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Historian Adam Hochschild: Lessons for the Antiwar Movement from the Pacifists of World War I

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As the Obama administration continues to engage in military operations abroad, we turn now to the making — and sustaining — of war from a historical perspective. How do politicians galvanize populations to support wars? Why do people continue fighting in unpopular conflicts even after nationalist fervor has waned? In his new book, the historian Adam Hochschild examines these questions and many others through the prism of one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, World War I. The book is called To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, the Obama administration has shown no signs of rolling back its military actions abroad. The occupation of Afghanistan continues in full force, while the U.S. has launched new drone attacks in both Pakistan and Yemen, killing at least 10 people. The raid on bin Laden has been criticized for violating Pakistani sovereignty. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the U.S. will make no apologies for the raid.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: We obviously take the statements and concerns of the Pakistani government seriously, but we also do not apologize for the action that we took, that this president took. He said, dating back to the campaign, if there is an opportunity to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, and he is on Pakistani soil, and this is the only way we can do it — do it unilaterally — he will take that chance and do it. And he did. It’s simply beyond a doubt, in his mind, that he had the right and the imperative to do this.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, as the Obama administration continues to engage in military operations abroad, we turn now to the making — and sustaining — of war from a historical perspective. How do politicians galvanize populations to support wars? Why do people continue fighting in unpopular conflicts even after nationalist fervor has waned?

In his new book, author Adam Hochschild examines these questions and many others through the prism of one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, World War I. The book is called To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. Adam Hochschild teaches at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, co-founder of Mother Jones magazine, recipient of numerous awards, including the Mark Lynton History Prize and the Lannan Literary Award. He is also a two-time finalist for the National Book Award. Adam Hochschild joins me now in studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: You look at movements in this book, as you always do, whether you were talking about Congo, whether you were talking about the anti-slavery movement. It’s the push for war, in this book, and the resistance to it. Lay out the story of how World War I began. Who was for it? Who was against it?

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Well, the interesting thing about this war, which really remade the world for the worse in every conceivable way — it killed some 20 million people, military and civilian; the way it ended guaranteed the rise of the Nazis and the second even more destructive war — was that in all of the countries involved, there were people who felt the war was madness and shouldn’t be fought. They didn’t prevail, unfortunately, but I nonetheless wanted to write their story, because it seemed to me that when we usually write about wars, we describe them as a contest between one side and the other, whereas I was more interested in this conflict between people who saw the war as a noble and necessary crusade and people who saw it as madness.

I focused on England, because that’s where this antiwar movement was strongest. More than 20,000 British men of military age refused to go into the army when they were drafted. Many of them, as a matter of principle, refused the alternative service offered to conscientious objectors, like driving ambulances at the front or, you know, working in war industries. More than 6,000 went to prison, under very harsh conditions — the largest number of people who had been imprisoned, up to that point in time, for political reasons in a Western democracy. And they were a remarkable group of people. And happily, for me as a writer, they wrote letters. They kept diaries. They published clandestine prison newspapers. And they had interesting relationships with friends and family members who felt differently about the war and, in some cases, were at the front fighting.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Britain’s leading investigative journalist who ends up in jail, publishing a newspaper on toilet paper, the future Nobel Prize winner for literature. Talk about these people, the suffragists whose families were fiercely divided by World War I.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Some wonderful people. Bertrand Russell, Britain’s leading philosopher, and many years later won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was a, you know, leading scholar, Cambridge intellectual. When the war broke out, he felt he had to oppose it. And one of the things that makes me respect him so much is that he was so honest about talking about the conflict in his own feelings. Describing himself at that period, he said, “I desired the defeat of Germany as much as any retired colonel, and love of England is very nearly the strongest emotion I possess.” But then he went on to say that he felt this war was not being fought for any noble purpose, that it was ludicrous for Britain and France to say that they were fighting for democracy when they were allied with czarist Russia, which was an absolute monarchy. And he took a strong stance against the war. He was beyond draft age himself, but he was a strong supporter of the principal organization supporting draft refusers. And as one after another of its leaders were sent to prison for refusing the draft, Russell took over as their honorary chairman, went to the office each day, did the bureaucratic work that people and organizations like that have to do, sending letters around the country to branches about political actions. And then, finally, in 1918, the government sent him to jail for six months. So, he was one of these resisters.

Another was a young man named Fenner Brockway, who before the war had been the editor of a labor and socialist newspaper, refused the draft, was sent to prison, and continued to publish a newspaper in prison, but it was clandestine, because this was completely against the rules, and it had to be written on toilet paper and distributed to his fellow prisoners, published for a year before the authorities discovered it and threw him in solitary confinement. But actually through an army deserter, who ended up in the same prison, he published the first really uncensored account of the Battle of Passchendaele, a complete slaughter on the Western front, whereas the British papers that could appear publicly were just publicizing sanitized versions of the battle. So, there was a remarkable array of characters like this.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Pankhurst family.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Well, the Pankhursts fascinated me, because the way that I decided to tell the story was by looking at divided families. The Pankhursts — Emmeline Pankhurst, the mother, and two of her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia — had been the leaders of the most militant faction of the fight for women’s suffrage, for getting the vote for women, just before the war in Britain.

