Parting with Pacifism in the 1930s

In the mid-1930s many millions of British people voted overwhelmingly against any return to conflict. But events in Spain changed public opinion and by 1939 it was widely accepted that fascism could only be opposed successfully through military action, writes Richard Overy.

The British government’s pursuit of appeasement in the years before 1939 has often been attributed, among many other things, to strong anti-war or pacifist sentiment among the wider public. This presents an evident paradox, for if there was so much popular resistance to the idea of war in the mid-1930s it is necessary to explain why public opinion swung round to wide support for confronting Hitler in 1939. The answer to that question is often assumed to be the nature of the threat that Hitler posed to European order, but the transition from pursuit of peace to pursuit of war was seldom so straightforward.

The evidence for widespread support for peace in the mid-1930s is to be found in the results of the so-called ‘Peace Ballot’ conducted by the League of Nations Union, with the support of 34 further organisations, in the winter of 1934-35. It was organised like a general election, by constituency, and relied on the volunteer efforts of a remarkable 500,000 people who went from door to door asking households to answer a number of questions. The result, announced in July 1935, saw 96 per cent of an astonishing 11.6 million votes in favour of continued League membership. This outcome was taken by the organisers to mean that a large minority of the electorate favoured the idea of resolving disputes without war, although 6.8 million said ‘yes’ in answer to the question of whether in a last resort the League should use collective force.

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