Objectors to nonviolence often make the claim that World War II was the ultimate example of a justified war. How could it be wrong to fight a war against Hitler, a war to save Jewish lives? And how could nonviolence have been effective against such a tyrannical power?
It’s a sad fact that the Allies did little to thwart the worst of Hitler’s atrocities. On multiple occasions, death camps, which were bringing in and vetting more people every day, or transportation routes into death camps, could have been targeted with no tactical risk to the Allied forces involved were routinely denied; often because the military was careful to avoid the appearance of fighting “for the Jews,” which would have reduced popular support for the war. In fact, in many ways, the Holocaust was started and perpetuated by the Allied emergence into the war.
Before the war, German officials tried to concoct several schemes to rid themselves of the “Jewish problem,” including an attempt to deport the whole Jewish population to Madagascar, which could have worked except that it required negotiations with France, which couldn’t happen during wartime. The point is that it was seen as a long-term problem, not something that had to be resolved instantly. So rights were taken from Jews, Communists, political dissidents, and many were moved to ghettos, gulags and work camps, but it was only with the emergence of the Allied forces, in January of 1942, that the “final solution” was deemed necessary.
“In the postwar world,” historian Mark Kurlansky writes, “it became fashionable to view the Allied military effort as an attempt to stop the Holocaust. But in reality, the Allies went to war over geopolitical concerns. If they had wanted to save the Jews, the best chance would have been not going to war.”
But to the actual question, should Hitler have been resisted nonviolently? Absolutely. People like to say that Gandhi and King had it easy, because they were dealing with ‘civilized tyrants,’ and that their tactics would never have worked against Hitler. But that’s simply not born out historically. Historically, the nations and people who resisted Hitler through nonviolence (which we never hear about) were the only truly successful ones – that is to say, more Jewish lives were saved through nonviolence than violence. Denmark, for instance, was declared as neutral but Germany invaded them anyway. Regarding armed resistance as suicidal, they submitted passively, and began regarding it as a mark of national honor to work slowly, to delay all German transportation, to sabotage or destroy German equipment, and to protect anyone Germany pursued. University students openly protested the German occupation, while underground groups sabotaged railroad and infrastructure. Workers went on strike rather than produce useful material for the Nazis. The Danish government refused to enforce the anti-Semitic policies Germany laid down for them. So when Germany announced the deportation of all Danish Jews, the Danes hid virtually the entire population and 1,500 more who were refugees from surrounding nations. Not a single Danish Jew died in the Holocaust.
Similar stories can be told about unarmed subterfuge in Bulgaria, Hungary (which secreted over 100,000 Jews to Sweden, issuing them false passports), towns in southeast France, and in Switzerland.
Ultimately, there is no way that Nazi Germany could have held its grip on Europe, especially if the Allies had sent troops trained in similar methods of nonviolent resistance, while the German motivation for destroying the Jews would have been nonexistent. The high generals who served under Hitler admitted, during the Nuremberg trials and in their own extant writings, that they were confounded by nonviolent resistance. They knew how to crush enemy armies, but the subterfuge of nonviolence couldn’t be fought in any efficient way. They encouraged spies to work their way into labor unions in hopes of turning them violent, so they could deal with them.
The problem with this is that it asks great bravery of a populace. It is a relatively easy thing to hand someone a gun and tell them to shoot anyone who crosses that hill. It is much more difficult to tell a person to stand at the bottom of that hill, to meet the one who crosses it, and to tell them that they cannot have their way. But if everyone were to do that, the dictator would have no power. “What could he do to you if you yourself did not connive with the thief who plunders you?” They could kill you, certainly, but that’s always a possibility in war.
Opponents of pacifism like to claim that pacifism has been tried and found to be ineffective. This is doubly wrong. Pacifism has never truly been tried – not the way violence has been, with extensive funding, education, training, commitment, resources, infrastructure and the willingness to sacrifice lives if necessary. And when it has been tried, by groups unable to exercise violence, or out of desperation, it has proved to be shockingly effective.
Am I claiming that WWII could have been “fought” without ever resorting to military combat or outright declaration of war? Certainly not. But in light of these considerations, the claim that WWII presents a situation in which no moral person could remain a pacifist falls apart. Many of us believe we are called to live nonviolently, whether or not it is effective. Fortunately, effectiveness is also an option.