War is a Crime Against Humanity: review by Michael Randle


Devi Prasad, War is a Crime Against Humanity: the Story of War Resisters' International, London, War Resisters' International 2005, pp. 555

[a shorter version of this review appears in the November 2005 issue of Peace News]

Devi Prasad's history of War Resisters' International covers the first fifty plus years of its existence from 1921 to 1973-4. Based on the records of statements from its Council and Executive and the proceedings and resolutions of its International Triennial Conferences and Study conferences, the book traces its development from an essentially anti-militarist and anti-conscription organisation to one with the broader agenda of promoting non-violent direct action on a range of issues, though with the anti-militarist commitment still at its core. Devi, first as General Secretary from 1962 to 1972 and subsequently as Chair, played a key role in this development.

From its inception, WRI committed itself not only to opposing all war as a 'crime against humanity', but to working for the removal of its causes. It therefore broadly aligned itself with the socialist and anti-imperialist currents of the period. However, it laid particular stress on opposing conscription, seeing it as a principal bastion of militarism and war. Its Manifesto Against Conscription launched in 1926, was signed by sixty eminent personalities including Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Toyohiko Kagawa, Romain Rolland, H.G.Wells, Bertrand Russell, George Lansbury, Martin Buber and Albert Einstein, and was published and debated worldwide. Socialist, trade union, and anti-militarist bodies in many countries aligned themselves with it. There were some within the WRI, however, who warned that developments in military technology could make conscription increasingly less central to the business of making war. Another major - and continuing - debate was over whether WRI should focus on obtaining the rights to alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors, or on demanding the total abolition of conscription.

The 1930s were a particularly fraught time for the International, as for all war resisters. Faced with the rise of fascism in Europe, aggressive Japanese expansionism, and above all the civil war in Spain, some of the movement's most prominent figures, including Russell, Einstein and Fenner Brockway (Chairman from 1926 to 1934) decided reluctantly that they could no longer take an absolute pacifist stance. WRI continued to do so, though the difficulties this posed for its leadership is evident in the statements and debates of the time.

However, the charge sometimes levelled at the pacifist movement that it supported a policy of appeasement to the fascist powers, is refuted by the records, at least as far as WRI itself is concerned. . Council Member Reginald Reynolds, for example, at the Triennial Conference in 1934 was scathing in his comments about a proposal by Bishop Barnes in Britain that some former German colonies should be handed back to the German government The people living in these colonies, he said, were not so much property to be disposed of, and those who had endured British Imperialism 'should not be handed over like chattels to Nazi imperialism'.

He went on:
When we speak of social justice, and of capitalism being incompatible with pacifism, we must realise that freedom and justice begin with the 'Bottom Dog' - that we do well to demand these things for ourselves, but have an even greater duty to grant them as inalienable rights to other people.

In the same speech he noted that the foreign policy of the Soviet Union had 'recently become as dangerous as that of the capitalists'.

Were all the national sections of WRI were as clear sighted as this? Within the fascist states, and in occupied Europe, war resisters could not be under any illusions. Some fled abroad, frequently with the help of the WRI Headquarters in Britain which, for example, negotiated an agreement with the British government whereby it would stand as guarantor of refugees it wished to bring over from countries where they faced persecution; others stayed on and in many cases took part in various forms of civil resistance to Nazi rule, including the harbouring of Jews; some ended up in prisons or concentration camps and a considerable number paid for their courage with their lives.

However, Devi cites an article by Mark Gilbert in the Journal of Contemporary History suggesting that in the latter 1930s, following the Anschluss, and in the war years, the Peace Pledge Union in Britain and Peace News engaged in pro-German apologetics, 'because the Peace Pledge Union was ignorant of what was happening in Nazi-occupied Europe.' Devi accepts that some pacifists in the PPU were naïve and lacked clarity of vision though noting that this does not invalidate the pacifist position as such. However, he does not fully investigate the charge - that was beyond his brief and would require the kind of detailed investigation of the Peace News and PPU archives which he has conducted in relation to WRI.

It took some time after the end of the war for the international pacifist movement to regroup and recover its dynamism. But the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the advent of the Cold War, and the threat by the 1950s of a global nuclear conflict highlighted the need for a radical anti-war movement. Conversely, the success of India's nonviolent struggle for independence pointed to the potential of using nonviolent direct action to oppose both war and oppression.

