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.


  1. Yair says

    Pacifism achieves nothing. Why were the Jews taken as hostages against the US entering the war? Was it because the US had the best novels? The best standard of living? No. It was because the US had the largest military-industrial apparatus, or at least potential.

    If Hilter wouldn’t have been opposed by war, his minions would have installed his policies over all of Europe. The cost to human well-being and civilization would have been far greater than the costs of the war. Even in the calculus of the number of deaths -- which is horridly short-sighted -- he would have eventually have killed even more, not only in conquered Europe but throughout the world.

    As a Jew whose family was devastated in the holocaust, I am glad the Allies warred with the Nazis. My personal family would not have been saved if Pacifism would have been adopted; at most, their deaths would have been slightly delayed. What really saved my family, and my current country and the many Jews in it, was that war was indeed waged against Hitler.

  2. jpmeyer says

    Judging just from the excerpts, the article doesn’t appear to be historically accurate with regards to the causes and motivations behind WWII and has a lot of straw manning of the positions of those involved especially in the case of the Holocaust. I mean, that whole bit about saving the Jews is one part post-hoc justification, one part popular mythmaking, and one part heaping ignorance of the actual mechanics of the Holocaust.

    That said, an actual pacifist position in WWII wouldn’t have been a bad thing for both the United States and the United Kingdom seeing how Hitler didn’t want to fight either country.

  3. Jared A says


    I think you are missing the argument that is being made here. One premise of the argument IS that the US had the ability to industrialize for war and that this could have been used as a bargaining chip to negotiate for the release and deportation of prisoners such as your family and the many many other people who were not saved in time.

    There are moral reasons for being a pacifist, but unlike the stereotypes most pacifists are this way for pragmatic reasons. Specifically, that careful examination tends to show that violence is a very bad way to accomplish really anything.

    It is exceedingly difficult in hindsight to determine what would have happened if important actors had behaved differently coming up to the war, but what is being argued here is that one thing that is objectively true is that the war did not prevent the holocaust.

    Finally, I want to address your unqualified statement that “pacifism achieves nothing”. For a counter-example look at the resolution of the cuban missle crisis. Here is a situation where violent behavior on both sides caused a major escalation. However, a sudden shift in the behavior of the US leadership that involved hard negotiation avoided a violent conflict over the missiles avoided.

    from wikipedia: “The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously agreed that a full-scale attack and invasion was the only solution. They believed that the Soviets would not attempt to stop the U.S. from conquering Cuba. Kennedy was skeptical.

    ‘They, no more than we, can let these things go by without doing something. They can’t, after all their statements, permit us to take out their missiles, kill a lot of Russians, and then do nothing. If they don’t take action in Cuba, they certainly will in Berlin'”

    If you don’t think this is pacifist doctrine in action, then you don’t understand pacifism.


  4. Eric says

    Mano --

    I’m inclined to agree with Yair on this one. Hitler’s goal was not simply the destruction of Jews in Germany, but throughout Europe, if not the world, after massive conquest. Getting the Jews out of Germany might have delayed that goal, but it wouldn’t have denied it.

    Additionally, I take issue with your statement that in a hostage situation, “the prime objective must be to save the lives of the hostages.” The prime objective of any government entity is to safeguard the lives & rights of all of the people under their protection. Giving in to hostage-takers has the potential consequences of:
    a) strengthening their position, and
    b) showing future hostage-takers that their plans can work.

    For example, if someone took 30 hostages and demanded a nuclear warhead in exchange for letting them go, no government entity on the planet would hesitate before turning them down. In the absence of a viable rescue, those hostages would almost certainly be casualties.

    I think World War 2 and Hitler are used most often to justify war because genocide is the worst crime we can imagine, but certainly World War 2 isn’t the only war that began in an attempt to end atrocity. The American Civil War was fought (primarily) to end slavery, for example.

    I would agree with Hughan that war is the LEAST effective, LEAST efficient, and LEAST humane way to an end, and that as society evolves we should be able to put it behind us as a relic of worse & less civilized times. But to say that it solves nothing is, in my opinion, a gross oversimplification and denial of history.

  5. Jared A says

    I should append that I agree with JP Meyer’s points about the apparent inaccuracies of the article. I just think that if you are to attack the article you must understand its argument in its strongest form. More importantly, one should understand what pacifists are actually interested in before dismissing the idea as useless.

  6. says


    Having the prime objective of saving the lives of the hostages does not mean one immediately gives in to whatever demands the hostage takers make. It means starting a negotiating process that can be used to free the hostages unharmed. This happens all the time in hostage situations, where the hostage takers eventually become willing to simply give up or accept some lesser demand, sometimes just a reduced punishment.

    It used to be the case in the past that plane hijackings were fairly common, but very few ended with the passengers being killed.
    Negotiations are not guaranteed to work, of course. But surely the deaths of six million Jews has to be considered such a monstrous failure that a serious examination of alternatives is warranted? We do such re-evaluations in cases like the Branch Davidian tragedy. So why not for World War II?

  7. Jared A says

    As an aside(and if I recall my history properly) the main purpose for the Allied invasion of Normandy was to get to Berlin before the Soviets did. At this point is was clear that Hitler could not defeat his enemy Stalin and in trying had sealed his defeat towards the Soviets. So strictly speaking that particular half of the war was the western powers long term strategy of weakening Stalin’s position, and not Hitler’s. They had already written Hitler off by this point.

    The invasion of Italy was known to be pointless from a strategic sence and only served a PR purpose to keep morale up in the US (to see that the war was “progressing”). Given how many people died in that regional stalemate, this is truly perverse.

  8. Henry says

    Just curious, do pacifists have some algorithm that dictates how many people can die in the name of non-intervention?

