Existential Crises and Mass Movements

by Cormac Kelly

Armistice Day celebrations in Birmingham, November 1918. Imperial War Museums

The release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment is the latest reminder that humanity is in the midst of an existential crisis. Built upon 14,000 scientific papers, the 3,949-page report warned that global temperatures will rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius, leading to mass droughts, sea level rise, and worsening heat. There will be further increases to global temperature if carbon emissions are not curtailed. Although the majority of people globally believe climate change will harm future generations and see it as a high government priority, the response from those in positions to make substantive change can only be described as supine. Organizations campaigning for climate action remain disunited and miniscule. We face an unparalleled crisis of our own making.

But there are elements of our time which feel like echoes of the Interwar period. Between 1919 and 1935, a pandemic swept the globe, and liberal democracies faced threats from rising authoritarianism. Most importantly, many countries faced their own existential crisis: the threat of extinction from war and societal breakdown. There are significant differences between this phenomenon and climate change. The latter is a certainty confirmed by hard science. The crisis of civilization between the wars was widely prophesied by the intelligentsia and commentators of the time, but  was always a speculative prediction, a theory of what was to come. And yet it was widely considered a possibility that another world war would precipitate the collapse of civilization. In response, the United States retreated into isolation. Great Britain, on the other hand, saw a mass movement of unprecedented size to address the predicted crisis. 

Herein lies a useful parallel for today. While the interwar crisis was far more abstract than the certitude of ecological catastrophe, the movement which sprang up to address it in Britain  brought pressure to bear on politicians and those with the power to make change. The hundreds of thousands of men and women who made up the peace movement transcended class and partisan lines to address a crisis they believed threatened themselves and future generations. “History,” writes the historian Marc Bloch, “is an endeavor toward better understanding.” The crisis we face today plays out in a different time with a contrasting media, political, and social landscape. But by examining Britain’s interwar peace movement, we gain an example of how and why people in the past addressed an existential crisis and, in doing so, learn ways to confront our own. 

World Climate March in London, November 29, 2015. Photo by Garry Knight

In the minds of most Britons, Europe was the epicenter of civilized modernity. And yet during the First World War, supposedly civilized people killed each other on an unparalleled scale. The conflict revealed the fragility of humanity’s survival. During the years that followed the Armistice, Britain was gripped by the fear of civilizational collapse. In a society where the printed word was the best means of spreading ideas, the fate of Western civilization proved a publishing phenomenon. Books entitled Will Civilization Crash?, Can We Save Civilization?, and The Salvaging of Civilization graced the shelves of British booksellers. So oversaturated was the genre that the political theorist Leonard Woolf entitled his book on the subject Quack Quack in the hope it would stand out. 

History is replete with prophets of doom. What made the Interwar period distinct was the abundance of these jeremiahs and the size of their audiences. As the historian Richard Overy notes, leading scientists, writers, and politicians could be found sharing their views on the fate of civilization, “not just in bookshops or on the radio, but in front of audiences from literary and philosophical societies, university clubs, women’s guilds, the organizations for workers’ education, and church congregations.” Across class and partisan lines there was a realization of, as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin described it in 1923, “how thin is the crust of civilisation on which this generation is walking.” Far from being a top-down phenomenon, in which writers and academics stocked the fear of civilizational collapse in the public consciousness, intellectuals and writers were following public demand. The masses sustained the avalanche of books on civilizational decline and the necessity of fostering world peace. A useful example was Vera Brittain’s 1933 memoir Testament of Youth. A veteran nurse in the First World War and ardent peace activist throughout the Interwar period, Brittain sold 100,000 copies of her book at a time when five thousand was considered a great success. 

Fear of how another war would impact Britain was simultaneously fueled by the memory of the First World War and the dire predictions of future conflicts. 750,000 British were killed in the First World War, among them Vera Brittain’s fiance, brother and two of her closest friends. “Never again” became a common British catchphrase. Yet above all, the profound psychological impact of the air raids on Britain during the First World War begat widespread speculation of the airplane’s destructive power. In the 1920s, Britain’s Committee of Imperial Defense estimated that an enemy air force would drop 300  tons of bombs on London in the first two days of a war, killing 70,000 Londoners in the first six months. J.F.C. Fuller, Britain’s foremost military strategist, claimed in a bestselling book that the immense casualties would only be the start of the catastrophe: “London for several days will be one vast raving Bedlam, the hospitals will be stormed, traffic will cease, the homeless will shriek for help, the city will be pandemonium. What of the government in Westminster? They will be swept away by an avalanche of terror.” From such speculation sprang concrete fear of humanity’s destructive power, which fed more abstract fears that Western civilization was on the brink of suicide. Many interwar Britons thus took up the challenge, eloquently elaborated by Vera Brittain, “to surmount its own ‘impulse towards death’, or vanish with all man’s works in an orgy of annihilation.” 