Among those who provided inspiration and took important initiatives in this period were the veteran US pacifist A.J. Muste, Chair of the American Fellowship of Reconciliation and Council member of WRI; Bayard Rustin, another WRI Council member who was equally active in the direct action wing of the anti-war movement and the US Civil Rights campaign (Bayard became a close advisor of Martin Luther King in the 1950s and subsequently co-ordinated the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington); and Hugh Brock in this country, also on the WRI Council, editor or Peace News during part of the 1950s and 1960s, and the prime mover in the organisation of the first Aldermaston March in 1958.

The World Pacifist Conference in India in 1950 marked an important moment in the post-war recovery of morale in the pacifist movement and the rise of a distinctively Gandhian/nonviolent actionist wing within it. Gandhi himself called for it shortly before his death in January 1948 and had planned to attend it. It brought together pacifists from various countries and a number of Gandhi's co-workers, among them Devi Prasad who as a young man had taken part in the Quit India movement in 1942. This was not a WRI conference as such, though WRI was closely involved in its organisation. Ten years later, in December 1960, it held its Triennial conference in India attended by many prominent direct actionists from round the world. It was at that conference that a decision was made to launch the World Peace Brigade, which came into existence at a conference in Beirut from (28 December 1961 to 1 January 1962), with Jayaprakash Nayaran (India), A.J.Muste (US) and Rev Michael Scott as co-chairmen. It initiated a number of projects, the most successful of which was a campaign in Tanganika (Tanzania)/Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) which contributed materially to the abandonment of the British Government's proposed Central African Federation.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a peak of the use of nonviolent action in many parts of the world, notably in relation to nuclear weapons, the war in Vietnam, and Civil Rights in the US. WRI and its sections were closely associated with many of these campaigns though not always directly involved in their organisation. Regarding Vietnam, the US Section, War Resisters' League, pioneered civil disobedience in opposition to the war, notably in the form of draft card burning. WRI itself, following its Rome conference in 1966, produced and circulated leaflets encouraging young Americans to refuse to take part in the war. Devi records that WRI alone printed some 47,000 of these leaflets, with other sections and organisations reprinting it, and by the end of 1970 some 150,000 copies had been distributed, including in Vietnam itself. This effort was co-ordinated with a world campaign in support of American deserters.

Still more significant in terms of undermining the US war was a spin-off from the 1969 Haverford conference in Pennsylvannia. Devi does not mention it in his account, but among the participants was a US civil servant, Daniel Ellsberg, who was so inspired by the event, and in particular by the courage of a young conscientious objector who was about to be sent to prison for two and a half years, that he decided to photocopy and release the Pentagon papers. These were published by the New York Times in 1971 and exposed the duplicity and bad faith of successive US administrations in relation to Vietnam.

WRI was no less critical of aggressive Soviet policies. When the Soviet and other Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968, it organised simultaneous international demonstrations in Moscow, Budapest, Warsaw and Sofia. All the demonstrators were arrested and detained for varying periods, but in Budapest and Warsaw especially received encouragement and support from some local students and others. In the 1970s and 1980s, partly as a spin-off from this action but chiefly as a result of initiatives by sections and individual supporters, WRI established good contacts with peace and human rights groups in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia, and to a more limited extent the Soviet Union.

However, Cold War tensions and divisions were also reflected within the International, so much so that in 1973 the International Council considered expelling one of its German sections, the DFG/VK which took a much more pro-Soviet stance than the rest of the organisation and was in many ways closer in its political orientation to the Soviet-sponsored World Peace Council than to WRI. Devi does not mention this incident and only hints at the tensions within WRI which often loomed large at conferences and Council meetings..

WRI during the Cold War years did try to establish a working relationship, despite deep differences of approach, with the World Peace Council and its national Peace Committees. In 1964 there was a joint meeting in Ostend of representative from both international organisations to thrash out points of agreement and disagreement. In August 1968, members of the WRI Council, meeting in Vienna, travelled to Bratislava to meet the Slovak Peace Committee. Normally the Peace Committees faithfully echoed the World Peace Council, and official Soviet policy line, but on this occasion the Slovak committee spoke frankly of their fears of a Soviet attack and warned the WRI delegation that the danger of this had not gone away. Four days later the invasion took place. In the following year WRI jointly sponsored a Study Conference in Budapest with the Hungarian Peace Committee on "Gandhi's Relevance Today."

The work and achievements of WRI are not sufficiently well known even on the Left, much less in the general population. Devi's book should help to remedy this, and to give today's peace activists and war resisters a deeper understanding of the history and traditions of the movement.

Other publications

Add new comment

Enter the characters shown in the image.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.