The Nazis and nonviolence

Contributions to Social Alternatives by Michael C. Stratford, Brian Martin and Ralph Summy


Michael C. Stratford

Can nonviolent defence be effective if the opponent is ruthless?: the Nazi case

Social Alternatives, vol. 6, no. 2, April 1987, pp. 49-57



Brian Martin

The Nazis and nonviolence

Social Alternatives, vol. 6, no. 3, August 1987, pp. 47-49


Michael C. Stratford argues that nonviolent national defence is unlikely to be effective against ruthless regimes such as Nazi Germany.[1] Stratford has provided a valuable service in undertaking an examination of this issue. I agree with him that occasionally too much weight has been put on some of the successes of nonviolent action against the Nazis, such as the resistance of the Norwegian teachers.

On the other hand, I think Stratford's own conclusions are much too sweeping. In his examination of the Nazi example he had made a number of assumptions about politics and nonviolent action which are questionable. It is my aim here to spell out some of these assumptions.

Assumption 1: violence 'succeeded' against the Nazis.

Stratford's critique of nonviolence against the Nazis is built on an implicit comparison with violence against the Nazis, which is widely regarded as having been successful in some sense. Nazi Germany was defeated in World War Two, after all. In terms of Stratford's argument, the Nazis were a ruthless opponent, and only violence would work against them in a period less than decades.

This assumption can be questioned on several grounds. It can be argued that the war by Western governments was against German military and political expansion, not against the ruthless system of fascism per se. National violence (military force) has not regularly been used to attack fascist regimes. The Allies in World War Two did not carry the war to Iberia to topple the fascist regimes there. Nor has Western military strength been used against the numerous dictatorial 'sub-fascist' regimes around the world; instead, it frequently has been used to prop up such regimes.[2] Stratford's logic could just as well lead to the opposite conclusion that violent national defence is ineffective against ruthless regimes.

Nor did Western governments intervene against Nazi Germany because of Nazi genocidal policies. There is ample historical evidence that easy opportunities to disrupt death camp operations were passed over by the Allied governments.[3] The policy was explicitly one of winning the war first and stopping genocidal killing afterwards. The Allies minimised any association of their cause with that of the Jews.

Furthermore, there are plenty of other examples where genocide has been permitted to proceed with no military intervention by 'non-ruthless' governments. The Turkish government's extermination of the Armenians in 1919, Stalin's purges in the 1930s and the Cambodian exterminations from 1975-1979 are major examples where systems of 'violent national defence' stood by and let killings of' genocidal proportions proceed. In the Cambodian case, the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, which stopped the killings, was widely condemned by Western governments. The record of governments in opposing genocide has been pathetic.[4] Should not a whole list of failures be chalked up against 'violent national defence'?

(Stratford says regarding Cambodia, "it does not seem that nonviolent resistance could have stopped these fanatics". This focus distracts from the importance of 'violent defence'- the Indochinese war - in laying the basis for the killings.)

It is also worth remembering that the Nazi extermination of the Jews and other stigmatised groups did not begin until after the war began. In effect, the war provided a brutalising environment conducive to the killings as well as a cover for them. So it is arguable that much of the blame for Nazi genocide can be attributed to the war itself,[5] and in turn to the systems of 'violent national defence' which are often acclaimed as having stopped the Nazis.

Another reason to doubt that violence 'succeeded' in the Nazi case is post-war militarisation. World War Two helped entrench in Western societies a 'permanent war economy' - with persistent high expenditure on military forces and technological development - which had only intermittently existed before. Nuclear weapons are one feature of today's technically sophisticated military systems. If World War Two speeded up the nuclearisation of the world, should not this be counted against any merits of 'violent national defence'?

Assumption 2: nonviolent defence and violent defence are to be judged by different criteria.

Stratford is quick to judge nonviolent defence ineffective if it seems unable to work against a particular ruthless opponent, namely the Nazis. But he does not apply the same criterion to violence defence. For example, as Gene Sharp points out,[6] the failure of nuclear deterrence is far worse than the failure of nonviolent deterrence.

The use of different criteria to judge nonviolence and violence is a regular feature of debates on these issues. A single failure is used to reject nonviolence; repeated failures are never enough to reject violence.

Violence against violence has failed numerous times. Is violence a failure because it didn't work for hundreds of years against the Roman empire? Is Western violent defence a failure because it cannot stop a Soviet nuclear missile? Is violent defence a failure because it has so often been turned inward against the people being 'defended', in the form of military dictatorship? Is violent defence a failure because at least one side loses in most wars?

The double standards used to reject nonviolent methods are so pervasive that it seems to me that many people must feel a psychological need to reject nonviolence, even if that rejection has little logical basis. Perhaps this is because violent defence is part of the 'the way things are', and therefore people assume that it must be the right thing to do.

To my way of thinking, any method of defence cannot be judged by its success or failure on a single case, nor even on a type of case. The full ramifications of a defence mode must be examined.

Stratford doesn't examine the numerous harmful social impacts of violent methods, which include militarisation of society, economic costs, infringements of democracy, encouragement of male violence and domination and, not least, stimulation and justification for militarisation in other societies. Nonviolent methods minimise these major social impacts (except perhaps economic cost).

Assumption 3: nonviolent national defence is a straightforward replacement of violent national defence.

Stratford assumes that nonviolent national defence must take the place of the military and perform precisely the same tasks - and concludes that it probably isn't 'up to the job'.

The trouble with this line of argument is that it builds in all the assumptions associated with the present world political order, which in turn are premised on the existence of military forces.

A standard definition of the state is a set of social institutions founded on a monopoly of what is claimed to be legitimate force within a territory. The present division of the world into states (usually categorised as countries) is built around their use of military forces and police to quell external and internal enemies of the state. Many of the state-based military forces are organised into larger scale groupings, namely the military blocs.

Stratford asks for a nonviolent defence to take over from a violent defence in an overall system of international relations which is based on monopolies over violence. No wonder nonviolence looks a poor option.

Ruthless regimes such as Nazi Germany do not arise in a vacuum. They are able to be genocidal precisely because there is available a state apparatus which extracts resources from the society (through taxes, for example) to support it, military forces used to 'defend' the state and enforce if necessary the extraction of resources, and scientific and technological resources mobilised for use by the state. Sitting around the world are numerous state-military systems. Often they are benevolent, as in most liberal democracies most of the time. But should they face crisis or be 'taken over' by 'ruthless' rulers, they can be used for aggression and oppression. It is circular to argue that 'violent national defence' is necessary to protect against ruthless regimes if ruthless regimes are a predictable if only occasional outcome of those very same systems of 'violent national defence' being advocated.

Part of the assumption here is that nonviolent defence has to be national defence. This is a dangerous assumption, since it incorporates the picture of the present world order built around national monopolies on violence.[7] The success of a movement for nonviolent alternatives might be in terms of a dissolution of states rather than reform within them.

One of the features of 'violent national defence' is that it is not used only for defence, but more often than not either for attack or oppression. Although in wars both sides often claim to be 'defending', in practice the politics and technology of military attack and defence greatly overlap.

But the capability of military forces to attack is forgotten when comparison is made with nonviolent methods, which are assumed to be entirely defensive. (This is why I put 'violent national defence' in quotes.) Once again a double standard is used against nonviolent methods. It is assumed that the only thing they can do is deter or defend. Usually the image is of nonviolent defenders simply waiting for an enemy to invade.

True, nonviolent methods by definition cannot be used for military attack. But what about nonviolent attack? Nonviolent methods certainly can be used to challenge oppressive and militaristic regimes.

Back to nonviolence against the Nazis. It is often forgotten that many Germans were ardent supporters of the Nazis, and many people in other countries, especially in the 1930s, were admirers as well. If nonviolent defence is to work against an 'enemy', it is widely agreed that it is important there is a united opposition. One of the reasons the Nazis were able to build up their repressive apparatus is that relatively few people were willing to take a stand against them. According to Helen Fein, the best predictor of the victimisation of Jews in countries controlled by the Nazis is the level of pre-war anti-Semitism.[8] Ironically, it is especially those who lauded military methods who were especially favourable towards the Nazis, while the often castigated peace movement opposed them.

In the 1930s, there were no organised actions by other governments to undermine the Nazi regime using nonviolent means. Stephen King-Hall gives a telling account of how he tried futilely as late as 1939 to drum up British government support for a campaign to undermine the German people's support for Hitler.[9] There has been no further study on this issue, so it remains a possibility that concerted nonviolent attack from around the world might well have undermined the Nazi regime.

People on the left have long pointed to the illicit measures taken by Western governments to topple other governments, such as in Iran in 1954, Chile in 1973 and currently Nicaragua. Many of the measures taken are nonviolent, such as diplomatic steps, withdrawing investment, funding opposition groups and making vehement public statements. Such measures could just as well be taken against repressive regimes, though governments do this only inconsistently.

I agree here with Stratford that there is more hope in keeping Nazi-like groups out of power than in stopping their excesses in the event of war. That conclusion applies for violent as well as for nonviolent methods.

One last facet of the third assumption is that conversion to nonviolent defence is assumed to be one-sided. It is imagined that one country converts to nonviolent defence, while 'enemies' remain the same as before, some of them being 'ruthless'. But much more likely is a process of conversion in which steps towards nonviolent alternatives are made simultaneously in several countries. For example, the conversion process in one society could be dependent on the nonviolent toppling of potential aggressor regimes. The picture of social defence and social attack as a process rather than a technical fix avoids many of the dilemmas associated with 'defence against ruthless opponents'.

