By George Paxton*
The Nazi tyranny in Europe was eventually brought to an end by war but only at enormous cost in lives and material destruction. As an alternative to war the potential effectiveness of non-violent resistance (NVR) is examined. Some historical cases of resistance to the Nazis are described which are of two main types: NVR by the general population, and rescuing of Jews. The latter is widely recognised and there is a large literature on this; the former is less recognised. A good deal of this resistance was successful but limited. However, if used on a larger scale NVR could make long term occupation by a foreign country very difficult. A Gandhian approach - satyagraha - would be somewhat different from the pragmatic NVR actually used, most notably in its open rather than clandestine methods. Satyagraha can be viewed not only as a more moral means of defence but also as a less costly alternative to military defence.
During THE SECOND WORLD WAR most of the countries of Europe were occupied by the armed forces of Germany. Military resistance had proved ineffective even in the case of powerfully armed France. However, a civilian or non-violent resistance developed during the occupation on a scale that is not often acknowledged. Two examples of this resistance follow.
In April 1940, the armed forces of Nazi Germany invaded Norway and were met by armed resistance until the Norwegians surrendered two months later. It was not long before the occupiers closed the parliament and dissolved political parties except for the fascist Nasjonal Samling led by Vidkun Quisling.
In February 1942, the Germans allowed Quisling to take office as Minister President. He immediately proclaimed a law creating the Norwegian Teachers' Union which was intended to be the beginning of the creation of a corporate state. Underground civilian resistance had been developing for some time and now a group of school teachers met secretly to plan opposition to the fascist union.
The first action was for teachers to send immediately letters of objection to the Ministry of Education. 10,000 out of 14,000 teachers sent letters but continued to work. The Ministry announced closure of the schools for a month, pretending that there was a shortage of fuel during the winter. Now parents objected to the Government's new youth organisation and more than 100,000 letters, coordinated to arrive on the same day, were received by the Ministry. The authorities reacted by arresting 1000 male teachers and sending them to prison camps where they were ill-treated. When after two months few of the teachers had relented about 650 were selected and transported to a port in the Arctic Circle where they were forced to unload ships in terrible conditions.
Even while these teachers were suffering in sub-zero temperatures the schools reopened and the teachers read statements to their pupils affirming their intention of non-compliance with the Government's ideology and plans. In a speech in a high school in May 1942, Quisling shouted: "You teachers have destroyed everything for me."1
Starting in August and through to November, all the teachers were released, each batch being greeted by enthusiastic crowds at the railway stations. Some time later Hitler ordered the abandonment of the attempt to set up a corporate state in Norway.2
Another example is from Nazi Germany itself. In February 1943, the regime decided to remove the remaining Jews from Berlin. Jews married to non-Jews had up till then been exempt from deportation to the extermination camps. Around 2,000 Jews, mainly men, who had been working in factories were removed to a collection point at Rosenstrasse in the centre of Berlin. When their spouses realised their husbands had not returned from work they made enquiries and discovered where they were being held. Many of them proceeded to the Rosenstrasse building and shouted for the release of their husbands and threatened to break into the building. They later dispersed but agreed to gather again the next morning. Traffic was diverted to try to prevent many getting there but over a thousand managed to continue the protest throughout the day with some women leaving after a while and others arriving. SS guards threatened to fire on them but the women simply dispersed to alleys and courtyards and then returned to shout for the release of their husbands. Word of the demonstration spread to many ordinary Berliners and the Gestapo were hesitant to fire in case it stirred protest by the general public. The Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, decided to release the 1,700 men after a week of detention and cancel the deportation to Auschwitz. In May, Goebbels declared Berlin to be judenfrei (free of Jews) although it was untrue.3
These two examples show not only that it is possible to use nonviolent resistance against a ruthless opponent but that it is possible to win in certain circumstances. All over occupied Europe a variety of non-violent resistance (NVR) groups sprang up, on a greater scale in some countries than others, but especially in those countries with strong democratic traditions such as Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway. These actions were largely a spontaneous response to occupation by a foreign power and were non-violent in the sense of using unarmed resistance partly because arms were difficult to come by. With time, armed resistance often developed alongside unarmed resistance but in some cases there was a principled non-violence that arose from the resisters' Christian beliefs or knowledge of Gandhi's satyagraha.
