Earlier this month, over at Think Progress, the widely-read Matt Yglesias wrote about his take on nonviolence, which I found rather surprising:
If African-Americans had spent the 1950s mounting a campaign of violence against southern law enforcement and political officials, you can easily understand viewing that as a justifiable response to past and continuing wrongdoing. But in practice, such a course would have been hugely counterproductive to the goal of garnering political support among northern whites for meaningful civil rights legislation.
I think the general moral of the story is that non-violence is a tactic whose potency people pretty systematically underrate. When the force being resisted is one you also sympathize with, it gets easy to see that non-violence would work better. But when the force being resisted is one you’re both frightened of and embittered against, the tendency is to be blind to this.
Over the years I’ve come to adopt a pretty extremist view on this, and I think I’m even prepared to accept the reductio ad Hitler case. Had it been feasible to coordinate the population of Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, etc. into a mass campaign of non-violent resistance to German occupation I think that would have brought even Hitler down. The problem there is essentially about how difficult it is to sustain collective action rather than about the need to fight evil with violence.
Of course, I agree with him on all of these points, including the potential that nonviolent resistance had in stopping Hitler. In fact, I devoted the final chapter of my Masters thesis (which can be downloaded and read here) to stories of the successful use of nonviolence during World War II, of which there are many.
For example, using nonviolent methods, the people of Denmark, Finland and Bulgaria, were able to save virtually their entire Jewish populations from the Holocaust. And then there is my favorite story about the courageous nonviolent resistance mounted by the French village of Le Chambon.
Given these stories and many more, I’m convinced that had their been a commitment to nonviolence and a far deeper knowledge of nonviolent strategies and tactics across Europe, the Nazis could have been stopped with far less bloodshed and destruction.
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Yglesias still miscasts the challenge of resisting Hitler as a problem of physical mobilization, saying “how difficult it is to sustain collective action.” A key challenge for those of us who teach civil resistance is to persuade people to stop defaulting to physical protests as their visualization of how it works. The German wives who did a sit-in in Rosenstrasse in the center of Berlin in 1943 to demand the return of their Jewish husbands from detention and concentration camps were successful, not because they kept up their protest for very long (only a week) or because they were numerous (no more than a thousand) but because they presented the German Reich with a political dilemma: If the latter had arrested or beaten them, this would have been shocking to many Germans, coming right after the equally shocking loss of the battle of Stalingrad. So the Nazis made a rational calculation: Giving them their husbands back was less of a political risk than repression against the protesters. They didn’t want to send the message that Nazi authority depended on beating up women in the streets. It wasn’t the size or resilience of the protest that mattered, it was the political dilemma that it presented. Comparable dilemmas as well as strategic benefits in other multiplying tactical situations are the currency of successful movements, because the object is not (as is true of violent insurrection) to conquer space but rather to jeopardize the political or economic basis of a regime’s capacity to maintain full control.
I think you’re absolutely right Jack. I think a lot of people, when they think about nonviolence, only think of mass protests. And many times tactics that don’t require such large numbers or put people as directly in harm’s way can be more effective.
That said, I think Yglesias is right to say that there would need to be a mass campaign to stop Hitler altogether. While there were important victories, like the one you mentioned, they didn’t threaten to stop the entire Nazi machine. To do that, I think nonviolent resistance would had to have been far more widespread. That could have taken the form of massive protests, strikes or boycotts, or it could mean the proliferation of small acts of noncooperation, like those of the women of Rosenstrasse. Either way, many more people would have needed to be involved in the struggle.
Although we can never know what exactly it would have taken to stop Hilter nonviolently, I take hope from the stories that we are familiar with – that contrary to the dominant narrative – when nonviolent action was tried against perhaps the most ruthless regime history has known it was often quite successful.
Respectfully, did you have to DEFEND your thesis?
I would like to just chime in that “the reductio ad Hitler case”—a play on the argumentative strategy of reductio ad absurdum, which is what people try to employ against nonviolence when they bring up Nazism—is a fantastic piece of phrasing that bears repeating, I’d suspect.
Widespread, yes. Massive (which sounds to me like a physical metric)? I’m not sure. The Danes exasperated the German occupiers with an ongoing series of sudden strikes and acts of noncooperation, and reduced German profits from the Danish occupation sufficiently to start screaming matches in Berlin between the high command and those who’d been assigned to run Denmark — but large numbers of people doing things in public weren’t necessary.
If a comparably shrewd resistance, based on widespread civilian participation, had been mustered in the other occupied countries of Europe, instead of having a good part of the energy of resistance devoted to violent resistance, the overall costs of occupation might have induced opposition to the full continental scope of occupation among German leaders (like Speer) who could compute costs and benefits.
As for the regime in Germany, I think one could write a very plausible novel about how civil resistance could have removed Hitler from power during the war. But that’s based on knowledge we possess about civil resistance today. The present robust understanding of its strategic concepts, tactical applications, and political, economic and social adaptations, simply didn’t exist then. That’s why, when it comes to “waging nonviolence”, the best is yet to come.
Well said. And I agree. I’d love to read more about the screaming matches that you mention. Is that in AFMP? Its been a long time since I read the book, so I don’t remember that. Sounds like a great story and example of how nonviolent resistance really got to them.
And I’m reading Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker right now, and I’m really enjoying it. If you haven’t seen it I’d definitely recommend it. Have a good weekend.