Michael Stratford is right that the Nazi case is a difficult one for supporters of nonviolence. But his assumptions make the case even more difficult than it need be. To the question, "Can nonviolent defence be effective if the opponent is ruthless?", I think the best answer is, we don't know. But the same answer applies to the question, "Can military defence be effective if the opponent is ruthless?" Perhaps a better question is, "What 'defence system' - violent or nonviolent - stimulates the creation of ruthless regimes?"

Nonviolence is not guaranteed to be successful. But it may be the only hope in a technological age when the logic of violence is the logic of mass extermination.

1. Michael C. Stratford, 'Can nonviolent national defence be effective if the opponent is ruthless?: the Nazi case', Social Alternatives, vol. 6, no. 2, April 1987, pp. 49-57.

2. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, The Political Economy of Human Rights (Boston: South End Books, 1979).

3. Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies (London: Michael Joseph, 1981).

4. Leo Kuper, Genocide (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981).

5. Adam Roberts, 'The use of civil resistance in international relations', in Philip P. Wiener and John Fisher (eds.), Violence and Aggression in the History of Ideas (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1985), pp. 113-132 (see p. 124); Gene Sharp, Making Europe Unconquerable (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger, 1985), pp. 135-137.

6. Gene Sharp, 'Deterrence and defence by nonviolent sanctions', Social Alternatives, vol. 6, no. 2. April 1987, pp. 9-18.

7. Brian Martin, Uprooting War (London: Freedom Press, 1984).

8. Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide (New York: Free Press, 1979).

9. Stephen King-Hall, Total Victory (London: Faber and Faber, 1941), pp. 209-211, 283-304; Stephen King-Hall, Defence in the Nuclear Age (London: Gollancz, 1958), pp. 126-128.


Ralph Summy

Defending nonviolent defence

Social Alternatives, vol. 6, no. 3, August 1987, pp. 49-50

Although I guest-edited the previous issue of Social Alternatives, there was one article - that of Michael Stratford - whose conclusion I want to dispute. He examines whether the thesis of Raymond Aron and Michael Walzer that nonviolent defence is ineffective against ruthless and unscrupulous invaders is valid in the case of Nazi Germany and the occupied countries. His finding: "although nonviolent resistance to Nazi occupation produced some limited achievements, notably in Denmark and Norway, and was important for national morale and identity in these countries and the Netherlands, there is little to indicate that these occupations could have been ended by nonviolent means alone, or mainly by nonviolent means." From this finding he then draws the general inference "that there is more hope in striving to keep Nazi-like groups and individuals from seizing control of governments in the first place than in trying to remove them by nonviolent methods". Thus he basically comes down in support of the Aron-Walzer thesis.

In my view this thesis is flawed on a number of grounds, but I shall take up only my main criticism at this time. The counter-argument begins with a model of how power is exercised. It is contended that power is not something that can be imposed from above, but is instead a relationship formed by the granting of power from below. And what has been granted can just as surely be withdrawn. Thus the power of any ruler, whether we are talking about a democratically elected official or a tyrant who has seized office, is extremely fragile. His/her power depends on the consent or compliance of the ruled. If the relationship breaks down, the ruler is left with no one to rule.

This is simple basic theory. The only occasion when the ruler's position is not problematic is when no dependency relationship exists with the subject class. Whilst such a situation will never occur in absolute form, it comes close to prevailing in cases of genocide, imposed migration, and lodgement of forces in remote areas. This is when nonviolent resistance is least apt to be effective because the theoretical basis of nonviolence has been weakened.

However, in other cases of occupation and oppression - that is, in most cases where the dependency relationship does exist - the key factor is not the brutality or any other action of the regime, but how the people respond to their oppression. To evaluate whether a nonviolent action will be successful, one should first ask questions about the resisters, since they hold the initiative. The key factors then become an amalgamation of qualities displayed by the nonviolent actionists who are operating in a particular political context. Among the qualities to be examined are: the morale within the movement, its size and unity, planning, and organisation, training and discipline, communications network, self-sufficiency, and people's determination, their understanding of nonviolent theory and willingness to make sacrifices. Such factors are not formulated in a political vacuum, but they do owe more to determinants under the control of the nonviolent resisters than to any forces of an external kind. (All this, of course, assumes that the oppressed are aware of their condition and seek their liberation).

If the nonviolent leadership should choose inappropriate strategy and tactics, then the campaign is likely to fail, but the decision has rested with the nonviolent camp, not the brutal tyrant. It behooves the nonviolent leadership, at all times, to refrain from taking action until the 'objective' conditions are suitable for an effective campaign. If they are not, it is the part both of wisdom and morality not to resort to nonviolent action. Unless the leadership considers the wider historical trends and contingencies militating for or against the achievement of the movement's goals, it may prove impossible to build within the movement those very qualities necessary for success. However, to recognise that nonviolent struggle is conditioned by the larger environment and that strategy and tactics should reflect this fact, does not mean that any one or combination of external factors precludes nonviolent success.

