With lessons learned from the past 200+ years of peace activism
“The story of the human race is characterized by efforts to get along much more than by violent disputes, although it’s the latter that make the history books. Violence is actually exceptional. The human race has survived because of cooperation, not aggression.” — Gerard Vanderhaar
They say that if you don’t know your history, you’re bound to repeat it. Well, I figure that for those peace activists, peacebuilders, social justice advocates, and the like, if we don’t know the history of movements for peace and justice, then we are bound to repeat mistakes of old.
I’ve been working in the field of peacebuilding for over a decade now, and to be honest with you, I never learned this history. And I can’t think of anyone I know who really knows about it. They don’t teach it to us in school. It isn’t celebrated in movies. Those of us working in peacebuilding or peace activism don’t get a briefer on it. But I find it to be so critically important. So I did a little research to educate myself, and what I found was amazing!
Did you know that there are nearly ten organizations that have been fighting for peace since before WWI? For over 100 years!?! And others that came to being shortly after the war?… I certainly didn’t. Of the 200+ year history of the modern peace movement, we are fortunate to have several historic organizations still active today. They are guardians of peace history. Learning about their historic efforts for peace, the challenges they faced, their strengths and their failures, and of the monumental figures associated with them, we gain deep insight into practical strategies that we can apply today to build a more peaceful and just world.
I’m excited to share what I’ve learned in the last few weeks of research I did on this. In this post, I’ve included a brief write up on each of the eleven historic (and inspiring!) peace organizations I found that are still active today, each started before WWII, and most over 100 years old. And since the history itself is really amazing, I will start you off with a brief background of the movement’s early history. And finally, I’ll share lessons I learned that I think can be used to strengthen any efforts for peace and justice that you may be involved in.
Early history of the peace movement (pre-WWI)
The peace movement has a long and storied history throughout which there have been a great number of prominent voices. The earliest recorded organizations that formed the peace movement were ‘peace societies’ that emerged in America and Europe, starting after the Napoleonic Wars (c. 1815). They were based in specific cities, and their actions included organizing lectures, hosting debates, publishing a wide range of literature to influence public opinion about war (or potential wars), and advocating to those in power to prevent war.
Early peace societies in the US, England, France, and Switzerland organized a series of seven International Peace Congresses (i.e., conventions) in the mid-1800s that expanded the movement to more cities across Europe. Another series of 20 Universal Peace Congresses were held across Europe and America beginning in 1889 until the start of WWI.
Participants at Universal Peace Congresses came to broad agreement on the economic and colonial roots of war and that social reform was needed to avert war. In the late 1800s, the movement focused a lot of their advocacy efforts on the establishment of an international order based on law, including the formation of a permanent court of arbitration. With women claiming their place in the movement starting in the late 1800s, feminist thought began to inform movement priorities. This included considering the needs of civilian populations affected by war and the need to transform nationalistic education systems and militaristic cultures.
While the movement itself was ultimately unable to prevent the coming world wars, the structures and relationships they established were durable enough to persist and continue mobilization for peacebuilding in post-war periods. Furthermore, many of the critical innovations in international relations were initiated by the peace movement. Ideas discussed during peace conferences further contributed to the formation of the League of Nations, the United Nations, and a range of other international institutions. And while the earliest peace societies are no longer in existence, organizations initiated by members of peace societies and participants in peace congresses form the base of many historic peace organizations still active today.
* There was an excellent seminar held on the history of the peace movement hosted by the International Peace Bureau (IPB) from which most of the information in this section was drawn. Videos and resources from this seminar are available HERE. Along with a more detailed history, there is some interesting discussion on linkages between the peace movement and the abolitionist movement, suffragist movement, workers movement, and anti-colonialist movement. The IPB is featured in the list of historic organizations below.
Historic Peace Organizations Still Active Today
Eleven historic peace organizations still active today are outlined below. I have presented some history on each together with a brief outline of their structure and current activities. And since many peace advocates active within these groups have won the Nobel Peace Prize, I have made a note of this where relevant.
Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society (SPAS) (Swedish: Svenska fredsoch skiljedomsföreningen) | 1883
SPAS is the world’s oldest peace organization that is still active, and it is Scandinavia’s largest today. SPAS began as a reaction to plans of Sweden’s parliament to increase military spending and has been active since then. They assisted in the peaceful resolution of the dissolution of the union of Sweden and Norway in 1905, proposed alternative service for conscientious objectors (which became law in 1920), and have been a force for the abolition of war and militarization since then.
Today, SPAS includes over 8500 members coordinating from 20 branches across Sweden. Members work actively to stop arms exports to dictatorships and to expose Sweden’s involvement in such deals. For many years they ran an ultimately successful campaign for a democracy criterion to arms deals between Sweden and other countries. They are involved in a number of other activities associated with disarmament and promoting sustainable peace and security. Activities include publishing, lobbying, activism, and participating in political debates.
Klas Pontus Arnoldson, SPAS’s founder, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1908.
The IPU was established as the first permanent forum for multilateral political negotiations. Over the years, the IPU has played a leading role in the development of international law and institutions, including the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the League of Nations, and the United Nations.
A member-based organization, the IPU works with parliaments and parliamentarians worldwide to articulate and respond to the needs and aspirations of the people, to promote peace, democracy, human rights, gender equality, youth empowerment, and sustainable development. They do this by organizing political dialogues, facilitating cooperation amongst parliamentarians, and coordinating parliamentary action. IPU also sponsors and takes part in international conferences and forums, and has consultative status with the United Nations.
Eight individuals associated with the organization have received the Nobel Peace Prize, including its founders William Randal Cremer and Frédéric Passy.
The IPB was founded as a result of consultations at the Universal Peace Congresses. The representatives of the Peace Societies felt that the movement needed a permanent office to coordinate the activities of the national associations and to organize the Universal Peace Congresses, and thus IBP was established. Their early efforts focused on the development of international law, disarmament, and the peaceful settlement of conflicts. IPB was active in promoting the idea of the establishment of a League of Nations and an International Court.
Today, the IPB operates as a global network of over 300 organizations in 70 countries dedicated to building a world without war. Their efforts focus mainly on disarmament, specifically on the reallocation of military expenditure towards social projects that promote real human needs and protect the environment. They support a range of disarmament campaigns, facilitate collaboration amongst network members, and supply data on the economic dimensions of weapons and conflicts. They are involved in high-level negotiations for the abolition of nuclear weapons and other weapons of war, within and outside the UN.
Fourteen of IPB’s current and past members have been recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, and they won the prize as an organization in 1910.
The DFG-VK is Germany’s oldest peace and pacifist organization, and have since their formation been an active force in opposition to all wars. Suppressed by the Nazis, DFG-VK was re-founded in 1945. In addition to the demand for general and complete disarmament, following the war, they also began to focus their efforts on mobilizing opposition to compulsory military service and supporting conscientious objection (i.e., the right to refuse to military service).
DFG-VK is a member-based organization. Members take a range of nonviolent actions to hinder warfare, to prevent future wars, and to oppose any and all war propaganda. They support their members to take a range of creative, often theatrical nonviolent actions for the abolishment of nuclear weapons, to protest the manufacture and export of German weapons, and to protest the manufacture and use of a range of munitions that are particularly harmful to civilian populations.
Active in the formation and early days of DFG-VK, Alfred Hermann Fried and Bertha von Suttner, were both recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.
National Peace Council (now Network for Peace) | 1904
One of the oldest peace organizations in the UK, the National Peace Council (NPC), was established as a coordinating body for almost 200 groups across Britain. Membership ranges from small village peace groups to national trade unions and local authorities. A significant focus of their work in the early days was organizing conferences on peace and associated issues. The group originated in 1904 as the National Council of Peace Societies, then established as the National Peace Council after the 17th Universal Peace Conference in London in 1908.
The NPC was disbanded in 2000, and in 2001 Network for Peace was set up to continue its networking role. Today, Network for Peace operates as a contact point for queries about peace organizations, peace education and training, actions, vigils, and demonstrations, especially in times of crisis or emergency.
