Neutrality in WWI is a complex matter. Nations that managed to remain neutral did so not only because of their choices but also belligerent states had the interest to keep them neutral.
The state of neutrality is as ancient as war, but during WWI, the concept of neutrality was shaped by the international system put in place during the long, peaceful 1800s.
During that century, nations, great and small, agreed on adhering to international legal statutes that bound them to behave in a certain way. This system allowed Europe to create global political stability by limiting the scale and scope of wars – both inside and outside the continent. In this way, they protected an increasingly vital connection between the European states and their imperial territories, which were becoming their main market as well as their suppliers.
The ‘totalising logic’ of WWI shattered this balance. When diplomacy tripped in summer 1914, it was precisely this system that collapsed. The war engulfed states across the globe that – without the protection of the European system – could not remain neutral, even when the war wasn’t an opportunity for them. Besides, belligerent states often breached neutral borders when they thought it was the right move for them.
It was always a state of balance.
Some neutrals managed to remain so throughout the war because all belligerent nations saw a practical purpose in protecting a certain state’s neutrality. It’s the case of the Netherlands, for example. Both Germany and Great Britain were unwilling to open a new front so close to their population centres and was this more than anything to maintain the Netherlands neutrality.
The same it’s true for different organisations, like the Red Cross, which managed to remain neutral all through the war because thus all belligerent nations could make use of their services.
On the other hand, some nations that had officially declared neutrality unofficially ended up helping one side.
In the total war, freely choosing one’s stand wasn’t easy.Neutrality (The Great War #AtoZChallenge 2021) Neutrality in WWI is a complex matter. Nations that managed to remain neutral did so not only because of their choices but also belligerent states had the interest to keep them… Click To Tweet
Pacifism as the rejection of violence under any circumstances had existed for millennia before the Great War, but the concept as we understand it today – and the very word ‘pacifism’ – was only born after the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 1800s. In many nations, different organisations inspired by pacifism existed by the beginning of the 1900s. The war posed a problem for them because, often, pacifism was understood as unpatriotic.
There was still a lot of ‘pacifism’ during the Great War.
Conscientious objectors were accepted by most armies on the basis of religious beliefs, for example. But many pacifists existed among socialists (who believed in a world system based on diplomacy) and also among many women organisations, most prominently among the suffragette movement – at least in Europe.
The treatment of conscientious objectors was different, depending on the national army. In Germany, for example, if a man refused to carry out orders on the basis of religious or political beliefs, he was often suspected of being mentally ill and sent to an asylum. If he was deemed sane, he was consigned to the army for trial as a coward, which may result in a death sentence.
In other countries, such as Britain, where a pacifist tradition was strongly rooted and where service in the army was voluntary – at least up to 1916 – there was more tolerance toward the conscientious objectors. These men could still serve in the war effort, if in non-combatant roles such as medical orderlies, stretch-bearers, ambulance drivers, cooks or labourers.
Still, the position of pacifism was always quite unpopular during the Great War, and it would be all through the interwar years. It was going to be a few decades before this concept became commonly accepted in most nations.