Page 5, 1st September 1989

1st September 1989
Page 5
Page 5, 1st September 1989 — 1939 — a conscientious objector's

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Locations: Sheffield


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1939 — a conscientious objector's

recollections of a world war

Sir Roy Shaw, former general secretary of the Arts Council, recalls his role and thoughts

Sir Roy Shaw

in 1939

IT is inevitable and right that on the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the second World War we should read, hear on radio, and see on TV many accounts by those who fought in the war. I hope it may also be useful to offer the recollections of one who did not fight.

It is good that we recall 1939, for as a philosopher has reminded us, those who do not remember the past are condemned to re-live it. I am not a historian and what follows is largely the thoughts of someone who was 21 in 1939, had been pacifist since he was 17, and was of no religious persuasion. Only ten years after the war did I become a Catholic.

Why were so many of us reluctant to believe the full truth about the Nazi terror?

Some who should have known better, thought Nazism less of an evil than communism. For Catholics, the Spanish Civil War of the mid-30s encouraged this attitude. For me, and my pacifist friends, most of the information we did see could, we felt, be dismissed as "mere propaganda". We had Arthur Ponsonby's Falsehood in Wartime, a book which described the monstrous lies about German brutality in the 1914 war, fabricated by our propaganda.

Some years after the 1939 war, I lectured about propaganda, learning in the process that the very word came from the name of a Vatican committee, the "Congregatio de propaganda fide". 1 then read, for the first time, Hitler's own credo, the notorious Mein Kampf — My Struggle. There, he explained how he proposed to use propaganda to conquer the minds of the masses. He said he had learned from two models: British propaganda in the first World War and the techniques used by commercial advertisers to sell goods.

"To win the sympathy of the masses," he wrote, "you must tell them the simplest and crudest things". So he and his infamous Propaganda Minister, Dr Goebbels, bombarded the German people with slogans or posters or banners hung across the streets. One of the crudest, used after his concordat with the Vatican was dead, proclaimed: 'The Pope is a Jew. And a 1-cerriason".

Only after the war did I realise that exactly the same technique was being used in posters at home saying "Guinness is good for you". No facts, no reasons, just a simple message hammered home by constant repetition.

Alas, it worked, and still works. For me, as a student of the media, one of the most ominous aspects of our democracy is that since the 1950s, techniques similar to those used by Nazi propaganda and commercial advertisers have been used in both Britain and America to "sell" politicians and their policies, as if they were soap powder. Richard Nixon started it, Mrs Thatcher continues it, and Neil Kinnock's use of it is limited not so much by scruples as by lack of cash.

If the Nazi regime was, as Churchill described it after the war, "a dictatorship based on terror and reeking with blood", surely the last war was a just one, if ever there was one? It cost millions of lives, but it is arguable that it was the only way of avoiding a Nazi-fled Europe, including Britain.

Why, then, did some of us conscientiously object to fighting? I have mentioned one bad reason: that we had not taken the full measure of the Nazi evil. It is little consolation now to know that we had distinguished companions in our ignorance. Even Hilaire Belloc, a leading Catholic writer, and anything but a pacifist, greeted the plausible news of one atrocity in 1938 with some scepticism. Before facing that question head on, let me digress by describing the experience of those who were called up during the war and were "conscientious objectors" to military service.

Most of us had never heard of the "just war" criteria. War was totally repellant to our consciences, and we were therefore pacifists. After all, even Winston Churchill had written years earlier that war, which was once "cruel and magnificent", had now become "cruel and squalid". He changed his mind, of course, but some of its still found war morally "squalid", and I'm ashamed to recall that we often felt very self-righteous about it.

Most of us had signed the Peace Pledge formulated in 1934 by the Revd Dick Sheppard. It said "I renounce war, and never again, directly or indirectly, will 1 support or sanction another". That is, we declared ourselves to be conscientious objectors — "go's" for short.

