Famous Pacifists

A pacifist is somebody who opposes war and refuses to fight. There are different levels of pacifism.

  • Absolute pacifists – Someone who refuses to kill whatever the circumstances. Even in self-defence.
  • Conditional pacifists – Someone who generally opposes war, but may accept there are times when it is necessary. For example, when your country is invaded and you are defending your family and country.
  • Selective pacifists – Someone who will decide whether a war is morally justified or not. For example, they may refuse to fight for their country if they feel that their country is engaging in an unjust war. Selective pacifists may particularly oppose war using weapons of mass destruction, e.g. nuclear weapons, biological weapons.

These are a list of people who have actively promoted pacificism or refused to fight for their country. They are not all absolute pacifists, but they share some or all of the basic pacifist principles.

mahaviraMahavira (540 BCE – 468 BCE) Mahavira was an important propagator and reformer of Jainism. He helped to spread the Jain religion of non-violence across India. A key principle of Jainism is non-violence and Jains go out of their way to avoid hurting other sentient beings, even insects.

pacifistÉmile Arnaud (1864–1921) Emile Arnaud was a militant pacifist who helped to coin the term pacifism in the late Nineteenth Century. Arnaud codified his beliefs into the ‘Code de la Paix’ in 1901. He advocated humanism, charity, tolerance and non-violent conflict resolution.

writer Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910) Russian writer of ‘ War and Peace‘ and moral philosopher. After fighting in the Crimean war, he became a pacifist, basing his pacifist beliefs on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.

writer George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950) Irish playwright and wit. On the eve of the Second World War, he defended pacifism by quoting from the Sermon on the Mount.

keir-hardieJames Keir Hardie (1856 -– 1915) Union leader, pacifist and Parliamentarian socialist. During the first year of the First World War, Keir Hardie was an outspoken critic of the war.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) – Indian nationalist and politician. Gandhi advocated ahimsa – non-violent protest for Indian self-determination and independence.

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) British pacifist who campaigned against conscription. He was sent to jail for six months for speaking against America’s entry into the First World War in 1917. Russell did support the war against Nazi Germany, but after WWII he joined the campaign for nuclear disarmament.

niemollarMartin Niemöller (1892 – 1984) Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi theologian. A founder of the Confessional church which sought to reject the Nazification of churches. He served in the German navy in the First World War, but after being imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps and the end of WWII, he became a committed pacifist and proponent of the Peace Movement.

Vera Brittain (1893 – 1970) – Nurse, poet and author of ‘Testament of Youth’. Devastated by the loss of her brother during the war, her book ‘Testament of Youth’ marks her move towards pacificism.

Aldous Huxley (1894 – 1963) English writer, satirist and pacifist. He is best known for his dystopian work – Brave New World. His application for US citizenship was refused on the grounds he wouldn’t commit to taking up arms to defend the US, citing philosophical objection to war.

joanSophie Scholl (1921-1943) – As a student at the University of Munich, Scholl was arrested by the Gestapo for distributing anti-war leaflets. As a consequence, she was executed for ‘high treason’ in 1943. Motivated by her Christian faith, she opposed the Nazi ideology of Germany and was willing to risk her own life in standing up for her activities.

Thich Nhat Hanh (1926 – ) Vietnamese monk who inspired the movement of engaged Buddhism. Hanh has been a prominent peace activist and has written extensively on incorporating non-violent Buddhist teachings into everyday life.

14th Dalai Lama. (1935 – ) The leader of Tibetans in exile. The Dalai Lama has sought to negotiate with the Chinese to respect traditions and culture of Tibetans. Believes in non-violent protest.

Albert Einstein. (1879 – 1955) Revolutionised modern physics with his general theory of relativity. Einstein was a committed pacifist. “I am not only a pacifist but a militant pacifist. I am willing to fight for peace. Nothing will end war unless the people themselves refuse to go to war.

Joan_Baez Joan Baez (1941 – ) Joan Baez was a singer songwriter who held a deep conviction in the value of non-violence and pacifism. She was jailed twice for protesting the Vietnam War. She travelled around the world to support human rights campaigns. Her music inspired a generation of anti-war and anti-racism campaigners.


Famous conscientious objectors

Muhammad Ali (1942 – ) US, boxing Olympic champion and world heavyweight champion of the world. Muhammad Ali dominated the sport with his athletic prowess and formidable personality. His opposition to Vietnam war made him a controversial figure in his day.

William White (Australian) William White was an Australian teacher who refused to be conscripted into the army in 1966 when Australia was involved in the Vietnam war. He objected on grounds that ‘I am standing against killing‘ and ‘I am opposed to a state’s right to conscript a person

Ben Salmon (1889–1932) An American Catholic who refused to be drafted in the US army during the First World War. He was arrested and court marshalled. Initially sentenced to death, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. After the war, he was pardoned and released in 1920. He opposed the principle of a ‘just war’ citing Christian philosophy in opposing the war.

franzFranz Jägerstätter (1907 — 1943) Austrian conscientious objector. He refused to fight in the German army when drafted in 1943. He refused to fight for the forces of the evil side, despite knowing he would be executed.

David_Harris_ David Harris (1946 – ) Refused to serve in the US Army during the Vietnam War. Actively protested outside draft centres in the US. Was sentenced to three years in jail for his refusal to serve in the Army. Husband and fellow activist of Joan Baez.

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Famous pacifists”, Oxford, UK www.biographyonline.net, Published 2 February 2014. Updated 6 February 2018.

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