History of the Prisoners for Peace list

Bart Horeman

For me as a WRI person, living in the Netherlands has two privileges. One is that I can take a bike and cycle to WRI's birthplace. The other is that I have easy access to WRI's heritage, stored at the International Institute for Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam.

But it was not before our chair Joanne planned a visit to the IISH and asked me to come along, that I became aware of these advantages. Going through some of WRI's archives, one realises that we already have a long history. I had a look at the Prisoners for Peace files, and was impressed.

December 1st, 1956, was the first time WRI 'celebrated' Prisoners for Peace Day. This was done by publishing a Prisoners for Peace Honour Roll and calling on all members of WRI sections to send postcards and letters to the prisoners. In fact, this basic idea has remained the same over the years. The only difference with todays' list is that at that time, the list consisted of conscientious objectors to military service who were imprisoned and those who were performing substitute service. During the years, the list has been altered several times. Nowadays it includes anyone who is imprisoned for non-violent actions against war and war preparation.

The fact that the Honour Roll started in 1956 does not mean WRI did nothing for imprisoned peace activists before that date. I found Prisoners for Peace lists of imprisoned COs and COs detained in work camps produced by WRI in the files from 1926 onwards. Only some years' lists were missing, in particular those around the World War II period (1940-1946). From 1947 there has been a list every year.

But it wasn't until 1956 that the 1 December was designated as Prisoners for Peace Day.

How succesful it was - and still is - may be concluded from the fact that in 1958 two imprisoned received more than one thousand greetings. I could not find similar recordings, but I estimate that Osman Murat Ulke must have broken this record, when he was imprisoned on 1 December 1997 and 1998. Still, WRI's outreach at that time wasn't small.

In 1961 for the first time the PFP Honour Roll was printed. More interesting is that in 1963 for the first time 6 COs from Yugoslavia were on the list. They were serving prison sentences ranging from 6 to 9 years. Probably this was the first listing of prisoners outside the north atlantic hemisphere, but there were more to come. One year later, in 1964, we see the listing of the first Prisoners for Peace from a third world country: Seven imprisoned persons from Pakistan, serving sentences up to 14 years' imprisonment.

In the most dreadful years of the Cold War, we encounter the first Prisoners for Peace from East Germany, Algeria, Greece, Spain, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. In 1983 for the first time there is a special focus on imprisoned COs from Hungary and the PFP list is accompanied by a special Campaign Pack.

Nevertheless, the PFP list has been mainly filled with western activists and COs from Eastern Europe. Prisoners from third world countries remained scarce on the list. In 1971 there were again Prisoners for Peace from Pakistan, together with one from Mozambique and - believe it or not - one from South Vietnam! In 1973 an Israeli showed up and in 1977 someone from Rhodesia.

We also see an interesting development in the way COs are considered. By 1967 the list is split up into imprisoned COs and COs in work camps performing substitute service. By then, apparently some people no longer considered the substitute service as a punishment. At least they felt a need for distinction between the two. It is not clear to me in which year it was decided to skip COs performing substitute service from the list.

A debate about the continuation of the Prisoners for Peace Honour Roll takes place in 1974. Although the list is seriously at stake, its production is continued and has remained to be so until today.


Bart Horeman
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