The external factor of an enemy's extreme ruthlessness, under certain circumstances, may actually create a condition of political ju-jitsu. Instead of crushing a nonviolent resistance, it may strengthen the resolve of the actionists, lead to their greater solidarity, increase their willingness to engage in acts of self sacrifice, and bring into the fray on their side some of the third parties.

Politics, it should be obvious, is a highly complex human activity. It does not lend itself to the extraction of a single measurable variable around which a general rule can be constructed. A single variable may be shown to have been decisive in a particular situation, but the question arises, will there be repeated in the future an exact congruence of the other variables, and will the isolated single variable manifest the same nature and intensity? The odds against such an occurrence would seem to be astronomical, since political outcomes evolve from a long train of sequential and interacting variables, some independent and some dependent. To try to pinpoint one variable as universally decisive is to elevate politics to a predictive science and deny historical events their uniqueness.

Nevertheless, political decisions can be and are based on reasonable expectations when as many variables as possible are taken into account and when the analysis is theoretically sound. It is at this level of theory that the advantage goes to the proponent of nonviolence over the tyrant. As long as s/he remains indispensable to meeting the tyrant's needs and mounts a campaign severing the relationship, then victory is theoretically assured. The hard work comes in seizing the initiative and building into a movement those qualities (morale, unity, persistence, etc) that can overcome the tyrant's monopoly of violence, including acts of severe brutality.


Michael C. Stratford

The Nazis and nonviolent defence

Social Alternatives, vol. 8, no. 3, 1989, pp. 58-61

Comments on my article by Brian Martin and Ralph Summy a few issues ago give me a chance to clarify it.[1] Summy gives a fair summary of my argument. As he says, I concluded that the thesis of Raymond Aron and Michael Walzer that nonviolent defence is ineffective against ruthless and unscrupulous invaders is basically supported by the case of Nazi Germany and the countries it occupied in World War II. Aron and Walzer have not to my knowledge been convincingly refuted. My rejoinder will focus on Martin's comments, and I will examine each of the three assumptions he claims are contained in my essay.

Assumption 1: Violence 'succeeded' against the Nazis. This assumption or conclusion is not essential to my interpretation that nonviolent means alone were unlikely to have brought an end to Nazi Germany's occupations. Suppose that some historians fifty years from now take a new look at World War II in Europe and conclude that the loss of life on both sides, the bombing of civilians, the expansion of the Soviet Union's hegemony into Eastern Europe, and the 'permanent war economy' and nuclearisation to which Martin refers all add up to a cost which was too high to reasonably pay to defeat Germany militarily.[2] Even if true, this conclusion hardly supports Martin's argument for the efficacy of nonviolent defence. It is more plausible that the historians' conclusion would support the view that political submission was a better alternative than war. At least this was within the realm of the possible. Or there may be dilemmas in which there is no satisfactory alternative, and the crisis in Europe in 1939 may have been one. The destructiveness entailed by the Allied countries deciding to go to war provides no evidence that nonviolent defence could have been efficacious.

Martin's logic is to criticise 'violent national defence' so as to pave the way for his preferred alternative of nonviolent defence. In discussing what he calls "systems of 'violent national defence'" or what I will at times call national armed force, it is important to distinguish two matters. One is the potency of armed force as a means for attaining political and security objectives. A second is what Martin calls the "merits" of 'violent national defence'. His argument is that because Western governments or other 'non-ruthless' governments have not used armed force as humanely or wisely as we might have expected, violent national defence is fundamentally flawed. But to pinpoint errors with respect to the use or nonuse of armed force by certain governments at certain times does not validate his critique of national armed forces as such.

Specifically, Martin notes that it was not Nazi genocidal policies which prompted Western governments to go to war, and that these governments passed over chances to disrupt death camp operations. But when the United Kingdom and the United States entered the war, death camp operations were in their early stages and had not been well-publicised. Actions to disrupt death camp exterminations probably ought to have been taken. The observation that the Allies minimised the association of their cause with the Jews could as easily lead to the conclusion that the Allies ought to have associated their cause with the Jews as to the conclusion that they ought to have rejected armed defence and intervention.

Martin further objects that exterminations and purges under the governments of Turkey in 1919, the Soviet Union in the 1930's, and Cambodia in 1975-1979 proceeded without military intervention by Western governments. He contrasts the record of "failures" of 'violent national defence' with "nonviolent attack", which he believes can be used to challenge "oppressive and militaristic regimes." But interventions need to be examined in terms of benefits, costs, risks, and chances of success. Prudential estimates would be needed whether we are in a world of armed states, one with a strong international security organization or even in a world relying on nonviolent defence. The people who make these estimates and decide on policies may, even in relatively democratic states, make errors of judgment and lack compassion. Martin is citing shortcomings in decisions by imperfect policymakers operating within constraints of historical situations and contrasting them a vision of effective nonviolent action which is purely at a theoretical and abstract level. It is no wonder that the "merits" of systems based on armed force do not fare well.

As regards the "potency" of national armed forces, historically they have often made citizens of a country less vulnerable to rule or massacre from the outside than if these forces were absent. This is a limited accomplishment. But when Martin suggests that a combination of nonviolent defence and attack might have made it possible in the same period to have stemmed Nazi Germany's expansion, overthrown regimes in Iberia, and stopped Stalin's purges he is closer to presenting a vision of a different world than to recommending an alternative policy. He needs rather to provide indications that nonviolent action could have worked in one or more of these cases.

There is a sense in which violence against the Nazis did succeed, as Martin acknowledges. The defeat of Nazi Germany was seen as an important accomplishment at the time. It is quite possible that if armed force had not been used against Nazi Germany the cost of lives and freedom would have been even higher.

Martin further attacks 'violent national defence' on the grounds that much of the blame for Nazi genocide can be attributed to the war itself and to the systems of violent national defence which are often praised as having stopped the Nazis. He reasons that since the Nazi extermination of the Jews and others did not start until after the war began, the war thus "provided a brutalising environment conducive to the killings as well as a cover for them." This shifts the responsibility away from the Nazis and onto 'war' in a way that is inaccurate. Indeed Martin's logic could lead to the strange conclusion that Jewish men who joined military units to fight Nazi Germany contributed to the genocide on the Jews by helping to create a brutalising environment.

The Nazis created the brutalising environment, or they were this environment. War may have been a cover, but they used it as such. Although they waited until the war to carry out large scale exterminations, the Nazis had already begun their concentration camp activities years earlier at places such as Buchenwald and Dachau. The Jews were openly attacked in the Nazi-organised programme of Kristallnacht on November 10, 1938, well before the war. By that time the leading Nazis had decided that open, undisciplined bullying was to be replaced by bureaucratic massacre.[3] The order to destroy the Jews of Europe seems to have been by Hitler to Himmler between October, 1940 and May, 1941. In January, 1942 at the Wansee Conference Nazi leaders planned the murder of some 14 million Jews and other people, even listing the number of Jews to be eliminated in European countries which were neutral or thus far not under German control. Those who conceived, planned, and willingly carried out this operation caused it and have full responsibility.

There is indeed a close connection between the war and Nazi genocide, but it is not that the environment was conducive to killing. It is that the same men who planned the genocide of the Jews planned aggressive war on a grand scale. If there had been no military resistance to the Nazis, there is little reason to think that the effort to eliminate the Jews, gypsies, and so on would not have gone forward.[4]

Martin similarly blames war, namely the Indochinese war, for the extermination of Cambodia from 1975-1979, and he objects that my scepticism about whether nonviolent resistance would have worked against the Khmer Rouge distracts from the role of the war in laying the basis for the killings. It is true that in the aftermath of major wars we often find shattered societies in which extremists come to the fore. This happened in Cambodia. But in both the Nazi and Cambodian cases unscrupulous men were bent on implementing destructive ideologies. Martin's conclusions in these cases seem to derive from an assumption that evils such as genocide must come from institutions, in this case 'violent national defence' viewed as an institution. But these evils may go back to certain types of people, who employ or even create institutions for their purposes. And even if we do blame the Vietnam war for what happened in Cambodia, this does not do much for the case for nonviolent defence. Martin has not indicated how nonviolent techniques could have been used here to save lives.

Assumption 2: nonviolent defence and violent defence are to be judged by different criteria. My first commitment is to truth and accurate scholarship rather than to either violent or nonviolent defence. However, I am not as favourable to 'violent national defence' as Martin infers from my article, nor do I seek to "reject nonviolence" in any blanket way. In this connection I note an editorial change made in my article which I believe unintentionally altered the meaning I intended. On p. 52 of the third column it reads: "This raises a question as to whether the armed resistance in the anti-Nazi struggle was not more central than the nonviolent aspect in the minds of many, or most resisters." In the manuscript I submitted it read "the resistance aspect" rather than "the armed resistance." Rather than comparing violent and nonviolent resistance, I was saying that effective overall resistance was more important to most Norwegians than that the resistance be limited to nonviolent means.

I also remind readers that I said that the nonviolent resistance by Norwegian teachers "supports Sharp's contention that nonviolence 'is the opposite of passivity' and 'is not simply persuasion,' but the 'wielding of power'" (p. 51). I said that the use of nonviolent methods in Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands was "probably a more prudent, less costly way of protesting occupation than greater resort to violent methods would have been" (p. 53). I credited nonviolent resistance in the occupied countries as being "vitally important for maintaining national identity and morale" (p. 54).

