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)

Would There be Peace Without Mennonites?

By Anne M. Yoder

I’m sure I’m not the only one who was brought up on stories of Mennonites as peace-keepers, makers, builders, and more. There was nothing wrong with those stories, except that they left out all the non-Mennonites who were doing the same thing around the world throughout time. For me, and for many people I know, it led to a sort of blindness from which it can be hard to recover unless we are confronted with the truth.

One example of this relates to the history of conscientious objection. I remember as a sixteen-year-old reading Noah Leatherman’s published diary about being a conscientious objector (C.O.) during World War I and the struggles he had in the army camp where he was sent. My notion while reading it, and for years afterward, was that other than a few Quakers, all WWI C.O.s were Mennonites, like Leatherman. I expected that all these C.O. witnesses would have had pretty much the same narrative of being persecuted for their peace stance, and prevailing through all the difficulties with God’s help.

I would not have had any argument with James Juhnke, who wrote back in 1970: “In the past, Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren have had the pacifist action pretty much to themselves. To be sure, there were always some humanitarian and socialist pacifists around who did a lot of talking about pacifism, especially between  wars when talk was cheap. But every time war rolled around the humanitarian pacifists evaporated, and it was up to the Mennonites to provide the conspicuous majority of refusers of military service.”1

Many Mennonites I talk to in this day and age still believe this assertion. It is true that the majority of WWI C.O.s were from the Historic Peace Churches, but that does not by any means describe the full picture.

I came to the Swarthmore College Peace Collection to be its archivist in 1995. Five years later we received a shipment of boxes from Seymour Eichel, who was donating the WWI papers of his father, Julius Eichel, and his uncle, David Eichel, both of whom had been C.O.s. These texts changed my life, and became my primary research interest since then. There were diaries and dozens of letters written by both brothers, as well as other documents. Immigrant Jews from New York City, the Eichels had embraced socialism as their lens for analyzing what was happening in the world. This philosophy led to them becoming C.O. absolutists, unwilling to accept any orders from the military, and they were sentenced to prison for it

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Eichel brothers with a friend (I don’t know which is Julius and which is David), circa 1919 [DG 131: Eichel Family Papers, Swarthmore College Peace Collection]

What a fascinating group of papers, and so helpful in expanding my view of conscientious objectors! Julius and David Eichel were extremely detailed in describing their experiences in camps and prisons, the other C.O.s they met, and their viewpoints about all that was happening on the C.O. front. They gave voice to the political and humanitarian objectors who did not have the protection of being from a pacifist church tradition. I learned to admire the depth of the Eichels’ convictions and their tenacity in faithfully holding these beliefs, despite the pressures to conform, to which many others succumbed. I started searching for C.O.s who were not from the Historic Peace Churches and found that there were far more than a few — so many, in fact, that it puts to shame any notion that without the Mennonites, Quakers and Brethren, there would be a very small number of conscientious objectors.2

The Historic Peace Churches have done a wonderful job of archiving and making known the stories of C.O.s from their traditions. But, again, this gives us a limited view of what was happening. The full account is far richer, and far more complex. Because of my unique position as a Mennonite at an archives where the non-religious C.O. material finds its way, I have the privilege of filling in some of the gaps. I’m not an historian per se, but see myself as a revealer of sources. As such, I’m currently working on a website where the personal writings of the Eichels and other non-religious C.O.s will be made available, both as scans of the original pages and as transcriptions. I hope to add some Quaker and Mennonite sources too, at some point. This site will be open to the public in October 2017, along with a presentation about it to be given at the World War I Museum’s conference the same month. I hope that it will help to round out the works about WWI conscientious objection that have been published up until now.

I recently re-read Noah Leatherman’s published diary. Once again I was moved by his witness to his faith and pacifist principles, but I was also shocked (and embarrassed) by how much I had considered unimportant in my earlier reading of the text. Many of the details had a deeper meaning to me now that I’ve been immersed in similar texts for a number of years. But I was also amazed at how many non-Mennonite C.O.s he mentioned – he was aware of them, and we would do well to note their presence as well.

