Today is Armistice Day, or “Remembrance Day” in the UK: the day forever remembered as the day in 1918 when World War One came to an end, at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month. As far as WWI is concerned, I am grateful for only one thing: that the last of the veterans who fought in that war are no longer with us.
Soldiers, of course, cannot be blamed for the wars they fight in. We should grieve for every soldier who was killed or wounded in WWI, along with every widow and every orphan and every soldier who fought and survived and indeed every civilian who lived through and suffered from that war. Wars are terrible things and we do well to remember that and to keep alive the memory of that most terrible of wars.
But I am grateful that there are no more living veterans of World War One because that frees us all to speak the truth about that ‘Great War’; the ‘War to End All Wars’: it was fought for nothing. Millions upon millions of people dead, four years of unimaginable bloodshed and destruction, engulfing an entire continent…for nothing. Wars are very stupid things, and this war was the stupidest of them all: armies in holes and trenches, gunning each other down by the hundreds of thousands, day after day, in the vain attempt to gain a few feet of territory from each other. And after four years of carnage, everyone was more or less right back where they started.
Of course many, if not most, wars are just the same: a clash of egos or ideologies or national ‘pride’ that leaves a trail of death and destruction – and to what end? Normally the result is that the men of war finally sit down and negotiate some sort of agreement that ends the war – an agreement they could have just as easily sat down and negotiated without the war, were it not for the egos and ideologies and national pride that got in the way first…
That is why I am proud to call myself a ‘pacifist’. I believe war is a stupid and outmoded way of dealing with human affairs and the sooner we rid the world of the scourge of war the better. I am not an ‘absolute’ pacifist because I do not discount the possibility that wars are sometimes forced upon us and that I might find myself supporting, or even fighting, in such a war. But World War One was not a necessary evil, it was just plain evil. And the sooner we, collectively, acknowledge that fact and own up to the consequences of acknowledging that fact, the better.
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But what about World War Two? Personally, I believe WWII was a necessary evil, and I am sincerely and wholeheartedly grateful to all the soldiers who fought in that war to free the world from Fascism. And I am equally grateful to all the civilians who also suffered enormously and for all the sacrifices they also made on behalf of that particular war. Because while I still believe war is stupid, in fact WWII was a war again the ideology of war itself.
Fascism, and especially its Nazi branch, is an ideology of war: it glorifies war and can only survive by making war. It is an economy of war, a politics of war, an enculturation of war. For Hitler and his cronies, it was of course not just a war against the rest of Europe, it was a war against all Jews, against all Slavs, all gays, all disabled people and many other categories of their own people.
Let’s be quite clear, Hitler and Naziism could have been stopped without a world war. There were many occasions in the lead up to World War Two when the German people could have said no and they didn’t, and there is much to learn from that, not just for Germans but for all of us. But once the malignant tumour had taken control and its poison had begun to spread and blood was already being spilt: once the Nazi war machine was up and running, what else could have stopped it at that point, except war itself?
It is a foolish and unnecessary trap that ‘absolute’ pacifists fall into all the time when they are asked: “Well, what about Hitler then? What would you have done, just let him carry on killing the Jews and conquering the whole of Europe, if not the world?” The right answer to that question can only be “of course not!” but it does not fall easily off the tongue of an ‘absolute’ pacifist because in this case it is hard to imagine what the alternative to war would be.
Of course there were opposition and underground movements all over Europe and even in Germany, secretly rescuing Jews, undermining Nazi rule and fighting back nonviolently. There is also much to learn from these experiences and we now know that many a dictator and seemingly impervious regime has fallen purely through the nonviolent resistance of the people without a shot being fired. We know it can be done!
But in the case of Nazi Germany, let’s be honest with ourselves: by 1939 it was already far too late for any kind of nonviolent resistance to have stopped Hitler and his war machine. The ‘appeasement’ policy of Neville Chamberlain is to be rightly condemned as an inadequate response to an ideology of war. To rid the world of this hateful ideology, the world had to fight back and it had to use that necessary evil to do it: war.
That is why I am grateful today to all the service men and women who fought against Fascism in World War Two. I am grateful I do not live under a fascist dictatorship. I am grateful that millions more Jews and other non-acceptables have not been murdered by a state machinery of death that was halted in its tracks in 1945. I am grateful that the Fascist ideology and machinery of war were conclusively defeated by the forces of democracy, tolerance and global solidarity. The world is a far better place because of the sacrifices of those who fought and died in WWII, so thank you, thank you, thank you!
My final plea to all those who survived WWII and are with us today as we remember the fallen: in your gratitude for those who saved us from Fascism, please do not allow a new kind of Fascism to take root in the world: a Fascism that starts with the belief that war is the answer to everything and must always be supported, no matter what…
Tim Wallis, 11 November 2012