"Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals." - Martin Luther King Jr., Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1964
|Nonviolence Icons: Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.|
The above quote posted on twitter led to a response from fellow human rights defender Maria Al-Masani who asked an important question: "So why did Jewish non violent resistance against Hitler not work?"
Mohandas Gandhi did call for the Jews of Germany to carry out a campaign of nonviolent resistance to the Third Reich but it was rejected and he is still criticized for it today. The answer to Al-Masani's question is that it did not work because it was not tried.
Jewish resistance to the Nazis was violent and widespread. David B. Kopel in the Journal of Firearms & Public Policy wrote a paper explaining that "Contrary to myth of Jewish passivity, many Jews did fight back during the Holocaust. They shut down the extermination camp at Sobibor, rose up in the Warsaw Ghetto, and fought in the woods and swamps all over Eastern Europe. Indeed, Jews resisted at a higher rate than did any other population under Nazi rule."
No one seems to ask "Why did Jewish violent resistance against Hitler not work?" Koppel concludes with a counter-intuitive argument calling for more weapons and defending the morality of violence:
"The experience of the Holocaust shows why Jews, and all people of good will, should support the right of potential genocide victims to possess defensive arms, and refutes the notion that violence is necessarily immoral."
At the same time holocaust survivor Bruno Bettelheim described the other phenomenon that took place:
The unique feature of the extermination camps is not that the Germans exterminated millions of people—that this is possible has been accepted in our picture of man, though not for centuries has it happened on that scale, and perhaps never with such callousness. What was new, unique, terrifying, was that millions, like lemmings, marched themselves to their own death. That is what is incredible; this we must come to understand.
The idea that one could only resist the Nazis violently with guns, bombs and explosives because they were so evil led to two outcomes: 1) acts of violent resistance which the Nazis used to escalate their violence against those populations that resisted and 2) that millions who did not have a "weapon" cooperated believing they had no choice and marched to their deaths.
This tragedy is the result of an outlook that does not see the third option: nonviolent resistance as a realistic alternative to dealing with harsh totalitarian regimes. Other groups did try nonviolent resistance to Hitler and history reports that even the Nazis could be stopped in particular instances with nonviolence. In Denmark for example under Nazi occupation the Danes disobeyed under penalty of death and saved between 70% -90% of the Jewish population between 1940 and 1945 first hiding them and then smuggling approximately 7,500 Jews out of the country.
In Germany in February and March of 1943 German (non-Jewish) wives married to Jewish men and their relatives organized mass demonstrations in Rosenstrasse Street in Berlin to protest their husband’s being sent to concentration camps and escalated the protests until their men were released and returned home which they were.
Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth in their 2008 study "Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic on Nonviolent Conflict" analyzed the outcomes of 323 nonviolent and violent resistance campaigns between 1900 to 2006. The data showed that major nonviolent campaigns achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with just 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns.
There study also suggests “that nonviolent campaigns are more likely than violent campaigns to succeed in the face of brutal repression.” This depends on the nonviolent opposition movement having a strategic vision and maintaining its non-violent posture even under the worse repression. However the more brutal the regime the better the results with nonviolent resistance and the worse the results with violent resistance.
The latest example of this can be seen in Syria. The uprising against Assad in 2011 was initially nonviolent and despite the brutal repression of the Syrian regime the nonviolent opposition registered great victories until elements of the Syrian military defected and the resistance abandoned its nonviolent posture in the mistaken belief that violent resistance would achieve change faster. The end result was that rather than undermine the Assad regime it changed the entire dynamic of the struggle and the body count of the opposition skyrocketed. Assad remains in power and does not appear to be going any where soon and a Christian genocide is underway in that part of the world.
Lastly the conceit that nonviolence is more successful against "civilized regimes" isn't true. If by civilized regime one means "free societies" then one finds that these societies can handle mass protests and demonstrations without shaking the foundations of their political systems. Meanwhile dictatorships of all sorts are much more fragile and vulnerable to civic nonviolent actions that open societies can easily resist. This is why nonviolent resistance is more effective against regimes that are more brutal and despotic. What the tyrants and dictators need are violent opponents to justify their brutal repression. This is why violent resistance is less effective paradoxically when confronting brutal regimes.