Most of us objected on moral grounds, but a small minority were political objectors to what they saw as a capitalist war. This included communists, after all, there was a non-aggression pact between the Nazis and Stalin. Unfortuntely for them, Hitler changed his mind and eventually attacked Russia. So most communists did a somersault: for them the war had become a just one overnight.

We moral objectors felt superior to the merely political objectors, but the elite co's were the religious ones, whose moral judgement was backed by faith.

The Quakers ("Friends") were the most respected co's, for their sect, though small, combined a traditional pacifism with humanitarian service, as in the Friends' Ambulance Unit. An analysis of co's in the South West between 1940 and 1942 showed the following religious affiliations: Methodists 662; Church of England 531; Friends 302; Congregationalists 143; Roman Catholic 64.

Why Catholics came at the bottom of the list I do not know. Remember, I was not then Catholic myself, my sympathies were much nearer the Friends.

The figures came from the reports of tribunals set up to assess by a quasi-judicial process the sincerity of those who professed conscientious objection. If they were judged to be cowards or dodgers, they could be sent to prison or forcibly drafted into military service. Others could be directed to noncombatant service — in the Army Medical Corps, for example. A few were given unconditional exemption for military service, and 1 was fortunate enough to be one of these.

At the time, I was a junior assistant in a public library in Sheffield and when I was asked, rather sarcastically, by a tribunal member, if 1 thought you could fight Hitler with books, I had no hesitation in saying "yes". It sounded very naive at the time, but when, after the war, the United National Educational and Scientific Organisation was founded, it declared that wars began in the minds of men and it was there that they should be resisted.

Obviously, the tribunals had a very difficult task, but in general, they strove to carry it out fairly. It is a tribute to British law and decency that they existed at all. They did not in Germany and they still do not in many countries, such as South Africa. However, the number oleo's was small — about two per cent of those called up. So we hardly endangered the war effort. Would we have been so well treated if the proportion had been 20 per cent?

As it was, public opinion was (understandably, I now think) not very favourable to co's and they were often deregatorily called "conchies". Many were sacked or suspended by local authorities, but in Sheffield this did not happen. What did happen was that the Chief Librarian called me into his office and told me that if he had his way, people like me would be put up against a wall and shot. Since he could not do that, he made life very difficult for me in other ways.

This is not the place to describe them and although I felt something of a pacifist martyr at the time, I am now very well aware that my situation was a cushy one compared with that of my contemporaries who conscientiously went into the forces. Although I lived through the blitz in Sheffield, which was an armaments' centre, they ran a vastly greater risk of being killed or maimed.

Moreover, when Churchill became Prime Minister, he declared that victimisation of co's was "odious to the British people". Certainly, well known pacifists like Benjamin Brittan were allowed to continue their artistic vocations, though Michael Tippet had -to spend some time in gaol.

I have said I was a non-religious "moral" objector, but of course I had been much influenced by Christian arguments. After all, we used to say, as most nonChristians still do, that we accepted Christian ethics, if not Christian dogmas. 1 now take the view that it is very difficult to practise Christian ethics without Christian beliefs, especially those moral injunctions to resist not evil and to love your enemies.

In his history of the 1939 war, Winston Churchill felt moved to spell out some moral principles which he thought might be useful in future. Surprisingly, he begins by saying: "Religion and virtue alike lend their sanctions to meekness and humility, not only between men but between nations". Sounding strangely like a pacifist, he continues: "The Sermon on the Mount is the last word in Christian ethics", but alas, he ends by saying that you cannot conduct national defence on the basis of that sermon, so in the last resort, force is inevitable. Churchill was, of course, a politician not a moral theologian, but those few lines embody a self-contradiction that is common enough among Christians. First, he affirms that religion gives sanctions for relations "not only between men but between nations," and then he says that the Sermon on the Mount is very fine, but no basis for international relations. I cling to the belief that Christ means continued on page 9

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