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. 99-107.

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Severe repression

What about severe repression? What about ruthless invaders who just keep killing people at the least hint of resistance? What can be done to stop a programme of total extermination? How can social defence possibly work against repressive regimes such as the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin?

Preliminary comment This is one of the most challenging questions about social defence, and also one of the most common ones. There are several ways to respond.

Response 1 Nonviolent resistance can be successful against very repressive regimes. There are several relevant historical examples. Against the Nazis, there was effective nonviolent resistance in several countries, including Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands. The Iranian revolution occurred in the face of a ruthless military and torture apparatus [see description].

Comment This answer emphasises the successes of nonviolent action. People need to know about these. They help to counter the idea that repression is all-encompassing and unstoppable. But the historical examples are limited in their persuasive value, since the Nazis were not toppled by nonviolent resistance, and the Iranian revolution, while largely nonviolent itself, did not replace the apparatus of violence in Iran.

Response 2 Even the most ruthless dictatorship depends for its existence on passive support or nonresistance by a large fraction of the population. No government in history has been so powerful that it could function without a fair degree of consent or acquiescence. If the regime adopts unpopular policies and tries to repress all opposition violently, this will cause ever larger numbers of people to oppose and resist the government.

Comment This answer is based on the theory that power rests on consent. It will probably fail to convince those who are not somewhat sympathetic already. Examples are needed to address the imagined problems of life under a horribly repressive regime.

Response 3 Real-life dictatorships are not as all-powerful as might be imagined. The Nazi regime relied on support from a significant fraction of the German people through most of the Third Reich, and on several occasions public protest led to changes in policies. Under the brutal military regimes in Argentina and Chile, many individuals continued to openly express opposition in the workplace, in public protests and in the media. Student protests have shaken the harsh regimes in South Korea and Burma. If nonviolent resistance could be prepared for and expanded, then dictatorships would be difficult to sustain.

For example, consider the courageous stand of publisher Jacobo Timerman in Argentina, who maintained his newspaper's open resistance until he was arrested and tortured. An international campaign led to his release and he wrote about his experiences in a powerful book. His efforts were among those that contributed to the collapse of the generals' regime in the country.

Comment This answer can be made more effective if you can describe detailed experiences in nonviolent resistance under severe repression, such as the Timerman example. It is worth linking this answer to the previous one of the crucial role of consent.

Reference: Jacobo Timerman, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, translated from the Spanish by Toby Talbot (New York: Vintage, 1982).

Response 4 You are asking the wrong question. Ruthlessness -- namely, the psychology of the ruler -- is not the key factor.

The real question is how to make sure that the ruler is dependent in some way on the nonviolent resisters. This might be economic dependence or it could be the influence of family members who know people in the resistance. If there is a dependency relationship, then the ruler will encounter great obstacles if severe repression is used. But if there isn't some direct or indirect connection between the two sides, then even a fairly benevolent ruler may do really nasty things. Dependency, not attitude, is the key.

Comment This answer can be quite effective if there is time to explore examples of how the dependency relationship works.

Response 5 International support is important too, and there are many opportunities for nonviolent resistance to repressive regimes from people on the outside. [For more details see the section on social offence.]

Response 6 The methods and tactics used in social defence need to be specially chosen if repression is harsh. More use can be made of quiet "mistakes" in carrying out tasks and "misunderstandings" of orders. Preparation in advance is crucial for things such as shutting down factories, protecting dissidents, providing food and shelter for survival, maintaining communications and exposing repression to the world. When support for the resistance becomes widespread, open defiance becomes possible.

Comment Describing "what to do" is effective because it appeals to people's practical sense of tackling a difficult task.

Response 7 It is seldom easy to stop a ruthless invader or ruler, whether using violence or not. Military planners routinely anticipate thousands or millions of casualties in opposing the enemy, most obviously in the case of waging a nuclear war. Social defence planning must also prepare for the heavy casualties. If people are not willing to sacrifice, then perhaps they should think again about whether resistance is worth the cost.

Comment This is not an answer for the uninitiated or the fainthearted. The question of whether a social defence should be prepared to "accept" heavy casualties is a fundamental challenge, and has hardly been discussed. Of course, advocates of military methods seldom discuss this either -- Herman Kahn did so in his book On Thermonuclear War and caused an uproar -- but have implicitly "agreed" to "accept" heavy casualties. Military planners and governments make this decision on behalf of their populations. Social defence is different in that the resistance depends on popular support. This is why the issue of heavy casualties seems more acute for social defence than military defence: people have to take responsibility for the sacrifice themselves, rather than letting rulers do it.

