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Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis

Posted by Ryan Hall
Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis blog image

A new book by George Paxton

Nonviolent Resistance to the NazisWar is an extremely costly means of responding to conflict and yet nonviolent defence of a country is normally considered unrealistic because it is considered ineffectual against a ruthless opponent. This book tries to demonstrate otherwise by looking at historical facts focusing on the Nazi tyranny as a specific case. In reality, nonviolent resistance to the Third Reich took place in the occupied countries as well as in Germany itself. While not on a scale to bring down the regime its potential to do so is clearly demonstrated in in this well-argued account. More speculatively, the author looks at principled Gandhian nonviolence and asks if this approach would have affected the nature of the resistance.

Below you will find the introduction to the book, which can be purchased on Amazon here.

Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis back coverWhile examples of nonviolent action can be found as far back as the ancient civilisations it was only in the 20th century that systematic studies of it developed. While the usefulness of nonviolent action (NVA) in resolving certain conflicts – both in democracies and authoritarian states – is gradually being recognised, it is not generally considered a realistic substitute for armed force if the conflict is extreme. The case most commonly cited as showing its limitations is that of Nazi Germany. President Obama in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 2009 while praising nonviolent action added: “A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies”. Perhaps most people would take that simply as a statement of fact. Citing the Nazis is still taken as showing the ineffectiveness of nonviolent action when up against a ruthless opponent, and so its very limited usefulness.

Yet a considerable amount of NVA was used against the Germans in occupied countries of Europe during the Second World War and in Germany itself by the regime’s opponents. The extent of it and the degree of effectiveness varied from country to country but in some form or other it was present.

Nonviolent action was undertaken by single individuals as well as groups ranging in size up to large segments of the population. The participants were in some cases deeply religious (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox Christian, Muslim or Jewish), others were atheistic communists, others were humanistic liberals or democratic socialists. Some were pacifists, more were not. Cardinals and professors and diplomats took action, sportspeople and actors also, as did housewives and mothers, as well as children. The extent of resistance varied considerably from country to country, depending on the characteristics of the population but also on the structure of the occupying regime which was not uniform and varied considerably from country to country.

It is clear that the NVA that was used against Nazi German forces, even in the country where it was most widely used – probably Norway – was insufficient to expel the occupier. But if it had been used even more widely and systematically as a nonviolent strategy the outcome could have been more satisfactory. Certainly a determined and courageous populace can produce tremendous difficulties for an occupying force who must have a substantial level of cooperation from the occupied population to function. Nor is extreme repression by the occupier the answer to their problem as this is likely to provoke stronger opposition from the occupied population. A difficulty for the occupying forces is how to respond to NVA, something which they are not trained to deal with.

The greater part of this study describes actual cases of nonviolent resistance during the Nazi era, or as Jacques Semelin prefers to call it in his Unarmed Against Hitler – ‘civilian resistance’. I prefer to use the expression ‘nonviolent resistance’ in order to link it with potential action which is used as a superior ethical method and not just expedient action. Throughout most of this study ‘nonviolent resistance’ is used loosely to mean resistance that does not involve physical violence.

Included is the resistance to the Shoah, the attempt to destroy the European Jews which took place during the War. A very substantial literature on the efforts to rescue Jews trapped in Nazi Europe now exists as survivors have made public their stories towards the end of their lives. The efforts of Jews to save their own lives and that of other Jews is also part of the story.

The latter part of the study puts all this in the context of nonviolent theory particularly that of the slightly different approaches of American academic and campaigner Gene Sharp and of Mohandas Gandhi who was both theoretician and activist.

The earlier part of this study shows that it is certainly possible to use nonviolence in
a very oppressive situation – it is a realistic option, although the outcome will not always be what is hoped for; but then neither does the use of violence always lead to a satisfactory outcome. From a recent study of NVA in the 20th century it appears that NVA in diverse situations is more likely to lead to a successful outcome than the use of violence. The book concludes with a consideration of how different a Gandhian approach to resistance to the Nazis would have been compared with a purely pragmatic approach.


George Paxton is the editor of The Gandhi Way, the quarterly journal of the Gandhi Foundation which is based in the UK. He is the author of Sonja Schlesin: Gandhi’s South African Secretary

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