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The Future of Pacifism

What happened to German pacifism?

A year ago, I already addressed the Russian attack on Ukraine in a Forum blog entry. At that early stage of the war, I had little choice but to express my shock and hint at some theological implications. Today, one year later, I would like to pick up this thread again and deal in particular with the future of pacifism. In my perception, a basic pacifist attitude was and is a central characteristic of Christian peace ethics, especially in Germany, so that the question arises to what extent the war in Ukraine has changed thinking about pacifism.

Let us start with Germany’s particular history. After World War II, Germany experienced a significant shift in its approach to pacifism. The horrors of the war and the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime led to a widespread rejection of militarism and a desire for a peaceful future. German pacifism emerged as a response to the country’s violent past and aimed to promote non-violence, disarmament, and the prevention of future conflicts.

However, it is important to note that German pacifism is not without its critics and debates. There have been ongoing discussions about the extent to which Germany should engage in international military operations and the balance between pacifism and the country’s responsibilities as a member of NATO and the European Union.

With the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Germany’s international engagement, especially in the military field, reached unprecedented levels. The country said goodbye to the principle of not sending weapons of war to crisis areas and – according to the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in his now famous speech in the German Bundestag on 27 February 2022 – heralded a “watershed” (ger. “Zeitenwende”) in the history of the European continent.

Not only in Catholic circles, but in German society as a whole, this has led to an intensive discussion about the future of pacifism, whether in the left-wing peace movement, in political foundations or journalistic analyses. Before I go into this current debate, however, I would like to refer to older voices that also dealt with the question of pacifism in times of war.

Three voices on pacifism

1) John Dewey’s “realistic pacifism” (1917): John Dewey’s position on pacifism was complex. While he acknowledged the desire for peace and the goals of pacifism, he also recognised the practical realities and complexities of international relations. The American philosopher believed that the ultimate goal should be the establishment of a just and peaceful world order, but he did not believe in absolute non-violence or the complete renunciation of war as a means to achieve that goal.

In a well-known newspaper article from June 1917, Dewey argued that pacifism needed to be realistic and adaptive to changing circumstances. He recognised that in a world organised for war, there were no effective political mechanisms in place to address international conflicts without military participation. He emphasised the importance of creating new international institutions and mechanisms that could effectively coordinate economic energies and promote cooperation among nations.

Dewey was critical of what he called “professional pacifism,” which he saw as ineffective and focused on short-term tactics rather than long-term strategies for creating a better world order. He believed that pacifists should engage with the political realities of their time and work towards the realization of their ideals within the constraints of the existing system.

2) Bertrand Russell‘s “non-absolute pacifism“ (1943): Bertrand Russell’s position on pacifism evolved throughout his life. He is generally known for his strong pacifist views and his active involvement in anti-war movements. Russell opposed war as a means of resolving conflicts and believed in the principle of non-violence. In his early years, Russell was influenced by the horrors of World War I and became a committed pacifist. He co-founded the No-Conscription Fellowship during the war and was imprisoned for his anti-war activities. Russell’s pacifism during this period was rooted in his belief that war only perpetuated violence and suffering and that peaceful means should be sought to resolve conflicts.

However, as World War II approached, Russell’s views on pacifism began to shift. He recognized the threat posed by Nazi Germany and believed that military action might be necessary to combat fascism. Although he still held pacifist ideals, he argued in a 1943 article for a limited and defensive use of force when faced with extreme aggression. His approach can therefore be described as “non-absolute pacifism“. Non-absolute pacifism, as advocated by Russell, suggests that while the goal should always be to seek peaceful means of conflict resolution, there might be situations where the use of force becomes a regrettable but necessary option. This perspective accepts the possibility of engaging in defensive or limited military actions to prevent or minimize greater violence or to protect innocent lives.

3) Olaf Müller’s “pragmatic pacifism” (2023): The German philosopher Olaf Müller, who teaches at the Humboldt University in Berlin, follows in Russell’s footsteps. He is one of the most prominent representatives of pacifism in Germany and has recently presented a 116-page defence of pacifism in view of the war in Ukraine.

In the text, Olaf Müller defines “pragmatic pacifism” as an approach that involves being flexible and adaptive in dealing with rules and making judgments in specific situations. Instead of drawing sharp distinctions between right and wrong, good and evil, facts and values, war and non-war, a pragmatic pacifist allows for shades of gray and recognizes the complexity of conflicts.

According to Müller, a pragmatic pacifist considers the particular circumstances, seeks peaceful resolutions, and avoids demonizing the opposing side. Rather than making absolute claims, a pragmatic pacifist acknowledges that the more warlike an action is, the more likely it is to have severe consequences. It is an approach that involves a willingness to adjust rules and responses based on the specific context and aims for a middle ground between different pacifist perspectives. In an older text from 2007, Müller also referred to this form as “pacifism with open eyes“.

A turning point for Catholic peace ethics?

Against the backdrop of these three philosophical voices, the question arises as to whether the war in Ukraine actually marked a turning point in Christian peace ethics, or whether a portion of realism (Dewey), non-absolutism (Russell) and pragmatism (Müller) was not always involved here as well. If one follows the German moral theologian Franz-Josef Bormann, this is precisely the case: “Neither from the various textual layers of the Christian Bible nor from the theological tradition can an obligation to a general pacifism be derived.”

In a statement shortly after the start of the war, the German Bishops’ Conference also sketched out a more differentiated understanding of pacifism. On the one hand, the bishops feel committed to Jesus’ ethos of non-violence, on the other hand, they emphasise Ukraine’s right to self-defence and conclude: “We therefore consider arms deliveries to Ukraine, which serve to enable the attacked country to exercise its right to self-defence, which is guaranteed under international law and also affirmed by the Church’s ethics of peace, to be legitimate in principle.”

It will be exciting to see how this debate on pacifism develops in Germany and Europe in the future. The references made in this article to similar debates during the First and Second World Wars may be an indication that pacifism is less naïve and monolithic than it is often caricatured by its critics.