The case for pacifism

Pacifism, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “Belief in or advocacy of peaceful methods as feasible and desirable alternatives to war; (espousal or advocacy of) a group of doctrines which reject war and every form of violent action as a means of solving disputes, esp. in international affairs. Also: advocacy of a peaceful policy or rejection of war in a particular instance.”

We see that there are three meanings of the word in common usage. Most peaceful people would have no trouble agreeing with the first and third meanings. It is the middle one that requires the “espousal or advocacy of) a group of doctrines which reject war and every form of violent action as a means of solving disputes, esp. in international affairs” that causes problems, since it seems to reject the war option under all circumstances and it is not hard to conjure up a scenario in which war seems the least worst option.

While I hate war, I have never considered myself a pacifist. But Nicholas Baker in his article WHY I’M A PACIFIST in the May 2011 issue Harper’s Magazine makes a compelling case for pacifism. In doing so, he tackles head-on the seemingly unanswerable argument that all pacifists are immediately confronted with: What would you have done about Hitler? He calls this assumption that going to war against Hitler was the correct thing to do a ‘dangerous myth of the Good War’, and that accepting this myth unquestioningly has enabled future wars.

Baker says that the objective fact that six million Jews were killed suggests that the war policies that were advocated failed in their mission of saving lives and should cause us to seriously reconsider whether other policies might not have saved them.

In fact, the more I learn about the war, the more I understand that the pacifists were the only ones, during a time of catastrophic violence, who repeatedly put forward proposals that had any chance of saving a threatened people. They weren’t naïve, they weren’t unrealistic—they were psychologically acute realists.

Who was in trouble in Europe? Jews were, of course. Hitler had, from the very beginning of his political career, fantasized publicly about killing Jews. They must go, he said, they must be wiped out—he said so in the 1920s, he said so in the 1930s, he said so throughout the war (when they were in fact being wiped out), and in his bunker in 1945, with a cyanide pill and a pistol in front of him, his hands shaking from Parkinson’s, he closed his last will and testament with a final paranoid expostulation, condemning “the universal poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry.”

The Jews needed immigration visas, not Flying Fortresses. And who was doing their best to get them visas, as well as food, money, and hiding places? Pacifists were.

Baker’s article looks at what pacifists were saying and doing in the run up to that war and describes the heroic efforts of a group of US and British pacifists who sought to save the Jews and avoid World War II.

Kaufman was one of a surprisingly vocal group of World War II pacifists—absolute pacifists, who were opposed to any war service. They weren’t, all of them, against personal or familial self-defense, or against law enforcement. But they did hold that war was, in the words of the British pacifist and parliamentarian Arthur Ponsonby, “a monster born of hypocrisy, fed on falsehood, fattened on humbug, kept alive by superstition, directed to the death and torture of millions, succeeding in no high purpose, degrading to humanity, endangering civilization and bringing forth in its travail a hideous brood of strife, conflict and war, more war.”

Pacifism at its best, said Arthur Ponsonby, is “intensely practical.” Its primary object is the saving of life. To that overriding end, pacifists opposed the counterproductive barbarity of the Allied bombing campaign, and they offered positive proposals to save the Jews: create safe havens, call an armistice, negotiate a peace that would guarantee the passage of refugees. We should have tried. If the armistice plan failed, then it failed. We could always have resumed the battle. Not trying leaves us culpable.

Baker says that Hitler was basically using Jews as hostages to discourage US entry into the war. In any hostage situation, the prime objective must be to save the lives of the hostages and just as attacking a hostage taker usually results in the deaths of the hostages, the US entering World War II and the military options that were pursued sealed the fate of the Jews and effectively signed their death warrants.

The shift, Friedlander writes, came in late 1941, occasioned by the event that transformed a pan-European war into a world war: “the entry of the United States into the conflict.” As Stackelberg puts it: “Although the ‘Final Solution,’ the decision to kill all the Jews under German control, was planned well in advance, its full implementation may have been delayed until the U.S. entered the war. Now the Jews under German control had lost their potential value as hostages.”

In any case, on December 12, 1941, Hitler confirmed his intentions in a talk before Goebbels and other party leaders. In his diary, Goebbels later summarized the Führer’s re- marks: “The world war is here. The annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary consequence.”

Baker says it is easy to be seduced by the logic if war.

“We’ve got to fight Hitlerism” sounds good, because Hitler was so self-evidently horrible. But what fighting Hitlerism meant in practice was, largely, the five-year-long Churchillian experiment of undermining German “morale” by dropping magnesium fire- bombs and 2,000-pound blockbusters on various city centers. The firebombing killed and displaced a great many innocent people—including Jews in hiding—and obliterated entire neighborhoods. It was supposed to cause an anti-Nazi revolution, but it didn’t.

What instead happened was that the massive bombing of Germany was blamed on the Jews who bore the brunt of the retaliation. In June of 1942 in the Warsaw ghetto, Emanuel Ringelblum wrote of the Germans “They are being defeated, their cities are being destroyed, so they take their revenge on the Jews” and added “Only a miracle can save us: a sudden end to the war, otherwise we are lost.”

I was struck by how that failed policy of using bombing to undermine morale and create opposition to the government is still being pursued in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya. What aerial bombing seems to do is either make the victimized population shell-shocked and dispirited or arouse anger against those doing the bombing and strengthen people’s allegiance to their governments, rather than undermine it.

So the Holocaust continued, and the firebombing continued: two parallel, incommensurable, war-born leviathans of pointless malice that fed each other and could each have been stopped long before they were. The mills of God ground the cities of Europe to powder—very slowly—and then the top Nazis chewed their cyanide pills or were executed at Nuremberg. Sixty million people died all over the world so that Hitler, Himmler, and Goering could commit suicide? How utterly ridiculous and tragic.

When are we going to grasp the essential truth? War never works. It never has worked. It makes everything worse. Wars must be, as Jessie Hughan wrote in 1944, renounced, rejected, declared against, over and over, “as an ineffective and inhuman means to any end, however just.” That, I would suggest, is the lesson that the pacifists of the Second World War have to teach us.

It is not easy being a pacifist when warmongering and bellicosity seem to rule the day. Baker’s article is bound to result in hostile letters to the editor appearing in subsequent issues. The article is not available online (I believe) without a subscription. It is very tightly argued and the few short excerpts I gave here do not do it justice so I recommend that readers check it out for themselves.