On the eve of the war, Emmeline Pankhurst, the mother, had been sent to prison for literally throwing a rock through the window of 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence. And then she fled, and she was actually a fugitive from British justice in France at the moment when the war broke out. As soon as the war broke out, she ceased all political activity, put herself at the service of the British government, which sent her on missions — speaking tours around Britain, speaking tours to the United States. They sent her to Russia at one point to try to rally Russian women for the war effort.

Meanwhile, her daughter Sylvia was an ardent antiwar activist, published the leading, most widely read antiwar paper in Britain throughout the war. Some of its issues were suppressed by the government. And Sylvia was also having a secret love affair with Keir Hardie, who was the leader of the Independent Labour Party, predecessor of today’s Labour Party, another very strong force against the war, until he died, I think really of grief at the war as much as anything else, in 1915.

So this was one of several families that was sharply divided by the war, in much the same way as something like the Vietnam War caused divisions in many American families.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Hochschild, you, in your book, talk about the number of people who have died, and if there were a cemetery in this country to show the number of people who have died in war, like they have in Europe.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Yeah. This was a thought that occurred to me, walking through the First World War cemeteries. Anybody who’s interested in the First World War eventually goes to the old Western Front in France and Belgium, which is an area of the world that I think has the greatest concentration of young men’s graves anywhere in the world. Go to anywhere where the greatest fighting took place — the region where the Battle of the Somme was or the fighting around Ypres or Verdun — you stand on the hilltop, and you see five, six, seven cemeteries, enormous ones, with, you know, 5,000-10,000 graves, spreading on all sides of you. And it’s an overwhelming experience.

Yet, when I think about the wars we’re engaged in today, in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is nowhere that an American or anybody can go and sort of visually see the toll of the war in this sense, especially since the great bulk of the casualties are, you know, Afghani and Iraqi civilians, as well as the American and allied troops who have died. You know, if they could all be buried in one place, maybe these senseless wars of today would come to a stop sooner.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Adam Hochschild is the author of a number of books. His latest, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. When we come back, I want to talk about the marginalization of voices of dissent. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Adam Hochschild. His book is To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. I wanted to read you from Memorial Day, L.A. Times last year: In the United States, “beginning with the Korean War, disadvantaged communities have suffered a disproportionate share of the nation’s wartime casualties, while richer communities have been more insulated from the costs of war. Furthermore, the data suggest [that] this 'casualty gap' between rich and poor communities has reached its widest proportions in the ongoing conflict in Iraq.”

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Yeah, that’s something that’s been very true for several decades in American wars. You look at the people who died in Vietnam and in Iraq and Afghanistan, very few sons or daughters of CEOs, of senators, of members of Congress — practically none. They’re from poor communities. They’re from small towns. They’re often people who enlisted in the military because, you know, they had very few other economic opportunities.

One of the haunting things to me about the First World War was, curiously, it was the exact opposite then. Usually, the ruling classes of most countries are pretty good at getting other people to do their dying for them. But in World War I, it was the other way around, because in most countries it was the usual thing for young men from the upper classes, from the aristocracy, to go into the army, to become officers, and it was those young officers who climbed out of the trenches first and led their men into this relentless hail of machine-gun fire. And if you look at the statistics, it’s amazing. Men who graduated from Oxford in 1913, for example, 31 percent were killed. Lord Salisbury, prime minister of England at the turn of the century, had 10 grandsons; five of them were killed in the war. One of them is a character in this book.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the pacifist campaigner and her commander brother, commander of the Western Front.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: This was another fascinatingly divided family that I found. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out how to tell the story of this conflict between the believers in the war and the opponents. And then one day I was reading a very boringly written scholarly article about a woman named Charlotte Despard, who was an ardent pacifist, wrote the leading antiwar pamphlet, traveled up and down Britain speaking against the war, had been to jail several times in the battle for women’s suffrage, backed independence for Ireland and India, all the radical causes of the day. One sentence in passing, the writer said, “Of course, these activities were deeply distressing to her brother.” And it gave his name, which I recognized: Sir John French, commander-in-chief on the Western Front. And the fascinating thing, as soon as I saw that, I realized, I have to write about this pair. What an extraordinary combination.