Formed in response to the horrors of WWI, IFOR has taken a consistent stance against war and the act of preparation for war throughout its history. Built to address the need for healing and reconciliation in the world, the founders of IFOR formulated a vision based upon the belief that love in action has the power to transform unjust political, social, and economic structures.
Today, IFOR operates as a network, currently with 71 member organizations in 48 countries in all continents, representing all the major spiritual traditions. Members are active in promoting nonviolence, human rights, and reconciliation. Thematic areas members work on include conscientious objection, nonviolence education and training, interfaith cooperation, disarmament, and youth empowerment, among others. IFOR itself supports the capacity building of members and helps coordinate international campaigns and actions.
Six of IFOR’s current and past members have won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Born out of the suffragist movement, WILPF was founded at a gathering of over 1000 women seeking ways to end WWI (as the war was raging) and ensure permanent peace. WILPF founders linked the struggle for women’s rights and the struggle for peace, advocating that the full and equal participation of women in the decision-making processes was necessary to achieve sustainable peace.
Today, WILPF advocates that women lead the way to change, and that peace is only possible when more women with feminist approaches hold more positions of power, responsibility, and influence. WILPF uses feminist analysis and advocacy promoted by a mobilized feminist community to tackle patriarchy, militarism, and neoliberalism. By highlighting issues and shifting perceptions, they change policies and behaviors.
Jane Addams and Emily Greene Balch, both influential peace advocates active in the early days of WILPF, have received the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1931 and 1946 respectively.
American Union Against Militarism (AUAM)(now American Civil Liberties Union) | 1915/1917
AUAM was founded as an American pacifist organization established in response to World War I. They attempted to keep the United States out of the war through public lectures, printing anti-war materials, and organizing protests. After the war began, they organized campaigns to support soldiers to resist the draft and to refuse to fight. Faced with repression by the US government, in 1917, AUAM established a Civil Liberties Bureau to defend the rights of citizens against government repression.
While AUAM was dissolved in 1922, its Civil Liberties Bureau evolved into the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is still active to this day. The ACLU operates a network with over 4 million members, activists, and supporters, in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, DC. They work in courts, legislatures, and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and the laws of the United States guarantee everyone in the country. Their activities are wide-ranging, broadly focused on defending people from government abuse and overreach. Within the scope of their activities, they fight to ensure that US national security policies and practices are consistent with the Constitution, civil liberties, and human rights. This includes defending victims of US government-sponsored torture, targeted killing, indefinite detention, mass surveillance, and religious discrimination.
AFSC is a Quaker organization that promotes lasting peace with justice, as a practical expression of faith in action. They were founded during World War I to give young conscientious objectors ways to serve without joining the military or taking lives, and they stayed in Europe after the war rebuild ravaged communities.
Today, they work with communities and partners worldwide to challenge unjust systems and promote lasting peace. They are involved in a range of activities, from defending the rights of immigrants, to building economic justice, to working for justice in Palestine and Israel. With local partners, they implement grassroots peacebuilding projects worldwide while also working to transform the United States’ role in international conflicts.
With British Quakers, AFSC received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.
WRI is a global network of grassroots antimilitarist and pacifist groups, working together for a world without war. The US-based War Resisters League, founded in 1923, is an active member of the WRI network that is dedicated to opposing US militarism and imperialist incursions.
WRI views war as a crime against humanity and strives for the removal of all causes of war. They operate as a network of organizations, groups, and individuals, with over 90 affiliated groups in 40 countries. WRI supports network members through education activities, publications, events, campaigns, and actions.
Peace Pledge Union | 1934
The oldest secular pacifist organization in Britain, Peace Pledge Union promotes nonviolent alternatives to war and militarism. They challenge systems, practices, and policies that fuel war and militarism, and also to transform the mindsets and values that promote the view that armed force is an effective agent of social change. A lot of their work centers around promoting human security. Their activities are organized around themes of campaigning and education, remembrance for all victims of war of all nationalities with a rejection of militarism, challenging ‘everyday militarism’ (i.e., militarism present throughout society), and speaking out against military spending and recruitment.
