Jørgen Johansen: Hitler and the Challenge of Non-Violence





[Jørgen Johansen is a freelance lecturer in conflict studies, a nonviolent trainer with six books on the subject, and an activist with experience of more than 100 countries in the last 40 years.]

”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....

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 US and other countries had delivered a package of economic support similar to the European Recovery Program (named the Marshall Plan after the then US Secretary of State, George Marshall)? What would the impact have been if that scale of economic stimulus and not armaments had been an option? But the willingness to help was not present. It took another twenty years until the help arrived.

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 Germany. And German fascism successfully targeted many others as outcasts from society, including leftists, Roma, the disabled, and homosexuals. One has to wonder whether Hitler’s rise would have been possible if such discrimination had been strongly contested in the international community. Yet as we know, Establishment sentiment in the rest of Europe and other parts of the world acquiesced in or even sympathised with much of this targeting, some turning a blind eye to the methods ultimately used. Why didn’t ordinary people object to these lethal prejudices? One reason is that they had far less information than we do now. But another was the lack of pluralism and independent thinking in society: people were led, like sheep....

When the actual war started and the ”German War Machine” rolled across Europe, neither the armies in neighbouring countries nor any other means of opposition was adequately prepared. Those few who argued against military means had no convincing alternatives for how to defend their countries. And even the relatively low budgets for military defence were gigantic compared to the microscopic initiatives for nonviolent options. There is no reason to believe that nonviolent defence any more than armed defence could stand against a well-prepared military force without serious preparation....

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....

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....

While the Allies were busy bombing civilians in Hamburg and Dresden, the nonviolent resistance movement saved thousands of people from concentration-camps. Although military strategists were aware of the existence of gas chambers, they destroyed neither the camps nor the infrastructure for transporting prisoners.

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....


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