Reference: Gene Keyes, "Heavy casualties and nonviolent defense", Philosophy and Social Action, volume 17, numbers 3-4, July-December 1991.


Nonviolence didn't work against the Nazis. It couldn't have worked anyway.

Comment This is a special case of the question about how social defence can work against severe repression. It is worth listing several responses, both because the Nazi example is often raised and because it illustrates the types of responses that are possible on other historical examples.

Response 1 Nonviolence couldn't work because it was not tried, in a big way, against the Nazis. Many Germans were ardent supporters of the Nazis, and many people in other countries were admirers as well. Supporters of military methods tended to be especially favourable to the Nazis.

There was no concerted attempt from outside Germany to undermine the Nazis using nonviolent methods. 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. There has been no further study on this issue, so it remains a possibility that concerted nonviolent attack from around the world could have undermined or restrained the Nazi regime.

Throughout the rule of the Nazis, there was a German opposition to Hitler. This internal opposition was not fostered by the Allies, nor has it been given sufficient credit by postwar writers.

Comment This is a potentially powerful answer, but it has to confront deep-seated beliefs that since the Nazis were so formidable militarily, nonviolence wouldn't have had a chance. The idea that the Nazis relied on public support is hard to get across.

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

Response 2 The case of the Nazis should not be removed from its historical context. It is unfair to set up a worst case -- the rise of a ruthless regime and its solidification of power -- and then expect nonviolence to be a solution without its own process of development and solidification.

Comment This is true, but may not be convincing. If advocates of social defence use historical examples that they choose, they need to be able to respond to examples chosen by others.

Response 3 Violence did not "succeed" against the Nazis. The normal assumption underlying the Nazi example is that only violence -- namely the allied war effort -- would have worked against the Nazis in a period less than decades.

The war by Western governments was against German military and political expansion, not against the ruthless system of fascism alone. The allies in World War Two did not attempt to topple the fascist regimes in Spain and Portugal. After the war, the allies allowed or encouraged many fascists to obtain positions of power. Essentially, the war was about power politics, not justice and freedom. Western military strength has not been used against numerous dictatorial regimes around the world, but instead has frequently been used to prop them up.

Comment Examples of the mythology (or hypocrisy) of the allied war effort are provocative to many people and must be used carefully. Beliefs about the holiness of the cause of the allies are possibly as deep-rooted as those about the necessity of military force.

References: Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, The Political Economy of Human Rights (Boston: South End Press, 1979); Tom Bower, Blind Eye to Murder: Britain, America and the Purging of Nazi Germany -- A Pledge Betrayed (London: Andre Deutsch, 1981).

Response 4 Nazi genocidal politics were not the reason why Western governments waged war against Nazi Germany. There is ample historical evidence that easy opportunities to disrupt death camp operations were passed over by the Allied governments. The policy was explicitly to win the war first and stop genocidal killing afterwards. The allies minimised any association of their cause with that of the Jews.

Indeed, genocide has often 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 to 1979 are major examples where military forces in other countries stood by and did nothing. Of course, the killings were carried out by, or with the support of, the militaries in the countries where they occurred.

Comment This is a direct challenge to the usual ideas about genocide and the need for military defence. Note, though, that it does not describe how nonviolence would stop genocide.

References: Leo Kuper, Genocide (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981); Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies (London: Michael Joseph, 1981).

Response 5 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. Much of the blame for Nazi genocide can be attributed to the war itself.

Comment Again, this is a direct challenge to the usual ideas about genocide. These issues are often bound up with powerful emotions in people. Tread carefully.


How can nonviolent methods have a chance in the middle of a violent confrontation, such as a war? If resisters lined up against troops, they would just be shot down.

Response 1 This is perhaps the most difficult situation of all. Yet in the midst of war and massacres, nonviolent action has often made a difference.

Response 2 The best time for nonviolent action is before a war gets going. Nazi Germany was much more vulnerable to nonviolent sanctions during the 1930s than once war broke out.

Response 3 The situation you are describing in one in which both sides are strongly committed to violence, as in the civil war in El Salvador or the war between Iran and Iraq. We can't really speak of social defence until there is a significant commitment to nonviolent methods by at least one side.

