Monday, November 14, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Four

“Experiences of a Pacifist in the First World War,” pages 26-31

As early as 1902 Russell dissented from a policy proposal that allied England with Russia and ensured a rift with Germany. He saw the damage to civilization that a great war would bring, and supported English neutrality. “Subsequent history has confirmed me in this opinion [p. 26].” He drafted, circulated, and published a petition favoring neutrality, but once war broke out, most of the signatories changed their stance. Russell noticed, and was surprised by, the significant public support for the war.

Russell regretted German battlefield successes, but he never had any doubt that he had to dissent against what then passed for English patriotism, by protesting the war. “I hardly supposed that much good would come of opposing the war, but I felt that for the honor of human nature those who were not swept off their feet should show that they stood firm [p. 28].” So speeches were delivered, and one gathering of pacifists at a church was attacked by an alcohol-fueled mob, where the courage of the women pacifists helped to limit the violence that was inflicted on everyone. Later, at the same church, the pulpit was burned before Russell could give a scheduled speech. “These were the only occasions on which I came across personal violence; all my other meetings were undisturbed [p. 29].”

Russell spent four and a half months in prison in 1918, with liberty to read and write, as long as he steered clear of pacifist propaganda. So he wrote and read steadily. “I found prison in many ways quite agreeable [p. 30].” The privilege to read and write only was extended to prisoners in the so-called first-division; Russell recognizes that for lower-division inmates, prison is an awful place.

After his release from prison, the end of the war was clearly on its way; nevertheless, the precise end of the war came quickly. When the armistice was announced at 11AM on November 11, Russell -- who had a few hours advance knowledge -- was in Tottenham Court Road. The shops emptied for revelry, and a man and a woman, unacquainted up to that point, kissed in the street. “The crowd rejoiced and I also rejoiced. But I remained as solitary as before [p. 31].”

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