    How does a pacifist rationalize non-intervention into say Rwanda?

  9. Henry says

    Also, I think any discussion on war should automatically avoid using Hitler to make a point. War existed before Hitler. It existed after Hitler.

  10. Scott says

    In response to, well, everyone, I look at this as more of an intellectual exercise than a practical way WWII could have been avoided. I think it’s pretty obvious that Hitler wasn’t interested in capitulation at all, simply for the fact that the Allies were at his door before he killed himself, whereas the Japanese knew when they were beaten and surrendered, which was something that really wasn’t in their code.

    The real point, I think, is that war is a failure of imagination. Our leaders can’t come up with any other ideas, so they drop bombs and send young men with guns to enforce policies. Rather than extreme situations like WWII and Rwanda (which would have been more of a law enforcement action) I think a better situation to discuss would have been the invasion of Afghanistan ostensibly to apprehend Osama bin Laden. No diplomacy was tried there, with disasterous consequences.

  11. says


    While I am an advocate of Godwin’s Law and agree that Hitler should not be brought in gratuitously and should not be the only focus, I think that he is unavoidable in any discussion of pacifism.

  12. Yair says


    If you don’t think this is pacifist doctrine in action, then you don’t understand pacifism.

    It seems I don’t understand pacifism then. As I understand it, pacifism isn’t the position that war should be avoided under certain circumstances, but rather that it should be avoided at all circumstances. That is not a tenable position -- as then, for example, this

    One premise of the argument IS that the US had the ability to industrialize for war and that this could have been used as a bargaining chip

    would make no sense as under pacifism the threat of industrialization would be an empty threat.

    Ultimately, there are people that are more than willing to use force to enforce their will on other people. If the latter won’t stand up to them by force, they would eventually be forced to submit or killed. Delaying tactics, such as hiding, are just that -- delaying tactics. That’s what my family did, and why a few of them survived -- but only a few. As the war went on, fewer and fewer survived. If the war had gone on further, and especially if Hitler would have faced no resistance, all would have perished.

    careful examination tends to show that violence is a very bad way to accomplish really anything.

    War, and especially as the chiefs-of-staff would have you fight it, is very often ineffective and inefficient at achieving the political ends. But this doesn’t mean that it always is. Or that all military/armed action always is (not every military action is a full-scale war).

    I believe there certainly are circumstances where going to war is the correct thing to do -- and that realization is what separates a normal person from a pacifist.

    Let me put it this way -- there was no way to stop Hitler from conquering Europe other than by force. (And he would have gotten to Britain, too, eventually.) Chamberlain tried stopping him by agreements -- it didn’t work, because what Hitler sought was conquest. If you think having a Nazi-subjugated Europe -- and beyond -- is an acceptable price to pay, in any compromise, then we’ve parted ways. If you think the fact that people are willing to use force means that they should be rewarded, that the other party must always compromise because they have guns -- then we’ve parted ways.

    what is being argued here is that one thing that is objectively true is that the war did not prevent the holocaust.

    The war wasn’t meant to do that. Its primary purpose was to end the German occupation of Europe, and the threat to international Allied interests it represented. Stopping the holocaust was a nice side-benefit, nothing more. It’s just good that, as a matter of fact, the war did stop the holocaust. It didn’t prevent it, no -- but it did stop it. As there are members in my family that are alive because of that, I’m rather happy with this result.

  13. Tim says

    Fascinating topic and conversation. Thanks for the reference to the article, Mano. And thanks to all above who posted.

  14. Eric says

    Mano --

    In your hypothetical hostage situation, the negotiations have to start with the threat of violence, or else you have no position from which to negotiate -- a reduced punishment is only meaningful if you have the power & inclination to enforce punishment at all. A completely pacifist standpoint, one where you refuse to engage in violence under any circumstances, renders that threat completely empty. It’s like Robin Williams’s old joke about British police officers with no guns -- “Stop, or…I’ll say ‘stop’ again!”

    Bear in mind, as well, that it wasn’t even the Holocaust that actually provoked the U.S. into action, despite the fact that numerous historians believe that the Roosevelt administration was aware of what was going on in Germany. It took a direct, sneak attack on American soil to drag us into the war.

  15. says


    The question of why the US decided to enter the war is a matter of some contention that I don’t want to (or am even competent to) get into. I think it is clear that Hitler feared that and wanted to avoid it and thus it may have been possible to use it more effectively as a bargaining chip.

    I agree that this implies a willingness to use the threat of using violence and I am not sure what pacifists have to say about whether that is consistent with truly pacifist views.

  16. says

    Shalom Y’all,

    Allow me to offer a more contemporary model, one I am intimately familiar with as a participant: Gulf War Part I: The Taking of the American Embassy in Tehran.

    From the beginning, President Jimmy Carter let the Iranian government know that if a single hostage was harmed, the full might of the American military would come crashing down upon their country. He then proceeded to back up his promise by assembling the largest Naval armada since the invasion at Normandy.

    The result was that all but one hostage (who died of natural causes) came home safely.

    If President Carter had been re-elected in 1980, it is possible that we would not now be engaged in a two-front war in the region.



  17. Henry says


    You know that Hawaii didn’t become a state until over 10 years after the end of the war? It was hardly American soil. Ironically, Hawaii would have probably been left alone had the US not annexed it over the protest of many islanders.

  18. Eric says

    Henry --

    It was an annexed American protectorate, in the same way that Guam & Puerto Rico are now, with the same obligations for defense from the U.S. government. An attack on it, especially an American military base, was for all intents and purposes equivalent to an Attack on American soil. Did your nitpick bear some relevance to the discussion on pacifism, or were you just splitting hairs for the fun of it?

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