Swedish Women's Civil Defence Refusal 1935—1956


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By Majken Jul Sørensen, War Resisters’ International

At the beginning of 1956, a woman called Barbro Alving spent one month in prison for refusing to participate in civil defence training. Under the pen name “Bang”, she was a well known writer and journalist, and, among many other things, she had reported directly on the Spanish civil war for_one of the major Swedish newspapers. The prison sentence was the end of a long process. Barbro Alving had made her initial refusal to participate in air raid defence training four years earlier in 1952. She experienced a couple of police interrogations before the verdict was handed down at the end of 1954.[1]

In her speech to the court in Stockholm which decided on her case, she said:
There are times in life when an action which apparently looks negative — a no — can be positive. The civil defence duty places me in such a situation as a woman, and as a pacifist. No one who is present here can influence the least what happens in Washington and Moscow, in London and Peking [Beijing]. You can only be responsible for what you do with your own life. I have found that the only action my conscience commands me to do is to contribute to the wintering of the thought, which in spite of everything, is to be found in millions of men and women: that you should refuse to participate in anything which goes against all reason and can indicate suicide of humanity [2].

Her refusal took place in the context of the public's growing knowledge about the devastating consequences of nuclear war in the aftermath of World War II, and the threat of a third world war, which is the “suicide of humanity” she refers to. In an article about civil defence that she wrote in 1955 [3], her arguments against civil defence duties is focus on the madness of nuclear war, and the lack of coherence in the authorities' arguments about war and defence.

She explains that the obligatory enrolment of women in the civil defence forces is proof that a modern military system cannot function without active contribution from women. War has become total, and so has “defence”. Women therefore have a responsibility to search their consciences for the right thing to do as a reaction to an absurd system which goes against all reason. When the scenario for the authorities is total war, her answer is total objection. She refuses to take part in any kind of training which is connected to the military system and the logic of total war and total defence.

Some of the criticism directed against her claimed that, by refusing to learn basic medical care, she was refusing to help victims of war. As a response, she wrote:
There is another set of questions one as a civil defence objector is faced with. Just [think] about this: What would you do if the war comes. Will you stand with your arms crossed then? What will you do if a bleeding person stumbles in front of your feet?
Help, you say.
But isn’t it better to practise ahead of time so that one can help more efficiently? Said with a certain eager triumph.
No, you answer.
That is a question about two different things, two different situations (…) During peace time one still has the freedom to choose what you want to fight for (…) With all the power you have at your disposal, you fight against what your deepest conscience says should never be made possible: nuclear war.
You do that through refusing to be enrolled in the military system. You can’t with your own actions — voluntary training — contribute to upholding the myth that modern war is permissible under the name of defence, at the same time as your lifetime experience has taught you that the only way to save life during a situation no one can cope with, is to fight war itself.”[4]

Barbro Alving's refusal was grounded in the pacifist belief she had held for decades. Irene Andersson, a Swedish historian who has written about Barbro Alving and the Swedish peace movement before World War II explains: “The reason why Barbro Alving continued her struggle against civil defence in the 1950s, she thought herself, was the identity as a pacifist and objector she had developed two decades earlier.” [5]

In 1935 Barbro Alving became part of an informal network of women in Sweden who were radical pacifists and who organised the “Women’s Unarmed Uprising Against War” in 1935. At the time she was 26 years old, and strongly admired Elin Wägner, another journalist and writer who played a central role in many peace organisations and initiatives in Sweden in the 1920s and 1930s, including the formation of the unarmed uprising. Wägner was a radical pacifist, inspired by Gandhi to make pacifism an active force through nonviolent resistance to war. More than 20,000 Swedish women were involved in the action one way or another. On 3 August 1935, the uprising was declared on the front page of the weekly magazine Tidevarvet, the text written by Elin Wägner [6].

This radical statement urged women all over Sweden not to take part in the machinery of war by accepting the logic of civil defence. Women were asked to take a personal stand against gas masks, air raid shelters and other so-called means of “protection”. Since it would be impossible to protect everyone in the case of a gas attack, the women should refuse to be saved at the cost of someone else. The statement reflected the current state of affairs where men were in control of powerful positions, by arguing that women's refusal to participate in air raid shelter and gas mask discipline would make some men come to their senses and work for new forms of coexistence between people, when they realised that it was impossible to defend everyone against the new kind of weapons that had been developed.

Although most of the women who organised the uprising were affiliated to different organisations, they agreed that they signed it as individuals, and not as representatives of their organisations. This way they signalised that refusal was an individual responsibility, at not something connected to membership in political parties and organisations. The women who received the magazine were encouraged to nominate women to be elected for a representative assembly, a one-day women’s parliament. The action turned out much bigger than the organisers had expected. More than 700 nominations came in, and around 80 women were elected to the assembly. They met in Stockholm on 1st September 1935, only one month after the publication of the initial statement. The meeting had four keynote speakers and was followed by discussions.