The number of participants in cases of NVR ranged from single individuals to large sections of the population such as the Norwegian teachers and parents. The resisters' faith or ideology was diverse and included Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, humanism, communism and democratic socialism. They could be of any social class, highly educated or having basic education, poor or wealthy.
Not everyone participated in resistance, whether armed or unarmed, and most of the populations developed some accommodation with the occupier - with usually a small minority actively collaborating.
Methods of Non-violent Action
The forms of NVR used were many and can be recognised in the classification of Gene Sharp - Protest & Persuasion, Intervention, Social, Economic & Political Non-Cooperation.4 Some examples of these used against the Nazis are listed below.5
Resistance by the individual can be the outcome of an ethical position, an unwillingness to accept the actions of an immoral regime without protest even if in immediate practical outcome it appears futile. Some individuals will resist no matter what the cost to themselves. However, all regimes are dependent on the consent of a substantial proportion of the population to function - without that they will fall in time, even if using terror. A regime that has come to power through invasion of another country is particularly vulnerable as the occupying force is seen as alien. On the other hand, people generally want a normal life where they have freedom to do what they want, bring up their family, have the essentials of life, so that a certain level of dissatisfaction needs to be felt before it will lead to widespread resistance.
Reactions to Ruthless Oppression
Poland under the Nazis displayed the difficulty for an oppressor if it uses extreme ruthlessness - it will often lead to a backlash. The Poles were regarded as racially inferior by the Germans and Hitler thought also that Germany needed more land to expand into to fulfil its aims of greatness (after all it didn't have much of an empire compared to the British). One of the first actions against the Poles was the closure of its famous Cracow University with all of its professors being sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. All secondary schools and scientific institutes were closed and the teaching of Polish language and history were officially abolished. Radio and theatres were closed down.6 Many villages were cleared of their Polish population to make way for ethnic Germans.
But this repression did not lead to the destruction of Polish culture but rather to a determination that it should survive. Because technical colleges remained open they were used clandestinely to teach Polish language and history as well. About 18,000 students took their baccalaureate exam underground. University courses were taught secretly in theology, law, medicine and the arts and the students, who took an oath of secrecy when enrolling, were awarded university degrees. Academic papers continued to be published.7
This underground activity extended to the establishing of a parliament with the four main political parties, a civil service, courts, a secret army and a coordinating committee covering other areas such as religion, economics and education.8
The Plight of the Jews
Even more oppressed than the Poles were the Jews who were spread across Europe, sometimes thinly, as in Norway, or in much larger numbers in eastern Europe. Initially, the approach of the Nazis to the Jews was to expel them from German territory but during the war this developed into a programme of extermination, mainly by transporting them to extermination camps which were established in Poland.
Unlike the various nationalities in the different states occupied the Jews were spread throughout the countries of Europe and this made it more difficult for them to unite in opposition. Furthermore, Jews had often been discriminated against especially in the eastern European states due to long existing prejudice and, being vulnerable, resistance did not come easily to most of them. In Germany under the Nazis escape was an option for those who had some money and more than half of the German Jewish population did leave Germany for other countries from 1933 when the Nazis took over until early in the war when Jews were prevented from emigrating. German Jews organised to help people emigrate but there were few organisations in Europe which did help in this collective manner. One of the few was the Jewish Scouts in France who turned themselves into a rescue organisation for Jewish children who were hidden or helped to escape abroad. The Scouts were finally dissolved in 1943 after saving several thousand children.9
An individual Jewish rescuer was Hungarian Laszlo Szamosi who bought Christian identity papers for himself and using information he and his wife obtained from Jewish children in a home they made up Swiss passports for their parents which they took to the detention camps to get them released. Working with diplomats from neutral countries in Budapest many thousands of Jews were saved.10 In Venice, Giuseppe Jona, Professor of Medicine and leader of the Jewish community there destroyed the records of Venetian Jewry and then killed himself to prevent the Nazis getting hold of the names.
