World War II and Peace Movements (1939–1945)

Originally Published in International Encyclopedia of Peace xxx

Having been broken by the outbreak of war in 1914 (and 1917 in the USA), peace movements in Europe and North America had grown in strength after 1918 The established peace organizations faced equally serious challenges when World War II threatened both in the countries prosecuting the war and then militarily-occupied territories.

Near Collapse of Peace Activism

By 1940, the peace movement in Europe had almost collapsed. The same happened in the USA after the attack upon Pearl Harbor in December 1941. To oppose the use of excessive military means against the Nazi regime, Japanese forces, and even by the Red Army on the Eastern Front was very unpopular. The peace movements like Fascism had emerged as a reaction to the catastrophic consequences of World War One, but (like many parts of civil society) peace activists needed time to reflect on events, reorganize and, where possible, mobilize with renewed energy after the outbreak of each attack. There were exceptions to this rule. In September 1939, Louise Bennet from the Women’s League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) argued that the possibilities of continuous mediation by neutral states should be explored. On the day when the Nobel peace prize for 1940 should have been awarded in Oslo, Norway, a huge group of women from more than twenty organizations held a silent procession against the war in the capital. Scandinavian women also appealed to the President of the League of Nations to suspend all hostilities and call for a conference to discuss peaceful options.

Similar appeals were issued by many European and North American peace organizations in the period leading up to the war, and for a short time thereafter. When the occupations rolled over Europe and the killings escalated, the focus in the unoccupied countries shifted to support for victims, help for conscientious objectors, and keeping the anti-war message alive in the public. There was growing concern about strategic bombing people had a tendency to support their leaders against external enemies, dissenting voices were not popular. The broad peace movements faced their most difficult time since 1914-16. However, the pacifist minority saw many new groups emerging, especially in USA and UK. Already established organisations like War Resisters League (WRL), Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and Fellowship of Reconciliation in US grew in membership and income during the war; the Society of Friends (Quakers) maintained their peace witness but some pacifist groups migrated to South America (e.g. Paraguay).

Difficulties in communication and Ideological Divisions

The International Peace Bureau (IPB) held their World Congress in Zurich when the war broke out, and published an appeal to governments and people to apply international law and work for brotherhood. But communication between individuals, groups and nations became increasingly difficult. WILPFs journal Pax International could no longer be edited in Britain and was temporarily replaced by a duplicated newsletter. War Resisters’ International (WRI) could not hold the planned Triennial 1940 and had to cancel their annual Council meetings. Several national organizations faced similar problems and some of them were forced to continue underground. In UK, surprisingly, the newspaper Peace News actually attracted more readers in the first years of the war, but the wholesalers refused to handle the paper with pacifist views. A nationwide system of direct distribution by members of Peace Pledge Union (PPU) was set up instead. Then the printers refused to have anything to do with the paper promoting mass protests against the war, and the printed magazine was replaced by a duplicated newsletter. The PPU membership started to decline in 1940, and continued to fall until to 1950’s.

Within the peace movement the discussions on what policies to promote and actions to take created several lines of division. The crisis was in many ways similar to the one created by the debate about how to act in the Spanish Civil War, when many had left the peace movement to support the Spanish republic and international intervention. The Soviet attack on Finland in November 1939 created another deep division among peace activists; many on the leftist parts of the movement accepted the Soviet arguments for the occupation but many others left the Communist Party over the Nazi-Soviet pact. The most basic disagreement was over whether or not it was necessary to combat Hitler by military means, and whether other options remained after 1939.

Some members decided to join the armed resistance movements (as some had done in Spain) or joined the state armies; others just left the movement. But there were also many cases of people who refused to be called up into the armed services. Both within the Axis power and the Allied countries, a number of young men refused obligatory military service. Long prison terms and torture were quite frequently used against them and in Nazi occupied areas, and the third Reich – often executions, or death in camps (e.g. Jehovahs Witnesses).

Initially, western communist parties opposed the war, because the Soviet Union had unexpectedly signed an unpopular nonaggression pact with Germany in August 1939 and invaded Poland.  But after Hitler launched his own surprise attack on the USSR in mid-1941, Communist parties switched to enthusiastic support the war against Germany (no longer an Imperialist war), and in the German-occupied territory became active in the resistance. Nevertheless these policy shifts gave Russian oriented communism a negative image in many peace groups and a majority of the European peace organizations in occupied countries did not manage to maintain regular contacts with members, and barely functioned during the war, although there were exceptions. In non-occupied Britain, and neutral Sweden and Switzerland some organized activities took place, mainly focused on publicizing arguments against the war and helping refugees from the occupied states. When the course of the war “turned” and Germany lost battle after battle the conditions for these movements improved somewhat.