I claimed that Germany, Austria, and Russia would have been better off had they given up armaments and turned to civilian-based defence in 1914, and that it is likely that the other participant countries in the war would have done better this way. I stated that Sharp makes a plausible case that the American colonies already had largely won their independence from Great Britain before there was violence in 1775 (p. 56). If I were using different criteria or a double standard to "reject nonviolence," it is unlikely that I would say these things. I made these favourable assessments about nonviolent action because I agree that nonviolent defence should not be judged by its success or failure in a single case.

Martin himself may use different criteria for judging violent and nonviolent defence. He is quick to spot the costs of violent defence, but what might he count as liabilities of nonviolent defence? Is there anything he would count as evidence that a military effort was, on balance, worthwhile?

Behind a sweeping rejection of violence there are often certain assumptions. For example, that killing is always wrong or war is an absolute evil. I respect such positions and have at times held, or been close to, them. Yet if we are to engage in consequentialist analysis of alternative policies in terms of benefits, costs and risks, we need to make some separation between our analysis and our feelings and convictions. Otherwise when we examine different defence strategies we may find that we are not simply using criteria that differ. Our criteria may be entirely incommensurate. Of course we all bring ways of perceiving and values to our tasks, but to the extent that our analysis is based on a priori considerations, it is unlikely that empirical evidence will alter our outlook. If Martin holds to an absolutist rejection of all killing, it would clarify matters if he would make his premise explicit.

To bring the issue to the crucial level of decision and policy, let us take the situation the United Kingdom faced in the summer of 1939. Suppose that one was the Prime Minister, or an advisor to him, and was able to choose between the arms and soldiers resulting from the rearmament programme conducted after 1936 or a civilian-based defence programme with a comparable expenditure of money, time, and effort. Faced with such a decision, would one really give much weight to Martin's question: "Is violence a failure because it didn't work for hundreds of years against the Roman Empire?"

Martin would presumably have opted for the nonviolent defence. But might not there have been heavy costs entailed in the choice? The most obvious seems greater vulnerability to invasion. In fact there was a plan by Hitler for such an invasion with the code name 'Sea Lion'. It is generally agreed that when Germany lost the air war known as the Battle of Britain in 1940, it abandoned 'Sea Lion'. Had Britain relied entirely on nonviolent defence, it seems quite possible that 'Sea Lion' would have gone ahead. And there has been no recorded case of nonviolent defence clearly causing an invader to desist or withdraw. Given the Nazi record, it is not unlikely that the number of British killed during an occupation would have been far higher than the some 357,000 actually killed in World War II. Nearly 61,000 were killed in aerial bombardment by Germany. It is not hard to imagine that if Britain had no air force more would have died. Had the United Kingdom been occupied, it might have been seen as further evidence of the decline of democracy, with a loss of morale in occupied Europe. This case shows that there are reasons why leaders and peoples choose violent methods besides Martin's explanation that "many people must feel a psychological need to reject nonviolence ..."

When the opponent is very ruthless, to opt for a strategy of complete nonviolent defence appears to increase the chances that political submission will be the long term outcome. Nonviolent defence should not be ruled out, but its possible costs should be frankly stated.

Assumption 3: nonviolent national defence is a straightforward replacement of violent national defence. Martin is correct, for I followed Aron, Walzer, and Sharp who shared this assumption in their analyses. It is a fact that nonviolent resistance to the Nazis was primarily organised on a national basis. Thus it was hard not to examine it with this focus.

Martin is also accurate when he points out that military forces have been used for attack and oppression as well as defence. Thus the same British air forces which may have prevented even larger civilian casualties in England in World War II participated in the needless mass-killing of civilians in the destruction of Dresden in February, 1945.

Martin thinks that those who say 'violent national defence' may be needed to protect against ruthless regimes are being circular because occasional ruthless regimes are a predictable outcome of the very systems of violent national defence being advocated. I agree with him that state military establishments are one stimulus for such regimes, and if mankind could uniformly do away with such establishments it would be a great advance. But Martin does not mention that the causation may move in the other direction, and besides national defence systems stimulating warlike regimes, certain dictatorships do much to cause war.

The very system of competing independent political units struggling for power which is international politics has been sustained by a sanction, namely, the fear of conquest and what that brings. When the conqueror is a harsh dictator, the prospect is the more fearsome. Gene Sharp recognised this when he wrote of "some hard facts which peace workers rarely face," including that "brutal dictatorships and oppressive systems exist, will continue, may become more serious, and may seek to expand."[5] The problem is nor circularity, but the severity of international politics among governments and peoples who seek power and security and often see themselves as sharing little in the way of common interests.

For Martin "it remains a possibility that concerted nonviolent attack from around the world might well have undermined the Nazi regime." He enumerates "diplomatic steps, withdrawing investment, funding opposition groups, and making vehement public statements" as examples of measures which may be taken against repressive regimes. One wonders about the power of such measures against a determined German government able to mobilise 80 million people behind it. But if the process of "dissolution of states" which Martin favours was underway, the measures might be even less powerful. Your state might be one of those already dissolved.

