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Book Review: Fighting Against War-Peace Activism in the Twentieth Century

By Edward Eastwood

Fighting Against War: Peace Activism in the TwentiethCentury, is a collection of papers delivered at the 14th biennial Labor History Conference held at Melbourne University February 11 – 13, 2015 and charts the history of labour organisation driven peace movements both in Britain and Australia throughout the twentieth century.

Published on the eve of the centenary of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli, the work serves as timely reminder that strident and eager as Australian governments have been in their rush to become willing allies with sometimes less than willing partners in prosecuting war, there has also been been an equally strong opposition to ‘sending the boys over there’.

The role of women as the instigators of these movements takes the forefront and is examined in depth with a sharp focus the bitter anti-consription debates during both World War 1 and later, Vietnam.

As Douglas Newton reminds the reader in his chapter ‘Daggers Drawn:The International Women’s Movement and the Struggle to Avert War, July-August 1914’; “While organisations such as socialist internationalists, Christian internationalists, and liberal internationalists, were largely overwhelmed by the speed of the European crisis, the international organisations of women stood firm until the last.”

Fighting Against War seamlessly moves the reader from one era to another as it examines each aspect of peace movements in turn, along with their foundation and associations.

Profiles of Australian feminist’s such as Doris Horden, a central figure in Vida Goldstein’s bid for the Senate in 1913, and whose involvement with Maurice Blackburn and the Women’s Political Association gave impetus to The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, serves to contrast those of Scullin and Curtin, the moderate and the socialist, who formed an alliance to defeat conscription against a background of tumult within the labour movement and the Labour Party as both struggled to define themselves.

The cause and effect of the rifts in society and in the labour movement over the issue of conscription during World War I and their eventual healing are examined in microcosm in Phil Roberts chapter on Ballarat’s Avenue of Honour and Victory Arch, while in macrocosm, Robert Bollard provides insightful answers to the conundrum of Australian Irish disaffection with war despite their willing numbers of enlistment.

While Fighting Against War focuses largely on the rise of peace movements during World War I, the Cold War is also examined in detail, beginning with a thoughtful profile of Herbert ‘Doc’ Evatt and the influences on Evatt’s determination to formulate foreign policy independent of reliance on Britain or the United States for military support.

Lesser known struggles but of equal importance are analysed in Kim Thoday’s “A harder thing than dying”:Peace Activism and the Protestant Left in Australia During the Cold War, and examines the role of the clergy during the 1950s who found themselves both vulnerable to and resistant against communist influence through organisations such as the Australian Peace Council and the Peace Quest Forum.

The book closes with an examination of the alternative press news paper The Peacemaker and its role in providing a voice for dissent from 1939 through to 1971 and the Vietnam war years, while Nick Irving’s dissection the role of Jim Cairns as the central figure of the Australian anti-war movement through the Moratoriums of 1970 provides the fin de siecle.

Meticulously edited and covering a broad spectrum of peace movements and those involved with them in both Britain and Australia, Fighting Against War-Peace Activism in the Twentieth Century is an important work in documenting the history of peace movements in Australia and the labour/women’s organisations that propelled them throughout the conflicts of the twentieth century.

As the editors argue; “State sponsored commemorative activities and state sanctioned forms of remembrance rarely acknowledge the efforts of those who have struggled to defend ordinary people against the disfiguring effects of pro-war policies. It’s time that changed.”

Fighting Against War: Peace Activism in the Twentieth Century takes a significant step towards redressing the balance.

Fighting Against War: Peace Activism in the Twentieth Century, edited by Phillip Deery and Julie Kimber.

Leftbank Press, Melbourne 2015. rrp $25.00



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  1. johnlord2013

    Thanks for that. Is it available as an iBook?

  2. mark delmege

    Sadly the head of the TLC in WA was decidedly pro-war when it came to my attempt to mobilise them against the first Iraq war.

  3. king1394

    The peace movement needs reviving; there are more devastating wars going on right now, and the cost of massive wasteful wars includes the impoverishment of people on both sides, and horrifying destruction of communities, cultures, and environments. Wars also contribute huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and waste scarce resources.

  4. Alan Baird

    Govt sponsored commemorations rarely mention peace activism in time of warfare? Rarely? More like never. They don’t want to know and neither do most of the population. Patriotism might be the last refuge of the scoundrel but it’s also the gift that keeps on giving. Don’t think twice, it’s all right.

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