In neutral Sweden, the main peace organizations were strong and had 40 000 members in the mid thirties. After years of campaigning against the arms race many were harassed by the pro-German elite in the country. The king, government, parliament and a majority of mainstream newspapers criticized the peace organizations for their campaigns against the build up of air-defense and distribution of gas-masks. Even the Social Democratic youth organization, which was pacifist before the war, opposed the protests against war preparations. However, several Swedish individuals and organizations appealed to the governments of Russia, Germany and USA to call for a new Hague-Conference and to settle all disputes at the negotiation table.

The veteran peace organization, the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society arranged seminars and international courses. Some of these activities would later develop into what today is the global peace organization Service Civil International (SCI).


In the UK, peace activists engaged particularly in work against conscription and the promotion of anti-war arguments. Together with many other peace organizations the British ones joined a call for a world conference to decide on the questions of national boundaries and international economic relations. Not being occupied made it somewhat easier to arrange meetings, communicate and run traditional organizations. But bombings and difficulties in producing enough food and other commodities, made daily life difficult for everyone. John Middleton Murray stated that the role of pacifists was “to bear its witness against the total dehumanization of humanity that is necessitated by modern war”. Wilfred Wellock, who became the “Honorary Consulting Editor” of Peace News, argued that the key role for them was “to envisage the future and to seek ways and means of saving and introducing those values without which human existence ceased to have any meaning”. One way of doing that was to live a life according to pacifist principles. Wars would cease when people had learnt how to live with decency. Over fifty small scale communities were established; in the countryside they focused on agriculture production, and in the cities they practiced income sharing. Some like the Bruderhof immigrated to Latin America. Later in the War, Vera Brittain, Bishop Bell, and members of the PPU campaigned against the mass bombing of civilian targets in Germany by the USA and Britain on many cities with large casualties.


In the USA, Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), War Resisters League (WRL), and the historic peace churches (Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren) as well as (after 1940) the Communist party, were all engaged in activity against the war. Multiple new groups were established, most of them remained relatively small. The Peace Association of Christian Scientists (PACS) and the Association of Catholic Conscientious Objectors are illustrative examples of the new flowering of peace initiatives. Most of them campaigned locally and the majority were faith-based. The main activity for most of the peace movements in the first years was to arrange public meetings, distribute material, collect signatures against the war, and publically demonstrating in other ways against the use of war to solve the conflict. The appalling loss of life during World War I was often used as an argument against engaging in a new war.

From 1940 onwards many American peace organizations and their members engaged in helping Jewish refugees. The treatment of Jews in Germany since the 1930s was well known and generated sympathy and the willingness to assist. Refugees needed food, housing  jobs, transport, and legal help. When the first rumors of gassing of Jews reached the US in 1942 it was not discounted as war time propaganda, but led to an intensification  of support.

After Pear Harbor, and the subsequent “relocation” of people of Japanese origin, parts of the peace movement campaigned against the prison camps and the policy to regard thousands as “enemy aliens”. Americans with at least one great-grandparent born in Japan were imprisoned; a stricter criterion than the Nazis used to define Jews in Germany. American peace activists argued against this brutal and unjust treatment of some US citizens.

When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, the front group of the American Communist Party changed its name from “American Peace Mobilization” to “American People’s Mobilization” and diverged from the policy of the traditional peace organizations.

The other huge “domestic” issue in the USA during the war was the question of conscientious objectors. October 1940 was the first time the government introduced conscription in peacetime. The peace movement was not capable of stopping the bill, but some voices speaking out against the new law were very strong. Isolationist Senator Borah of Idaho denounced it as Hitler’s “first victory over American democracy”. The religious peace activist Franklin Zahn said it was “an attempt to fight slavery in Europe by adopting it here”. Most objectors accepted the conscription system, but refused to take part in the armed forces. The Selective Service Act in concert with the historic peace churches, created Civilian Public Service (CPS), to provide alternative service under civilian control for COs who rejected noncombatant military service. If accepted by the draft board, these conscientious objectors were sent to CPS-camps to do “work of national importance under civilian direction”.  In the camps the conscientious objectors themselves had to pay for room and board. Peace organizations and individual activists started to collect money in support of the resisters. WRL was the only large peace organization to oppose the agreement between peace churches and Selective Service. It arranged a membership referendum on the question of the camps, and the result was a demand for governmental operated and/or financed camps in addition to the church camps. The CO should also have a secular choice, and not be forced to pay for their keep. In 1943, the government opened the first CPS camp where the CO’s did not have to pay and the church did not have control.

A few objectors took a more “absolutist” position and refused all forms of cooperation with the conscription system. They faced long prison terms and some were taken to a military tribunal imposing even harsher punishments, including the possibility of the death penalty.

In Japan the Christian pacifist, social worker, novelist and preacher Toyohiko Kagawa founded the Anti-War League, and in 1940 was arrested after publicly apologizing to China for the Japanese invasion of that country. In the summer of 1941 he visited the United States in an attempt to avert war between Japan and the Us. After the war, despite failing health, he devoted himself to the reconciliation of democratic ideals and procedures with traditional Japanese culture.

