As a pacifist, I'm very used to being asked “What would you have done about Hitler?”. Some people who ask this are just using the easiest anti-pacifist argument that comes to mind. But for others, it is the issue that genuinely stops them becoming pacifists, a point of view which I can understand and respect.
And I've never claimed that it's an easy question to answer. I don't condemn people for resorting to violence in extreme circumstances that I haven't faced, even though I have much more confidence in nonviolent resistance. However, the World War Two Question is to some extent self-defeating when used as a challenge to pacifism. The very fact that almost everyone refers to it when questioning pacifists suggests that it was far from being a typical war – most wars don't have anywhere near so strong a case to be made for them.
That's not to say the pro-World War Two case is as strong as is often thought. It assumes that nothing could have been done to tackle Hitler and his allies prior to the war. Indeed, pacifists have even been blamed for the war due to the policy of appeasement. By a combination of error and design, appeasement is often confused with pacifism. In reality, most of the appeasers were right-wingers who were quite happy to befriend fascism, or at least tolerate it if it provided some safety from the communism that they feared far more.
Never forget that a number of Tory politicians showed sympathy for fascism in the 1920s and 30s. The Daily Mail was sufficiently supportive of fascism to back Franco in the Spanish Civil War (the Mail's politics have never changed).
In contrast, pacifist campaigners in the 1930s called for action against fascism. When Mussolini invaded Abyssinia in 1935, peace activists in Britain campaigned for an arms embargo on Italy. Arms companies successfully lobbied the government against this, showing that the horrors of war and oppression are always profitable for some.
Participating in a panel discussion on BBC Wales' All Things Considered recently, I referred to the fact that the UK and US governments had allowed arms companies based in their countries to arm dictators in the years prior to the war. The American company Lockheed sold aeroplanes to Japan as late as May 1939. The company is now called Lockheed Martin and their ethics haven't changed.
However, I must apologise for making a mistake in the programme. I slipped up and suggested that American aircraft had been sold to Nazi Germany, whereas it was Japan that I had in mind. My thanks go to the three people who emailed me to point out my mistake.
I am keen not to be mistaken with such facts when making this case, as the wider issue is too important for me to undermine it in that way. The reality is that World War Two was helped along by arms companies more concerned about pounds and dollars than patriotism and democracy.
If the allied governments had listened to peace campaigners years earlier, war might not have been prevented, but it might well have taken place on a lesser scale, and millions of lives could have been saved.