Gaston Rolland

Gaston Rolland, Drawn portrait

Source: Han Ryner, ‘Une conscience pendant la guerre : l’affaire Gaston Rolland’, Brochure Mensuelle, No. 3, 1924. Illustration also from this latter pamphlet.

  • 28 April 1887: Rolland is born.
  • Rolland becomes a skilled engraver working with copper, steel and precious metals and moves to Paris for work.
  • His pacifism is greatly influenced by his readings of Leon Tolstoy and the Bible.
  • He gains false documents in the name of Antonio Raspiol, which allows him to continue working in Paris and Marseille and his Marseille house becomes a refuge for war resisters in the Marseille region.
  • In October 1916 Rolland harbours a deserter called Bouchard – who informs on Rolland when he is arrested in Evian.
  • 7 September 1917: Rolland is arrested in Marseille, and is put in solitary confinement.
  • The interrogator tries to get him to inform on an anarchist leader, Armand, but Rolland will not.
  • January 1918: he is sentenced to three years in prison for harbouring a deserter, being an absentee without leave and for using forged documents.
  • Rolland later manages to escape from the hospital in Grenoble.
  • July 1918: he is recaptured and sentenced by the war council in Paris to 15 years of forced labour.
  • After the war Rolland’s case is taken up by anarchist-libertarians in the Marseille newspaper Terre Libre. They campaign for his release.
  • 22 December 1921: his sentence is reduced to 10 years in prison.
  • In July 1924 he is definitively released.
  • Back in Paris, he becomes more politically active, becoming treasurer of the Committee for Social Defence.
  • In the late 1930s his health deteriorates.
  • 1982: Rolland dies.

A letter from Gaston Rolland to his family from prison:

“Could any man in a position like mine dare to say that he has never felt weak? …Yes, I have sometimes whispered: ‘What’s the point in all this suffering?’…But another voice, purer, nourished by the small flame of an ideal, replied back:

There are friends, allies, even strangers (and they are humans just like the others!) whose lives you have saved. Look: they can breathe fresh air, they can work, and go where they want…Console yourself by thinking of how many you have saved. Console yourself, too, with the thought that your crime has not brought any shame on mankind…For now I am still standing, and it feels like my face is glowing with happiness.”

Reporting on Rolland’s trial of 1918:

“‘I don’t see how your technical skill and your good standing justify your disobedience. Do you repent, at least?’ […]

‘Not at all,’ Rolland cries, ‘I am not sorry for any of it. I did not refuse to fight out of cowardice, or for personal gain. If I’d wanted, with my knowledge of steel, I could have gone to a factory. But I refuse to manufacture murder weapons with just as much conviction as I refuse to murder. I am a conscientious objector…he cites the Bible: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”