Unarmed Peaceful Resistance Against Nazism

Many peace activists took part in nonviolent forms of resistance to Nazi policies inside the occupied territories through illegal distribution of news, smuggling refugees, hiding Jews, promoting resistance symbols, and setting up communication systems.  They worked with organizations, ad-hoc groups, and individuals who did not regard themselves as part of a peace movement and opposed Nazism in the hope of eventual military liberation. Nonviolent resistance occurred in every occupied country by a variety of means; non-cooperation, disinformation, carrying of symbols, boycotts, selective strikes, “go-slow” actions, forgery of documents, dividing support to deserters, political satire, humor and propaganda were all part of the repertoire.

In Germany, a small group of students from the University of Munich and their philosophy professor Kurt Huber, distributed leaflets against the Nazi ideology. Under the name “White Rose” they wrote quotations from classical German authors like Goethe, Novalis and Schiller and mixed them with words from Aristotle and the Bible. Aimed at the intelligentsia, they secretly distributed these leaflets in Southern Germany. On several nights in early February 1943 they painted the slogans “Down with Hitler” and “Freedom” on walls in Munich, but were soon arrested. Three students were executed and the rest were sentenced to long imprisonments.

In occupied Norway, the German commander Joseph Terboven attempted to control the Teachers Union in 1941, resulting in thousands withdrawing their membership. In 1942 Vidkun Quisling introduced a law that obliged all teachers to join the Nazi party and teach Nazi ideology in their classes. A well organized campaign against the new law asked teachers to sign a declaration against it. Despite threats of hard punishments a large majority of the 14,000 teachers signed and boycotted the law. Eleven hundred teachers were arrested, but in the end Quisling had to withdraw the law because of the boycotts and protests. Members of sport clubs in Norway refused to compete when Germans or “Quislings” were participating or present. Many withdrew their membership and in the general public it was seen as “good behavior” to boycott all public sport events. In some countries non-violent resistance and methods, evolved alongside more violent methods, this is  true in Denmark, in the Netherlands, as well as to some extent Norway

In the Netherlands, students from the towns of Delft and Leiden went on strike in 1940-41 to protest against the dismissal of Jewish professors. All over the Netherlands, Jews, members of resistance groups, and others wanted by the Germans, were hidden, equipped with false identification papers and provided with shelter, food, and other necessities. By the summer of 1944, more than 300,000 “submariners” had been helped in this way. All over Europe Jews and others in need of protection were helped to avoid arrest This was particularly true in Denmark and in Albania. Almost no Denmark Jews were killed, and in Albania as such at all…

Many Jews also engaged in active support for their own people. The Baum Group, of young Jewish resisters in Berlin, raised money in 1941-42 to obtain Aryan documents and foreign passports. These papers enabled Jews to escape the country, or even live under a false identity in Germany.


Peace movements in World War II were ignored when they demanded international negotiations. The “hard core” pacifists managed to survive and some even grew in membership during the war. The broader movements faced serious difficulties and many of the organizations almost disappeared. However, as a consequence of the war, new efforts to develop nonviolent alternatives to war emerged. The examples of peaceful resistance created a good breeding ground for new ideas together with the inspiration of  Gandhi and his struggle in India. Nonviolent interventions and civilian based defense were promoted as possible alternatives to military armies.

Beale, A. (1986) Against All War, Fifty Years of Peace News 1936-1986, Nottingham, Peace News

Bennet, S. H. (2003) Radical Pacifism. The War Resisters League and Gandhian Nonviolence in America, 1915-1963. Syracuse, Syracuse Studies on Peace and Conflict Resolution

Bussey, G. & Tims, M. (1980) Pioneers for Peace. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom 1915-1965, London, WILPF

Chester, G. & Rigby, A. eds. (1986) Articles of Peace. Celebrating Fifty Years of Peace News. Bridport, Prism Press

Fogelström, P.A. (1983) Kampen för Fred, Berättelsen om en Folkrörelse. (In Swedish, The struggle for Peace, The Story about a Swedish Popular Movement) Stockholm, Svenska Freds- och Skiljedomsföreningen

Hoffman, P. (1996) The History of German Resistance 1933-1945 3. ed. Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press

Lynd, S. ed. (1966) Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History. Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merril Company, Inc

Prasad, D. (2005) War is a Crime Against Humanity, The Story of War Resisters’ International. London, War Resisters’ International

Semelin, J. (1993) Unarmed Against Hitler. Westport, Praeger

Sharp, G. (1973) The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Boston, Porter Sargent Publisher

Wittner, L.S. (1984) Rebels Against the War. The American Peace Movement, 1933-1983,  Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Zahn, F. (1984) Deserter from Violence: Experiments with Gandhi’s Truth, New York, Philosophical Library

Gordon Zahn (1964) In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter, Templegate Publishers, Springfield, Illinois

Jørgen Johansen

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Posted in In English, Peace Research, Social Movements

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