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Issues raised by the early implementation of a civil service

Origin of the text
Olivier Bertrand: Breaking down barriers 1945-1975, 30 years of voluntary service for peace with Service Civil International.
Paris (2008)

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Issues raised by the early implementation of a civil service

Independence and pragmatism

Pierre Cérésole’s correspondence and his biography by Hélène Monastier show that his principles were rather radical, but that he was often quite pragmatic in their implementation.

Concerning religion: Pierre was very faithful to the principles of Christianity, close to some Christian movements and to Christian friends, but he was also independent towards the Protestant church (to which he belonged initially), as an institution and was also very critical for its attitude with regard to the acceptance of war, which he felt was a betrayal of its principles. In any case, he did not see SCI as a religious organization.

With regard to politics, whereas Pierre had been initially supported by the Christian socialists in Switzerland, he always maintained a distance from the most radical members, so it was clearly on a humanitarian basis and not a political stand that SCI worked with the Spanish refugees during the civil war.

Pacifism

Sometimes Pierre Cérésole also had a pragmatic attitude towards pacifism. During the first large workcamp organized in Liechtenstein in 1927, there was a discussion on the emphasis of pacifism of SCI, while support was expected from authorities. Pierre was in favour of some concessions and insisted on opening the movement to everybody, whatever his/her opinion. Another example: Pierre was always a great admirer of the Quakers, who shared his pacifist convictions. He had been accepted as a member of the Religious Society of Friends, however he did not always agree with some of their extreme positions. In 1939, just before the war, the British Government had passed a Military Training Act, offering to conscientious objectors the opportunity to do an alternative civil service. Some Quakers felt that the State should not impose any kind of service, whether civil or military. Pierre did not agree and did not see the adoption of a civil service as a compromise.

Similarly, when in 1938 the General Assembly of SCI decided to adhere to the World Union for Peace, Pierre Cérésole disagreed. He wrote that the very specific character of SCI was in contrast with the vague goodwill or chatting of some pacifist organizations and that SCI members might be disappointed to realize that they were part of a more vague movement. Although Pierre would personally agree with some of their statements, he felt that they were not part of SCI’s domain.

Independence towards institutions

The independence and pragmatism which were characteristic of SCI’s action at an early stage also applied to the relationship with the institutions, among them the national armies. In India, Cérésole cooperated closely with the British administration, as well as with the Indian nationalists. This paved the way for the future cooperation with the administration of the independent India. In 1930, he had readily accepted the assistance of the Swiss Army, which provided equipment for emergency workcamps, on the condition that SCI refrained from anti-military propaganda.

Although he was a radical pacifist, Pierre Cérésole admired the organization and the discipline of the Army. His brother, who was a colonel in the Swiss Army, played an important role in the management of the first workcamps and he was the leader of several of them. This position was not very different from that of William James, who said that the civil service that he recommended should maintain, in a pacific civilization, the male virtues that the military are afraid to see vanishing during peace periods. In 1922, a petition for a civil service in Switzerland made it clear that work should neither be less demanding, nor less rigorously organized than the military service.

Working conditions

With such a concept, it is no surprise to read the numerous references made to hard work in the early workcamps. Pierre Cérésole wrote that it was another good side of the military: they take order seriously. There is an order which belongs to things and not to rules; it has to be respected. He also wrote: “A truly hard service with ten men only is better than a sentimental stroll in the woods”.

Despite a strict conception of discipline, Pierre had an open mind and was always ready to accept criticisms. He published in a SCI leaflet the negative comments received from volunteers on the lack of competence of leaders and on the inadequate selection of participants.

From the beginning, females participated in workcamps. It was considered as a rather advanced practice. But they were assigned to a specific role, which reflects the culture of the time. It was believed that hard manual labour should be for males only and that females had a specific role to play. Those who were voluntary housewives and brought a family spirit in the camp were called ‘sisters’.

Goals and efficiency

There is of course a wide distance between the very ambitious goals assigned at the beginning to SCI by Pierre Cérésole and his friends and the rather modest scale on which activities were taking place, in terms of number of camps and of number of volunteers. This remains true, even taking into account the unusually large camp which took place in Liechtenstein in 1928 (710 volunteers). This has remained an issue until this day, which raises the question of the efficiency of SCI.

At the end of the action which took place in India before the war, R. Prasad had said: “Although the work of SCI was not undertaken on a very large scale, it was beneficial for us and brought us nearer to each other”. A letter written by Pierre Cérésole shortly before his death gives a more general answer: “For the SCI, it is not the material result which is important (number of houses rebuilt, of hectares of land cleaned, nor even of lives saved), it is the example of the only way to salvation: the absolute service - whether it is the Christian service, the service of God or of the Spirit”

On this issue as on the others, it will be interesting to see what has been, and is to-day, the perception of volunteers who participated in SCI activities, at different periods and coming from different cultures and countries.




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