Response 4 In many cases, wars and massacres persist because outside governments either do nothing or provide arms and support for killing. Supplies of arms and purchases of oil kept the Iraq-Iran war going. Resolute nonviolent action from the international community would have a powerful effect in such situations. The trouble is, this approach is seldom carried through.

Comment This is question for which there is no good answer. A problem caused by reliance on violence is posed, and then advocates of nonviolence are asked to come up with a solution. Examples can be effective here, since in many cases "democratic" governments have supported the forces of repression. Stepping back from the current fighting and looking at what led to it can show many opportunities for nonviolent intervention.


How could nonviolence have possibly worked against Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait?

Response 1 Social defence by the Kuwaiti people was probably not a possibility, since Kuwait was a grossly unequal and authoritarian society. The time to stop Saddam Hussein was much earlier, in the 1980s. Nonviolent opposition was required then against the governments of Iraq, Kuwait and others in the Gulf region that were repressive and undemocratic.

Response 2 A principal reason why Saddam Hussein's Iraq became such a military power and threat was the support given by outside powers. His invasion of Iran in 1980 was supported by the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union and many other countries. Numerous companies sold him arms and technologies of repression. Governments were silent about his use of chemical weapons against Iranians and against Kurds in Iraq and about his brutal repression of political opponents in Iraq. He was given diplomatic support right up until the invasion of Kuwait.

Since many governments gave Saddam Hussein support during the 1980s, a key role for nonviolent action should have been to expose and oppose the hypocritical foreign policies of Western governments. That is a lesson for the future. There are plenty of repressive regimes in the world today being given full support by Western governments.

Comment Notice that this question is a special case of the previous one.

The case of Iraq can be a trap, because the agenda for action was set by governments, especially the US government. It is easy to start telling about the courageous initiative of the Gulf Peace Camp set up between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the effectiveness of the sanctions or the importance of addressing the real grievances of peoples in the Gulf region. But it should be emphasised that Iraqi military strength and adventurism were aided and abetted by numerous governments. Why should this be considered a "hard case" to deal with by nonviolent action? It is actually a much harder case to justify for the proponents of military strength, the arms trade and "pragmatic" power politics.


Surely you wouldn't just sit and do nothing while soldiers raped your mother or your wife?

Response 1 I would do my best to use nonviolent methods to prevent and stop rape. Using violence might make the situation worse.

Reference: John H. Yoder, What Would You Do? (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1983).

Response 2 That isn't the real issue. Social defence is about the collective defence of a society, and whether nonviolence is a better way to do this.

Response 3 Military systems are a major contributor to rape, not a solution. Armies are commonly involved in rape of civilians as well as killing and looting. Many female soldiers and wives are raped in "peacetime". Anything that helps to remove or replace military systems also helps to reduce rape.

Reference: Cynthia Enloe, Does Khaki Become You? The Militarisation of Women's Lives (London: Pluto, 1983).

Response 4 Most rapes in our society are by people known to the woman -- especially husbands. There is also a much higher rate of child sexual abuse -- by male relatives, especially fathers -- than most people realise. Scare-mongering about rape by strangers, including enemy soldiers, diverts attention from the most important issue, male domination. Armies are male dominated, and can only contribute to the problem.

Response 5 Almost all combat soldiers are men, and armies are essentially male institutions. Associated with this, women are often expected to be passive and are not encouraged to develop their skills at resistance.

Social defence challenges this pattern. It involves both men and women developing skills for nonviolent struggle. Many of the things involved in developing social defence -- including support networks, nonviolent action training and building individual and community self-reliance -- can also be used to act against rape.

It is a challenge for us to develop campaigns against rape that are linked with campaigns towards social defence. There are some positive connections, unlike the situation with military defence.

Response 6 If there's a military coup, what are you going to do to stop rape by soldiers -- especially when they threaten to shoot the woman if you resist?

Comment The question about rape is not strictly about social defence, but it must be answered. (There are other questions like this that are encountered by people who speak on peace issues.) There is no single best answer, because much depends on the audience and the tone of the discussion. A calm, "rational" answer like response 1 may work, but not if there is lots of emotion behind the question. Response 2 is logically correct but probably ineffective.

Responses 3 to 5 take up the fundamental issues and challenge the usual assumptions underlying this question. Many people commonly assume that soldiers are there to protect the population, and believe that "our" soldiers wouldn't hurt us. Response 6 is a more emotional one. If you pitch it correctly, this sort of response can be very effective.