Why World War One?

The long Failure of Western Arms.

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy.


Perhaps the most important voice for peace came from Leo Tolstoy. Earlier in his life he wrote War and Peace based on his experiences in the Crimean War, but set further back in the Napoleonic Wars. It is often described as the world’s greatest novel, but Tolstoy effectively repudiated it as too accommodating to war, after he was converted to a fuller view of Christianity. It is interesting how dismissive Tolstoy is of it in My Confession.

In this way fifteen years passed… I continued all the time to write. I had experienced the seductions of authorship, the temptations of an enormous pecuniary reward and of great applause for valueless work, and gave myself up to it as a means of improving my pecuniary position, and of stifling in my soul all questions regarding my own life and life in general.[i]


Tolstoy came to the teachings of Christ and became a Christian espousing especially Christ’s teaching on peace and its intellectual and practical consequences. From henceforth his new perspective can be described as Peace Not War. In his book, The Kingdom of God is within You he addresses the changes of heart and outlook required by following Christ and accepting the Law of Love for the whole of life and towards everybody. He critically examines the process of militarism, routing it from the field. He profusely uses the arguments of others, quoting Passy: “The heads of governments emphatically affirm that they desire peace, and eagerly emulate each other in their pacific utterances, but almost immediately thereafter they purpose to their legislative assemblies measures for increasing armaments…” “There is military slavery, and it is the worst of all slaveries… it forges chains for the necks of free and strong men to use them as instruments of murder, to make them executioners and butchers of human flesh…” Strong images indeed.


Tolstoy looks at the arrogance of colonialism. “When people talk of cannibals we smile contemptuously with a sense of superiority to such savages. But who are the true savages?” Tolstoy supplies the answer for all who cannot work it out.

“(T)oday, with all our wisdom, civilization, with the advancement of science, the degree of philosophy to which the human spirit has attained, we have schools where the art of murder, of aiming with deadly accuracy and killing large numbers of men at a distance, is actually taught, killing poor, harmless devils who have families to support, killing them without even the pretext of law…”

“(I)f it be criminal to kill one man, the killing of numbers cannot be regarded in the light of extenuation; that if it is shameful to steal, it cannot be glorious to lead an invading army.”

“Then war comes on the scene, and in six months all the results of twenty years of patient labour and of human genius are gone forever, crushed by victorious generals.” “We have seen war. We have seen men maddened; returned to the condition of the brutes, we have seen them kill in wanton sport, out of terror, or for mere bravado and show…”

“Has not the inventor of the wheelbarrow, by the simple and practical contrivance of a wheel and a couple of boards accomplished more than the inventors of modern war?”

And so it goes on - laying out the futility and destruction and waste of militarism as the dead body of a madman is laid out.[ii]

Organised murder is always wrong, and Tolstoy tells it as it is. Yet he does not stop there. He looks at Christianity as it is understood and practiced. His immediate focus is the Russian Orthodox Church, and he questions the compromise and hypocrisy in its leadership and the way ritual and quasi-miracles are practiced in a corruption of the Christian faith. Has the Church itself not been compromised into supporting militarism, even through accepting bribes? Pithily he says, “The disparity between ecclesiastical creeds and the doctrine of Christ is so great that a special effort is required to keep mankind in ignorance.” Crucial, for Tolstoy is Christ’s teaching against fighting in the Sermon on the Mount which he sees as an absolutely clear repudiation of the way of violence, even when evil has been done.

“Ye have heard how it is said, an eye for an eye: a tooth for a tooth.

But I say to you, that ye withstand not wrong. But if a man give thee a blow on thy right cheek, turn to him the other.

And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take thy coat from thee, let him have thy cloak also.

And whosoever will compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

Give to him that asketh: and from him that would borrow turn not away.

Ye have heard how it is said: thou shalt love thine neighbor, and hate thine enemy.

But I say unto you, love your enemies. Bless them that curse you. Do good to them that hate you. Pray for them which do you wrong, and persecute you,

that ye may be the children of your heavenly Father: for he maketh his sun to arise, on the evil, and on the good, and sendeth his rain on the just and unjust.”

As Tolstoy repeatedly pointed out, you cannot love people and kill them. It’s difficult to get round that one. This call of Christ’s was not just to individuals, but reflected the global purposes of the Kingdom of God. Tolstoy sees it as the way of sanity, as opposed to the madness that would have fifteen million people in arms and use up half of government expenditure in pointless military maneouvres.

Clearly, this perspective diminished his popularity somewhat with the Russian Orthodox Church. They excommunicated him. The Tsar and the Russian establishment must have seen the truth of what he said, and resented the challenge to their armed dominance. But it was hard to exercise power over somewhere who cared not a whit for Fabergé, the aristocracy, coaches and horses, stately homes or tradition, but preferred peasants, ploughing, talking to pilgrims and walking. Tolstoy gained some of his own inspiration from a pacifist group of Russian Christians called Doukhobors, who had links back into the Anabaptist movement and with migrant Prussian Mennonites. They lived, causing no trouble to anybody yet Tsar Nicholas was determined to conscript them into the armed forces. In Easter 1895 60-70 Doukhobors serving as soldiers threw down their guns and refused to fight because they were Christians. They were fiercely punished, but a couple of months later 7,500 Doukobors gathered all their guns and burned them in three great piles of weapons singing hymns as the weapons melted. It must have been one of the great parties of all time and could start a trend. Tolstoy was much affected by them. They were punished and imprisoned in Siberia. Many died, but eventually Tsar Nicholas allowed the rest of them to emigrate, if they raised their own passage.

Many surviving Doukobors finally went to Canada. Tolstoy’s son Sergey went with 2,000 of them on their passage. His old father worked himself to exhaustion writing his novel Resurrection in 1898, coughing and haemorrhaging with tuberculosis, but the royalties came in and paid the passage of the Doukobors,[iii] along with contributions from Quakers and other groups. It is not surprising that what may really be the world’s greatest novel should have had such a motive as its impetus. Tolstoy’s peace vision moved out from his home at Yasnaya Polyana around the world. At the end of his life he exchanged changed letters with a young Indian man, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, discussing peaceful non-resistence. Gandhi absorbed Tolstoy’s pacifism, and bargained with Jan Smuts for a proper status for Indian South Africans, and then later for the end to Indian colonialism. And so the ripples widened.

The reverberations of these events, the peace conferences and Tolstoy’s writings spread around Europe and beyond, showing the kind of movement which was underway. The Universal Peace Congresses became practically annual events throughout Europe and beyond, gaining impetus in the urgent bid for world-wide peace.


[i] Leo Tolstoi Works Vol IX My Confession (NY:Fred DeFau, 1898) 12

[ii] Ibid. Selected texts.

[iii] Rosamund Bartlett Tolstoy: A Russian Life (London: Profile, 2011) 364-382