From: Brian Martin, "Social defence: arguments and actions", in Shelley Anderson and Janet Larmore (eds.), Nonviolent Struggle and Social Defence (London: War Resisters' International and the Myrtle Solomon Memorial Fund Subcommittee, 1991), pp. 89-99.

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Historical examples

General comments Illustrations from history can show how nonviolent action works and suggest the potential for social defence. Nevertheless, there are a number of reservations which are worth remembering. Whether to mention these reservations, and when, depends on the audience, their knowledge of nonviolent action and the type of discussion.

* Historical examples do not prove the case for social defence -- or anything else. For every example of effective nonviolent action, another example could be provided of ineffective nonviolent action. Historical examples are like tools in a box. They can be useful for hammering points home, but if you try to build a grand edifice, someone else may be able to bring it tumbling down.

* Historical examples are not examples of social defence, but rather of nonviolent action of the sort that might be part of a social defence system. In many cases, nonviolent action was largely spontaneous. There was little preparation, no training and little planning.

* Each example has its own specific limitations as an example. Some of these limitations will be mentioned below. If there is someone in the audience with special knowledge, your nice example may be spoiled. Be prepared to admit the shortcomings of each example.

* On the other hand, there is no need to be overly defensive about the examples. For every failure of nonviolent action, there is a failure of violent action (usually with far more horrendous consequences). It is useful to regularly make comparisons with historical examples of the use of violent action to put things in perspective.

* The writing of history always involves interpretation and, therefore, value judgements. Some writers, such as Gene Sharp, who favour the use of nonviolent action undoubtedly present certain historical episodes in a different light than writers who assume that state power or class struggle or whatever is the crucial issue. This only serves to emphasise the point that historical examples are like tools in a box. Different people pick different tools and use them for different purposes, whether to show the potential power of nonviolence or the necessity of warfare.



It is important to emphasise coups, since they are often overlooked in the usual comparisons between having military forces and having none. Military regimes are, arguably, just as serious a problem as warfare itself. In such cases, militaries obviously are a cause rather than a solution to the problem.


Germany, 1920

On 13 March 1920 in Berlin, there was a putsch (military takeover) led by General von Lüttwitz. The extreme right-wing Dr Wolfgang Kapp became Chancellor. Commanders of the German army refused to support the elected government and took no action against the putsch. It was left to the people to take action.

Germany's Weimar republic had been set up after the country's defeat in World War One. The government in 1920 was led by President Friedrich Ebert. In the wake of the coup, the government fled from Berlin to Stuttgart, from which it encouraged resistance by noncooperation.

When the Kappists took over two pro-government newspapers, all Berlin printers went on strike. The Ebert government called for a general strike throughout Germany. Support for the strike was overwhelming, especially in Berlin, and included groups from most political and religious orientations.

Opposition by civil servants was also crucial in opposing the coup. Workers in government bureaucracies refused to head government departments under Kapp.

Noncooperation ran deep. Bank officials refused to honour cheques presented by Kappists unless they were signed by appropriate government officials. But not one such official would sign. Typists were not available to type proclamations for the Kappists.

Kapp foolishly alternated between making concessions and attempting crackdowns, neither of which produced support. As his weakness became more obvious, opposition increased. Some military units and the security police declared their support for the legal government. After only four days, Kapp resigned and fled. With the collapse of the putsch, the Ebert government could once again rely on the loyalty of the army.

Comment The Kapp putsch is an excellent example because of the many types of nonviolent action used. Especially important is the crucial role of legitimacy for any government. People usually think of a military regime as inevitably getting its way, but in practice it only does so when people routinely obey. For bank officials to refuse to cash cheques is a wonderful example of the ordinariness of noncooperation. The example of the putsch also has the advantage that the nonviolent resistance was successful.