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Group of Socialist C.O.s at Ft. Douglas U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, 1919 [CDGA: Philip Caplovitz Collected Papers]

It is ironic to me that David Eichel was one of the most staunch in his refusal to work for the military in prison and was one of the very last C.O.s to be released, in 1920. If only he had been a Mennonite, how we could crow over it! But he didn’t use religion as his reason for being willing to endure whatever it took, for however long it took, to stay true to his convictions. We can certainly admire and gain spiritual conviction from our Mennonite forbears, but we can also open the door to admire and learn from all the others, such as the Eichel brothers. They, too, suffered much for the sake of peace. They have also passed down to us an important legacy of conscientious objection to war and militarism.

Would there be peace without the Mennonites? I would give a resounding yes to that question. I celebrate all who have been, and are now, motivated to give themselves to this cause, no matter what their reasoning may be.

Anne M. Yoder is the archivist of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.


  1. James C. Juhnke, “The Agony of Civic Isolation: Mennonites in World War I,” Mennonite Life 25, no. 1 (January 1970): 33. 
  2. I curate a database whereby I list information about every C.O. I come across, Mennonite or otherwise. This helps to document the variety of men involved, as well as the differences in their experiences (2300+ names so far; see http://www.swarthmore.edu/Library/peace/conscientiousobjection/WWI.COs.coverpage.htm). 

Call for Papers: Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance, and Civil Liberties in World War I through Today

remembering-muted-voicesThe World War’s profound effect on the United States is often overlooked. Although the United States actively took part in the conflict for only 18 months, the war effort introduced mass conscription, transformed the American economy, and mobilized popular support through war bonds, patriotic rallies, and anti-German propaganda. Nevertheless, many people desired a negotiated peace, opposed American intervention, refused to support the war effort, and/or even imagined future world orders that could eliminate war. Among them were members of the peace churches and other religious groups, women, pacifists, radicals, labor activists, and other dissenters.

Intolerance and repression often mute the voices of war critics. Almost overnight in 1917, individuals and groups who opposed the war faced constraints on their freedom to advocate, organize, and protest. The Selective Service Act of 1917 made few concessions for conscientious objectors. The Espionage Act of 1917—reinforced by the Sedition Act of 1918—prohibited many forms of speech and made it a crime to interfere with the draft. Peace advocates, antiwar activists and conscientious objectors confronted not only external hostility from the government, the press, and war supporters, but also internal disagreements over how to respond to the war and advance the cause of peace. The experience of American dissenters was not unique; their counterparts in other belligerent countries and colonial dependencies found themselves in comparable situations. Yet, those who opposed World War I helped initiate modern peace movements and left a legacy that continues to influence antiwar activism.

We invite proposals for papers, panels, posters, roundtables, and workshops that engage in diverse ways with issues of conscience, dissent, resistance, and civil liberties during World War I, in the United States and around the world. We encourage proposals that examine historical and contemporary parallels to the war. Strong conference papers will be given consideration for publication in special issues of Mennonite Quarterly Review and Peace & Change.

Topics Might Cover:

  • War Resistance as an Expression of Religious Conscience (Amish, Brethren, Catholics, Hutterites, Latter Day Saints, Mennonites, Methodists, Nazarenes, Pentecostals, Quakers, etc.)
  • Secular Dissent and Resistance to War (feminists, socialists, and other movements and communities)
  • The Costs of War (economic, political, social, physical, psychological, etc.)
  • Civil Liberties in World War I and War Today
  • Race, Empire, and World War I
  • The Legacy and Relevance of World War I Peace Activism to the Present
  • The Causes and Prevention of War: World War I and Since
  • Teaching World War I and Peace History in High School and College
  • Memory, Memorialization, and the Public History of World War I

The program committee invites interested participants to send a 1-page proposal focused on the theme of the conference by January 31, 2017 to John D. Roth at johndr@goshen.edu.

For more on the conference, click here.