by Steven Waling, Manchester
This is one of a series of pieces written by members and staff from NFPB, reflecting on how the second world war shaped them, their families, and thinking and action for peace
I’ve always been ambivalent about the 2nd World War. On the one hand, as a lifelong pacifist, peace activist and Quaker, I am against “the occasion of all wars” as it says in the Peace Testimony. On the other hand, Nazism was an unalloyed evil that murdered its way around Europe and, once it was in power, could only be stopped by violence, and extreme violence at that. So it looks like, if it wasn’t so much a just war, it was at least a necessary war.
You’re on much safer ground as a pacifist with the 1st World War. There, you can see clearly the political machinations that led up to it, the sheer inhumanity of the slaughter, the stupidity of the various nationalisms and imperial notions that led up to it and continued it; and the sheer revenge-frenzy of the reparations imposed on Germany after the Armistice. And we can see a line from there to the rise of Nazism and fascism that led up to the 2nd World War.
But of course, the 2nd World War was only necessary because the imperialist and anti-humane ideas that led to the 1st World War had not been eradicated in the uneasy peace that came after. Internationalism and ideas of the common heritage of all humanity were struggling against the powers and institutions that still controlled the world, and ultimately they lost to the machinery of war and murderous ideology.
Except, of course, they didn’t lose. They just went underground for a while. Pacifism, in such groups as the Peace Pledge Union and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, still sought to shine a few beacons of light in a darkened world, leading to the anti-nuclear weapons movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement and other continuing protests against war.
I think the TV series “World at War” was one of the reasons I became a pacifist. Its images of death and destruction, its interviews with survivors on all sides of the conflict, the sonorous commentary of Lawrence Olivier, all made the teenage me look at war not as a glorious game, but as a disaster that should never be allowed to happen in a civilised world. So I joined CND, became a Quaker, got involved and eventually began to work for NFPB.
Time for quiet remembering
So to V E Day. I’m sure it was a massive relief to all who went into the streets to celebrate the end of the war. People who has lost loved ones, people who had lost homes and livelihoods, and struggle to survive through rationing, felt they had a right to party. But an older friend of mine, who himself had been in the armed forces, told me that at the time of the end of the 1st World War, a lot of the soldiers didn’t join in the celebrations. Instead, they tried to quietly remember the friends and companions they had lost, to mourn the death and destruction and the waste of it all.
I have never believed in the concept of a ‘just war’. Every war can be argued to be just by those who pursue it. However ‘necessary’ the 2nd World War may have seemed, atrocities were perpetrated on both sides, and millions of people died just because they were in the way, or because they were the ‘wrong’ type of person. So I won’t be putting the bunting out and ‘celebrating’ the end of a war 75 years ago. I do believe the war needs to be remembered, but by acts of resistance to the ideology that caused it; by acts of love and fellowship across the artificial barriers of national borders; by caring for each other. ‘Make love not war’ is still a slogan to live by, however hard it seems to find love these days.