A ‘hideous dilemma’
: the motivations and moral quandaries of conscientious objectors in Second World War Britain

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis is a cultural and emotional history of conscientious objectors in Second World War Britain. Using personal testimony, it traces the impact of shifting structures of feelings on these individuals.

Although now considered ‘on the wrong side of history’, the anti-war attitudes that motivated the vast majority of conscientious objectors were widespread in the years leading up to the Second World War. Indeed, the thesis will argue that an anti-war structure of feeling existed in Britain the 1930s. Taking seven individuals as case studies, the thesis will use their autobiographies and oral history interviews to explore how this structure of feeling shaped the motivations and decisions of conscientious objectors. Furthermore, it will trace the gradual decline of this structure of feeling and the emergence of a pro-war structure of feeling at the end of the 1930s. The thesis will suggest that the moral quandaries and the emotional turmoil that a significant number of conscientious objectors experienced during the Second World War can be understood in reference to this pro-war structure of feeling.

Finally, the thesis will examine how the seven case studies reflected on their experiences in subsequent decades. It will suggest that the pro-war structure of feeling has continued in a residual form in Britain since 1945, giving the Second World War an emotional resonance in the present. The thesis will demonstrate that, in these circumstances, conscientious objectors faced a challenge when composing their own narratives, particularly as their wartime experience does not fit into the dominant memory of the conflict in Britain as the “Good War". Overall, the thesis will make an original contribution by examining how wider sociocultural patterns and discourses shaped individual experiences and memories of conscientious objection in the Second World War.
Date of AwardJan 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorDeborah Madden (Supervisor), Eugene Michail (Supervisor) & Rebecca Searle (Supervisor)

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