Apart from their relative isolation there were other reasons for the devastating loss of European Jews during the war which will be dealt with later and suggestions will also be made drawing on Gandhian ideas which might have done something to mitigate their plight.
One of the main forms of non-violent action used during the war was to hide Jews and others being sought by the occupying forces. This was done on a large-scale throughout the occupied countries. Individuals were often hidden in flats in towns and in country houses and farm buildings but also in commercial buildings (like the Frank family in Amsterdam), schools (in Le Chamb on-sur-Lignon in France), monasteries and convents (as in Assisi) and other religious buildings. In some hiding places there was considerable space for those in hiding, in others it was very cramped such as a hidden partitioned space in a house. All rescuers took great risks and in Poland the penalty for hiding someone was death.
Hiding normally required several people who could help, such as supplying food or moving those hidden to other hiding places when one became dangerous. Illness could pose major problems as did disposal of the body when someone died. There were often networks of rescuers, sometimes numbering hundreds. Miep Gies, one of those who sheltered the Frank family, estimated that around 20,000 Dutch people were rescuers.11 Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Centre in Jerusalem, has identified more than 26,000 Righteous Among the Nations who helped save Jews during the war. Pinchas Lapide in The Last Three Popes and the Jews claimed that 860,000 Jews were saved by Roman Catholics alone. Philip Friedman in Their Brothers' Keepers claimed that one million Jews were saved by non-Jews. It is impossible to have precise figures but these estimates give a clear picture of a remarkable effort to save fellow human beings in danger.
The greatest single rescue of Jews was in Denmark in 1943. The number of Danish Jews was rather small at 8,500 and Denmark's occupation was unique in that the Germans agreed to the Danes running internal affairs in return for supplies of agricultural and industrial goods. However, after three years of increasing tension the agreement broke down and the deportation of Danish Jews began to be planned. It was decided that the round-up would begin on 1 October 1943, but this did not go ahead as planned due to an attachÃ© at the German Embassy called Georg Duckwitz. He had been trying to get the round-up called off but without success, so he leaked the information to a Danish MP who in turn alerted the Jewish leadership and the news spread rapidly, followed by Jews being taken into hiding by other Danish citizens. This was followed by the Jews being moved to the coast where they were put on small boats to be taken to Sweden. The result was that within a few days more than 7,000 Danish Jews were safely in neutral territory while fewer than 500 were found and deported to Germany where they were not sent to an extermination camp and thus most survived to see the war's end.12
General Resistance in One Country
Belgium was a country where NVR operated in several spheres of society demonstrating both strengths and weaknesses of the resistance. Upon occupation of the country the Government decided to go into exile, eventually settling in London, and King Leopold surrendered the armed forces. The Germans ruled directly with the help of the Belgian civil service especially the General Secretaries who headed the different departments. The General Secretaries tried to prevent anti-Jewish orders being published in 1940, but they were pressured into applying them even although the orders were not published. On 11 November 1940, the anniversary of the end of the First World War, large demonstrations were held in the main cities. The judges remained in post but in 1942 all criticism of regime decisions by Supreme Court judges was made a punishable offence. The judges then stayed away from work but they were arrested and threatened with the death penalty. However, this was not carried out and they were released and went back to work. But not wanting to have a complete break with the regime led them to compromise on other orders including the deportation of workers and Jews to Germany.13
Two officials who resisted orders were the Director-General of Belgian railways who refused to release employees for work in Germany, and the Mayor of Brussels, J. F. van de Meulebroeck, who refused to dismiss senior staff and so was removed from office and the city administration was fined. At the end of 1941, Brussels University staff stopped teaching, when Nazi staff were introduced but they continued teaching their students, in secret. In 1943, 6,000 students went underground to avoid labour service.