The historical context is important in understanding the putsch. The Weimar republic was an attempt at setting up parliamentary democracy in the most difficult of situations. Not only was the economy in tatters, but there was serious opposition from both the right and left. There had nearly been a revolution in Germany in the aftermath of the war. The Ebert government could rely on the army, a bastion of conservatism, to oppose left-wing insurgency. On the other hand, the army generally did not oppose threats to the republic from the right, and most military leaders sat on the sidelines during the Kapp putsch. Popular action was necessary to defeat the putsch precisely because the army did nothing.

Another element in the story of the putsch is the role of armed workers' groups in several parts of Germany. This left-wing armed struggle was an attempt at social revolution rather than just opposition to the coup. After the defeat of the putschists, the Ebert government used the army to smash the workers' opposition -- including the general strike in Berlin, which was still continuing. General von Seeckt, who declined to oppose the coup, had no hesitation in using force against the workers.

It should also be remembered that the Weimar republic was followed by the Third Reich, in a transition that largely occurred through legal channels, including elections. The issue of the rise of the Nazis to power is a complex one. It is worth noting here that the Weimar republic regularly resorted to article 48 in its constitution, which essentially was a provision for martial law, in order to stop threats, especially from the left. This was reliance on government repression of civil liberties, backed by the military. Clearly, there was no policy to develop the capacity of the population to use direct action to protect freedom and democracy (not to mention the overthrow of capitalism). The Kapp putsch led to a spontaneous mass exercise in nonviolent resistance, but this had no lasting consequences.

Reference: D. J. Goodspeed, The Conspirators: A Study of the Coup d'État (London: Macmillan, 1962).


Algeria, 1961

Until 1962, Algeria was a colony of France. Beginning in 1954, an armed independence struggle was waged by Algerian nationalists against French settlers who were supported by French military forces. In April 1961, Charles de Gaulle, head of the French government, indicated that he was prepared to negotiate with the Algerian nationalists.

Leading sections of the French military in Algeria, who were strongly opposed to Algerian independence, staged a coup on 21-22 April 1961 in the city of Algiers. They were initially very successful, encountering little open resistance from loyal sections of the military. There was a possibility of a parallel putsch in France, or an invasion.

Resistance to the coup developed rapidly. Trade unions and political parties called a one-hour general strike, and ten million workers joined. After some delay, de Gaulle, in a broadcast on 23 April, called for noncooperation with the coup by both civilians and troops. Although the rebel generals controlled the Algerian media, French broadcasts were picked up by many French soldiers in Algeria on their transister radios.

In Algeria, many soldiers refused to cooperate with the coup. Many pilots flew their transport planes or fighters out of Algeria. Others faked mechanical problems. Many soldiers just stayed in their barracks. Others caused inefficiency in administration and communications.

After four days the coup disintegrated. Not a single shot had been fired at the rebels.

Comment The special value of the example of the Algerian Generals' revolt is the many methods of noncooperation used by soldiers in Algeria. This is a good example to use when talking with military personnel! They, possibly more than anyone else, need to know of the power of noncooperation and of their responsibility to consider resisting rather than obeying orders.

Just because the revolt collapsed in four days, just like the Kapp putsch, does not mean that all coups last only four days!

It should be noted that the revolt and nonviolent resistance to it came towards the end of the long and bloody war for Algerian independence. The Algerian independence movement used ruthless methods, as did the French colonial army. As many as a million people were killed in the struggle. It might be asked whether an unarmed liberation struggle could have achieved independence with less loss of life. One key point is that the French army could be relied upon to fight the Algerian nationalists -- if they didn't, they would be killed. The limited loyalty of the French conscripts, and their low level of support for the war, was indicated by their noncooperation during the revolt. Arguably, the liberation struggle didn't make full use of potential dissent within the French army because of the polarising violence of the war.

Reference: Adam Roberts, "Civil resistance to military coups", Journal of Peace Research, volume 12, 1975, pages 19-36.


Other military coups

Poland, 1981. Reference: Jan Zielonka, "Strengths and weaknesses of nonviolent action: the Polish case", Orbis, spring 1986, pages 91-110.

