The Search for Peace During World War One:
by Neil Hollander
A hundred years ago, just after the First World War began, the Danish
anti-war film, Lay Down Your Arms, had its world premiere in New York.
The film was faithfully based on a novel by Bertha von Süttner, who
was, at the time, one of the most famous women in the world. She had
been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905 and her anti-war book had
been published in 16 languages. It had gone through more than 40
editions and millions of people had read it.
In this the centennial year of the beginning of the First World War
there has been, as one might expect, a wave of new books. According to
my very inaccurate calculations, there are nearly a thousand new ones
on the shelves. Few mention Bertha von Süttner, her novel or her film
with its ominous and tragic plea, Lay Down Your Arms.
As one might predict, the vast majority of these new books focus on
the war itself, how it was fought, battle by battle, day by day, who
did the fighting and the dying, and who took the laurels. Almost every
author includes a descent into a graphic description of the sordid
life in the trenches, the wounded on the wire, the horrors of poison
gas, and the mechanization of warfare.
But do we really need to re-visit these blood-soaked battlefields yet
again? Haven’t we overlooked the fact that the avowed purpose of the
so called ‘Great War’ was to make peace. The fighting, the
battles, that is, the means, have totally obscured the end. Also
typically forgotten in the blitz of scholarship is that the whole
bitter conflict should have been, and could have been, avoided in the
Another bit of marginalized history is the fact that while men were
killing each other en masse, other men and women were valiantly trying
to find a way to end the conflict. Each belligerent country had their
share of peacemakers: princes, presidents, popes, prime ministers,
pashas and private citizens. Some of their schemes were impossibly
complicated, others deceptively simple. Dozens nearly worked.
For example, a Canadian school teacher, Julia Grace Wales, devised a
plan for “continuous mediation without armistice” that offered
peace without victory. In essence, the neutral nations of the world
would solve the conflict. Henry Ford backed the scheme and so did
several Scandinavian countries.
Meanwhile, Basil Zaharoff, the arms dealer and prototype “merchant
of death,” secretly shuttled between European capitals and neutral
Switzerland using his military contacts, especially with Turkey. He
nearly produced a separate truce with the Ottoman Empire.
And on Christmas Day 1914 on the western front at least 100,000
war-weary soldiers, men and officers, climbed out of their trenches
and met in no-man’s-land. They voted for peace with their feet and
their hearts. No other modern war has witnessed such a poignant
demonstration in favor of ending a conflict. The soldiers exchanged
tokens of good will, sang carols together and forged their own
ceasefires, many of which lasted for months.
But in the end the many cries for peace were drowned out by the cannon
fire, proof that generals can shout louder than peacemakers. The war
went on, year after year, until both sides were thoroughly exhausted
and had no choice but to lay down their arms.
Now, looking back at the hundred years that separate us from the
beginning of the First World War, it is hard to find a moment without
an armed conflict between nations, or a rebellion, or a revolution, or
a colonial conflict. Death, dying and destruction have been the
dominant themes on the world’s front pages. We probably know more
about the many tools of killing, the arms, the tanks, the planes, the
ships, the missiles and atomic weapons, and their effects than any
other single subject.
What does this obvious pre-occupation with armed conflict say about
us, and the society in which we live? Is it the clear message that we
have become so fascinated with the art of killing that, like starved
vultures, we spiral from one conflict to the next constantly feasting
on the same fare, the dead, the dying, the fate of the refugees…
Regrettably it seems that we obviously haven’t changed very much
since The Great War. It is a rather dismal and pessimistic legacy we
pass on to the next generation. We are still giving the generals
ribbons and statues, and hagiographing their deeds in school
textbooks, while those who seek to end the conflict by dialogue,
conciliation and mediation are usually buried in footnotes.
As the world becomes increasingly threatened by balkanization and the
redefinition of borders, there is an ever-growing need for
peacemakers. Perhaps today’s men and women of conscience should
realize that many of the problems they are facing today were also
confronted by those who sought to end the First World War. Perhaps if
we all ponder why they failed, maybe the next time we shall succeed.
* * *
Neil Hollander is the author of Elusive Dove, The Search for Peace
during World War I published by McFarland in the USA.