Belgium was a strongly Catholic country with half of the population being educated in Catholic schools and there were even Catholic unions which were the largest unions in the country. Cardinal Joseph van Roey initially wrote private letters of protest to the head of Government General Falkenhausen but later came out publicly in 1943 with a strong objection to forced labour. Workers who had earlier come out on strike for improved food supplies and against a tax now struck against labour conscription. 60,000 workers stopped work in the industrial area of Liege which then spread to other areas resulting in the Germans suspending their plans.14
As everywhere, there were collaborators but many Belgians came to the rescue of Jews and the great majority of the latter were immigrants who had fled from Poland and Germany. A Committee for the Defence of the Jews (CDJ) was set up and when a Jewish Council was established by the Germans to smooth the deportation of Jews, the CDJ managed to get a member on to the Council so that they were aware of German plans. The CDJ made a large effort to persuade Jews not to turn up at the collection point used for deportation to Germany. Instead Belgians helped to hide Jews and supply them with essentials. Importantly, the police did not cooperate with the round-ups and railway workers obstructed the deportation process and sometimes released Jews from trains. 4,000 Jewish children and 10,000 adults were placed in hiding and more than half of the 50,000 Jews in Belgium survived.15
The Costs of War
It is often assumed that NVR is limited in effect and that in a case like the Nazi state only counter-violence will achieve the desired end. Certainly Nazi Germany was destroyed by the Allies but only at enormous cost. The Second World War, leaving aside the Pacific sphere of conflict, resulted in the death of approximately 45 million human beings, two-thirds of whom were civilians. The injured were probably several times that, and millions of refugees were created. Then there was the vast material destruction of houses, schools, hospitals, factories, and cultural treasures. Gandhi's advice to the British people was pertinent: "I appeal for cessation of hostilities, not because you are too exhausted to fight, but because war is bad in essence. You want to kill Nazism. You will never kill it by its indifferent adoption. Your soldiers are doing the same work of destruction as the Germans. The only difference is that perhaps yours are not as thorough as the Germans. If that be so, yours will soon acquire the same thoroughness as theirs, if not much greater. On no other condition can you win the war.”16
Another aspect is the moral effect of the determination to win the war at all cost. Thus the bombing of cities which inevitably resulted in large numbers of civilian deaths; indeed the British in the later part of the war deliberately tried to destroy the morale of the German population by saturation bombing which turned cities into infernos. At the end of the war there were also reprisals by populations that had suffered at the hands of the Germans, particularly in eastern Europe that included killing of German civilians simply because they were German. The weakening effect of six years of all-out warfare on moral restraint led to the willingness to recruit many former Nazis into service of the Allies, particularly that of the United States, as they now had another enemy to combat - the Soviet Union. The war also permitted the extension of Soviet-style Communism into other countries of Europe for decades to come and, more fatefully still, the development of the supreme weapon of mass destruction - nuclear bombs.
The Moral Equivalent of War
There is however an alternative to deadly conflict. This ‘Moral Equivalent of War’, a phrase used by American philosopher, William James, before the First World War, was applied by British philosopher Howard Horsburgh in his Nonviolence and Aggression (OUP 1968) to Gandhi's satyagraha.
The non-violent actions used during the Second World War were mostly pragmatic reactions to dire situations and although having a lot in common with satyagraha there were also important differences. One is that Gandhi believed that the opponent must be regarded as a fellow human being who is capable of changing for the better. Ideally Gandhi believed that the action should convert one's opponents and not coerce them. Most of the NVR used against the Nazis was more focused on power relationships. In practice, however, the distinction may not be so great.
There is one important difference between a Gandhian approach and most of the NVR used in WWII. Gandhi gave supreme place to truth whereas most of the NVR involved secrecy, deception, lies, even bribery. It may be that most people would feel justified in using such methods in an extreme situation where it is the life of human beings that is at stake, a case where the good end justifies the means used. It is unlikely that Gandhi would have accepted that argument but there are other approaches that could avoid that dilemma. Some of the WWII resisters grappled with this moral difficulty, for example the Protestant pastor Andre TrocmÃ© and his wife Magda, hid many Jewish children in and around the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in southern France but were unhappy with the secrecy that required. However, they did not deny to the authorities that they did hide Jews but only that they would not tell them where they were hidden. This, along with other forms of non-cooperation was sufficient for most children to remain undetected.17
The Nazis, the Jews and Satyagraha
A unique feature of the Nazi era was the attempt to wipe out the Jewish population of Europe (known as the Shoah or Holocaust). In fact the Nazis succeeded in murdering about 6 million which was approximately two-thirds of the total Jewish European population. This was done in part by mass shootings, in part by the construction of extermination camps using poison gas, and in part by starvation and casual brutality. A fanatical minority directed this heinous crime but it was necessary for many ordinary people to be willing to be participants in various ways and for the majority of the German population to be indifferent to the fate of their fellow citizens.
