insulation from aerial attack, modern warfare exposed many cities to the experience of 9/11 almost daily, as happened first in the London Blitz and elsewhere in Europe and Asia, culminating in the atomic bombing of Japan. Given these atrocities, it was perhaps inevitable that since then the predominant definition of peace, certainly in industrial societies, has been the absence of war ("negative peace," in the terminology of peace research) as well as the absence of the genocides that sometimes accompany war.

Nevertheless, thanks to a century of developments in civil society, the meaning of peace has broadened to include a wide spectrum of positive issues. In areas such as civil and human rights, disarmament, gender, global poverty, development, and the environment, the influence of various social movements has been immense. With these influences has come a wider concept of peace--a peace involving a peaceful methodology of action.


By the watershed years 1912 to 1919 most of the major leaders of the peace movement in Europe were either dead or in prison. In Austria the pacificist Bertha von Suttner, closely associated with Nobel and the Prize and one of Europe's leading peace writers and orators, died just before the war. Keir Hardie, another tireless anti-militarist campaigner and leader of the British Independent Labour Party, died soon after hostilities started. Jean Jaures, the French socialist leader who was a key figure in the reformist peace movement, was assassinated days before mobilization began. The left-wing socialist peace agitator and Reichstag deputy Karl Liebknecht, who was the only deputy to vote against war credits in Germany, was imprisoned along with fellow anti-militarist Rosa Luxemburg. Both were murdered in January 1919, by which time Eugene Debs and other American anti-militarist leaders were also in prison.

Of the peace traditions that had existed before the war, two were secular and derived from the Enlightenment humanism and the cosmopolitan rationalism of the 1750s. These were translated into liberal and socialist international ideals, which bifurcated during the nineteenth century. The more optimistic idealist versions of these had been sorely battered--first by the carnage of the Napoleonic wars, then of the Great War--and they were further sobered by the cessation of the liberal internationalist dreams symbolized by the Peace Palace and The Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907 and the failure of the Second Socialist International in its strategy to prevent war.

The efforts to create international organizations prior to 1914 left few legacies. The Red Cross, the League of Nations, and the institutions located at The Hague represented the closest continuities with these aspirations. But, more importantly, these liberal institutions incorporated the more "realist" Westphalian framework --one in which armed sovereign states agreed to arrange a "systemic peace" (a system attempted, to some extent, by the Congress of Vienna after 1815). After World War I there were initiatives to outlaw certain weapons, even war itself. This conception of peace, rooted in treaty law, negotiation, and contractual agreement, was based on hopes for international consensus, or negotiation and arbitration. It did not include enforcement mechanisms, however, and the Versailles treaties themselves merely postponed renewed rivalries and war in Europe, mainly between the same protagonists, but in new forms. The idea of outlawing war appeared with the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928), as well as in the basic principles of international law, which were more clearly enunciated in the 1920s and 1930s. The breakdown of diplomacy in 1914 and again in the 1920s encouraged the academic study of international relations, which in turn helped provide the beginnings of peace research. (1)

Although organizational continuity was minimal, and while the Great War largely destroyed the peace strategies of socialist antimilitarists and most socialist internationalists, alternative peace concepts survived the cataclysm on 1914-1918. (2) The second tradition that derived from the remnants of anti-militarism and left internationalism--war resistance and anti-conscription--evolved and overlapped with the evolution of a new radical secular pacifism and conscientious objection (addressed below).

A third tradition, one that survived the war but was drastically changed in the more secular and pessimistic age following 1918, was that of the religious peace movements, which included radical Protestants and other remnants of left-wing Puritanism, such as the Quakers and the other prophetic minorities who had maintained several centuries of witness against war as an ungodly institution. (3) Although at its core this was a tradition encompassing tens of thousands--or at most hundreds of thousands, rather than millions--its importance for peace was far in excess of its size. The peace churches, and those institutions with similar beliefs, were small; but both in peace movements and a wide range of humanitarian projects they constituted a powerful lobby, with influence even on state policy. For example, the expansion of conscientious objection to military service as a human right was part of this legacy.

These three peace traditions were essentially Western: European, North American, and from the English-speaking diaspora of the Commonwealth. But a fourth was emerging by 1918 that, while it included these Western influences, brought non-Western values into a global dialogue. First and foremost, after Gandhi's arrival in India from South Africa in 1917, the growing impact of his theory and practice of nonviolent action (satyagraha) was felt beyond both countries. Hindu as well as other elements (for example, Sikh) were added to a blend of Tolstoyan and Quaker Christianity. So were elements of Thoreauean civil disobedience, and a humanist socialism. (4) This blend of utopianism and pragmatism was fused in a philosophy that rooted "truth" in social action. (5)

Gandhian ideas spread from India to other parts of the world. (6) They were incorporated first by radical pacificists in Holland, France, and England, and then traveled to North America, where even labor unions took them up. These ideas have proved to be the most significant innovation in peace theory and peace praxis in the past hundred years. They added a moral dimension to methods already used by some in the West, such as the labor movement's use of strikes, sit-ins, and boycotts. They also added a theory of conflict and a dialectic of action in a struggle that became an "experiment with truth": testing ideas through political dialogue, exemplary conduct, and communication during conflict, rather than through political violence. In the United States, Gandhi's ideas of nonviolent resistance blended with Reinhold Niebuhr's pacifism, John Dewey's pragmatism, and other strands of peace thought and civil disobedience. (7) By the 1950s, Martin Luther King, Jr., achieved such a synthesis through the civil rights campaigns, and the anti-nuclear campaigns also absorbed Gandhian methods. Gandhi never saw nonviolence as merely a method of achieving Indian swaraj (independence), but instead as a universally applicable model of action. The worldwide range of peace and social transformation projects that have adopted such methods is a tribute to its power and relevance.


Since 1913 a few issues loom disproportionately large in relation to the peace of the world. These include the...

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