Fiji, 1987. Reference: Brian Martin, "Lessons in nonviolence from the Fiji coups", Gandhi Marg, number 114, September 1988, pages 326-339.


The usual justification for having military forces is to stop an invasion by another state's military forces. Therefore it is essential for advocates of social defence to give examples of what to do about invasions. But coups and repressive regimes should be emphasised too, especially since it is more obvious that military strength is the cause rather than the solution of these problems.


The Ruhr, 1923

The Versailles treaty at the end of World War I required that Germany pay reparations to the victorious allies. Due to disastrous economic conditions, Germany defaulted on payments. In response, in January 1923 French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr, a region bordering France and Belgium. The French government by this action also hoped to keep Germany weak economically and militarily.

Germany was unable to mount military resistance due to its small army and collapsing economy. The German government called instead for noncooperation. This struggle was called the Ruhrkampf.

There were many varieties of noncooperation carried out by employers, trade unionists, government workers and many others. There were rallies, strikes and boycotts. Railway workers refused to cooperate, and were dismissed. A French company was brought in to operate the railways, but the departing German workers sabotaged the equipment. The few trains that ran were boycotted. There was also resistance from civil servants, shopkeepers, trade unions and the press.

French authorities enacted severe penalties, with many fines, arrests, detentions, deportations, long prison sentences, confiscations, beatings, forced labour and shootings.

Some groups engaged in violent resistance, carrying out sabotage that led to deaths. This led to severe reprisals by the occupiers, undermined the unity of the resistance and weakened international support for it.

On 26 September 1923 the resistance was called off unconditionally by the German government. The German economy virtually collapsed in massive inflation partly caused by the printing of money to fund the resistance. But there were potent effects on the other side too. French public opinion was outraged by the brutality of the occupation, and this contributed to the fall of the French government in 1924.

Economically too, the occupation failed to achieve the extraction of resources for which it was originally designed. A revised schedule of reparations was arranged by an international commission (the Dawes Plan). Occupation forces were withdrawn by June 1925.

Comment This is a good example to answer the question, "what if the enemy just occupied part of the country?" It is also a good illustration of how severe repression by an occupier can be counterproductive. Of course, France in 1923 was a "democratic" country, so that public opinion could exert considerable pressure. On the other hand, this was just five years after the 1914-1918 bloodletting of the western front, during which Germans were depicted in propaganda as cruel and inhuman huns. No doubt the nonviolence of the resistance contributed to the development of sympathy among the French public.

Reference: Wolfgang Sternstein, "The Ruhrkampf of 1923: economic problems of civilian defence", in Adam Roberts (ed.), The Strategy of Civilian Defence: Non-violent Resistance to Aggression (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), pages 106-135.


Czechoslovakia, 1968

In the 1960s, a number of reforms were made in Czechoslovakia which reduced the repressive aspects of communist rule. These moves -- so-called "socialism with a human face" -- were strongly supported by the Czechoslovak people, but bitterly opposed by the Soviet government.

On 20-21 August 1968, a military invasion of Czechoslovakia was launched by hundreds of thousands of troops from the Soviet Union and four other Warsaw Pact countries, with the expectation of installing a pro-Soviet government within a few days. Military resistance would have been bloody and futile, so the Czechoslovak government instructed the army not to resist the invasion.

The Czechoslovak people, from the political leadership to the workforce, united in spontaneous nonviolent resistance to the occupation. Noncooperation with the invaders was practised at all levels: by the president, by army officers, by shopkeepers, by farmers and even by secret police. People sat in front of tanks. Streets signs and house numbers were removed, and false information given out. People talked with the Soviet troops -- who had been told they were invading to stop a capitalist takeover -- and undermined their loyalty so rapidly that many had to be rotated out of the country within a matter of days.

Underground newspapers were published. Radio and television were broadcast (from changing locations), providing news and greatly helping the resistance. The announcers called strikes, gave tactical instruction on street confrontations, requested rail workers to slow the transport of Soviet equipment, cautioned against rumours and counselled nonviolence.

The nonviolent nature of the resistance undermined Soviet propaganda justifying the invasion. All acts of violence against the invaders received heavy Soviet media coverage. Indeed, some violent incidents apparently were staged by Soviet forces to discredit the resistance.

Due to the unified civilian resistance and to the demoralisation of Soviet troops, Soviet leaders offered reforms and other concessions. The Czechoslovak leaders, held in Moscow and isolated from the resistance, did not really understand how effective it was. Under extreme pressure, they made compromises. This demoralised the opposition. As the Czechoslovak position weakened, the Soviet forces consolidated the occupation, removing their "unnecessary" concessions.

Comment The Czechoslovak example is one of the best examples of nonviolent resistance to invasion because of the wide variety of effective methods used, especially fraternisation and the radio.

It is important to note that military resistance was not even tried. The Czechoslovak military sat on the sidelines, and Western forces likewise did nothing. Czechoslovak soldiers did provide some help to the resistance, for example in maintaining radio broadcasts.

The resistance can be judged a success or a failure depending on which comparison is made. The most active phase of resistance lasted only a week, but a puppet government was not installed until April 1969, eight months later. The resistance was important in causing a massive loss of Soviet credibility around the globe, especially in Western communist parties, at a minimal loss of life. Arguably, a violent resistance would not have been so successful in this.

Reference: Philip Windsor and Adam Roberts, Czechoslovakia 1968: Reform, Repression and Resistance (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969).


Other occupations

Hungary by Austria, 1850-1867

Norway, Denmark, Netherlands by Germany, 1941-1945

Toppling of repressive governments

El Salvador, 1944

Maximiliano Hernández Martínez became the dictator of El Salvador in 1931. Although he introduced some valuable reforms, he ruthlessly crushed political opposition. In 1932, an armed uprising was brutally crushed by the military, who executed many thousands of campesinos (small farmers) in reprisal.

In 1943, there were stirrings of opposition, with leaflets and petitions. The government responded with increased censorship, arrests and other controls.

The opposition was stimulated by US government rhetoric of a fight for freedom and democracy against Nazism. Also important was outrage over constitutional changes allowing Martínez to serve a further six-year term as president.

On 2 April 1944, there was a military revolt, which was repressed harshly. This helped to trigger a nonviolent insurrection. University students took the lead and organised a student strike, which spread to high schools. Over a period of a few weeks, physicians and businesses joined the strike, until virtually the entire country was at a standstill, including government offices, banks and railways. This was essentially a stay-at-home strike, which cut most services.

Police shot at some boys, killing one. As a result, large crowds surged onto the streets. On 8 May, Martínez agreed to resign, and he left the country three days later.

The military was not used against the insurrection. The unreliability of the soldiers had been shown by the 2 April revolt. The officer corps, which was loyal to Martínez, did not risk using the army against the population.

While the nonviolent action of the people was enough to bring down Martínez, it was not effective in ensuring a transition to a nonrepressive society. There was a military coup later in 1944. The years since have seen continued oppression of El Salvadorean people.

Comment This example is useful to counter the widespread perception that Latin American politics consists of right-wing military dictatorships, sometimes confronted by left-wing guerrillas. The toppling of the repressive government of Guatemala a few weeks later in 1944 -- stimulated by the example of El Salvador -- is another instance.

The case of El Salvador is also useful in illustrating that even in a police state there are opportunities for effective unarmed resistance, although of course at a risk. A seemingly simple leaflet can be a very significant form of defiance. Wider noncooperation can be triggered by the process of open resistance, via strikes and further leaflets. If nothing is done by the government, others are emboldened to join in; repressive steps, on the other hand, can cause outrage and an expansion of resistance.

The limitation of the example is the poor outcome. There was no strategic plan behind the resistance: individuals and groups acted to bring down Martínez, but there was little thought about how to make the process lead to a stable and less repressive society.

