FEATURE | 3 Apr 2023

When pacifism is wrong

An interview with Andrew Gilmour


The head of the Berghof Foundation says the traditions of leftist pacifism in Germany deserve great respect but should be questioned in light of the war in Ukraine.


In his interview with Berliner Zeitung, Berghof’s Executive Director, Andrew Gilmour, looks at the German peace movement’s position in the context of the Ukraine invasion.

While understanding and greatly respecting the peace movement’s important and worthy tradition in this country, he believes that the two historic slogans "Nie wieder Krieg" (“Never again war”) and "Nicht unser Krieg" (“Not our War”) are not appropriate in every circumstance. Least of all now.

One of Gilmour’s own grandfathers, having fought in the British Army on the Western Front throughout the First World War, later became a well-known supporter of the “appeasement” policy towards Nazi Germany.

As Gilmour points out, “the arguments of the appeasers in the UK right up until 1940 were exactly the same two slogans as those now used by those in this country to justify not standing with the Ukrainian people in their hour of need.” He is convinced that those basing their calls for “peace”, both then and now, on those two slogans will be judged to be “categorically on the wrong side of history”.

No, says Andrew Gilmour, he doesn't want to be photographed in front of the British flag: "The values I want to talk about are universal, not national." The native Scot has come to the Allied Museum in the south of Berlin for the first time.

It stands under the wing of the "Hastings" in the museum courtyard. The aircraft was the largest transport plane used by the British Royal Air Force during the Berlin Airlift. "How enemies became friends" is the motto of the permanent exhibition. Gilmour walks slowly through the museum rooms, stops, thinks. Andrew Gilmour has lived in Berlin for three years. The Oxford graduate is the director of the Berghof Foundation. He wants to talk about the German left and peace.

The Berghof Foundation was established more than 50 years ago by the Bosch heir Georg Zundel. The foundation, whose language is now English, used to be called the "Berghof Foundation for Conflict Research". The name recalls the family's residence in Tübingen Lustnau. Zundel was a scientist and entrepreneur, passionately committed to peace and ecology - a classic "leftist". His father - a worker portrait painter - was previously married to Clara Zetkin.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, famous socialists stayed in their house - from August Bebel to Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin. Even for the ancestors of today's left, war was a major and controversial issue. Thus, Clara Zetkin warned in her report to the Extended Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International on 2 March 1922: "Only three years have passed since the guns ceased to roar on the great imperialist battlefields of Central Europe; two years have passed since peace was solemnly invoked in treaties. And already wars are threatening again, which will surpass the imperialist war of 1914 to 1918 in scope, in dreadfulness, in horrific effects, although this already seemed an inferno to every feeling and thinking person."

For the leftists of Zundel's generation, everything changed with the experience of war crimes such as the bombing of cities like Warsaw or Coventry, and the uniqueness of the Shoah. "Never again war, never again Holocaust" became the leitmotif of the peace movement, which carried even more weight in the Cold War. In view of nuclear armament, war in Europe was not a regional phenomenon; the prospect of total annihilation always dawned: "The nuclear annihilation capacity of the USA was 1.5 million times the Hiroshima bomb, and the Soviet Union followed suit," says Dieter Senghaas.

Andrew Gilmour's message to pacifists

Senghaas was one of the pioneers of peace research in Germany; he had studied this science in the USA. Zundel brought him to head the Berghof Foundation, where he remained for several decades. "The ideological escalation at that time was an escalation on all levels, and in this respect, the situation was much more dangerous than today. Today the situation is much more open," says Senghaas. In order to break the balance of terror, i.e. the stalemate of "mutually assured destruction" (MAD), the option of actually using "tactical" nuclear weapons ("counterforce deterrence") was discussed at the time. Peace research did everything to stop the final escalation. It was a matter of survival.

The situation could also come to a head in the current geopolitical confrontation. This is precisely why Andrew Gilmour wants to send a message to left-wing peace movements and pacifists in Germany. They need to rethink their relationship with the use of military means. Gilmour was UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights for a long time. He knows numerous theatres of war from his own experience.

He says that he can understand the discord in the German left. He talks about his family: a grandfather had been in the trenches in the First World War. The terrible experience made him an absolute opponent of war and an appeaser. He did not want war, not even against the Nazis. Gilmour’s other grandfather fought in France, his unit was evacuated from Dunkirk. This grandfather was convinced that Hitler had to be stopped with weapons, “but the other one was clearly on the wrong side of history”.

Gilmour takes issue with the left's relationship to the current war in Ukraine. But criticism is visibly difficult for him: "I would be very grateful if you could express the respect I personally have for the German peace movement and the origins of Berghof." He justifies his respect with his intensive study of German history.

As he sees it, the peace movement was an understandable reaction to Prussian militarism, the horrors of the trenches, the humiliating defeat at Versailles, the Holocaust, and the “Götterdämmerung” of 1945. Then came the division of Germany and the Wall. Both German states were on the front line between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and the threat of tactical nuclear weapons was real.

I have great respect and understanding for the German peace movement, but it would be a mistake to see this as the best for all circumstances in history.Andrew Gilmour

Then Gilmour says: "But while historically I have respect, sympathy, and understanding for it, it would be a terrible mistake to regard it as the best attitude for all circumstances. The peace movement in Germany was a deeply moral and valuable contribution to society when the main threat to peace was German militarism, or even US 'imperialism' as some call it."

But it would be "ridiculous today to imagine that the current threat to peace comes from German militarism in any form". Gilmour continues: "If someone on the left says that, perhaps they should ask themselves why Putin and far-right movements in Europe are using exactly the same reasoning as they are, at a time of massive and brutal invasion in a neighbouring country friendly to Germany."

However noble such an attitude may have been in the past, "I am convinced that pacifism, accompanied by non-solidarity, can be a distinctly dangerous and immoral attitude, and even a betrayal of the memory of those who bravely resisted for peace in times past". If Roosevelt had not fought with soldiers against Hitler, "all of Europe would still be living under the Third Reich today".

Dealing with the Ukraine war

Roosevelt had pushed through the entry into the war, although at the time demonstrators in the streets had shouted "Not our war!". Gilmour stressed that the same recognition should go to the Soviet Union, which made "unimaginable sacrifices" in the fight against Nazism and had "27 million dead to mourn". Hitler should never have been met with "appeasement". He should have been stopped much earlier, because that was how the spiral of utter destruction developed.

In his autobiography "A lot must happen!", Berghof founder Georg Zundel, whose grandfather Robert Bosch had supported one of Hitler's opponents, Carl Goerdeler, recalls the war. He writes: "We spent the summer holidays in Haisterkirch. In 1944, many bomber groups of about 25 silver glittering bombers flew to Munich every day, to return two hours later after the work of destruction had been completed. The bombers flew completely unmolested without protection by fighter planes."

Zundel later reflected on the experience: "From my perspective today, these terrorist attacks against the defenseless civilian population were a war crime against international law that should have been atoned for after the war. The emerging aggression of the Americans against the Russians led to the horrific bombing of Dresden, which was home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Eastern territories. I suspect that the Western Allies did not want to leave Dresden undestroyed to the Russians and therefore accepted the death of the population and the refugees."

In order to prevent an escalation in the Ukraine war at an early stage, Andrew Gilmour and the Berghof Foundation have been looking into current war crimes, namely those committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. These must be investigated and prosecuted, says Gilmour. "There must be no double standards when it comes to war crimes, they must be prosecuted and punished wherever and by whomever they are committed," says Gilmour. During his time at the UN, he had always put his finger in the open wound and had been attacked by China, Russia, Israel and Egypt, among others, for criticizing their human rights violations.

In order to avoid wars in principle and to secure peace, a sober view is required in peace research. This view actually follows logically from the social and economic analysis of the left. Dieter Senghaas wrote in his book "Deterrence and Peace" that there is a "political-military-economic-scientific elite". This elite pursues a "strategy of organised peacelessness committed to particular interests".

It follows, says Zundel, that peace must also be "made". The point, as Hans-Peter Dürr writes in the foreword to Zundel's book, is "to develop non-violent options for the future that are in harmony with nature, as well as to strengthen the responsibility of scientists for the preservation of life on our planet". For this reason, Zundel wanted to bring together natural scientists and peace researchers in the Berghof Foundation, an undertaking that was not crowned with success due to a lack of interest on the part of the scientific community.

If all peace researchers got together and created a platform on which the United Nations could be shown possible solutions, something could be done.Dieter Senghaas

Peace research has also become quieter in left-wing peace discourses in Germany. Luminaries like Johan Galtung or Ekkehard Krippendorff are no longer on the talk shows. Senghaas says that peace research is now an established science whose expertise is very much used by politicians. Senghaas believes that there is also the possibility of mediation in the Ukraine war in this field: "If all peace researchers got together and created a platform on which the United Nations could be shown possible solutions, something could be done," Senghaas is convinced.

The difficulty of mediation efforts in the Ukraine war, however, lies in the fact that in the background the great powers, the USA and Russia, will decide when the weapons are silent. De-escalation is made more difficult by "learning pathologies", such as Putin's misjudgment of a quick victory. The lesson to be learned from a mistake is that new atrocities will be committed. Moreover, if lies are blatantly used as a political instrument, it is hardly possible to end the war, says Senghaas.

Andrew Gilmour also believes that a solution is possible, for example by placing the Donbass under a UN mandate. This idea, which he himself had to explain to the then Ukrainian president in 2015 would not fly as the Russians would instantly veto it in the Security Council, could perhaps be put back on the table in the future. However, this is precisely why it is necessary to keep the military pressure high: "Putin is counting on Germany and the West losing interest in the war and not sending Ukraine any more aid. He believes that the West is decadent and Russia can go on for a long time."

Could Putin be right on that? Gilmour is silent for a long time. Then he says: "If the most cynical businessmen or the most naïve pacifists get their way, yes, he could be right."

This was originally published as an article by Michael Maier in Berliner Zeitung on 1 April 2023 (in German).

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