Pacifism


A Quaker peace protest, 1962 (AOT, PH30/1/3549)

Pacifism in Tasmania has been a small but persistent social movement since the visit in the 1830s of Quaker missionaries James Backhouse and George Washington Walker who were concerned about the conditions of Aborigines and convicts. Tasmanian Quakers protested against the Crimean War in 1855, against the validity of the Maori Wars in 1863, and against Australian involvement in the South African (Boer) War.

During the First World War, peace organisations grew in strength and numbers. As the war dragged on and casualties mounted, the initial fervent nationalism gave way to significant questioning about the rights and wrongs of the war effort. Protesters included representatives from trade unions, Labor Leagues, womens groups, socialist parties and religious denominations. Branches of two women's pacifist groups were formed the Sisterhood of International Peace, which later changed its name to the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), and the Women's Peace Army.

As the constant drain of the war on manpower and money was seen by many to be detracting from the local community, and causing poverty, disease and family hardships, community opinion was polarised, particularly around the issue of conscription. Two referendums on conscription were defeated, in 1916 and 1917, with strong campaigning by both sides. In 1917 there were rowdy public meetings as the issues were played out. Despite the defeat, compulsory military training of boys and men was still in force, with boys as young as twelve obliged to undergo military training, while still maintaining their civilian status. Long after the end of the First World War, and through the 1930s, pacifist and civil liberties groups continued their campaign against this compulsory training.

With the threat of war again in the late 1930s, pacifists had to choose between their commitment to peace and their abhorrence of fascism, and many became reluctant advocates of war in order to protect their democratic institutions. The Quaker Peace Committee and WILPF remained active throughout the Second World War, and campaigned strongly towards the end of the war for the terms of surrender and peace negotiations. After the war pacifist activity was largely directed towards the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Some pacifists were, or became, communists, but others shunned membership of peace groups for fear of this association.

In 1964 the commonwealth government introduced a conscription scheme based on a birth date lottery, and shortly afterwards the first troops were sent to Vietnam. Pacifists assisted the conscientious objectors who refused to register for National Service, and during the next few years several small groups provided the organisational structure for the growing peace movement, which showed most of its strength in the moratorium marches held between 1970 and 1972. In the post-Vietnam War period of the 1970s and beyond, pacifism has come to include not only resistance to war, but also the practice of non-violent protest behaviour and civil disobedience adopted by many contemporary activist groups and individuals, most particularly in the environmental movement. (See also Religious Society of Friends.)

Further reading: J Damousi & M Lake, Gender and war, Cambridge, 1995; L Furmage, Making it to the platform, MHum thesis, UT, 1993; M Lake, A divided society, Melbourne, 1975; Women's International League for Peace and Freedom material, AOT, NS 1363.

Victoria Rigney