“The Esperantists from around the world who went to France to attend the 10th World Congress of Esperanto, in Paris, and who, once there, witnessed the war invasion and experienced the hardship and misery of that tragic retreat by road and rail; those of us who went to France to sing pacifist songs and were answered by cannons; (…) those of us who, refusing to abandon our ideals, locked ourselves up in cellars lacking light and air, we must inevitably be Esperantists.” (Josep Prat i Bonet)
At the beginning of the 20th century, the rise of nationalism among European powers on the one hand and the need for the internationalization of scientific research on the other had situated the debate about the auxiliary language among the main issues of the international agenda. It was a debate related to the intellectual dilemmas of the time that went from scientific to spiritual issues, from national or ethnic identity to the so-called Jewish problem and, especially, the possibility of peace in international relations.
According to a contemporary sociological study, if there was something that characterized a large part of a movement as diverse and plural as the Esperantist movement, it was its pacifist nature. In this respect, it is no exaggeration to say that, had it taken place, the World Congress of Paris in 1914 would have been the largest gathering of pacifists in all of history. But war broke out and Esperantists had to adapt to the new situation and perform various tasks either through the press, through humanitarian actions or in pacifist organizations.
First of all, they informed of ongoing developments through their periodical publications, often from positions that were close to pacifism. One particular case was Internacia Bulteno, a periodical that was first published in November 1914 to inform about the war from the official point of view of the German government. Its objective was to counteract English, French and Russian propaganda about German cruelty as well as to criticize the evil deeds of its adversaries. Meanwhile, given the difficulties that periodicals in Esperanto were experiencing in most of the countries of the Triple Entente and its allies, the debate on the neutrality of the international language was taking place in the pages of The British Esperantist. It was also in this magazine where Zamenhof published his famous Call to Diplomats, to those destined to rebuild Europe after the Great War.
The humanitarian action carried out by the Universal Esperanto Association (UEA) is also worth mentioning. At the time, its head office was in neutral Switzerland. From Geneva and under the leadership of Hector Hodler, it reported on Esperantist prisoners on both sides with new sections in its periodical like “Our dead” or “Esperantist prisoners of war”. In this mediating role between citizens from enemy countries, UEA volunteers, in collaboration with the International Red Cross, collected hundreds of letters and other private correspondence through their network of local representatives and sent them to their addressees every day. They also helped trace people, distribute food, clothes and medicines, and repatriate prisoners of war. It is estimated that the total number of these services could have exceeded 100,000 a year.
Apart from Esperantist associations, we can find many supporters of the international language among the leaders of the main pacifist currents of the time: scientific pacifism, feminist pacifism, religious pacifism and proletarian internationalism. With respect to the intellectual world, Nobel Peace Laureate Alfred Fried, co-publisher together with Bertha von Suttner of the journal Die Waffen Nieder! (“Lay Down Your Arms!”); and Henri La Fontaine, co-creator of the Universal Decimal Classification and president of the International Peace Bureau (IPB); the painter Felix Moscheles, godson of the musician Felix Mendelssohn and president of the International Arbitration and Peace Association; Gaston Moch, fervent defender of Alfred Dreyfus in what is known today as the Dreyfus Affair and president of the International Peace Institute in Monaco; or journalist William T. Stead, who was very active in the peace conferences of The Hague and who died in the shipwreck of the Titanic two years before the beginning of the Great War.
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