- Against the Draft: Essays on Conscientious Objection from the Radical Reformation to the Second World War
The late Peter Brocks contributions to the history of the peace movement are without parallel. In addition to his many books, he found time to write and publish numerous articles, some of them requiring research in languages foreign to the English-born Canadian historian. Against the Draft reprints 25 of these essays, most of them based on obscure documents and publications. This book demolishes the notion that conscientious objection is a recent phenomenon limited to a few countries. Virtually all nation-states have imposed some form of military conscription. For members of religious sects that opposed participation in war, or any individual who shared those views, conscription frequently meant prison or even death. Legal alternatives to military service were limited and frequently ignored. This book describes the long, difficult struggle of war resisters since the sixteenth century, when early Anabaptists faced the issue.
It is not a book to read quickly. New information in every chapter leaves an overwhelming impact on the reader. Chapters on objectors in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, Seventh Day Adventists in the Civil War, and Nazarene objectors in Dualist Hungary suggest its broad scope. Several essays discuss the influence of Leo Tolstoy, who not only wrote about pacifism and corresponded with Gandhi, but contacted and supported Russian war resisters. Another tells of a tiny, nearly invisible minority of conscientious objectors in Japan, which produced the first Asian war resisters.
Even England’s liberal provisions for war resisters resulted in prison for some absolutists, including Peter Brock during World War II. A proposed ambulance unit to train Oxford and Cambridge graduates for wartime medical service never materialized, but a medical paratrooper unit provided opportunities for some war resisters to work on the battlefields. A chapter on prison samizdat—inmate-generated underground communications—describes ingenious ways that English resisters circulated an illegal newspaper written on toilet paper.
Many essays tell of Quaker resisters, but a few are of special interest to Friends. One records the 19th-century witness against war by a small Quaker minority in Norway. Another describes Stephen Hobhouses co-authorship of a massive report on the British prison system that helped reform that system. The fate of 18th-century English Quakers who were impressed into the British navy forms another chapter.
Among despotic governments, Germany stands out for its persecution of war [End Page 53] resisters. German objectors in World War I were confined in psychiatric hospitals and some were executed. Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses was appalling, executing three hundred in Germany and Austria for refusing service in the German army.
The long, depressing story of war resistance since the Reformation might discourage modern objectors. Yet it is a significant part of nonviolence that should not remain invisible. It is a hopeful story, detailing acts of extreme courage and persistence in the face of cruel oppression.