So fighting on the streets of Petrograd and Moscow has been going on for ten days, but now it’s dying down. Revolutionary troops have dominated street battles against anti-Bolshevik elements and halted an attempt to retake the capital by Kerenski, who has just gone into hiding prior to fleeing the country, initially to France. Lenin and the Bolsheviks are consolidating power at the centre, and although Russia’s withdrawal from the Great War is still officially pending, the whole world knows it’s coming soon. Informed observers everywhere are also aware that civil war is brewing in Russia, but for now pacifism is having its day. That begs a question: what exactly did people mean by pacifism in 1917?
The answer is less simple than it might appear to a modern mind familiar with pacifism as a general opposition to war itself, if not to violence of any sort. This ideological position, named for the duration as conscientious objection, was recognised when the First World War began and took two basic forms. Those objectors unwilling to bear arms but prepared to serve were usually given non-combatant roles, often as medical orderlies, cooks or labourers, while ‘absolute’ conscientious objectors – those refusing to play any part in war – were sent straight to prison in most belligerent countries. A few thousand British and US absolute objectors passed stringent tests to gain official exemption from conscription (when it came), usually those able to prove long-term membership of religiously pacifist organisations like the Society of Friends, but they often suffered discrimination and ridicule in their local communities, especially in Britain.
By 1914, another definition of pacifism described the body of opinion, far more numerically and politically significant, that opposed the militarism and aggressive nationalism associated with the pre-war ‘great powers’. In this sense the revolutionary wing of the socialist Second International, which rejected war between workers as a form of capitalist oppression, was pacifist, as were liberal ‘isolationists’ in the United States, who regarded any extension of statecraft into military aggression as morally wrong.
The War’s progress expanded a new and particular form of what was called pacifism by both its adherents and its ‘patriotic’ opponents: a simple preference for peace over ‘war to the end’. Bringing together religious organisations like the Papacy, which sought to end what it saw as senseless carnage, and revolutionary socialists (like the Bolsheviks) preaching ‘defeatism’ as a way to hasten the fall of capitalist regimes, along with politicians and agitators in favour of a compromise settlement in all the countries at war, this was always a broad church.
Pacifism of this type was also difficult to quantify. Universally surprised and relieved by popular enthusiasm for war in 1914, belligerent governments constantly expected it to evaporate, a paranoia that existed to different degrees in different regimes, but that grew stronger everywhere as the conflict dragged on. Factor in the psychological need to find scapegoats for a long list of unexpected military failures (on all sides) and it’s easy to see why wartime governments and their supporters at all levels of society saw disruptive, dangerous pacifism everywhere.
The bitter course of 1917 had brought deepening popular war weariness in Europe, loud calls for peace from across the international pacifist spectrum, a long list of military failures on both sides that could be blamed on pacifists and, most alarmingly from the viewpoint of belligerent governments, shocking proof in Russia that pacifism could bring down an empire. Public debate between pacifists and diehards, always a feature of every wartime home front, intensified everywhere throughout the year and was often acrimonious stuff, but it kicked off in France with a fury unmatched outside greater Russia.
The bloodletting of Verdun, the catastrophic failure of the Nivelle Offensive and the mass mutiny that followed brought a collective howl of outrage and bewilderment from a French body politic long polarised between those on the left in favour of a compromise peace and a right wing committed to total victory, or ‘war to the end’ (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front). Conservative press and politicians had no trouble finding scapegoats for the disasters of the spring, and a hunt for spies and pacifist agitators, real or imagined, had come to dominate French political life by the summer.
Interior minister Louis Malvy, a liberal regarded by the right as soft on dissent and therefore potentially treasonous, was forced out of office at the end of August after being (mildly) implicated in a scandal surrounding German funding of a small pacifist magazine, Le Bonnet Rouge. His left-of-centre Radical Party supporters promptly deserted the centrist government of Alexandre Ribot, leaving it isolated and under attack from both sides of the political divide until its resignation on 7 September.
President Poincaré, the one constant at the heart of French wartime politics, stuck with his overriding principle of national coalition to appoint another centrist administration under Ribot’s war minister, the relatively inexperienced Paul Painlevé. Painlevé’s main qualification for the job was his well-known opposition to the Nivelle folly, but he attracted no more support from left or right than his predecessor and only lasted a couple of months, resigning on 13 November.
Poincaré now had no choice but to get off the fence and appoint a government representing one side or the other. On 15 November 1917, with shockwaves reverberating across Europe as the Bolsheviks showed pacifism’s teeth, he handed power to a veteran politician who was ‘war to the end’ personified, Georges Clemenceau.
Already in his mid-seventies, Clemenceau had been a powerful and very lively figure within the Radical Party until he embarked upon a noisy semi-retirement from 1909. As a senator in the upper house and editor of his own magazine, L’Homme Libre, he was a strident voice for military preparedness before August 1914, and when war came he turned down the Viviani government’s offer of the justice ministry to carry on sniping from the sidelines.
The Tiger, as he liked to be known, became the most belligerent of all the many critics attacking successive wartime French governments. Changing the name of his magazine to L’Homme Enchainé in protest at state censorship, he delivered scathing attacks against the dominance of Joffre’s military command and against bureaucratic inefficiency, while keeping up a stream of complaints about the spread of pacifist agitation. He had accused Malvy of being a closet pacifist, and had led calls for state suppression of internal unrest in the aftermath of the Nivelle Offensive. His call to the office of prime minister was an invitation to act the strongman in pursuit of total victory, and he played the role to the hilt.
Clemenceau immediately clamped down all dissent, closing pacifist publications, arresting some 1,700 ‘defeatists’ and putting several of the most prominent on trial for treason. He dealt with political division by simply excluding all opponents from the government, and slowed the surge of strikes that was in danger of paralysing the economy with a combination of threats and wage rises. He was equally forceful with the military. Working to counteract c-in-c Pétain’s acceptance of the Army’s relatively passive role on the Western Front, he influenced the appointment of the more aggressive Foch as Allied supreme commander in 1918 and insisted that exhausted French forces go onto the attack during the War’s last battles.
All in all, Clemenceau behaved like a right-wing dictator for the rest of the War, and he would go on to play a major part in turning post-War peace negotiations into an unmitigated disaster that shaped the rest of the century. Then again, Clemenceau proved to be exactly what the French Third Republic needed to get it through the War intact. Arriving at the head of a society divided to the point of paralysis, and at the very moment when socialist revolution was claiming its first major empire, his single-minded aggression produced an effect that the British would later call Churchillian.
Clemenceau is well remembered in France, broadly speaking celebrated by the right and abhorred by the left in a country still fondly attached to twentieth-century political divides, but like many of the conflict’s most important political figures his wartime contribution gets very little international attention today. I’m not here to judge Clemenceau, any more than I’d attempt to judge Churchill or De Gaulle for the dubious nature of their wartime heroics, but while we’re commemorating the icons that Lenin and Trotsky became, spare a thought for what might have happened to Western Europe if France hadn’t been tamed by the Tiger.