Are you in this? Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I Through Today

Laureen Harder-Gissing

4540“Are you in this?” asked a popular British propaganda poster from the First World War. A nattily dressed young man, hands in pockets, walks through a landscape in which other men and women are actively fighting, nursing, and manufacturing armaments. Their society is fully engaged in war. His non-participation is clearly shameful.

From October 19-22, 240 delegates gathered at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City to hear 70 presentations. Historians described forgotten voices of dissent and conscientious objection, while today’s defenders of conscience and civil liberties drew connections between the long-ago war and their current work. Music began the conference with a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem, and ended it with hymns and songs of peace sung by the Hutterian Baker and Silverwinds Youth Choirs from Manitoba. Their music accompanied the moving story of two American Hutterite conscientious objectors who died in prison.

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Inscribed brick to be added to the museum’s Walk of Honor (Photograph by Laureen Harder-Gissing)

The site of the conference added to the atmosphere. The museum sits at the base of a dramatic Egyptian Revival-style monument, the Liberty Memorial, which opened in 1926. The state-of-the-art museum, constructed in 2006, tells the story of the war to a modern audience. On Sunday morning, a memorial service for war dissenters was held at the entrance–a glass bridge spanning a field of poppies. The conference ended with a bus tour of Fort Leavenworth where 16 imprisoned conscientious objectors died.

Did the conference succeed in unmuting voices? While the traveling exhibit “Voices of Conscience” told stories of peace witness in the Great War, conference participants observed that voices of dissent are nearly absent from the museum’s permanent exhibits. During the memorial service, Hutterite delegates partially rectified this by unveiling a stone in memory of the Hofer brothers who died at Fort Leavenworth. The stone will join the “walk of honor” at the museum’s entrance.

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A base historian at Fort Leavenworth describes wartime conditions in the former prison hospital. (Photograph by Laureen Harder-Gissing)

Some religious voices were unmuted. In addition to papers about traditional peace church members, papers about Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and mainline church members uncovered additional stories of religious dissent.

While the conference predominantly focused on American and British history, papers on opposition to the war in Germany and African diaspora communities hinted at a broadening of diversity. While the role of women in leadership in the anti-war movement was explored, much ground in terms of gender was left untouched.

The conference did not succeed in unmuting all voices, but I believe it helped participants sharpen our hearing. Whether we are primarily engaged as historians or activists (or both), becoming attuned to muted voices of conscience and dissent is a valuable skill. After all, there are many ways in which we are “in this” still.

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Sunday’s memorial service took place on the museum’s glass bridge. The bridge floats over a simulated field of poppies. (Photograph by Laureen Harder-Gissing)

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