This month, to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, we’re introducing a number of thinkers who had something to say about war and peace or who were influenced by their wartime experiences.
Best known in many circles as a result of his anti-war protests, Bertrand Russell’s
social activism started before the Great War and culminated in his founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament during the Cold War. In 1954, in one of his most celebrated talks broadcast by the BBC, Russell condemned the H-Bomb tests: ‘All, equally, are in peril, and if the peril is understood, there is hope that they may collectively avert it.’
Many other figures who lived through the First World War have made a significant contribution to pacifist thought and activism. Herbert Read
, poet, critic and philosopher of the arts, fought in France and Belgium and was awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order for his service. Yet he too espoused rebellious pacifist beliefs, giving vigorous support to movements such as Ban the Bomb and describing peace as the natural condition of humankind, war as the result of folly and pride.
Perhaps less well known is the Bostonian pacifist activist, Lucia Mead
, who worked alongside Jane Addams to co-found the Women’s Peace Party in 1915. A liberal feminist, she argued for pacifism from a humanistic perspective. She became an even stronger advocate for peace after the war, calling for US support of the effort to establish a world court and a league of nations. Mead devoted much of her life to educational initiatives, developing curricula for schools and churches to teach young people about peace.
If the First World War instilled in Russell, Read and Mead a need to improve the condition of humanity, it seemed to have a somewhat different effect on Russell's erstwhile fellow student Ludwig Wittgenstein
. Taken as a prisoner of war on the Italian front, Wittgenstein’s experiences turned his thoughts inward, resulting in early reflections on the conflict between man’s animalistic nature and the desire to achieve an authentic reasoning life.
It was while defending Pasinler in eastern Turkey against the Russians that Said Nursi
was also taken as a prisoner of war. After escaping his camp on the Volga and reaching Istanbul in 1918, Nursi withdrew into solitude and underwent a profound mental and spiritual transformation. In the autumn of 1922, he was invited to Ankara, given an official ceremony in the National Assembly, and invited to make a speech to congratulate war veterans and offer prayers.
, socialist, labor activist and one-time presidential candidate, was a very different kind of prisoner of war. After making a speech attacking the war in Ohio in 1918, he was incarcerated for 3 years for violating the Espionage Acts. His most important contribution to socialist thought concerned the relationship between capitalism and war.
Other figures, whose writings did not necessarily focus on war and peace, combined their study and application of philosophy with active participation in military affairs. Arthur Balfour
is well-known as an ex-prime minister who issued the controversial Balfour Declaration in 1917 which established a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. During some of his busiest years in politics, Balfour was known to leave the House of Commons during evening debates to join the philosophical society he helped to create.