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The trade union and socialist movements had declared before the war their determined opposition to a war which they said could only mean workers killing each other in the millions in the interests of their bosses. But once the war was declared, the vast majority of the socialist and trade union bodies decided to back the government of their country and support the war. For example, on 25 July 1914, the executive of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) issued an appeal to its membership to demonstrate against the coming war, only to vote on 4 August for the war credits the German government wanted. Likewise the French Socialist Party and its union, the CGT, especially after the assassination of the pacificist Jean Jaurès, organised mass rallies and protests until the outbreak of war, but once the war began they argued that in wartime socialists should support their nations against the aggression of other nations and also voted for war credits.
Groups in France and Britain were opposed to the war, as was the Russian Bolsheviks (though the success of the 1917 Revolution was due to the war among the other countries), the Socialist Party of America, the Italian Socialist Party, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and their followers in Germany. In Sweden, the socialist youth leader Zeth Höglund was jailed for his anti-war propaganda, even though Sweden did not participate in the war.
In Britain, both young and old men and some women resisted conscription and towards the end of the war a range of very distinguished people were imprisoned for their opposition to it, including "the nation's leading investigative journalist, a future winner of the Nobel Prize, more than half a dozen future members of Parliament, one future cabinet minister, and a former newspaper editor who was publishing a clandestine journal for his fellow inmates on toilet paper." One of them was Bertrand Russell - a mathematician, philosopher and social critic engaged in pacifist activities, who was dismissed from Trinity College, Cambridge following his conviction under the Defence of the Realm Act in 1916. A later conviction resulted in six months' of imprisonment in Brixton prison from which he was released in September 1918.
In the shipyards in and around Glasgow, Scotland, opposition to the British war effort became a major aim during the Red Clydeside era. To mobilise the workers of Clydeside against World War I, the Clyde Workers' Committee (CWC) was formed, with Willie Gallacher as its head and David Kirkwood its treasurer. The CWC led the campaign against the Liberal government of David Lloyd George and their Munitions Act, which forbade engineers from leaving the company they were employed in. The CWC negotiated with government leaders, but no agreement could be reached and consequently both Gallacher and Kirkwood were arrested and imprisoned under the Defence of the Realm Act.
Anti-war activity also took place outside the workplace and on the streets in general. The Marxist John Maclean and Independent Labour Party member James Maxton were both jailed for their anti-war propagandizing.
In Australia two referendums in 1916 and 1917 resulted in votes against conscription, and were seen as opposition to an all-out prosecution of the war. In retaliation, the Australian government used the War Precautions Act and the Unlawful Associations Act to arrest and prosecute anti-conscriptionists such as Tom Barker, editor of Direct Action and many other members of the Industrial Workers of the World. The young John Curtin, at the time a member of the Victorian Socialist Party, was also arrested. Anti-conscriptionist publications (in one case, even when read into Hansard), were seized by government censors in police raids.
Other notable opponents to Conscription included the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Daniel Mannix, the Queensland Labor Premier Thomas Ryan, Vida Goldstein and the Women's Peace Army. Most labor unions actively opposed conscription.
Many Australians thought positively of conscription as a sign of loyalty to Britain and thought that it would also support those men who were already fighting. However, trade unions feared that their members might be replaced by cheaper foreign or female labour and opposed conscription. Some groups argued that the whole war was immoral, and it was unjust to force people to fight.
In Canada opposition to conscription and involvement in the war centered on French Canadian separatists led by Henri Bourassa. Following the 1917 elections, the government implemented the Military Service Act 1917 that came into effect in 1918.
Beginning in 1914, anti-war campaigns in Ireland were led by the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and the Christian Socialist James Connolly. Both, however, were executed by the British Army following the Easter Rising of 1916. The Conscription Crisis of 1918 had long-term repercussions, uniting several nationalist parties and the Roman Catholic Hierarchy in opposition to the draft. This played a major part in the Irish War of Independence and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922.
In Russia, opposition to the war was originally led by both Marxists and pacifist Tolstoyans under the leadership of Valentin Bulgakov. Bulgakov's first reaction to the outbreak of war was the appeal "Wake up, all people are brothers!" which he composed on 28 September 1914.
"Our enemies are - not the Germans, and - not Russians or Frenchmen. The common enemy of us all, no matter what nationality to which we belong - is the beast within us. Nowhere is this truth so clearly confirmed, as now, when, intoxicated, and excessively proud of their false science, their foreign culture and their civilization of the machine, people of the 20th century have suddenly realized the true stage of its development: this step is no higher than that which our ancestors were at in the days of Attila and Genghis Khan. It is infinitely sad to know that two thousand years of Christianity have passed almost without a trace upon the people.".
In October, Bulgakov continued circulating the appeal, collecting signatures and posting copies which were confiscated by the Tsarist secret police, or Okhrana. On 28 October Bulgakov was arrested together with 27 signatories of the appeal.
In November–December 1915, most defendants were released from custody on bail. A trial took place on 1 April 1916 and the defendants were acquitted.
As Russia's involvement in the war continued anyway, soldiers began to establish their own revolutionary tribunals and began to execute officers en masse. After the October Revolution of 1917, Lenin's Bolsheviks called for unilateral armistice, but the other combatants refused, determined to fight until the bitter end. The Bolsheviks agreed a peace treaty with Imperial Germany, the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, despite its harsh conditions. They also published the secret treaties between Russia and the Western Allies, hoping that the revelation of Allied plans for a vengeful peace would encourage international opposition to the war.
In 1917, a series of mutinies in the French army led to dozens of soldiers being executed and many more imprisoned. These soldiers were rehabilitated by the French government in the 1990s.
Leading up to 1917 and the declaration of war against Germany, the labor unions, socialists, members of the Old Right, and pacifist groups in the United States publicly opposed participation, the obvious motive for the 1916 Preparedness Day Bombing stemming from this. When Woodrow Wilson ran for reelection in 1916 on the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War", he received support from these groups (although the Socialist Party of America ran its own candidate, Allan Benson). After being reelected, though, events quickly spiraled into war. The Zimmermann Telegram and resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany provoked outrage in the U.S., and Congress declared war on April 6. Conscription was introduced shortly thereafter, which the anti-war movement bitterly opposed.
The Espionage Act of 1917 was passed to prevent spying but also contained a section which criminalized inciting or attempting to incite any mutiny, desertion, or refusal of duty in the armed forces, punishable with a fine of not more than $10,000, not more than twenty years in federal prison, or both. Thousands of anti-war activists and unhappy citizens were prosecuted on authority of this and the Sedition Act of 1918, which tightened restrictions even more. Among the most famous was Eugene Debs, chairman of the Socialist Party of the USA for giving an anti-war speech in Ohio. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld these prosecutions in a series of decisions. Conscientious objectors were punished as well, most of them Christian pacifist inductees. They were placed directly in the armed forces and court-martialed, receiving draconian sentences and harsh treatment. A number of them died in Alcatraz Prison, then a military facility. Vigilante groups were formed which suppressed dissent as well, such as by rounding up draft-age men and checking if they were in possession of draft cards or not.
Ben Salmon was a Catholic conscientious objector and outspoken critic of Just War theology. During World War I, America's Roman Catholic Hierarchy denounced him and the The New York Times described him as a "spy suspect." The US military (in which he was never inducted) court-martialed him for desertion and spreading propaganda, then sentenced him to death (this was later revised to 25 years hard labor).
Around 300,000 American men evaded or refused conscription in World War I. Aliens such as Emma Goldman were deported, while naturalized or even native-born citizens, including Eugene Debs, lost their citizenship for their activities. Helen Keller, a socialist, and Jane Addams, a pacifist, also publicly opposed the war, but neither was prosecuted, likely because they were sympathetic figures (Keller working to help fellow deaf-blind people and Addams in charity to benefit the poor).
In 1919, as the soldiers came home, disturbances continued, with veterans fighting strikers, the Seattle General Strike, race riots in the South and the Palmer Raids following two anarchist bombings. After the election of Warren G. Harding in 1920, Americans were eager to follow his campaign slogan of "Return to Normalcy." Anti-war dissidents in federal prison, such as Debs, and conscientious objectors, had their sentences commuted to time served or were pardoned on December 25, 1921. The Sedition Act was repealed in 1921, but the Espionage Act remains, and Richard Nixon attempted to invoke it in vain to prevent the Pentagon Papers being published in 1971. Many U.S. Supreme Court decisions since then have substantially, but not explicitly, gutted the provisions used to squelch dissent. Media withheld much oppostition to the war.