Angell Advances Pacifism

By articulating a liberal basis for antiwar views, the publication of The Great Illusion brought to broad publics the thesis that war among European powers was a futile exercise that would advance neither the economic interests nor the moral needs of modern peoples.

Summary of Event

In the first decades of the twentieth century, European intellectuals and much of the public hungered for alternatives to war. Journalist Norman Angell engaged these appetites in editorial columns, in essays (such as his 1909 essay “Europe’s Optical Illusion”), and in the best-selling book ever published in the field of international relations, his masterpiece The Great Illusion: A Study of the Relation of Military Power to National Advantage (1910). The book brought liberal, pacifist arguments against war to more than two million readers, energized efforts by British pacifists to promote alternatives to war, and contributed to the construction of an intellectual foundation that ultimately led to the creation of an international organization, the League of Nations, to prevent wars. Great Illusion, The (Angell)
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Great Illusion, The (Angell)
[g]England;1910: Angell Advances Pacifism[02510]
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Angell, Norman
Harmsworth, Alfred
Cecil, Lord Robert (1864-1958)

Norman Angell.

(The Nobel Foundation)

Norman Angell was a self-taught Englishman of middle-class background. He had not studied at a university, and he received no military training. Instead, Angell’s perspective was informed by a seven-year stint as a manual laborer and newspaper reporter in California. When he returned to Europe in 1905, Lord Northcliffe (Alfred Harmsworth) appointed him editor of a new, Paris-based edition of Northcliffe’s British newspaper the Daily Mail. Angell had become a naturalized American citizen, and his second experience as an expatriate pushed him further from appeals to patriotism and other forms of nationalistic fervor. Seven years in France, a country still strongly divided by anti-Semitism associated with the trial against French army officer Alfred Dreyfus, convinced Angell that the nationalistic consciousness behind state rivalries had become a dangerous anachronism.

Angell delivered a broad challenge to the two key assumptions about international relations: that state rivalries were inevitable and that national prosperity depended ultimately on preponderant military force. Without using substantial economic data or equations to sustain his views, he argued that military power served no social or economic purpose and that war was pointless, even when it seemed to guarantee desired material or ideological outcomes. Angell based his analysis on the absence of clear gain for most German people after that state regained Alsace from France in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), and he supplemented his arguments with insights gleaned from other conflicts, including the Boer War (1899-1902), which Britain had fought in South Africa. Angell’s generalizations resonated with a broad readership. An early version of his argument appeared in the self-published essay “Europe’s Optical Illusion,” and it appealed to confidants of the British king Edward VII. With this encouragement, Angell greatly expanded and polished his argument into The Great Illusion, a work of more than four hundred pages and the third—and most famous—of Angell’s forty-one books.

The central fallacy that Angell identified was that of conquest: No ruler, Angell insisted, had ever successfully transferred wealth through fighting, and for this reason war is irrational. This argument directly countered the Marxists’ economic views, which postulated that war is a feature necessary to the growth of international capitalism. Angell also faulted those who saw war primarily as a product of nonrational forces governing human behavior: War is not, he argued, ingrained in human nature. He also dismissed explanations that locate war’s causes in the desire for prestige and the need for power, saying that these types of justifications are unworthy of the changed, modern world at hand. His position placed him firmly against the views of realists, a leading school of thought in international relations that saw the potential for war as a permanent condition of all states in a lawless world. Angell explicitly rejected the realists’ central metaphor, which drew parallels between international relations and the relationships among humans under the “law of the jungle.”

Angell’s thinking closely reflected the reigning assumptions of many educated persons in the late nineteenth century. He believed that all problems among humans could be resolved and that reason would ultimately triumph over prejudice. In the light of the atrocities that occurred during the twentieth century, Angell’s ideals were sometimes perceived as naïve, and some of his predictions proved to be completely inaccurate (including, for example, his theory that most Germans would never experience war). Still, Angell’s ideas remained tremendously appealing well into the twenty-first century: Readers continued to be attracted to an author who could assure them that war’s limitations will only increase as communications among states improve.


The publication of The Great Illusion launched Angell into the sphere of public influence. The Garton Foundation Garton Foundation was established to promote the book’s guiding ideas, and Angell’s lectures were extremely popular in pacifist circles, notably with the Peace Society. Within six years, Angell’s influence had become so significant that at the height of World War I the British government denied him a passport because it feared the impact that his pacifistic ideals might have on Britain’s allies, especially the still-neutral United States. Ironically, Lord Robert Cecil, the minister who blocked Angell’s travels to the United States in 1916, later feted him after he was knighted in 1931.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Angell was widely and correctly credited with having predicted that any general European war would have ruinous consequences for both the victor and the vanquished. Briefly, during the early years of the Great Depression, Angell served as a Labour Party member in the House of Commons. The pacifist theses Angell advanced only continued to gain influence from 1918 to 1939: His idea that the human community has a common interest in preventing war reinforced the purposes of the League of Nations, which he supported, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1933. Nobel Prize recipients;Norman Angell[Angell] International pacifism’s heyday was in some substantial measure built on the popularization of the sentiment Angell did most to advance, the belief that humankind is “showing less and less disposition to fight” because of a “changing conception of collective responsibility.” Great Illusion, The (Angell)

Further Reading

  • Ceadel, Martin. Semi-detached Idealists: The British Peace Movement and International Relations, 1854-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Explains the political context in which The Great Illusion generated its wide appeal. Concludes that the book had a surprisingly small direct impact on British government policy in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Treats Angell and the idealist organizations associated with his arguments as ideological protagonists who helped construct durable, new ways of thinking about international relations.
  • Laity, Paul. The British Peace Movement,1870-1914. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Draws on newly available materials from Peace Society archives to place Angell and his activism within the diverse traditions of British opponents of war that assembled in the Peace Society. Includes discussion of the crucial years in which Angell guided new thinking about how to avert the coming of World War I.
  • Miller, John D. B. Norman Angell and the Futility of War: Peace and the Public Mind. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1986. Definitive biography examines Angell’s life and thought. Provides a comprehensive and analytic overview of his writings, arguments, and influence on pacifist organizations and public.

First Nobel Prizes Are Awarded

Carnegie Establishes the Endowment for International Peace

International Congress of Women

Formation of the American Friends Service Committee

League of Nations Is Established

Permanent Court of International Justice Is Established

Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Peace