Origins of the Site

In 2003 a deposit was made at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection (SCPC) of the archival papers of brothers David Eichel and Julius Eichel. For me (Anne Yoder) as an archivist, there is nothing quite like opening a box and finding dozens of handwritten letters, pocket diaries, and other personal items. I had never heard of the Eichels, but they soon became the center of a new obsession for me. It fascinated me that these two brothers had shared conscientious objection convictions during World War I. How did they arrive at these as members of an immigrant family in New York City? Did they make the same choices each time their convictions were questioned? As I read their writings from 1917-1920, I realized that they had similar experiences at times, but that these also diverged as they were sent to different camps and prisons at various points. I began transcribing their diaries, letters and statements (with the help of volunteer Jane _____), wanting to understand the totality of their witness in greater detail. At the same time, I started noticing the other WWI conscientious objector (C.O.) sources at the Peace Collection, and transcribing those as well. In a few months, I had over 500 pages of transcription.

A book at first seemed like the logical way to share this plethora of sources. But then there was the problem of choosing only a small portion that could actually fit into a book, and finding a publisher. Really, what I wanted was to be able to share as many of the sources with the public as possible, with little editorial downsizing or opinion to get in the way. Thus, the idea for this site was born. Here the words of the C.O.s themselves could shine, telling about their experiences through their own voices. Here the legacy of their questions and convictions could help us today when violence and war confront us.

Having grown up as a Mennonite, whose religious tradition of pacifism and nonviolent efforts toward peace reaches back almost 500 years, I was well aware of my relatives and others in the Mennonite Church who had been conscientious objectors through the American wars. In fact, I thought that other than a few Quaker, Church of the Brethren, and Amish men, that all the C.O.s had been Mennonite. I remember reading Noah Leatherman’s published diary from WWI and wondering if I could be as staunch in my convictions as he was. Nothing besides him being a suffering Mennonite made an impression on me as a teenager. (It was a little embarrassing to read it years later and realize that he noted the Socialist C.O.s and others with whom he came into contact).

What a surprise it was to learn through the Eichel papers and beyond that there were hundreds of C.O.s who had strong enough convictions to take them to prison for their beliefs, and these were not from the Historic Peace Churches. I began to realize how much there was to learn from all who had the shared experience of being torn from all that was familiar and tossed into strange, and unwelcoming, territory. The Historic Peace Churches have done a wonderful job of preserving the archives and stories of their own traditions, but not nearly as much has been done to bring forward those from outside these traditions. I am glad for the opportunity to present mostly formerly unpublished material to right this skewed historical record.

Because the British C.O. experience bolstered that of American C.O.s, and because the SCPC holds a (small) number of letters and other items from British men, it was decided to include them in this site.

This website showcases archival items from the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, but several other institutions have made or will make their material from their collections available here as well. This provides a richness in presenting a wider range of C.O. thought from the time period of 1914-1920, giving us both non-religious and religious viewpoints and experiences.

Origins of the Site