A doctor and nurse treating a wounded soldier. Wellcome Collection

Although there was a broad consensus about the need for peace, it was left to the various peace organizations to pressure the governments of the day. Britain’s peace movement from 1919 to 1935 was as variegated as it was large. General groups like the Peace Society and National Peace Council organized mass demonstrations. Leftwing groups like the ​​No More War Movement, British Anti-War Movement, and Union of Democratic Control synthesized their anti-war views with a critique of capitalism. Internationalists like the League of Nations Union and Women’s International League advocated a more open foriegn policy within the newly created League of Nations. Christian groups like the Society of Friends, Sheppard Peace Movement, Fellowship of Reconciliation, and Council of Christian Pacifist Groups evangelized an interpretation of Christianity best summed up by a resolution of the Anglican Church’s 1930 Lambeth Conference: “War as a method of settling international disputes is incompatible with the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Varied though these groups were, what made them successful was their flair for channeling public fear into substantive action. In a pre-digital age, peace organizations proved remarkably adept at regularly rallying massive crowds and petitions. Across Britain, tens of thousands marched annually in peace demonstrations on the anniversary of the Armistice. Peace groups regularly packed Royal Albert Hall, London’s premier concert venue. By virtue of their popularity, politicians and prominent figures addressed these mass meetings. On February 2, 1932, Cosmo Lang, the head of the Church of England, presided over a peace meeting attended by 10,000 people. The Labour MP Arthur Ponsonby asked people to write him letters he could present to the Prime Minister promising to “refuse to support or render war service to any Government which resorts to arms.” He received 128,770 in two years. A similar effort by the popular Anglican minister H.R.L. Sheppard proved even more effective. Sheppard published a letter in several national newspapers asking men to send him letters renouncing war. He was inundated with fifty thousand in the first month. 

The peace movement’s ability to impact public opinion was enabled by a media landscape vastly different from our own. Although there were partisan national newspapers, it was difficult to maintain an echo chamber. Even if one had a subscription to the Daily Mail, whose owner Lord Rothermere was staunchly opposed to the peace movement, it was difficult to not come into contact with peace activists. Their regular demonstrations made them hard to avoid. It was customary to see members of the local branch selling the latest pamphlet or one of the many peace movement journals with inspiring titles like Headway or The New World. 

In the 1930s, 95% of Britons had access to at least one BBC radio station. The BBC, as a state-run organization, played to the political center, and in doing so covered  popular groups like the peace movement. On several occasions, peace rallies at large venues were broadcast live on the BBC. This, however, highlighted a class disparity. While the League of Nations Union, which had many prominent members from the intelligentsia, could command national press attention, smaller, more radical groups like the socialist pacifist No More War Movement could not. 

British soldiers arriving in a village during World War I, January 1918. National Library of Scotland

While there were clear ideological disagreements between Britain’s interwar peace organizations, they refused to engage in public spats. Their leaders maintained the facade of unity through delicate private conversations in person or by letter. This deprived those who opposed the peace movement of disunity which they could exploit. When the League of Nations Union undertook a massive poll of the electorate to gauge support for internationalism, its leaders wrote and received assurances from the other peace groups who did not support the League that they would not hamper the Union’s effort. 

The League of Nations Union was by far the largest and most effective of the peace organizations. It had two aims: securing the British people’s support for the League of Nations and pressuring politicians into a more internationalist foreign policy. At its peak, the Union had 406,868 members spread across 3,040 local branches. “In a democratic age,” said one of its leaders, “everything depends on public opinion.” The organization proved adept at spreading its propaganda, extolling internationalism and disarmament far beyond its membership. Their hundreds of pamphlets and books were further disseminated through religious, educational, and industrial groups with which they had working relationships. Vera Brittain was one of their over 100 regular speakers, preaching internationalism four times a week across the Midlands, London, and southern England. 

The Union’s most famed achievement was what is now known as the Peace Ballot. With the help of half a million volunteers, the Union canvassed the country to measure public support for the League of Nations, disarmament, the abolition of military aircraft, and economic sanctions. It is a testament to the groundswell of public support for international peace that over 11,600,000 people, more than a third of the British electorate, voted in the Peace Ballot. 95.9% said they supported the League of Nations and 90.6% expressed support for disarmament by international agreement. While these percentages were not representative of the entirety of the electorate—the number of people who voted in the Peace Ballot accounted for 55% of the voters in the 1935 general election—it spoke to a sizable faction in Britain willing to support the measures they believed ensured peace. 

Efforts were made to foster youth involvement in peace efforts. Most organizations ran multi-week summer camps. With the support of teacher’s associations, peace organizations—the League of Nations Union among them—created lesson plans for schools. There was a broadly popular effort in teaching to make British history more than a litany of battles and kings. Lesson plans urged teachers to utilize world maps to emphasize the idea Britain was a part of a global community, avoid jingoism, not shy away from the harsh realities of the First World War, ensure students understood how the League of Nations worked, and stress the importance of political engagement. Several peace organizations ran seminars to train teachers for these lessons.

A German prisoner helps British wounded make their way to a dressing station near Bernafay Wood following fighting on Bazentin Ridge, July 19, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. Imperial War Museums

If there was a single industry considered to be hindering the cause of peace, it was the arms industry. The Peace Ballot showed 90.1% support for prohibition by international agreement of private profit from arms sales. A concerted effort to pressure the arms industry brought together Labour, Liberals, and peace organizations. Books entitled Merchants of Death and The Bloody Traffic helped direct popular fervor at British weapon manufacturers. The Labour Research Department produced Who’s Who in Arms, a directory of arms manufacturers and their shareholders. The campaigns proved effective. When touring an arms manufactory for his bestselling 1933 peace book Cry Havoc!, the writer Beverley Nichols recorded the quote of a foreman describing the factory: “things are so quiet now.”

The groundswell of popular support for the peace movement ensured government action. For much of the interwar era, politicians knew that taking a pro-militarist stance could place them in jeopardy. The League of Nations Union sent Parliamentary candidates questionnaires to determine where they stood on the League of Nations. Responses were publicized. Every prime minister of the period was a member of a peace organization. Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Stanley Baldwin, and Neville Chamberlain all attended League of Nations Union meetings, as did more than half of the members of Parliament in the early 1930s.  Each of those prime ministers, even after leaving office, gave speeches at Union rallies. Ramsay MacDonald, the only interwar prime minister not in the Union, was a member of the much smaller Peace Society. 15 members of MacDonald’s first Labour government were members of the Union of Democratic Control. Perhaps the most succinct expression of the widespread public support for peace measures came from Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin who, reflecting on why Britain did not expand its armaments and take on a more aggressive foreign policy in the early 1930s, explained, “I cannot think of anything that would have made the loss of the election from my point of view more certain.” 

We know how the Interwar period ended: by forces beyond the peace movement’s control. Nazi Germany disrupted the peace until Britain had no option but to take action. By then, the British people had shifted their views of war. From 1936 onwards, the necessity to avoid another war because it would destroy civilization and cause a descent into barbarism morphed into the need to oppose Nazism to save civilization from “this new barbarism,” as the journalist and peace activist Storm Jameson described it. Much of the peace movement, including the League of Nations Union, followed that trajectory. The fact that the Second World War occurred does not detract from the astounding power and popularity of Britain’s peace movement. Aware that they lived at a crucial time in history, when their actions could decide the fate of generations to come, Britain’s peace activists aimed at directing the widespread fear of civilizational collapse into pressure on the government and arms industry. 

Which brings us to today. Like in interwar Britain, there is a widespread understanding that we face an existential crisis. Climate change, however, is a scientific certainty. The technology at our disposal today makes it far easier to organize a mass movement than in the 1920s or 1930s. And yet the movements which have sprung up to pressure those able to make changes are relatively small. The political right oscillates between denying there is a crisis and refusing to take action against unfettered capitalism. The various factions of the political left negate their power by overly focusing on the culture wars and fighting each other over ideological purity. Superficial change is the order of the day. To combat climate change, plastic straws are banned, an action equivalent to putting a Band-Aid on a severed limb. Far less seems to bring us together today. We lack a sense of community, of shared experience. We are now an image-based, screen-based culture, easily distracted and easily pacified. 

Kids Climate March, Minnesota March for Science. Photo by Lorie Shaull

Confronted by these realities it is easy to withdraw into fatalism, to become like the veteran suffragette and peace activist Helena Swanwick. Two months after the beginning of the Second World War, Swanwick sat down at her home and wrote that she could not endure the pain of another world war and thus “the best thing to do was to remove myself from the world.” She then committed suicide. We are at risk of following Swanwick, overwhelmed by despair, “black-pilled” in modern internet parlance, resigned, and thus doing nothing. 

For a historian, this is a fascinating time to be alive. We can see the world changing. Like the Interwar period, we live at a crucial time in history where our actions will decide the future for unborn generations. And for that very reason, it is difficult not to be haunted by foreboding today. We see the expanding crisis and what is not being done. 

Yet in history we find the answer to what is against us. Britain’s interwar peace movement provides an example of people who organized a mass movement against what they believed to be an existential crisis. The peace movement’s great achievement was directing public fears into concrete action. It was a large movement, with members from across the political spectrum. But it got as far as it did by resisting the urge to denigrate each other over ideological differences. Britain’s peace activists did not believe, as sadly too many do today, that one mass demonstration would bring immediate change. They created a variety of programs—literature, a bevy of dynamic speakers, educational programs, auxiliary organizations, mass demonstrations, petitions—all with the aim of building and sustaining a mass movement for a long and important fight. Public opinion was used like a weapon to push politicians to support their programs. As ordinary citizens organized against the arms industry and pressured politicians to support the cause of peace in a lengthy campaign of demonstrations, so can we direct our ire at polluters and politicians. 

Dark as the hour is today, we can look back at previous mass movements and find examples of how those who took on the powerful began their struggles. In his 1936 lecture on the epic poem Beowulf, the Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon J.R.R. Tolkien isolated for his audience the two virtues of Anglo-Saxon literature: “raw will and courage.” These qualities were as present in the peace activists of a century ago as they must be with those who fight to address climate change today. We can campaign for our future, waging a righteous struggle to save our species. In doing so, we find the antidote to civilizational collapse: a shared purpose which gives our lives meaning.  

Cormac Kelly writes about political movements in modern Britain and the United States. His articles have previously appeared in INTERZINE and Salon.

Comments (