War fever had swept Britain in August 1914, and many people took to the streets to celebrate going to war as if it was a kind of victory. Of course, few of these optimists could foresee what carnage awaited.
However, there were many who did oppose the war – when subscription was introduced in 1916 almost 750,000 men were exempted from combat duty on moral grounds. Many prominent intellectuals throughout Europe were also against the war. Here are eight famous people who voiced opposition.
1. Virginia Woolf
Author: She wrote that the war was ‘the end of civilization… Rendering the rest of our lives worthless.’ One of her most famous novels – Mrs Dalloway (1925) – features a First World War veteran named Septimus Warren Smith who suffers badly from shell shock.
2. Ramsay MacDonald
Leader of the Labour Opposition: Explicitly opposed the war after Edward Grey’s speech to the House of Commons on 3 August. He dismissed Grey’s appeal to the nation’s honour: ‘There has been no crime committed by statesmen of this character without those statesmen appealing to their nation’s honour. We fought the Crimean War because of honour. We rushed to South Africa because of honour.’
3. George Bernard Shaw
Playwright: Made his feelings clear in a lengthy treatise called ‘Common Sense About the War’ (1914):
‘The time has now come to pluck up courage and begin to talk and write soberly about the war. At first the mere horror of it stunned the more thoughtful of us; and even now only those who are not in actual contact with or bereaved relation to its heartbreaking wreckage can think sanely about it, or endure to hear others discuss it coolly.’
4. Bertrand Russell
Philosopher: In August he ‘discovered to my horror that average men and women were delighted at the prospect of war’. He was later prosecuted in June 1916 for an anti-conscription pamphlet, and finally imprisoned in 1918 for ‘insulting an ally’.
5. Albert Einstein
Physicist: Teamed with the physician Georg Friedrich Nicolai to be a signatory of a ‘Manifesto to the Europeans’, which was designed to oppose the pro war address ‘To the World of Culture’. However, the manifesto gained little support.
6. Sigmund Freud
Psychoanalyst: Initially supported the war, but later attacked ‘the warring state’ for ‘permit[ting] itself every such misdeed, every such act of violence, as would disgrace the individual man.’
7. E.M. Forster
Author: Part of the Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals (along with Woolf and Keynes) and was generally opposed – although he did not speak out in opposition. His views of the war were marked by uncertainty:
‘I did think that we should send no men to France, but support our Allies by the Navy only. Since then I have changed my mind. Since then, I have come round to my original opinion again, for the chances of a German Raid have certainly increased, and we should boot it out much quicker if we had reserved plenty of trained troops for the purpose.’
8. John Maynard Keynes
Economist: While he worked in the service of the British war economy for the duration of the conflict, Keynes privately held that the war was a mistake. In December 1917 he told Duncan Grant: ‘I work for a government I despise for ends I think criminal.’