As for the Jews themselves they were often misled as to their fate by the deliberate actions of the Nazis as the latter used euphemisms such as 'resettlement’, telling the victims to pack their possessions which in fact would be taken from them when they reached their destination, even forcing Jews in concentration camps to send postcards to relatives still free telling how good their new situation is. But the Jews themselves found it difficult to believe their ultimate fate such is the nature of the human mind. Even when a few Jews escaped from camps and managed to return to the ghettos they had come from and told of their experiences they were often disbelieved - the human mind could not face the terrible reality.
Nevertheless, there were Jews who did face the reality and resisted and tried to convince others to do the same. But it has to be acknowledged that there were far fewer than there might have been. Wladyslav Szpilman, who survived the Shoah to become a distinguished pianist and write his memoirs, wrote: "It is a disgrace to us all. We're letting them take us to our death like sheep to the slaughter. If we attacked the Germans, half a million of us, we could break out of the ghetto, or at least die honorably, not as a stain on the face of history."18 Shmuel Zygelboym tried to prevent the formation of the Warsaw ghetto by pleading with his fellow Jews not to comply with the German order, but he was overruled.19 In the Vilna ghetto, Lithuania, some ghetto youth groups issued a proclamation on 1 January 1942 stating that the Germans were intending to wipe out the Jews and they needed to resist. Abba Kovner, a 23-year-old poet, called on the people not to report for deportation but he was largely ignored or opposed, e.g. by the Jewish police chief. When the liquidation of the ghetto began some fought and Kovner escaped to the woods.20
Unfortunately too often Jews went along with German plans. The development of ghettos or their expansion meant that the removal of their populations was made much easier. The establishment of Jewish Councils, especially in eastern Europe, whose task was to run the ghettos and ease the transporting of residents to the work camps and extermination camps was accepted by most of the Jewish population. The Council members acted from good motives - to protect and preserve Jewish communities - but in practice it greatly eased the work of the murderers. The Councils took on the task of administration in the ghettos and that included policing them and when the Germans demanded that a certain number be gathered for loading onto trains the Jewish police did so. Because of overcrowding in the ghettos living conditions for most became appallingly hard and as the Germans supplied insufficient food people died of starvation and disease. When the chairman of the Warsaw ghetto Council, Adam Czerniakov, realised that he had unwittingly contributed to the destruction of his people he committed suicide.21
It is clear that the route taken by the majority of the Jewish populations of Europe in the face of Nazism, namely non-resistance was a failure. But it was very difficult for the thinly spread population to use violent resistance, although a few guerilla groups did form in eastern Europe but that route could hardly have saved many either. Satyagraha in retrospect looks more promising. Jacques SÃ©melin in his study of civilian resistance against the Nazis (Unarmed Against Hitler) concluded that the best approach for success was for the resistance to be collective, non-violent and open. Satyagraha fits that description.
Gandhi expressed his view of the plight of the Jews in Germany a few months before the outbreak of the war: "But the German persecution of the Jews seems to have no parallel in history. The tyrants of old never went so mad as Hitler seems to have gone. And he is doing it with religious zeal. For, he is propounding a new religion of exclusive and militant nationalism in the name of which any inhumanity becomes an act of humanity to be rewarded here and hereafter.”22
And how to deal with the Nazis: "If I were a Jew and were born in Germany and earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German might, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon; I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment. And for doing this I should not wait for the Jews to join me in civil resistance, but would have confidence that in the end the rest were bound to follow my example."23
The Nazis were systematic in their attempt to eliminate the Jews and went through stages: identification by compulsory registration > exclusion from the professions > dispossession of property > exclusion from public spaces > marking with the Yellow Star >regrouping into ghettos > setting up Jewish Councils > round-ups > deportation > forced labour > extermination. (Not all stages were necessarily gone through everywhere.).
