Can you truly be nonviolent in the face of someone like Hitler?

This is the first in a series on the ideas behind nonviolence. It’s also our first semi-book review. We’re going to do this from time to time, just to give you a bit of an inspirational reading list. We’re not paid to review these things, but if you buy the book (or whatever we recommend) through the link we provide on the page, we get a small kickback from Amazon. Every little bit helps!

WE, AS AMERICANS, KNOW that there were only two things that could have defeated the Nazis:

  1. The ghosts inside the Ark of the Covenant.

  2. Good ol’ fashioned American military might.

A possible third option, nonviolent resistance, is discarded out of hand. How on earth could a hypermilitarized, megaviolent nationalist movement ever have been stopped by kum-bi-yahs? In fact, World War II is used as our ultimate justification for the existence of what we call a “just war.” What was more just than this?


“Just war” is a concept that dates back millennia, and it’s been used to justify pretty much every war ever — the idea is, “We are right, they are wrong, and we are justified in fixing their wrongness by force.” This rationale is not concerned with ideology — it was used by the Allies and the Axis Powers in World War II, it was used by the Soviets in Afghanistan, by the Americans in Vietnam, and by everyone ever telling themselves they have a right to hurt someone.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that sometimes, violence is necessary. But in his 2006 book, “Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea,” Mark Kurlansky argues that this simply isn’t the case, and that nonviolence is pretty much always the better route to justice. He backs it up with thousands of years of history.

Nonviolent resistance is going to be an important tool in your utility belt during the Age of Trump (also, if you don’t have an activist utility belt yet, you’re doing it wrong). But a lot of people don’t really understandnonviolence. They usually confuse it with pacifism, and these two things are not one and the same. Nonviolence is not passive — it’s aggressive. But it’s an aggressive tactic used by a weaker force.

Say you’re a 10 year old on a playground, and a big kid is trying to get you to fight him. He’s goading you into taking a swing, which will give him the justification for punching the shit out of your scrawny ass. You know that you’ll get whupped if you fight him, so instead, you choose to make fun of him. Friends and classmates laugh, and now, if he takes a swing out of anger, he’ll just look like an asshole. You’ve won, and you’ve won by being creative. Nonviolence is a creative and and aggressive force.

But when you’re faced against something like the immense violence of Nazi Germany, you’re faced with a problem: how do you fight against it without using everything you’ve got? There’s an old cliche that any time you bring Hitler into an argument, you end it. But seeing as Hitler and the Nazis are the go-to argument against nonviolence, we need to address it.

Did we have to violence the bejesus out of Europe?

So the question is: Did we have to Inglourious Basterds our way out of World War II? Kurlansky thinks that in the case of World War II, violence is misrepresented as being just, and appeasement is incorrectly equated with pacifism. Here’s why:

Why we fought

First off, when people today talk about our involvement in WWII, they focus on the evils of the Nazis and fascism, and how we had to fight it. But at the time, our reason for fighting the Nazis had relatively little to do with fighting fascism, as many Americans viewed fascism as preferable to communism. It also had little to do with protecting the European Jews, as the United States was pretty antisemitic — when Roosevelt accepted 300,000 Jewish refugees in 1936, he was accused of being “too close to the Jews.” (If this sounds familiar to today’s outcry around Syrian refugees, then, well, duh.)

Instead, America’s involvement was a geopolitical one that was primarily directed at the Japanese Empire, and you couldn’t really fight Japan without fighting Germany. Roosevelt decided to put more force in the fight against Germany first, but this wasn’t because of antifascism or the Holocaust. It was because Germany already controlled most of Europe, by extension, the Atlantic. This made Germany a more immediate threat than Japan, which still did not have total control of the Pacific. He also was more nervous about the Germans because their weapons program was extremely advanced, and he wanted to fight them before they developed worse weapons (which turned out to be the right choice — they managed to develop the V-2 by the end of the war, but not the atomic bomb). There was also the matter of loyalty to the British, who were our number one allies.

So it’s important to recognize that we didn’t enter WWII for humanitarian reasons — meaning it’s a little dishonest to defend our involvement after the fact with them.

What about appeasement?

Ever since WWII, we’ve been using the word “appeasement” as justification for going to war. And while Chamberlain’s appeasement was indeed appalling, and let him get away with more than he should have, this argument misses one big thing:

Appeasement isn’t the only alternative to war.