Now Martin envisages a conversion process involving simultaneous steps toward nonviolent alternatives in a number of countries, which process could be enhanced and made mutual by the "nonviolent toppling of potential aggressor regimes." But there is the problem of how, without the national state and its symbols, such as flags and national anthems, there would be the unity needed to withstand a determined foe whose government had not been toppled.

Martin's analysis, which identifies national states with "monopolies over violence" as the source of our difficulty makes our task simple in theory, for by dissolving states we abolish violence. But violence also has other sources and roots. Large scale violence and cruelty can erupt even without a state apparatus, based on hostilities and other strong emotions. Millions were killed in communal violence between Hindus and Moslems at the time of the partition of India, and we have seen something tragically similar in Lebanon since 1975. The Khmer Rouge went quickly from a revolutionary group challenging the then Cambodian government's claim over legitimate violence to the operation of an intricate bureaucracy of death camps.

In sum, Martin provides no evidence or new interpretation that calls for revision of my original conclusions about the Nazi case. His arguments are based on logic and imaginative scenarios and are not compelling. I do agree with him that major war resulting from the failure of nuclear deterrence would be a catastrophe rather than 'defence,' and that the prevention of such war is essential.

Ralph Summy seeks to counter the Aron-Walzer critique by arguing that at the level of theory nonviolent resisters have the advantage over rulers in that the power people grant rulers can be withdrawn. Summy's analysis appears theoretically sound. But he adds the important qualification that the "only occasion when the ruler's position is not problematic is when no dependency relationship exists with the subject class," which we come closest to "in cases of genocide, imposed migration, and lodgement of forces in remote areas." Now when genocide or imposed migration occurs, whether the victims are the people of the ruler or conquered foreigners, the offending state is generally a harsh dictatorship. Nazi Germany's occupations in eastern Europe, the Ukraine, and parts of the Soviet Union fit precisely the model where the ruler depends very little on the will of the mass of the population. Lack of comfort or support from the peoole did not hinder genocide in these areas. But even in Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands, in which the German rulers did not attempt mass destruction (other than on the Jews), and the populations were homogeneous and united in their desire to regain independence, all the demonstrations, strikes, and noncooperation never posed any serious challenge to continued rule by the governing authorities.

Other twentieth century examples of rule or occupation without much popular support causing great loss of life include Japan in China before and during World War II, and Stalin's actions in the Ukraine in the early 1930's. Summy refers to the ju-jitsu effect in which brutal acts actually strengthen the resolve of the nonviolent actionists and bring to their side third parties; but it is hard to see how the oppressed could have employed this ju-jitsu in these situations.

Nonviolent means are in themselves far preferable to violent means and should be used where possible. Unfortunately there are circumstances in which they are unlikely to be effective. But violence should generally be a remedy of last resort. Education in humane values and eternal vigilance are more promising.


1. See Michael C. Stratford, 'Can nonviolent national defence be effective if the opponent is ruthless?: the Nazi case', Social Alternatives, vol. 6, no. 2, April, 1987, pp.49-57 and Dialogue and Debate, 'The Nazis and nonviolence' and 'Defending Nonviolent Defense,' Social Alternatives, vol. 6, no. 3, August, 1987, pp.47-50.

2. George Kennan has apparently drawn such a conclusion, for he says that "it is inescapably clear that in the two great European wars of this century there were, in reality, no victors." To Kennan these wars "were, in effect, simply senseless orgies of destruction." See 'A New Philosophy of Defense,' The New York Review of Books, February 13, 1986, p.3.

3. Richard L. Rubenstein, The Cunning of History (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), pp.23-27.

4. Yehuda Bauer, A History of the Holocaust (New York: Franklin Watts, 1982), pp.194, 200-207, 330-331.

5. Gene Sharp, Making the Abolition of War a Realistic Goal, World Policy Institute, 1980, p.3.

Michael C. Stratford teaches in the Department of Political Science at Central Michigan University in the U.S.A.



Brian Martin

The Nazis and nonviolence (II)

Social Alternatives, vol. 9, no. 1, April 1990, pp. 54-55

Michael C. Stratford had an article in the April 1987 issue of Social Alternatives arguing that "the advantages of ruthless regimes generally are likely to prove decisive" against nonviolent resistance. He used the example of Nazi Germany during World War II, examining the limits to effectiveness of nonviolent resistance in Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands.[1]

In a following issue, Ralph Summy and I each questioned assumptions underlying Stratford's argument.[2] Stratford has since replied, clarifying and confirming his position.[3]

Rather than continuing the argument as it has proceeded, I attempt here to spell out several key differences and agreements between Stratford and myself.

Difference 1: the prime cause of the problems of war and genocide. Stratford emphasises the role of individuals. For example, he says "in both the Nazi and Cambodian cases unscrupulous men were bent on implementing destructive ideologies" and that "these evils may go back to certain types of people, who employ or even create institutions for their purposes".

By contrast I emphasise the role of social structures, such as the state and its monopoly over the use of 'legitimate' violence. I said "Ruthless regimes such as Nazi Germany ... are able to be genocidal precisely because there is available a state apparatus" with its capacity for repression and military aggression.

No doubt we would each agree that both individuals and structures are implicated. But the difference in emphasis leads to different conclusions. Stratford concludes that ruthless regimes must be met, at least sometimes, by military force. I conclude that the regular reliance on military force is a major factor in the rise of repressive regimes. Needless to say, this difference leads us in different directions and to different conclusions.

Difference 2: the solidarity of an apparatus of repression. Stratford assumes that a repressive government can be used, without difficulties, against opponents: "a determined German government able to mobilise 80 million people behind it". This seems to be behind Stratford's dismissal of the effectiveness of nonviolent action against repressive regimes: through bribes and threats, "tyrants and conquerers have generally been able to get the obedience they need".

My assumption is that popular support for a government, and for its apparatus of repression, is a key weak point, and precisely the point for nonviolent intervention. Violent resistance unifies the regime; nonviolent resistance has a better chance of undermining it. The largely nonviolent revolutions in Russia and Iran this century illustrate the potential internal weaknesses of an apparatus of repression.

Difference 3: the implementation of nonviolent defence. Stratford usually writes of a government deciding to introduce nonviolent defence, typically at a time when it is under military threat, such as Britain in 1936.

My position is that nonviolent defence is a process, not a policy. To imagine any government suddenly switching from military to nonviolent defence, without the prior historical conditions, is to set up a false image.

Related to this difference is a difference in the way we draw lessons from history. Stratford uses the study of the limited effect of nonviolent resistance against the Nazis to conclude that nonviolent defence can't succeed against some repressive regimes.

My view is that there has never been a fully prepared nonviolent defence and so it is impossible to say whether it can succeed against a Nazi-like regime. My conclusion from examining the historical record is that the Nazi case doesn't refute the potential of nonviolent defence against repressive regimes. I also argue that the commonplace idea that violence is the only way to topple a ruthless regime has many flaws.

In 1989 there were dramatic events in China and Eastern Europe. No doubt Stratford and I each interpret these events in our own way. For my part, I am encouraged that nonviolent action has shown such potential against repressive regimes. But since, as yet, no fully organised social defence system has been organised, no definitive conclusions can be drawn.

I am disappointed that Stratford has misinterpreted my views on a number of points (which would be tedious to recount here), perhaps because he has not consulted my more extensive writings. Be that as it may, I hope it is more useful to focus here on our differences and, more pleasantly, agreements.

Agreement 1: nonviolent defence is preferable in at least some situations. Stratford says, for example, that "Germany, Austria, and Russia would certainly have been better off in 1914 had they ceased reliance on their armaments and turned to a policy of civilian-based defence".

Agreement 2: studying repressive regimes such as the Nazis is worthwhile. There are insights to be gained from studying history, though we may disagree over them!

Agreement 3: A careful and honest assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of nonviolent methods is worthwhile. Whatever the prospects for nonviolent defence, it does not help to give false promises or dismissals.

For those who would like to pursue the issue of the Nazis and nonviolence further, there are some items that deserve mention in addition to those cited earlier in this exchange. Tom Bower has documented how the Allies systematically returned Nazis and ruling class collaborators to positions of power in post-war Western Germany.[4] Hans Rothfels documents the internal German opposition to Hitler, and comments on the failure of Western governments and postwar opinion to give credit to the existence of this opposition.[5] Bradford Lyttle has given a strong pacifist response to the argument that war was necessary to stop the Nazi exterminations.[6]


1. Michael C. Stratford, 'Can nonviolent defence be effective if the opponent is ruthless?: the Nazi case'. Social Alternatives, vol. 6, no. 2, April 1987, pp. 49-57.

2. Brian Martin, 'The Nazis and nonviolence', Social Alternatives, vol. 6, no. 3, August 1987, pp. 47-49; Ralph Summy,'Defending nonviolent defence', ibid., pp. 49-50.

3. Michael C. Stratford, 'The Nazis and nonviolent defence', Social Alternatives, vol. 8, no. 3, 1989, pp. 58-61.

4. Tom Bower, Blind Eye to Murder Britain, America and the Purging of Nazi Germany - A Pledge Betrayed (London: Andre Deutsch, 1981).

5. Hans Rothfels, The German Opposition to Hitler (London: Oswald Wolff, 1961).

6. Bradford Lyttle, 'The Holocaust and World War II', Midwest Pacifist Commentator (5729 S. Dorchester, Chicago IL 60637, USA), vol. 3, no. 2, 10 November 1988, and responses in following issues.

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