In her speech to the assembly, Elin Wägner enlarged on the topics from the statement. Among other things she said: “Every housewife who neglects to empty her room in the attic, to paint its woodwork with a proper fireproof substance, to sprinkle a thick layer of sand on its floor, to seal up her larder against gas and secure an ice box to protect the family’s food from poisoning, she is already an objector, whether she knows it or not.”[7]

At the end of the day, the assembly adopted a resolution and elected a delegation to travel to Geneva to present the statement to the League of Nations and to an international meeting of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom.

The uprising was a reaction to the militarisation of everyday life, and the fact that, with new weapons like chemical gas, it was no longer possible to distinguish between the front line and civilians. It is also possible to see in the uprisings, connections to the Greek play Lysistrata, written by Aristophanes more than 2000 years ago. The play was translated into Swedish in 1932, and performed in Stockholm in 1934 [8]. In the play, the women refuse to have sex with their husbands until they end the Peloponesian war.

In the years that followed, both Babro Alving and Elin Wägner continued their struggle against war preparations and the way civilians were being sucked in by the war machinery. However, with the increasing danger of war they found it ever more difficult to find support among other women. In 1938 a huge air raid preparation exercise was planned in the capital, Stockholm. Barbro Alving and Elin Wägner planned an action together with a few other women. Their plan was to quietly walk away in a demonstration to another part of the city and read a statement against the war preparation. However, because of lack of advance support the action never took place.
What they did manage to do was to combine the protest against war preparations with the emerging question about how refugees were treated in Sweden. A proclamation called “An act which liberates”, signed by 50 people, appeared in the newspaper the day after the air raid exercise. In the text they said that the civil defence system that Sweden had decided to build did not create any security, and did not result in less fear. Insecurity and fear was a direct consequence of the system of war. To help protect refugees, on the other hand, was a moral obligation and would strengthen democracy and faith in humanity. They therefore called for a change in Sweden’s refugee policy [9].

The following extract from the declaration of the Women’s Unarmed Uprising Against War 1935 gives an insight to the contribution made by its supporters to the peace movement in Sweden.

Thanks to Irene Andersson for help with putting this article together.
Translation from original Swedish quotes to English by Majken Jul Sørensen.

[1] Andersson, Irene "En civilförsvarsvägran med rötter i 1930-talet" [A civil defence objector with roots in the 1930s] in "När Alving blev Bang" [When Alving became Bang] edited by Marcos Cantera Carlomagno, Historiska media, 2001 p. 33.
[2] Alving, Barbro (Bang), “Civilförsvaret” in “Hertha” 42(1955):3 p. 5.
[3] Alving, Barbro (Bang), “Civilförsvaret” in “Hertha” 42(1955):3 p. 5-6.
[4] Alving, Barbro (Bang), “Civilförsvaret” in “Hertha” 42(1955):3 p. 6.
[5] Andersson, Irene "En civilförsvarsvägran med rötter i 1930-talet" [A civil defence objector with roots in the 1930s] in "När Alving blev Bang" [When Alving became Bang] edited by Marcos Cantera Carlomagno, Historiska media, 2001 p. 42.
[6] Andersson, Irene "En civilförsvarsvägran med rötter i 1930-talet" [A civil defence objector with roots in the 1930s] in ”När Alving blev Bang” [When Alving became Bang] edited by Marcos Cantera Carlomagno, Historiska media, 2001 p. 37.
[7] Wägner, Elin "Vad tänker du, mänsklighet" [What are you thinking, humanity], selection by Helena Forsås-Scott, Norstedts 1999.
[8] Andersson, Irene "Kvinnor mot krig – Aktioner och nätverk för fred 1914-1940" [Women against war – actions and networks for peace 1914-1940], Historiska institutionen vid Lunds universitet, 2001, p. 159.
[9] Andersson, Irene "Kvinnor mot krig – Aktioner och nätverk för fred 1914-1940" [Women against war – actions and networks for peace 1914-1940], Historiska institutionen vid Lunds universitet, 2001, p. 270-275) and "En handling som befriar" [An act which liberates], Socialdemokraten, September 9th, 1938, p. 9.

Women’s Unarmed Uprising Against War, 1935

Women, join together, demand of all men that they reflect on where they are taking humankind. The wisest and best of them can see this and are trying to change the course of development: support them, insist on helping them. But demand that they lay down their weapons, then let them see that you are willing to lay down yours! Refuse to participate in the machinery of war, refuse the air raid shelter and gas mask discipline.

Women, tell them that you do not believe in gas masks, air raid shelters, and other devices for protection. Tell them that you have seen through the absurdity in trying to protect [absolutely] everyone and that you recoil from the inhumanity in the idea of some being chosen for rescue and others being left to perish. Tell them that you do not want to sacrifice your children to the poisonous gases and fires outside the over-full shelters, but neither do you wish to be rescued at the expense of someone else, only then to step out into a ravaged world. If you do this, then by virtue of their innate instincts, men will also be forced to defend their own, to make the ultimate effort to create and piece together a respect for new forms of coexistence between people.

Extract of the Women’s Unarmed Uprising Against War. Quote from Andersson, Irene, “Women’s Unarmed Uprising Against War: A Swedish Peace Protest in 1935” in “Journal of Peace Research” vol 40, no 4 2003, p 404-405.

Published in Women Conscientious Objectors - An Anthology


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