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.