At the time of Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement with Hitler, nonviolent activists were furious. They recognized that the pro-war hawks in Parliament (led by Churchill) would use the appeasement deal as an excuse to go to war, when other, more hardline diplomatic and economic tactics could’ve been used against Hitler.

In the US, this could’ve taken the form of economic sanctions, and by not allowing any of our companies to operate there. In the 30’s, Germany was home to factories of a number of US companies, including Ford, GM, Coca Cola, and ITT. The fact is, we were supporting and appeasing fascism and those that profited from it for a decade before the Munich Agreements were ever signed. It never had to get that far, and the evils of Hitler’s Germany were apparent long before 1938, when the agreement was signed. It’s silly to look back at that moment, when things had already progressed so far, and say, “that was the moment the war could’ve been prevented.”

The best time to oppose a dictatorship or a corrupt regime is at the very beginning, before it has a chance to get entrenched. But let’s assume, for the moment, that the moment a real, concerted nonviolent opposition would’ve started in Europe would’ve been post 1938, as the Nazis started annexing more and more of Europe. What’s the next argument?

Nonviolence never would’ve worked in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Except it happened, and it did work. The most shining example, which Kurlansky points out in his book, was the Danish. The Danish knew they couldn’t fight the Nazis, so rather than allow their soldiers to die, they surrendered. Their neutrality, however, did not become Swiss-style collaboration: as a nation, they actively undermined the Nazi war effort, by striking, sabotaging trains and infrastructure, and working as slowly as possible.

When the Nazis insisted that they deport Denmark’s Jews, the country resisted by hiding nearly all of the Jews (including some refugees from other countries) and smuggling them away to neutral Sweden (you’ll remember this if you read Number the Stars in grade school). Of the 6,500 Jews in Denmark, only 400 were ever deported, and Danish officials insisted on constantly visiting these 400 to make sure they weren’t mistreated. 51 Danish Jews died in the Holocaust. This is still tragic, but it compares to 300,000 in France and millions in Poland.

The “Final Solution” may have actually been caused by the war.

One of the more brutal ironies of the war is that we excuse it using the Holocaust, when the war itself may have made the Holocaust infinitely worse. Kurlansky points out that Allies knew about the gas chambers at Auschwitz but refused to bomb them, and that no real action was made to target the concentration camps (in part because Roosevelt knew that, even now, making the war about saving the Jews would be unpopular in America), which, again, makes the use of the Holocaust as an excuse for things like the firebombing of Dresden a bit dishonest after-the-fact.

But he also mentions that the Nazi plans for the dissidents and the Jews were not set in stone early on. One possible plan was to have them deported to Madagascar, which would have required bargaining with the British and the French. This possibility would have come off the table as the war started. The “Final Solution” itself wasn’t planned until January 1942, in the middle of the war. Kurlansky suggests that it was the brutality of war that escalated the brutality of the Holocaust*.

This is, of course, tricky — it’s hard to see how historical events would have played out if things had gone differently. But it’s reasonable to think that if no war had happened, if the international community had made a serious effort (like Denmark did), that more Jews and dissidents could have been smuggled out of Europe to safety.

Nonviolence against Hitler

The big problem with violence is that it takes other methods off the table. You can’t tease the bully while he’s punching you. I mean, you can, but it’s not remotely as effective. Denmark showed that resistance was possible in WWII, (mostly) without getting violent. And when you’re one of the people who will be in harms way when the violence starts — i.e. the civilian, the low-level infantryman, the political dissident — it almost always pays to try and keep violence from ever starting.

Hitler probably could’ve been stopped, and not by going back in time and killing him as a baby. He could’ve been stopped by a local and global effort that didn’t equate conflict avoidance with peace. He could have been stopped — or at least slowed to a less destructive speed — with constant nonviolent pressure from within and without Germany.

Peace is not the state of being like, totally chill and not arguing or whatever. It’s a proactive attempt at managing conflict so it doesn’t degenerate into violence. It’s a constant act of subduing those who may be subject to violence, and getting those who may be victims out of harm’s way. Peace is nuanced, tricky, creative, and kinda badass.

Featured photo (and the video embedded in the piece) are from the Chaplin movie The Great Dictator, which is awesome, and which you should watch.

* To be clear, the suggestion is not that a lot of people still wouldn’t have died — nonviolent resistance never guarantees that violence will not be used against the resistors, or even innocents — it’s that war may have enabled an escalated level of brutality.