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Neutrality (The Great War #AtoZChallenge 2021)

N (AtoZ Challenge 2021)

Neutrality in WWI is a complex matter. Nations that managed to remain neutral did so not only because of their choices but also belligerent states had the interest to keep them neutral. 

The state of neutrality is as ancient as war, but during WWI, the concept of neutrality was shaped by the international system put in place during the long, peaceful 1800s. 
During that century, nations, great and small, agreed on adhering to international legal statutes that bound them to behave in a certain way. This system allowed Europe to create global political stability by limiting the scale and scope of wars – both inside and outside the continent. In this way, they protected an increasingly vital connection between the European states and their imperial territories, which were becoming their main market as well as their suppliers. 

The Great War - Neutrality - Neutrality in WWI is a complex matter. Nations that managed to remain neutral did so not only because of their choices but also belligerent states had the interest to keep them neutral.

The ‘totalising logic’ of WWI shattered this balance. When diplomacy tripped in summer 1914, it was precisely this system that collapsed. The war engulfed states across the globe that – without the protection of the European system – could not remain neutral, even when the war wasn’t an opportunity for them. Besides, belligerent states often breached neutral borders when they thought it was the right move for them. 
It was always a state of balance. 

Some neutrals managed to remain so throughout the war because all belligerent nations saw a practical purpose in protecting a certain state’s neutrality. It’s the case of the Netherlands, for example. Both Germany and Great Britain were unwilling to open a new front so close to their population centres and was this more than anything to maintain the Netherlands neutrality.

The same it’s true for different organisations, like the Red Cross, which managed to remain neutral all through the war because thus all belligerent nations could make use of their services. 

On the other hand, some nations that had officially declared neutrality unofficially ended up helping one side. 

In the total war, freely choosing one’s stand wasn’t easy. 

Neutrality (The Great War #AtoZChallenge 2021) Neutrality in WWI is a complex matter. Nations that managed to remain neutral did so not only because of their choices but also belligerent states had the interest to keep them… Click To Tweet

Pacifism

Pacifism as the rejection of violence under any circumstances had existed for millennia before the Great War, but the concept as we understand it today – and the very word ‘pacifism’ – was only born after the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 1800s. In many nations, different organisations inspired by pacifism existed by the beginning of the 1900s. The war posed a problem for them because, often, pacifism was understood as unpatriotic. 

There was still a lot of ‘pacifism’ during the Great War. 

The medical orderlies of the American Red Cross Hospital at Beaune, Cote d'Or, France.
The medical orderlies of the American Red Cross Hospital at Beaune,
Cote d’Or, France.

Conscientious objectors were accepted by most armies on the basis of religious beliefs, for example. But many pacifists existed among socialists (who believed in a world system based on diplomacy) and also among many women organisations, most prominently among the suffragette movement – at least in Europe. 
The treatment of conscientious objectors was different, depending on the national army. In Germany, for example, if a man refused to carry out orders on the basis of religious or political beliefs, he was often suspected of being mentally ill and sent to an asylum. If he was deemed sane, he was consigned to the army for trial as a coward, which may result in a death sentence. 

In other countries, such as Britain, where a pacifist tradition was strongly rooted and where service in the army was voluntary – at least up to 1916 – there was more tolerance toward the conscientious objectors. These men could still serve in the war effort, if in non-combatant roles such as medical orderlies, stretch-bearers, ambulance drivers, cooks or labourers. 

Still, the position of pacifism was always quite unpopular during the Great War, and it would be all through the interwar years. It was going to be a few decades before this concept became commonly accepted in most nations.


RESOURCES

International Encyclopedia of the First World War – Pacifism
International Encyclopedia of the First World War – Neutrality
Spartacus Educational – Pacifism
British Library – Neutrality and Intervention


LIVING THE TWENTIES by Sarah Zama - The Great War created a new world. This is that world.

10 Comments

  • Birgit
    Posted April 16, 2021 at 01:57

    Well written because pacifism was often thought of as yellow. When Lew Ayes starred in All Quiet on the Western Front he was so taken by the story and the harshness that, when World War 2 broke out, he said he was a conscientious objector. He incurred such wrath from the public and many people in the movie industry and labelled him a coward even though he worked as an ambulance driver…I think.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 17, 2021 at 09:23

      That’s it, isn’t it? Becasue you refuse to fight, you must be a coward.
      Adn unfortunatley, I think that it is still like this today, in many circumstances.

  • Gail M Baugniet
    Posted April 17, 2021 at 02:09

    Neutrality during a major war would be like walking a tightrope always wondering which end of the rope will begin to fray. No one else is on your side watching your back either.

  • Anne Nydam
    Posted April 17, 2021 at 16:59

    Pacifism often takes as much or more courage than fighting. It’s not the same as neutrality, though. You can very much believe in the rightness of one side, and yet still not believe that slaughtering people is the right way to resolve the conflict.
    Black and White: O for Oz

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 25, 2021 at 08:21

      You’re right. The choice of pacifism is always complex. So complex that sometimes is difficult to explain it.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 18, 2021 at 08:42

    It was hard to be a pacifist in a world swept up in war… I feel especially sorry for those who were forced to fight even though they did not want to.

    The Multicolored Diary

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 25, 2021 at 08:22

      Pacifism was definitely not popular for all the years up to the end of WWII. It might seem strange to us, who mostly take pacifism for granted. But it was a different world. I don’t mean that it was worse, necessarily. But it was definitely different.

  • Melanie Atherton Allen
    Posted April 18, 2021 at 20:54

    Weren’t there people going around giving out white feathers to all young men who weren’t in uniform, in WW1 Britain, anyway? To shame them into enlisting? Ouch.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 25, 2021 at 08:23

      Yes, in Great Britain, which was the only country in Europe that, up to 1916, had a voluntary army.
      All the discourse about bravery, patriotism and shame is so very interesting. I need to look deeper into it.

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