The interesting thing is that this brother and sister were personally quite close to each other. She had helped bring him up. He was eight years younger. She’d taught him the alphabet when he was a kid. They continued to see each other during the war. They stopped speaking to each other only when, in 1918, the British government appointed him viceroy of Ireland in charge of suppressing the Irish nationalist revolt against British rule. She went to Ireland to work for the IRA. They stopped speaking at that point. But this was one of many families that were divided by this conflict in this way.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did World War I happen?

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: You know, that, I think, is one of the most striking things about it. It was really not a war that in any way was fought for any great principle. And up until a few weeks before it began, everybody was getting along rather well. There had been some tension in the air. There were rival alliances. There had been a naval arms race between Britain and Germany. But in June 1914, everybody was getting along well. There were no outstanding border disputes. No country claimed part of another’s territory. There was a huge amount of cross-border trade, joint ventures in business, so forth. The British fleet paid a ceremonial visit to Germany, and when they turned around and sailed for home, the British commander sent a signal to his German counterpart, “Friends now and friends forever.”

And then there was this peculiar chain of events. And it began when, of course, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Hungary, was assassinated at Sarajevo. And this started things going because this enormous, creaky Austro-Hungarian Empire had long been wanting to invade and dismember the much smaller state of Serbia next door. They had already drawn up invasion plans. The assassination of the Archduke, even though he was killed by an Austro-Hungarian citizen — and there’s no evidence that Serbia’s cabinet knew of this assassination plot — gave them the excuse. So, they went ahead with their invasion. The Serbs turned to their friend Russia — you know, fellow Slavs, fellow Eastern Orthodox believers. Russia was allied with France. When Russia mobilized its troops, France began doing the same thing. This gave Germany the excuse to attack both France and Russia, things that they had long had plans to do. And in less than six weeks, the whole continent was aflame.

AMY GOODMAN: The movements that you describe — I wanted to go back to the other books you have written, for example, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. The anti-slavery movement, the antiwar movement, how it gets marginalized, how people get imprisoned, and yet how ultimately it triumphs — put it in the context, the antiwar movement of World War I, with the anti-slavery movement. Britain, maybe people don’t realize, ended slavery decades before the United States.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: They did, and it was in large part a result of two things. One is slave revolts in the West Indies, something that tends to get written out of the history books, and a remarkably feisty, wonderfully organized popular anti-slavery movement in England, which really pioneered all kinds of techniques that community organizers still use today. You know, they made the first political poster. And you’ve probably seen it. It’s that diagram of a slave ship with the slaves’ bodies packed very tightly inside.

Well, this was a movement that was successful. Slavery did finally come to an end in the British Empire and elsewhere in the world. The challenge for me in writing about the First World War was, could I write as interesting and as gripping a story about a movement that didn’t prevail, because the pacifists were not able to stop the war? I felt, still, it was an important story to tell, because if we only tell the stories of the movements that are victorious, we’re going to be leaving a lot of things out of history. And sooner or later, I hope that people who want to stop all war will be victorious, and I think that they’re going to have a better chance of doing so if they know some of the history of people who have been involved in that struggle before.

AMY GOODMAN: In a piece you wrote, Adam, called “Echoes of a Bygone War”: “The eerie thing about studying World War I is the way you can’t help but be reminded of today’s headlines.” Would you say the antiwar movement has failed today? I mean, we are involved in longest continuous war in the history of this country, Afghanistan, with — led by a president who campaigned against war, the other war in Iraq, and yet we’re still in Iraq, as well.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: We’ve certainly failed, so far, to stop both wars. And I feel very sad about that. And I feel, you know, as we were talking a moment ago, that if there were a way that American people could visually see that toll, like looking at some of these gigantic cemeteries, this is something that might bring it to a stop sooner. Something else that I think would bring the wars to a stop sooner is — although I don’t see any practical likelihood of this happening — is if we went back to having a draft. I think that’s one of the reasons why the Vietnam War came to an end, that in addition to the tremendously stiff resistance that the Vietnamese put up, there were hundreds of thousands of people in the streets here, because those of us who were of draft age at that time knew we didn’t want to go and fight in this war, when it was a question of putting our lives on the line for this war. That drew in people’s families, as well.

But the way that our country has worked out to wage wars now, it’s first of all done by, you know, an all-volunteer military, and then by these things that sort of further seem to distance us from it, like drone attacks, where there are no Americans at risk and the only casualties are the people on the ground in these countries. So, it’s a tough job, but I still think, you know, we need to figure out how to bring these wars to a halt.

Afghanistan, you can see there was a motive at the beginning. It was a reasonable enough one for the U.S. to get involved there. These were — this was a government that was sheltering the people who planned the September 11th attacks. But by this point, I think even a lot of people high in the U.S. government understand that we are generating more jihadists by remaining engaged there.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue in a post-show conversation. We’ll post it online at Adam Hochschild, our guest. To End All Wars, his book.

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