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‘No more time to lose’

The Albert Schweitzer Committee against nuclear weapons testing.

When you open up a box of materials donated to the archives of the University Library, you never know what you might find. Before you can start categorizing and storing the materials properly, you need to unpack what is in front of you. Over the past few weeks, I have been working on the archive of the Albert Schweitzer Committee, a Groningen committee that wanted to urge the United Nations to stop nuclear weapons testing, and collected signatures for this purpose in 1957. The committee was founded on the back of an inspiring speech by Albert Schweitzer, which was broadcast on radio by the VPRO on 3 may 1957. Schweitzer was a German physician, philosopher and theologian, and was best known for his work on culture and ethics. Nearer the end of his life, Schweitzer expressed concern about the use of nuclear weapons and the nuclear arms race, an ever more looming danger during the Cold War.

War Resister's International Magazine
War Resister's International Magazine

At the height of the Cold War, Schweitzer appealed to human reason and called for reflection and meaningful action. His speeches were published in periodicals such as De Vredesstem. On May 24, 1957, an open meeting was held in Groningen where several speakers expressed grave concerns about the incalculable effects of nuclear weapons testing. Among them were the pilot and resistance hero Adriaan Viruly as well as professor of theoretical physics H.J. Groenewold. Five days later, the Albert Schweitzer Committee against nuclear weapons testing was created. The committee had nine members, featuring a diverse range of professional backgrounds.

The name most often found in this archive is, as you might expect, that of the driving force behind the committee: J. Le Rütte, a retired teacher and the committee’s secretary. She was a well know pacifist and member of the movements ‘De Derde Weg’ and the ‘Algemene Nederlandse Vredesactie’. In 1952 she ran for the Dutch House of Representatives as a member of the ‘Socialistische Unie’. Later, she joined the ‘Pacifistische Socialistische Partij’, and in 1958 she ran for local government in Groningen. In November 1958 she travelled to Geneva in order to attend a nuclear conference and to urge attendants to put a stop to nuclear weapons testing.

The Albert Schweitzer Committee organized a large scale petition against nuclear weapons testing, collecting signatures to present to the United Nations General Assembly. Signatories were requested to not only provide their name, profession and address, but also to give ‘een bijdrage in de kosten van minimum f 0,10’ (ten guilder cents towards covering the organizational costs). All signatories had to be over the age of eighteen. The top of the form read ‘Er is geen tijd meer te verliezen’ (‘There is no more time to lose’), and this urgency was reiterated elsewhere: ‘het steeds toenemende aantal ontploffingen wordt het voor onze actie kort dag’ (‘the ever increasing number of explosions may mean that we are already too late’). The committee first focused their efforts on the northern provinces of the Netherlands, but soon they were in contact with multiple countries. This international communication was done in Esperanto. In 1958, the petition was completed: More than 50,000 signatures had been collected from twelve different countries, such as England, France, East Germany, Japan and Vietnam.

The committee sought support from several churches and denominations that had spoken out against nuclear weapons testing, citing dangers to the entire human race as a result of nuclear weapons as well as long term consequences of nuclear fallout. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth and the World Council of Churches also openly supported the petition.

Although the committee had a similar goal to the ‘Anti-Atoombom-Actie’ (AAA), the two organizations would never work together. Correspondence between the committee and the AAA showed that there were a lot of misunderstandings between them. The main difference of opinion was on the feasibility of the petition. In one of her letters, Le Rütte refers to the AAA as ‘een soort dictator, die zich alles wil aantrekken’ (‘a type of dictator that wants to be involved in everything’). Meanwhile, she was also in contact with the ‘Velser Actie Comité’, that had started a petition on its own. Furthermore, Le Rütte corresponded with April Carter of ‘The Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War’ from London, discussing the International March for Peace from San Francisco to Moscow. The goal of this march was to request the government of each country en route to work on disarmament.

Besides this, the archive contains newspaper clippings, as well as official documents, magazines, periodicals and newsletters, all on the subject of world peace and nuclear weapons. Their names are telling: De Derde Weg (‘The Third Way’), Ban de oorlog uit (‘Stop the War’), De Vredesstem (‘The Voice for Peace’), Nieuwe Strijd (‘The New Battle’) and De Wereldburger (‘The World’s Citizen’). There are also foreign periodicals, such as ‘Atomzeitalter’, ‘Das Gewissen’ and ‘The War Resister’, which have now been neatly categorized and are well protected in their boxes. The archive of the Albert Schweitzer Committee is now a valuable and usable addendum to the archive of Professor B.V.A. Röling, which provides further insight on the history of pacifism and the movement for world peace.

Frida van Til (translation: Maartje Bergers)

Telegram from April Carter
Telegram from April Carter
Last modified:23 December 2022 10.11 a.m.
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