History 1920 – 1939

The international voluntary service movement was born in 1920

at a meeting at a school in Bilthoven, Netherlands, appropriately enough named het Werkplaats. A meeting one year earlier had established the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR).

Pierre Cérésole, a Swiss pacifist (see inset), had agreed to be its secretary. This second meeting was to discuss “How to build peace” and was attended by over 400 people from Scandinavia, Holland, Britain, Germany and the USA.

After two days, Walter Koch, a young German Quaker, intervened: “We have now been discussing for two days, that is enough. We must do something now. …my brother was a soldier in the German army…he participated in bombing this country – I come here to do my part in order to build, to reconstruct it” Pierre was inspired by this idea. He resigned from the FoR and went ahead and organised the very first project at Esnes, near Verdun in France. He saw that working together on a concrete task was the most effective way of eroding enemy images – not only among the volunteers themselves but also among the population. Volunteers came from several European countries including Germany and Hungary, the former “enemies” to help rebuild a ruined village. Sadly, after some time the project had to stop, because the local people were not yet ready to welcome German volunteers and for the organisers the whole point was to reconcile with the former enemies.

Pierre, together with his brother Ernest and other volunteers set up a loose association which became Service Civil International and several “services” were organised in Europe in response to natural disasters – floods in Liechtenstein and in France, avalanches in Switzerland… Between 1929 and 1938 32 workcamps were held in France, England and Switzerland. Having established the idea, it started to develop into new directions: the first social project was in 1931 in Wales where a team of volunteers worked with the people of a community badly hit by unemployment to build a swimming pool and smarten up the town.

In 1934-37 Cérésole went together with three others in India to help after an earthquake and flood in Bihar. Under difficult circumstances they rebuilt a devastated village and named it Shantipur (Peace village). This counts as the first workcamp in the “south”. At the end of the project, Rajendra Prasad, future President of India, said: “The simple fact that European people are doing this type of humble work with Indian people is such a revolution which is astounding for the passer by which gives all its meaning and its value to the project”.

Britain was the scene of perhaps the first environmental project – the removal of an ugly slag heap outside the town of Oakengates – and this is the site of a great peace story: one of the volunteers at this camp was a German called Ernst. A few years later during the war, Ernst found himself in Hitler’s air force with the task of bombing….Oakengates. “Looking up we saw the swastika on the plane just a few feet above us and the pilot, in his helmet and goggles, looked down and waved” (From a letter in the local newspaper). There is strong evidence to the effect that he deposited the bombs in a nearby wood to avoid killing the people he had learned to love when he was a volunteer. By 1937 there were already more than 8000 people involved in international voluntary work and during the Spanish Civil War a big relief operation was organised.

It was very hard for the volunteers to accept that all their efforts of the previous years had been in vain with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. SCI continued only in Britain and Switzerland.

Pierre Cérésole

Pierre Cérésole is considered to be the founder of the international voluntary service movement.

He was born in 1879 in Lausanne, Switzerland. His family was wealthy and his father was for some time the president of the Swiss Federal Council. He studied to become an engineer and was expected to make a brilliant career. However, he was neither attracted by money nor position. He gave the money he inherited from his father to the state, because he did not think he deserved it. In 1910 he went on a long journey to the USA and Japan, where he worked as an engineer for two years. At the outbreak of war in August 1914 he returned to Switzerland. He was shaken by what he saw of the war. The misery and madness of war became more and more clear to him. He joined the Christian conscientious objectors, who opposed all forms of service in the army. In 1917 he refused to pay defence tax and made public his decision, ascribing it to his Christian conscience. Pierre knew that this would ruin his career and send him to prison. He was to be imprisoned at least ten times during the rest of his life. In 1919 Pierre gave up his career as an engineer to devote himself entirely to peace work.

He attended the conference at Bilthoven (see above) and in 1920 began to put the idea of practical peace work into practice at the first “service” at Esnes near Verdun, a devastated area which had been a battlefield a few years earlier. With him were some German and Hungarian pacifists who were eager to work in France. English, Dutch and Swiss volunteers joined them. Their five months of hard work and simple life taught Pierre what he called “peace work technique”. Pierre continued bringing volunteers from different countries was to help in Switzerland, where avalanches had caused severe damage, and in 1928 700 volunteers from 17 countries joined in the reconstruction work in Liechtenstein after the Rhine floods. From 1934 to 1937 Pierre and three others were active in India after the earthquake and flood, helping hundreds of farmers. During World War II Pierre attempted to enter Germany illegally in order to confront the German leaders and persuade them to end the war. He was captured and put in prison. He died a few months after the end of the war in 1945.