Reference: Patricia Parkman, Nonviolent Insurrection in El Salvador: The Fall of Maximiliano Hernández Martínez (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1988).


Iran, 1978-1979

Iran under the Shah was an incredibly repressive state. The secret police were pervasive, and torture was used routinely to terrorise the population. Income from oil was used to finance a giant military machine. In addition, the Iranian government was actively supported by the United States government and was not opposed by the Soviet Union, Israel and most Arab states. Yet this seemingly impregnable regime was overthrown without arms. There was horrific violence, almost all of it against unarmed opponents of the government.

The regime was riddled with corruption and out of touch with the needs of the people. Many groups opposed the Shah, from communists to Islamic fundamentalists.

Protest escalated in 1978. Troops opened fire on a crowd, killing several people. A mourning procession, held in Islamic tradition 40 days after the deaths, turned into a political protest, and troops were used again. Each time people were killed, this became a trigger for further protest 40 days later. Gradually more and more secular opponents joined the processions and religious demonstrations.

There were also massive strikes and go-slows in factories. Oil and power workers, crucial to the economy, were key participants. Eventually the economy ground to a halt, although food continued to be delivered.

The government was unable to stem the tide of opposition. The Shah vacillated between concessions that were unconvincing and repression that alienated more of the population. The Shah had created such a fawning entourage that he received no realistic advice. (Becoming a megalomaniac, out of touch with the people, is an occupational hazard for dictators.)

Martial law was declared in September 1978, but the cycle of demonstrations, killings of demonstrators and increased opposition continued. Strikes and closure of shops expanded until the economy was in collapse.

The spiritual leader of the Islamic resistance, Ayatollah Khomeini, was in exile. Cassette tapes of Khomeini's speeches were smuggled into the country and distributed through the bazaars, which were key centres for opposition sentiment. Khomeini made calls for soldiers and police to desert.

Eventually the troops refused to obey and instead joined the revolution. The Shah fled the country and Khomeini became the new head of state.

Unfortunately, this revolution carried out without arms did not lead to a nonviolent society. The secular dictatorship of the Shah was replaced by a theocratic dictatorship which, after solidifying its power, was just as ruthless as its predecessor in stamping out dissent. Furthermore, the Islamic Republic waged a bloody war with Iraq for most of a decade, leading to many more deaths than under the Shah.

Comment The Iranian example is an outstanding one for showing that unarmed resistance can work against the most repressive regime. It is a risky example because of the widespread loathing of the Islamic Republic in the West. (This loathing may be well deserved, but it is partly due to a systematic campaign of vilification by Western governments, supported by news media. The repressive regime of the Shah was a key element in the Western military planning, so its abuses of human rights were largely ignored.)

If you are able to make the distinction between the nonviolent methods used in the revolution and the repressive regime that came to power after the revolution, then this is a useful example. After all, military forces were not used to undermine the Shah: they were supporting his rule. There were some left-wing guerrilla opponents of the Shah, but they were small in number, infiltrated by state agents, and served to justify government repression. It was the power of the people that won the day.

The opposition was not entirely nonviolent. As well as demonstrations, strikes, go-slows and closure of businesses, there were many riots, often triggered by shootings by soldiers. The key point, though, is that armed struggle against the Shah played almost no role.

It is worth noting that the loyalty of the regime's troops is a key to revolution, whether violent or nonviolent. The nonviolence of the movement helped undermine the loyalty of the troops.

Some might argue that tens of thousands of people killed is a high price to pay. But this is a relatively small figure compared to many revolutions won by guerrilla struggle.

References: David H. Albert (ed.), Tell the American People: Perspectives on the Iranian Revolution (Philadelphia: Movement for a New Society, 1980); Fereydoun Hoveyda, The Fall of the Shah (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980).


Other repressive governments

Guatemala, 1944

Philippines, 1986


Other nonviolent struggles

Indian independence movement

United States civil rights movement