In Praise of Non-Violence

“It was wonderful to be in Gandhi’s land,” Martin Luther King wrote a few months after returning from a month-long visit to India in 1959. “I left India more convinced than ever before that nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

King says in his autobiography that “Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change” during the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in 1956 that ended segregation on that city’s buses, and throughout the years King led the American civil rights movement.

Like Churchill who could not abide him, Gandhi’s historic achievement was due to his being the right man at the right time. However, this was not the first instance, in history or in mythology, in which non-violent resistance was surprisingly effective.

Here are three precedents.

1. Legend. The Peloponnesian War had been going on for too long. In 411 B.C., the comic playwright Aristophanes invented Lysistrata who persuaded the women of Greece to refuse sex with their husbands until they put down their arms. A negotiated peace was their reward.

2. History. In 1923, the French and Belgians, exasperated by German delays in paying reparations, occupied the Ruhr. The population devised a policy of non-violent passive resistance that earned them the admiration of the English and Americans who had disapproved of the French-Belgian tough-minded decision. This, and no doubt many other factors, paved the way to an eventual relaxation of allied financial demands, i.e., the Dawes plan of 1924.

3A. Legend. In Berlin, in February and March, 1943, two thousand Jews who were married to non-Jews were locked up in the collecting centre at Rosenstrasse 2-4, an administrative building belonging to the Jewish Community. They were about to be deported to the death camps. Their wives, relatives and friends carried out a non-violent protest. The protest escalated. Goebbels, the man in charge, yielded for the moment, intending to have the men deported later. The prisoners were released and survived. In 2003, Margarethe von Trotta used these events as the basis of the film Rosenstrasse .

3B. History. In his book, The Third Reich at War (2008), Richard Evans presented a different version of events.

A trainload of 11, 000 full Jews and their families, including 7,000 from Berlin, were transported to extermination camps in the first week of March 1943. Between 1,500 and 2,000 Berlin Jews who had been arrested had been able to show police that they were exempted from deportation to the death camps, mainly because they were married to non-Jewish partners. While the authorities worked out the details of where they were to work – perhaps in the few Jewish institutions left in the capital, such as hospitals – the internees’ non-Jewish wives, relatives and friends gathered on the pavement across from Rosenstrasse 2-4, waiting for the decision, calling out to them and occasionally trying to get food parcels into the building. By March 8 most of the internees had been reassigned to new jobs. The rest followed. There never had been any intention to send these particular Jews east for extermination and the crowds had not engaged in any explicit protest.

Legend contains an inner truth. Margarete von Trotta’s film is entirely plausible – and memorable.

History merely records the facts. They are easily forgotten.


6 responses to “In Praise of Non-Violence

  1. Forget the passive resistance. When I was a toddler my family lived in a Jewish district in Vienna. One night the S.S. were picking up the elderly gentleman next door. The commotion woke us up. When my father was trying to prevent the elderly man from being taken, the SS were going to take my father too . I remember holding on to his leg and yelling and screaming. My father was not taken and I still yell and scream when necessary.

  2. I still believe that in India non-violence succeeded because there was always the possibility of a violent uprising. The British certainly did not want to take that chance right after World War II. And the world opinion made any colonialism unpopular. RK

  3. Steve Paulsen

    Didn’t Jesus of Nazareth also preach non-violence as the proper response to violence (“turn the other cheek…”)? I’m sure we can count the number of Jesus followers who espouse that principle on one hand.

    • Will you join me, please, in writing a voluminious treatise on instances of passive resistance, i.e., of men and women turning the other cheek, in European history and literature that succeeded – or nearly succeeded?

  4. paul bentley

    Wouldn’t the long history of labour resistance by means of the strike, work stoppage, working to rule etc… give us a lot of examples of effective non-violent resistance to work with?