1939: What would you have done?

IssueSeptember 2009

Peace News asked participants in the Trident Ploughshares Summer Camp in Coulport to reflect on the Second World War, and to give their suggestions for what they would have done in 1939. Here is a collection of answers that they gave (over the phone) after a long discussion of the topic:

After the First World War, we would have started campaigning against future wars and concentrated on arms companies. We would have lobbied churches, other groups and individuals to disinvest from such companies.

We would have launched a campaign of direct action against bombs and battleships (perhaps calling ourselves Bomb Ploughshares instead of Trident Ploughshares).

We would have promoted conscientious objection so that people in future wars would have realised they could refuse the call-up.

We would have demonstrated at military parades to challenge the culture of militarism.

We would have developed links with the peace movements in the rest of Europe so as to be better informed about what was going on there, and to be able to support them as things hotted up. We would have offered solidarity to German anti-fascists, and helped refugees to get out from Nazi Germany.

We would have been out on the streets promoting nonviolence, even though we knew that doing so would mean we would be labelled as traitors and cowards. Perhaps we would have swapped with each other, so that you could campaign in each other’s towns, so that you didn’t make your family necessarily a target.

To answer the criticism that we would be allowing other countries to invade Britain, we would have organised a nonviolent home guard to make invading Britain very difficult. We would have used all the skills we currently have to make life very difficult for an invading force, through non-cooperation and so on.

We would have had a whip-round for an advert in the Guardian to explain why war was the wrong response to what was going on.

The Trident Ploughshares Summer Camp was held near the Coulport nuclear weapons depot in Scotland from 15-23 August.

This September people are marking the 70th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. Pacifists and people committed to nonviolence are often asked what they would have done about Hitler, say after the Nazi invasion of Poland (which led to a British ultimatum to leave, and then the declaration of war with Germany).

Peace News asked several peace activists around Britain what they would have done in September 1939. “Not start from there. Quite often when you get to that point there is no good thing to do. That is the problem, we often start the movement at the point the war is starting.”
Jane Tallents, Trident Ploughshares “The question is not what I would have done. The question is if everyone in the world had been a pacifist, would Germany have been invading anyone? If everyone in Germany had refused to fight for the German army then this wouldn’t have been a question. “Otherwise, you look at what motivates Germany and you try to meet those needs without the need for invasion. They were genuinely looking for lebensraum, it was a form of colonialisation. The rest of the West had already colonised Asia and Africa, so the easier option for Germany was to go for the countries around it. In the end it’s about resources. If you have equitable resources then there’s not a reason to go somewhere else. You don’t have the sense you’re not doing as well as other people.”
Zina Zelter, Leicester Women in Black

“I was ten at the time. I was told a war was on. I was rather puzzled. I’d learned a lot about the First World War from my father – about the front lines in the First World War going backwards and forwards. I didn’t understand why the Germans didn’t know what they were supposed to do, with their front line going backwards and forwards. The Germans just kept coming forwards. I was amazed when it came to Dunkirk.

“If I’d been 18, I’d have rushed to join the army. If I’d been 18 with the head on that I’ve got now, I’d have rushed to join the ambulance corps. If I’d been that age and I’d known of the efforts of senior non-Nazi Germans to dislodge Hitler, then I would have called on our government to create dialogue rather than refuse it. Had I known as a Catholic that the Pope was actively engaged in dialogue with a senior German general to dislodge Hitler I would have applauded him and said a prayer for him.

“All this comes out of a book called German Resistance against Hitler: The search for allies abroad 1938-1945 by Klemens von Klemperer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).”
Bruce Kent, Movement for the Abolition of War.

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