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 Vienna had admitted the young Adolf, who twice tried to be accepted as a student! We will never know. More seriously we need to study some of the reasons for his popularity in the '30s. There is no doubt that the enforced ”Surrender Diktat” from Versailles - not a peace agreement by any decent standards - had a terrible impact on the German people. To humiliate the losers and dictate their future policy from abroad invited backfire and revenge. None of my students in Peace Studies would have passed if they had delivered such a proposal for an agreement after a world war!

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 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.

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 Germany opposed this, and little or no help and support came from abroad.

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.

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 Germany itself. All of that was unprepared and badly organised. Later in the war we saw a wider spectrum of actions of nonviolent resistance and the movements improved their organising and co-ordination.

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 France the first leaflet was published as early as September 1940. In Munich, the ”White Rose” students initiated a leaflet campaign from June 1942 to February the following year calling for active opposition to Hitler’s regime. The original group was arrested and executed but later their manifesto was distributed in Scandinavia and the UK and even dropped over Germany from Allied planes. What would have been the result of such actions if they had been well planned and executed in most cities suffering under German atrocities?

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 Denmark almost all Jews survived because they were helped by the resistance movement to escape to Sweden and avoid the gas chambers.

In Bulgaria most of the country’s 48,000 Jews were saved when leaders of the Orthodox Church and farmers in the northern stretches of the country threatened to lie across railroad tracks to prevent Jews from being deported. This pressure encouraged the Bulgarian parliament to resist the Nazis, who eventually rescinded the deportation order, saving almost all of the country's 48,000 Jews.

Even in Germany itself people opposed the arrests. In one famous example 6000 ”Aryan” German women took part in a nonviolent protest in February and March 1943, outside the prison in Rosenstrasse in Berlin, to get their Jewish husbands and friends released. Thanks to these brave women 1700 prisoners were indeed released. These examples illustrate that some groups have more impact than others. It was difficult for the Nazis to attack German women.

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.

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?


About the author

Jørgen Johansen is a freelance lecturer in conflict studies, a nonviolent trainer, and activist with experiences of 100+ countries in the last 40 years. He has published six books and contributed to ten more, also hundreds of articles on nonviolence, democracy, international politics, and social movements. Contact: johansen(dot)jorgen(at)gmail(dot)com

Read On

Lennart Bergfeldt (1993) Experiences of Civilian Resistance: The Case of Denmark 1940-45, PhD Dissertation Uppsala University

Frank McDonough (2001) Opposition and Resistance in Nazi Germany, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Annette Dumbach & Jud Newborn (1986) Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, One World, Oxford

Peter Hoffman (1996) The History of the German Resistance 1933-1945 (3rd Edition), McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal

Barbara Koehn (2003) Der deutche Wiederstand gegen Hitler, Eine Würdigung, Duncker & Humbolt, Berlin

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, Westport

Nathan Stoltzfus (1996) Resistance of the Heart, Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick