Anti-militarism in the 19th Century


Source: Johansen, Jørgen. 2009. “Antimilitarism in the Nineteenth Century.” In The Oxford international encyclopedia of peace, edited by Nigel Young, 65-67. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Anti-militarism in the 19th Century

The nineteenth century was the first time that political associations, organized movements, and specific groups working for the abolition of armed forces, and military conscription emerged. In this period, little anti-militaristic campaigning is recorded in parts of the world other than in Europe and North America. We can identify three separate categories of anti-militarism in the 19th century; the pacifists, the socialists (including the anarchists), and the liberal, primarily middle class and largely pacifist peace societies. There are certain overlaps both ideologically and with individuals belonging to more than one group. All three tended to view issues from a more internationalist perspective than others, and were increasingly secular.


Count Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) is an illustrative figure – famous, and central within two of these categories. He became both a pacifist and in effect, an anarchist but at the same time he had an aristocratic background, despite his ideal of living like a poor peasant the last years of his life. Tolstoy started as a soldier and participated as a second lieutenant in the Crimean War in the Caucasus: the meaningless atrocities he saw there turned him into a pacifist, an anti-conscriptionist, and an antimilitarist. His war experiences are described in several of his novels which together with his writings on contemporary events and political texts were read worldwide. His work The Kingdom of God is Within You influenced many contemporary and future anti-militarists; Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) and Emma Goldman (1869-1940) among them. Tolstoy read and recommended books by the anarchists Kropotkin and Proudhon. Without calling himself an anarchist he agreed with their critique of authority; governments and armies. Tolstoy saw the state and its army as evil forces. His Christian anarchistic pacifism created a platform for a new view of the state and its armed forces, within peace movements.

Tolstoy drew inspiration from the American tax resister, philosopher and author Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), who is best known for his refusal to pay tax as a statement of opposition to the Mexican-American war and his subsequent essay Resistance to Civil Government (first published in 1849). Many contemporaries were inspired by his ideas and the essay is still reprinted and read by thousands – especially by anti-militarists. (In modern editions it is called Civil Disobedience.)

Christian pacifism combined with anarchism was also the creed of the Doukhobors, originally from what today is southern Russia and Ukraine. They were not only anti-militarists, but also rejected any form of secular government. The first Doukhobors called themselves “God’s People,”  and they fervently opposed all military institutions and all wars. Frequently they were arrested for their anti-war campaigning. When Tsar Nicholas I conscripted all citizens who were engaged in dissenting religious groups and promoted beliefs opposed to the established Orthodox Church, 5000 Doukhobors were resettled to Georgia between 1841 and 1845. When the Russian Empire introduced universal conscription in 1887 masses of the Doukhobors was arrested. Later they gathered all their weapons used for private protection and hunting and burned, them to avoid any temptation to use them when harassed by the authorities.

As persecution seemed to be unsuccessful in making the Doukhobors comply with the conscription laws, and the entire affair became an embarrassment before international public opinion, the Russian government agreed in 1897 to let the Doukhobors leave the country, subject to a number of harsh conditions:

* the emigrants could never return;

* they had to migrate at their own expense;

* community leaders currently in prison or in exile in Siberia had to serve the balance of their sentences before they could leave the country.

Tolstoy took up their cause, helping some to settle in Canada.

Socialists and Anarchists

Another category of antimilitarist ideas of the 19th century originated from parts of the socialist movement. When the working-class in industrialized countries started to organize themself and built international networks they saw the same need for solidarity and brotherhood on the international level as at home in their own country. Class became potentially more important than nationality. In the class pyramid socialists portrayed the bourgeois, the army, the church, and the monarchs as “enemies of the working class”.

When workers were on strike or took to the streets in demonstration, they were often met by violence from police and military bodies. In 1864 the First International tried to unite the many left-wing groups, organizations and trade unions in an international class struggle. But due to different views on the state and the role of socialist parties in seizing or winning political power, it ended with a division into two camps: the first led by Karl Marx (1818–1883) and the anarchist wing associated with Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) and his followers.  The latter were not opposed to the use of violence, but saw the military as enemies of the working class. Moreover, state armies were not compatible with the anarchist ideas of anti-authoritarian organizing from below, even in a socialist state.

Anarchists and Anarcho-syndicalists frequently took part in anti-militarist conferences, demonstrations, and meetings. It was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon who laid out the fundamental theories of anarcho-syndicalism and saw the organizing of small scale economical units as the building blocks of the future society. Military forces had no place in this vision. The anarcho-syndicalist goal of a general-strike that would force the capitalists surrender the power to the workers, developed later in to the concept of a “general-strike against war” and the slogan “Not a penny, not a man for the army”. Opposition to all bourgeois armies, both conscripted and mercenary, and to “capitalist wars” found some support in many branches in all the braches of socialism in the 19th century. (See entry on Stuttgart Resolution)

Peace Societies

Whilst not explicitly anti-militarist, the New York Peace Society was the first of many peace societies in the USA. Created soon after the 1812 war between the USA and the UK, it criticized wars for their brutal impact on human beings. Many local Peace Societies merged in 1828 to found the American Peace Society. Rather than resist war they advocated negotiations to resolve crises between states and pacifism on Christian grounds. Most members were Quakers, and were in principle conscientious objectors.

The American abolitionist movement had several key activists who, in addition to opposing slavery, also worked against other forms of violence. Including Elihu Burritt (1810-1879) who was an autodidact activist in the work against slavery and for world peace. He was a main organizer of the International Peace Congress in 1848 which had an anti-militarist tone. This meeting took place in Brussels and adopted several resolutions against armaments and suggested imposing a ban upon loans for war purposes. More conferences followed in European cities every year until 1853. Burritt was one of the first to call for a worldwide general strike against the war – an idea that became widely popular with the international trade unions in the decades to follow and sections of the Socialist movement. The outbreak of the Crimean War in Europe and the American Civil War in the US disappointed both him and others, and he realized that the conferences, and call for universal brotherhood to replace wars with international arbitration, made little impact on the leaders of nations. Conscientious Objection equally had little impact on the North in the US or the Confederacy. However, within the abolitionist movement a number of activists and writers distinguished between the individual level and the societal level. An individual’s right to defend her or himself with all means available should not be confused with the use of organized war at the state level.

In London William Allen established the first Peace Society in 1816, and 1830 a peace society was established in Geneva, Switzerland. A key activity was to present alternatives to military solutions to conflicts. In 1840 the English Peace Society organized a competition for the best way to prevent war. The best proposals were printed and distributed. In 1842 William Jay (1769-1853) wrote a book in which he argued for international arbitration as a way for civilized countries to solve conflicts and replace wars. The next year he sent a request to forty-five governments and asked them to work for the establishment of bodies of international arbitration.  This same year the first international conference for world peace was held in London with only Anglo-Saxon participants. The focus was on educating young people about the evils of war.

In Germany, Franz Wirth (1826-1897) started the Frankfurter Friedensverein, with more than fifty local branches, and the pacifist group, Gesellschaft für Friedensfreunde, was created in1869.

The Austrian, Bertha von Suttner (1843-1906) became a leading figure in the peace movement with the publication of her novel, Die Waffen nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!) in 1889 and founded an Austrian pacifist organization in 1891. She gained international repute as editor of the international pacifist journal Die Waffen nieder!, named after her book. The journal was published from 1892 to 1899 and had a huge impact on the European peace movement. She spoke at large public gatherings against war preparations.

In Scandinavia, the Danish Justice Minister, Malte Bruun Nyegaard (1789-1877) argued strongly against universal conscription and a rise in military expenditure. The first Nordic organization to oppose wars and promote peace was founded after Denmark lost Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia in the war that ended 1864. It was first named the Association for Danish Neutrality, but later changed its name into The Danish Peace Union. Viggo Hørup was an important liberal anti-militarist who, in the public debate, argued strongly against militarism and fortification of the capital. Both in Denmark and Norway many escaped from military service by emigrating to USA, Canada, and Australia.

In Sweden, J.B. Westenius argued so strongly in favor of disarmament that he had to resign as editor of the newspaper Malmö Handels- og Sjöfarts-Tidning. On February 24th 1883 the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society (SPAS) was established in Stockholm. It remains the oldest traditional peace organization still working against militarism, and played a key role in prevention of war against secessionist Norway.

Whilst the peace societies can be seen as mainly reactions to the wars of the century they also foreshadowed later peace organizations; the focus was mainly on conferences, arbitration, education, and negotiations; yet they raised issues of arms, conscription, and of militarism in culture; including military training, and even children’s war toys and books.


Brock, P.  (1968) Radical Pacifists in Antebellum America. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Ceadel, M. (1996) The Origins of War Prevention: The British Peace Movement and International Relations, 1730-1854. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

George Douglas Howard Cole (2003)A History of Socialist Thought: Volume 2 and 3, London: Palgrave Macmillan

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

Friedrich, E. (1987) War Against War. London, Journeyman Press Ltd.

Tolstoy, L. (1987) Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence. Philadelphia, new society publishers.

Jørgen Johansen

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Posted in In English, Peace Research, Social Movements

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