Gandhi believed that features of satyagraha included truthfulness, courage, respect for one's opponent, not allowing one's self to be humiliated, the actions used should be in keeping with the hoped for aim (ends/means compatibility).
With the advantage of hindsight it can be seen that resistance should have come into operation at the earliest stage, something that would have followed from Gandhi's advice not to accept humiliating treatment. The Nazis cleverly reduced the impact of restrictions by going through many stages each of which the Jews could persuade themselves would be the last. The Jews should have refused to register in the first place; they should have refused to wear the Yellow Star; they should have refused to be removed from their homes voluntarily and refused to go into the ghettos; they should have refused to serve on the Jewish Councils or to serve in the Jewish police; they should have refused to work for the Germans in factories or construction. If the Jews had shown such courage it would have been much more difficult for the Germans to achieve their aim. Although the individual resister would have put their life at risk, collectively they would have been much stronger. Resistance should have been as public as possible so that everyone could see what was happening, so that the observers' consciences would be challenged by what they saw.
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Resistance
Regarding the general population many forms of NVR were available to them as shown above and were actually used but not often enough. They had the strength of superior numbers and could have done much more but it was not a method that was familiar to most people. Total non-cooperation is not a practical solution as the population require access to essentials such as food, water, electricity, health services and therefore selective non-cooperation needs to be used.
NVR that was used by the general population included:
Possibly more powerful than these methods would have been those actions affecting the economy - refusing to be conscripted for work either in the occupied country or in Germany; refusing to export agricultural produce to Germany or its allies; refusal to work in munitions factories. Clearly a severe weakness of the resistance was that these occurred on a very large-scale: for example, Danish farmers exported more food to Germany than was demanded, and over a million workers in Poland (about 30 per cent were Jewish) worked in factories producing war goods.24 In fact very large numbers of workers in the occupied countries produced for the Germans voluntarily and factory owners were often eager to co-operate with the Germans if it meant a profit.
Other important areas for non-cooperation were the civil service and the judiciary. While some resistance took place cooperation was common. Deciding where to draw the line of cooperation/non- cooperation is not easy but one that is essential. Refusing to carry out specific orders involved risk, sometimes severe risk, but this should be compared with the risk in using violent resistance.
Research carried out by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in the last decade comparing non-violent campaigns with violent campaigns throughout the world during the twentieth century has come up with some remarkable results.25 The authors examined 323 campaigns between 1900 and 2006, one-third of these using non-violent methods and two-thirds using violent methods. These struggles were aimed mainly at removing oppressive indigenous regimes or defeating alien occupation.
The principal finding is that non-violent campaigns are twice as often successful as those using violence. The main reason for this success, the authors believe, is that non-violent campaigns attract more participants. They found that the average non-violent campaign had about 200,000 participants in contrast to only 50,000 for the violent campaign. Larger and more diverse participation leads to other effects such as more tactical innovation. Remarkably, non-violent movements were revealed to be as effective against violent-authoritarian regimes as they were against peaceful-democratic regimes. This seems to apply irrespective of geographical location and is also persistent over time. The authors quote a study by Eleanor Marchant and others who found that the success of non-violent campaigns is very little affected by the type of regime, by its level of development, or whether it is a country divided along ethnic, religious or linguistic lines. Although there are non-violent campaigns that fail and violent campaigns that succeed this study reveals a clear statistical superiority for pragmatic nonviolent action.26
Human society's attachment to war as a response to conflict needs to be replaced by other more rational and humane methods. Most twenty-first century societies have renounced ideas and practices that were once normal: slavery, judicial torture, rule by an elite, the inferiority of women, are some. War needs to follow these. Nonviolent action, or ideally satyagraha, provides some of the answer. To reduce the likelihood of war we require in addition much more equal societies, tolerant non-dogmatic ideologies, and general disarmament - none of which are beyond the means of humankind.
Gandhi wrote in 1938: "If ever there could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified. But I do not believe in any war."27