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“Education is better than poison gas”. The Wilpf’s Path to Peace (1919-1939)

by Maria Grazia Suriano (University of Bologna)

This note is focused on non-violence during a totalitarian age [1]. More specifically, I try to introduce the possible relationship between non-violent practice and anti-fascist activism, also from a cultural perspective. At the end of the Great War, thanks to the policies of “non interference” established by the League of Nations, different political-educational projects that were peace-oriented emerged.

In my doctoral research I observed the activity carried out by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s governing bodies between 1919, the year the League was founded, and 1939, when the international secretary, Gertrude Baer, left Geneva for New York. During these twenty years, the International WILPF Executive Committee and the International Secretariat strengthened the organization, becoming involved with the League of Nations and other international associations in public debates on the traffic and production of armaments, on economic reform and the exploitation of resources, and on the promotion of a non-violent culture among the youth. The use of WILPF’s education materials, unexplored before, allowed to see how internationally active the secretariat was, and how the international officers distinguished between disarmament and education those sectors of activities which better expressed their ideals, at least during the 1920s.

However, it is important to underline how the “wilpfers” in this decade– even if they had the opportunity to deal with Mussolini’s politics – did not take any official action to censure his Fascist regime. Why did an organization that had identified the realization of peace with the freedom for everyone have such a distant attitude towards the Italian political situation? How did the decision to have the League of Nations as the only institutional referent come about and what was its effect? As I could observe, the Executive Committee’s distance from all “national issues” produced a sense of isolation from within the Italian Section, which was one of the first sections founded. This section, in fact, had good International relationships with the League as well as with French and English members until 1927, when National political persecutions forced some of its leaders to leave Italy and cut off the contact with International activities with which they had been involved.

At the beginning of the 1930s something changed. The WILPF International Executive Committee accorded League membership to the “Group of Italian Women Abroad” (all political exiles). At this point, Italian as well as German members’ evidence about persecutions and abuses carried out by Fascists and Nazis in their own country helped WILPF executive officers make a definite choice in favour of an anti-fascist public position. In other words, the public consciousness of these pacifists was pushed to realize that the affirmation of non-violent principles required a wide range of confrontation, which had to involve not only the personal aspirations of all people who worked for peaceful relationships (within and outside of National borders), but also those of whole institutional systems.

[1] For details see the forthcoming book: M. G. Suriano, Percorrere la nonviolenza. L’esperienza politica della Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (1915-1939), Roma, Aracne, 2012.

Maria Grazia Suriano works at the Centro Interuniversitario per la Storia delle Università Italiane (CISUI) of the University of Bologna. Her research interests include women, pacifism and non-violence between the two World Wars.


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This entry was posted on July 17, 2012 by in Voices.
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