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Resisting the Nazis in numerous ways: nonviolence in occupied Europe

Non-violent resistance to Nazi occupation is a page of history few of us are familiar with. In this interview, George Paxton tells us about its success stories, its occasional failures and its heroes.

White Rose movement public memorial, Munich. Adam Jones/Wikimedia commons. Public domain. In his 2016 book Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis George Paxton, a Trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, sets out what is effectively secret history in a culture that reveres the violent struggle against Nazi Germany – Dunkirk and Churchill being the latest films that focus on the military campaign.

Ian Sinclair (IS): What was the scale of the nonviolent resistance to the Nazis in occupied Europe? What were some of the methods used?

George Paxton (GP): The extent of nonviolent resistance used against the occupiers varied from country to country with the most active probably being Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. The attitude of the Nazis to Eastern Europe, which they wanted to clear of its population in order to settle Germans, meant that the resistance was different in nature.

The size of the different campaigns of resistance ranged from a single individual to large sections of the population. In the case of the Norwegian teachers opposition to the schools’ Nazification, it was around 10,000 teachers supported by about 100,000 parents. Some strikes elsewhere involved even more than this.

The methods used in the various campaigns were very diverse such as marches, wearing symbols of resistance, private and public letters of protest, refusing to be conscripted for work, resigning from professional bodies taken over by the Nazis, hiding Jews, helping Jews escape, listening to BBC radio broadcasts, producing underground newspapers, collecting funds for resistance, deliberate slow working and many more.

IS: You include a section with a number of case studies of nonviolent resistance to the Nazis. Do you have a favourite?

GP: It is difficult to choose one but for a small scale resistance, involving just dozens of individuals, the White Rose group in Germany is one of the most impressive. Set up mainly by students at the University of Munich and including a brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl, the group produced leaflets attacking the immoral nature of the Nazi regime and also the likelihood of its failure. Leaflets were printed secretly then posted out to individuals and left in public places. Groups were also started in other German towns and leaflets were transported by a resister by train in a suitcase.

But due to a careless act when Hans and Sophie were distributing leaflets at their university, they were arrested, interrogated, quickly tried and executed. This was followed by other arrests, executions and imprisonments. While their resistance was a failure in that the revolt of students they hoped to trigger did not occur, knowledge of their courageous acts spread widely in Germany and indeed abroad.

A contrasting successful resistance was the rescue of Jews, mainly children, by the villagers of Chambon-sur-Lignon on a high plateau south-west of Lyons in France. This village (and others in the region) became a hide-out for those escaping the Nazis and became a centre of safety, particularly for children. The inspiration for this action came from the Protestant pastor and his wife, André and Magda Trocmé. André was an in-comer from the north-east of France and a pacifist and his actions were a product of his Christian belief which influenced also the nature of the resistance. Thus he did not deny that Jews were hidden in the village and surrounding farms but refused to tell the police where they were hidden. André survived the occupation, although imprisoned for a time, and several thousand Jews and others hidden there survived until liberation.

There are detailed studies of these two cases published but many more have not been studied in detail and indeed no doubt some actions have been lost to history.

Although there were only about 8,000 Jews in Denmark almost all of them survived.

IS: What struck me reading your book was how Nazi Germany was not all-powerful in the countries they occupied, but was often forced to compromise and, occasionally, to back down because of nonviolent resistance. Can you talk about some of the successes those carrying out nonviolent resistance had?

GP: One of the most outstanding successes of resistance was the rescue of the Danish Jews. Denmark was treated relatively mildly by the Germans in part because the Danes were willing to supply Germany with agricultural produce. Their own government was allowed considerable independence for a while although the relationship soured eventually and the Germans took over.

The local German administration was then ordered to round up the Jews for deportation to Germany. But at the German embassy was an attaché, Georg Duckwitz, who contacted a leading Danish politician to tell him when the round-up was to take place. He, in turn, informed the Chief Rabbi who passed the word to the Jews, while non-Jewish friends hid Jews and then transported them to the coast where boats were hired to take them to neutral Sweden. Although there were only about 8,000 Jews in Denmark almost all of them survived, even the few hundred who were captured and sent to Germany were not sent to the death camps as had been promised to SS General Werner Best, the German head of government in Denmark.

In the Netherlands, an attempt to conscript former Dutch soldiers who had been disarmed by the Germans was met by the largest strike in the occupied countries. It began in mines and factories and spread until it involved half a million people who took to the streets. In response, more than 100 people were executed but far fewer former soldiers enrolled than the Germans wanted.

In Belgium, students and staff at the University of Brussels protested at the employment of Nazi staff and then organised teaching underground.  

In the Netherlands and Norway the Germans failed to bring the doctors’ professional associations under their control due to non-cooperation by the doctors.

Opposition in Germany, particularly by Catholics, forced the stopping of the ‘euthanasia’ programme although many had been murdered before it was abandoned.

A recent study, Hitler’s Compromises by Nathan Stoltzfus, shows that Hitler was very careful to keep the German population ‘on side’. He was wary of dissent and compromised if it looked as if opposition to a policy was growing, e.g. the euthanasia programme and the Catholic opposition to attempted Nazification in the Catholic Church. He did the same with the effective opposition of German wives to the deportation of their Jewish husbands from Berlin.

Nonviolent resistance in Eastern Europe was different due to the more ruthless methods of the invader. In Poland, in spite of the extreme repression, the Nazis failed to destroy Polish culture due to the extensive development of underground organisations. School and university teaching continued in people’s houses with degrees being awarded and research papers published; courts conducted trials; political parties operated with a parliament and government departments; separate military and civilian resistance groups operated; money was obtained from the Polish Government-in-exile in London.

The hiding and rescuing of Jews was on a large scale throughout Europe with possibly as many as one million Jews saved (see Philip Friedman's Their Brothers' Keepers); this being done at great risk for the rescuers.

I think solidarity within the resisting group must be of great importance. 

IS: Why do you think some campaigns were successful and others not?

GP: I think solidarity within the resisting group must be of great importance. The absolute numbers of resisters may not always be significant. For example, in Belgium insufficient solidarity and firmness by the higher civil servants and judges led to the Germans ultimately achieving their aims. Support from the general population was important elsewhere, e.g. funds to pay teachers on strike or working underground.

There were some quite important incidental factors such as nearness of mountains and forests for hiding and a border with a neutral country for escape.

The use of nonviolence itself is of great importance. A violent opposition will be resisted with maximum violence from the controlling power but nonviolent resistance will send different signals, e.g. we are less of a threat to you. This may give rise to a degree of sympathy among the security forces. The resisters have to be firm but not aggressive. The occupied population has the advantage of superior numbers if they choose to use their power.

IS: You contrast what you call Gandhian resistance with the pragmatic nonviolent action that people like Gene Sharp advocate. What are the main differences between the two?

GP: There isn’t a great deal dividing Sharp and Gandhi. But most of the nonviolent resistance used by resisters during the Nazi occupation was pragmatic in the sense that it was not usually underpinned by nonviolent theory; in fact, it simply did not involve the use of weapons and so other writers prefer to call it civilian resistance.  

Sharp developed nonviolent resistance theory which was independent of religious belief, Gandhi’s or others. In reality Gandhi’s beliefs were very inclusive although he tended to use Hindu terms which Sharp wanted to avoid as he did not want to tie nonviolence to any particular culture. Both of their approaches are grounded in ethics. Sharp’s academic work actually grew out of his interest in Gandhi’s career but Sharp put more emphasis on the use of power in considering the possible mechanism of nonviolent resistance; Gandhi hoped for conversion of the opponent.

For most of the occupied populations a nonviolent resistance was simply not in their minds.

IS: How do you respond to the argument that it was ultimately violent action that ended the Third Reich, not nonviolent resistance?

GP: People in general, and governments in particular, think of defence only in terms of military action. This is still true today as it was in the 1930s. Therefore for most of the occupied populations a nonviolent resistance was simply not in their minds, except for a small number of pacifists. However, when their country was occupied and they did not have the means to resist in the conventional way the braver and more imaginative sometimes turned to non-military means.

Most people expected their countries to be liberated by military means from outside but what we need to take into consideration is the cost of violent resistance, which in WWII proved to be enormous in terms of deaths and destruction. And as Gandhi pointed out before WWII began the Allies would need to resort to the Nazis’ foul methods in order to ‘win’. When one remembers the blanket bombing of the German and Japanese cities which were largely occupied by civilians it is difficult to disagree.

The nonviolent resistance used in the occupied countries was too small in scale to defeat the invaders but I believe the potential is there, and with the knowledge we have today future conflicts could be handled by nonviolent resistance.

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