Resistance in World War I and Implications for Today

By Andrew Bolton

The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. The Great War, savagely industrialized and mechanized, had been raging since the summer of 1914 and President Wilson had kept the country out of it until this time. In total, over 100 countries in Africa, America, Asia, Australasia and Europe were involved in WWI.  Jews killed Jews, Christians killed Christians, and Muslims killed Muslims as people were caught and divided by nationalisms and empires.  17 million died and 20 million were wounded.  It is one of the deadliest conflicts of all time and 117,000 Americans also died.  A further 50 million died world-wide from Spanish flu at the end of the war, an epidemic birthed and exacerbated by war time conditions.

“The war to end war” was the Allied battle cry for defeating Germany, penned by British author H. G. Wells in August 1914.  This slogan was later picked by US President Wilson as he changed from a policy of neutrality to war.  In 2017 there will no doubt be expressions of righteous nationalism as the US remembers its participation in the “war to end all war” a hundred years ago.  Yet the unjust peace of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles resulted in World War II –  the deadliest conflict in human history, and with the additional holocaust of 6 million Jews. Then came the Cold War with the ongoing threat of nuclear annihilation – not genocide but omnicide – the death of all.  The carve up of the Middle East by European colonial powers after WWI continues to foster disastrous conflicts in Iraq, Israel/Palestine etc.  So the madness and terribleness of WWI still haunts us today.

Conscientious objectors have been called the shock troops of dissent in World War I by historians Scott H. Bennett and Charles Howlett.  There are many moving stories of WWI conscientious objectors eg the Hofer brothers (two Hutterites who died at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas), Ben Salmon (unionist and socialist and one of just 4 US Catholic COs in WWI), Maurice Hess (Church of the Brethren CO), Judah Magnes (the leading US Jewish pacifist), and Quaker, Pentecostal etc. Religious families divided – the US Presbyterian Thomas family produced two soldiers and two conscientious objectors. Similarly, the English Quaker Cadbury family also divided into soldiers and pacifists.  Resistance in Germany included socialists, women, and Jewish anarchist/pacificist Gustav Landauer.  Suffragettes were divided but women also marched and protested the killing of their husbands and sons. Charlotte Despard, a suffragette and actively against the war, opposed her brother, British General Sir John French who led the war effort in France for a time.  World war created a world-wide movement of conscience, resistance and dissent.

WWI saw the birth of enduring peace, justice and civil liberties organizations like Mennonite Central Committee, American Friends Service Committee, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (which positively impacted and empowered the later American Civil Rights Movement), American Civil Liberties Union, War Resisters League etc. WWI profoundly impacted Christian theology and activism through people like Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eberhard Arnold and Dorothy Day.  Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber wrote “I-Thou” in WWI with war as the ultimate “I-It” relationship as backdrop.

Today sees the rise of right wing nationalism in the USA and Europe. There is talk of a registry for Muslims in the USA. How do we act according to conscience and as followers of Jesus in these difficult times?

A coalition of peace churches and others met at the National World War I Museum, Kansas City, in January 2014 to begin planning a symposium that would tell these stories of those who resisted and dissented out of conscience in WWI. Called Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance, and Civil Liberties in World War I through Today it will be held October 19-22, 2017 at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, Kansas City, MO. For more information on the call for papers (due by March 20, 2017), program, keynotes, registration etc see

At the end of the symposium, Sunday morning October 22, 2017 a memorial service is being planned at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas outside the hospital where Hutterians Joseph and Michael Hofer died. Also being remembered are the 92 conscientious objectors held at Fort Leavenworth in 1918 and 100s elsewhere.

Finally, a Travelling Exhibition called Voices of Conscience – Peace Witness in the Great War is being developed by the Kaufman Museum at Mennonite Bethel College, Kansas ( ) For booking the travelling exhibition contact Annette LeZotte,

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