Lessons learned from the past 200+ years of peace activism
Below are a few lessons I’ve learned from these past few weeks researching about 200+ years of the peace movement and learning about these eleven inspiring peace organizations that are part of this history:
1. Wherever and whenever there has been war, there have been peace activists. Governments and politicians actively suppress peace activists during times of war.
Reading over 200 years of the history of the peace movement, it is clear that there are always people actively trying to stop war. It is never a matter that there weren’t peace activists and groups. It is a matter of if their efforts were effective or not. The history shows how peace activists were suppressed during WWI and WWII, and any other war for that matter. One of the first things leaders who mobilize for war do is try to silence or discredit the peace activists. Those working for peace should anticipate this in advance and plan accordingly.
2. Peace movements often struggle to maintain stable financial sources.
In a lot of the reading I did on the peace movement and in researching many great historic peace groups that eventually collapsed, a recurrent theme is that many groups struggle to sustain financial support. Without sustainable financial backing the efforts of many were stifled, and numerous historically influential groups fell apart. It seems that the movement as a whole often fails to mobilize significant financial resources. Activists today may consider creative alternative financial models in anticipation that funds dry up when operating by traditional donor-supported financial structures.
3. The more inclusive the peace movement can be, the more effective they are in preventing war and building peace.
The early peace movement generally excluded women and was greatly enriched when women fought their way to the table. Feminist thought advanced peace theories, and women consistently proved successful advocates where men had failed. The early movement too represented a particular social class of educated persons. As the years have gone by, some groups have invited greater levels of inclusion, while in other cases, excluded groups have fought their way to the table.
Increased inclusion brings greater diversity of ideas, advances peace theory, and produces more broad-based action. The more inclusive you can be in whichever group you may involve yourself in, the more effective you will be in your efforts. And further, the more inclusive the broader movement can be, the more effective we will be in preventing future wars and in building a more peaceful global community.
4. Collaborative networks strengthen the peace movement. They build resilience and advance peace theory. Broad-based collaborative actions are highly effective.
Both successive waves of Peace Congresses were critical in the survival of the peace movement throughout the world wars. They created a platform that strengthened the movement, developed peace theories, and formulated plans for coordinated action to build peace. Networks established decades before WWI also enabled the peace movement to continue its efforts during and after the war.
In review of the peace movements, you can see that the peace movement was most effective during times when there were lots of international conferences, and when numerous international actors were able to have consensus on how they view the causes of war and what actions to take.
At various times, key members of the peace movement have produced books and literature advancing peace theories. Such theories themselves then translated into actions, and you can see tangible outcomes. You can also see that the individuals that produced ground-breaking peace literature were involved in the movement for many years and participated in numerous peace congresses that informed their writing. Whatever group you may be associated with, recognize that involving yourself in collaborative events and spaces will enhance the effectiveness of your work. And contributing to such events and spaces more generally advances the broader movement.
5. It is necessary to work to prevent war, to address the causes of war, to transform structures and cultures.
If you are advocating to end a war that has already begun, this is great, but you’re kinda too late. A lot of the organizations that have persisted are working to prevent wars, to tackle armament, combat militarization, and to transform the causes of war. In some ways they have been successful, others not, but it is a work in progress. Don’t wait until after a war has begun to be active. Start now! There is so much that needs to be done.
To prevent war, and ultimately to abolish it, work should focus on transforming structures, policies, institutions, and the like while at the same time working to transform elements of culture that produce war (i.e., militarism, patriotism, etc.).
I hope this peace history inspires you. And ultimately, I hope you take action informed by some of the lessons learned from this peace history.
For those of you who are already involved in organizations working for peace and justice, I hope you can apply these lessons directly and that this post provides you with some historical perspective on your own work.
And for those of you who are not involved in any peace or justice efforts, I hope you are inspired to take action. I encourage you to get involved in any way you can. The peace movement is always open for your participation. We need all the support we can get. See if you can get involved in one of the organizations listed or perhaps from an organization in their network. Each has extensive networks from their decades of activism. You may look closer into whichever organization speak more to you, explore their site, and connect with a partner organization in their network.
May the lessons I shared strengthen today’s movements for peace and justice.
Find ways you can build peace in the world around you. Download my free handout 198 Actions for Peace.