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Why don’t we celebrate conscientious objectors to war?

A World War I military cemetery in the Alsace region of eastern France. (Patrick Seeger/Pool Photo via AP)

Museums throughout the world celebrate men who fought in wars, but how many museums honor those who oppose war?

Well, now the National World War I Museum in Kansas City has.

The museum recently unveiled a plaque honoring two Hutterite conscientious objectors, Joseph and Michael Hofer, who died in 1918 in Ft. Leavenworth military prison after having undergone weeks of torture in a dungeon at Alcatraz prison in San Francisco.


The Hutterites are a Christian religious group who live communally and promote pacifism, believing that humans were not put on this earth to kill one another. Many migrated from Russia after refusing conscription in the Czar’s army.

Based in South Dakota, Michael and Joseph were drafted on May 25, 1918. The administration of President Woodrow Wilson had decided to send U.S. forces into the maelstrom in Europe.

Two years earlier, in 1916, Wilson had campaigned on a platform of “he kept us out of war.” His change of face has been explained by historians as a product of Wilson’s grandiose plan to assert American power on the world stage and promote liberal principles. But others attribute Wilson’s decision to economic interests led by J.P. Morgan, who had bankrolled the allied war effort and wanted a return on his investment.

Tens of thousands of Americans were killed or wounded and many came to regard the U.S. participation in the Great War as futile. The U.S. Senate failed to ratify membership in the League of Nations and the post-war settlement punished Germany and paved the way for the rise of Adolf Hitler.

As Duane Stoltzfus recounts in his book “Pacifists in Chains: The Persecution of the Hutterites During the Great War,” when they arrived at Ft. Lewis for basic training, Michael and Joseph and others from the Hutterite community were heckled because they were known as German speakers and pacifists. After their beards and hair was shaved in violation of their religious coda, the men refused to fill out their enlistment cards. They were immediately charged with disobeying orders.

At trial they said their goal in life was not to fight in any war but to work on their farm for the poor and needy ones of the United States.

The Hofer brothers were among 504 American conscientious objectors court-martialed during World War I, resulting in 503 convictions and a single acquittal. One hundred forty-two of the men were believed to be Mennonite, Amish or Hutterite.

At Alcatraz, the Hofer brothers found themselves with hardened criminals representing the “worst of the worst.” The facility was heralded as a progressive prison in promoting vocational training and housing a good library, but this progressivism did not apply to the conscientious objectors, who were considered to be “slackers.”

The Hofers soon found themselves in solitary confinement — in the “hole” — where they received only a half glass of water each day and no food. Living day and night in darkness, they were chained to the bars of their respective doors, one hand crossed over the other. The chains were drawn up so only their toes touched the floor, a technique long known in the history of torture as “high cuffing.” A guard would come by periodically to beat them on their arms and back, causing heavy swelling.

After arriving at Ft. Leavenworth, Michael and Joseph complained of sharp pains in their chests and soon afterward their condition deteriorated. The Office of the Surgeon General listed pneumonia as the cause of death for both men, though the Hutterite Church concluded they had died in prison “as a result of cruel mistreatment by the United States military.”

To add insult to injury, when Joseph’s wife, Maria, was taken to see her husband’s body, he had been dressed up in a military uniform.

The Hofers’ saga is of relevance today. It is a story of courageous dissent and of government oppression in a time of war. In the aftermath of their case, conscientious objectors gained more rights, though many were imprisoned right up through the Vietnam War era.

Men such as Joseph and Michael Hofer provide a role model to younger generations. Their stories are an antidote to a militaristic culture that has led our nation into a state of permanent war.

Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches at the University of Tulsa. He is the author of several books on U.S. foreign policy. Roger Peace is the coordinator of the website, “United States Foreign Policy History & Resource Guide.”

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