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Hitler and the challenge of non-violence
What was done to counter the ’rise and rise’ of Adolf Hitler, fascist German leader, in the 1930’s? What could have been done?
”What effect could nonviolence have had against Hitler?” This is one of the most frequent questions I get when I lecture on nonviolence. And it is a good one. To answer we need to look at different phases of the conflict and recognise the complexity of a world war. I see no good arguments why the answer should focus solely on the early phase of WWII, when the Nazi army was at its strongest. Neither will I avoid what could have been done, and was done, during those years.
I have often wondered what Europe would have looked like in the first half of the twentieth century if Akademie der Bildenden Künste in
Paving the way for war
But it was not only that humiliation that made it possible for the Nazi regime to come to power. Three other important factors were the economic crises in the '20s and '30s, the racist ideology, and the culture of ”Prussian Obedience” that flourished in the same period.
For Hitler, arms production was a way to reduce unemployment and poverty. Everyone saw what was going on, but no steps were taken to change that policy. What if, twenty years earlier than 1948, the
The racist ideology that certain peoples are worth more than others cannot be defeated by military means. That must be done by education, public debate, and bringing up new generations in a spirit of enlightenment. Anti-semitism, of course, was by no means confined to
It is clear that without overwhelming military and civil obedience Hitler would never have been able to mobilise the masses and lead many of them to commit one atrocity after another. Any school system and authoritarian culture that encourages blind obedience and punishes the questioning of authority will lead to fascism and dictatorship. Too few voices within
When the actual war started and the ”German War Machine” rolled across
When the first shocks and military defeats were over, we saw the first attempts of resistance in occupied countries. Sabotage, underground newspapers, and use of oppositional symbols were early examples of resistance movements. Resistance took place in most countries under German rule as well as inside
The German army was well prepared to meet armed resistance, but less able to cope with strikes, civil disobedience, boycotts and other forms of nonviolent action. A famous example is when the Norwegian teachers were told to join the Nazi party and teach Nazism in schools or face the consequences. When 12,000 teachers signed a declaration against the new law, 1000 were arrested and sent to prison camps. But the strike continued and after some months the order was cancelled and they were allowed to continue their work. In a speech, Quisling summarised: ”You teachers have destroyed everything for me!” We can just imagine what would have been the consequences if many professions had followed in the footsteps of these teachers. Or if they had prepared such actions well in advance and even had exercises prior to the invasion.
Independent news is crucial for any opposition movement. That is why censorship is enforced when a regime wants to control the masses. Despite threats of brutal punishment, illegal newspapers were published by many clandestine groups in occupied territories during WWII. In
Extermination and war
The most horrific atrocities committed by the Nazi regime were the industrial murder of millions of Jews, homosexuals, people with disabilities, Roma, and other religious, ethnic, and political groups. The idea of a pure ”master race ” of Aryan-Nordic people was central to the policy of exterminating others. Like a gigantic machine the Nazi regime organised the arrests and killing of millions.
Despite massive propaganda and brutal punishment for those who refused to take part, many opposed this genocide. In
While the Allies were busy bombing civilians in
The German occupation differed from country to country and the resistance movements varied as well. Nonviolent resistance in WWII was based on two strategies: non-cooperation and building alternatives.
Both of these forms of struggle focus on the fabric of social life rather than the territory of a society. Refusal to take part in sporting events if Germans or collaborators participated was a typical form of non-cooperation. The strike among Norwegian teachers and deliberate go-slows in industry are other examples. Behind such action was an understanding that all political power is dependent on support from below. Those in power could punish but consistent refusal to follow orders created serious problems.
The illegal distribution of reliable news, organisation of clandestine sporting events, celebration of independence days, carrying symbols of resistance and organisation of secret trade unions are typical examples of building alternatives. By replacing parts of the society run by the occupation forces with alternative activities, the nonviolent resistance kept their spirits up and proved that they could function without the German troops. It was both a part of the struggle and important preparation for the day when the Germans left.
But what more could have been expected from strategies that had no recognition prior to the war, no training or preparation whatsoever, and absolutely no budget? Ask yourself, what would military means have been able to achieve under such conditions? For nonviolent resistance to be really effective, it needs the same level of preparation and training as a military army. Is it ever too early to begin?
'Read On' Sidebox:
Lennart Bergfeldt (1993) Experiences of Civilian Resistance: The Case of
Frank McDonough (2001) Opposition and Resistance in Nazi
Annette Dumbach & Jud Newborn (1986) Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, One World,
Peter Hoffman (1996) The History of the German Resistance 1933-1945 (3rd Edition), McGill-Queen’s University Press,
Barbara Koehn (2003) Der deutche Wiederstand gegen Hitler, Eine Würdigung,
Marion Schreiber (2000) Stille Rebellen - Der Überfall auf den 20. Deportationszug nach Auschwitz, Verlag GmbH, Berlin
Jacques Semelin (1993) Unarmed Against Hitler, Civilian Resistance in Europe , 1939-43, Praeger,
Nathan Stoltzfus (1996) Resistance of the Heart, Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi
Created 03/26/2010 - 10:12
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs