US politics are enough to give everyone nightmares of Donald Trump as Hitler minus the mustache. He’d drop a nuke on ISIS. He wants a registry of all Muslims. He decries economic inequality while profiting from and being the epitome of the problem. He’s white, male, and millions of prejudiced, mass media skewed Americans seem to adore him.
But while we’re dusting off the ghosts of Nazi Germany, remember that history not only holds stories of horrors and atrocities, but also stories of courage, heroism, and resistance. Let us therefore evoke five stories of nonviolent resistance to the Nazis: Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, André and Magda Trocmé and the citizens of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, the Berlin women of the Rosenstrasse protests, the Norwegian Teachers’ Defense of Education, and the Danish rescue of the Jews.
Those of us who choose nonviolent action as a form of making change, are often challenged with the question, “But what about the Nazis?” These stories are the reply to that question. Widespread nonviolent struggle was never used against the Nazis, but wherever it was used, it was quite successful. From the courageous efforts of our forbearers in the lineage of nonviolence, we can draw the inspiration for mass action and widespread nonviolent resistance. If we must face the frightful specter of an American Hitler, let us pick up the torch of those who came before and go boldly into new frontiers of organized nonviolent resistance.
Know your history, my friends, for when history repeats, those who do not know the stories of nonviolent resistance are doomed to perish in the horrors of genocide, violence, and war. Those who know these five stories, however, will glean from them the wisdom, inspiration, and ideas for practical action that empower us to end fear, hatred, bigotry, and violence.
Sophie Scholl and the White Rose
In 1942, a young German woman, Sophie Scholl joined the White Rose, a group dedicated to nonviolent resistance of the Nazis, particularly through spreading forbidden literature about nonviolent resistance. As a child, she, like all of her school friends, had joined the girl’s wing of the Nazi Party youth movement. However, she grew alarmed at the political views and the dangerous rise of Nazi ideology. Over the next ten years, she consistently chose to dissent from her peers. In university, she discovered her brother Hans and friends had started the White Rose and quickly joined. On February 18th, 1943, Sophie and Hans were spotted doing a leaflet drop from the top of a university tower, arrested, brutally interrogated by the Gestapo, put on trial without lawyers, and executed by guillotine on February 22nd. Sophie Scholl was twenty-two years old.
The point of Sophie’s story is not her death . . . it is her life of conviction and courage that offers inspiration for our own lives. If we live in a time when one of our presidential candidates does not seem to mind being compared to Hitler, then we must organize in such a way that we can be compared to Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. We must challenge the hatred and bigotry of our day, withdrawing from social clubs and institutions that support xenophobia and racism. We must consciously take the stance of respect and justice even if it runs contrary to the opinions of our peers or neighbors. We should share knowledge of how to nonviolently resist the injustices wrought by our nation. We should write, print, and distribute literature calling upon our shared human values of respect, peace, justice, equality, and kindness. We should use our new online technologies to do so, as well.
We, unlike, Sophie Scholl and her fellow students in Germany, have the Freedom of Speech. Her life, her death, her courage and sacrifice should serve as our reminder to use it, now, not tomorrow or next week, but today.
“Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.” – Sophie Scholl
André Trocmé and the Sanctuary of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon
André Trocmé was trouble for those who favored war and violence. He was sent to a remote parish in the mountains of France for his pacifist views, but as the Nazis invaded and occupied France, Andre discovered he was in a unique position to join the international network of people resisting the Nazis and the persecution of the Jews. He and his wife, Magda, and his deputy worked with the villagers and parishioners of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon to create a series of safe houses for fleeing Jews. The local schools enrolled children under false names, and met them at the train station as if welcoming family members into their homes. When the anti-Jew Vichy government caught on, they sent gendarmes to search the village. When asked to produce a list of Jews, Trocmé replied, “We do not know what a Jew is. We only know men.” It is estimated that between 1940-1945, the village saved the lives of 3,500 Jewish refugees.
Flash-forward to September-November 2015: Syrian refugees are fleeing violence, civil war, airstrikes, terrorist groups, and extreme repression. They flood the shores of Europe. In Hungary, Sweden, and Greece, the governments ban the refugees. The citizens rise up, nonviolently, flock to the train stations, defy their officials, and welcome the refugees into their countries. Then, in November, terrorists attack and kill hundreds of people in Paris. The Syrian refugees are scapegoated. Thirty-one United States governors overstretch their authority and issue statements saying they will not accept Syrian refugees in their states.
What are we going to do? The moral obligation of compassion is clear. Our governors, like the officials in Europe, like the Vichy government and the Nazis, and all the cruel oppressors throughout history, must be resisted nonviolently. Like André Trocmé and Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, we must make our communities havens for those fleeing violence and death. We must open our hearts and homes to provide sanctuary to our fellow human beings, even going to great risks to assure that our common humanity is not destroyed by the bigotry and hatred of the times. Refugees are seeking refuge . . . and all philosophies, faiths, and spiritualties call upon us to be offer such sanctuary in the midst of the storms of violence and war.
Resisting modern-day Hitlers and Nazis requires opening our hearts to those being persecuted by the politics of hatred. In our times, this means Muslims, refugees, immigrants, the homeless, the poor, and a great many more. Like Trocmé and the villagers, we find ourselves in times of crisis, being required to do extraordinary acts in the midst of our ordinary human lives. Like Trocmé, we each have this capacity within us, a seed of compassion just waiting to unfurl.
“Look hard for ways to make little moves against destructiveness.” – André Trocmé
The Women of Berlin, Rosenstrasse Protest
In 1943, Joseph Goebbels promised Adolf Hitler that Berlin would be Judenfrei – Jew free – in time for Hitler’s birthday. On February 27th, without warning, Jews were snatched off the streets and from workplaces, and held in buildings temporarily before being loaded onto trains to be sent to their deaths in the concentration camps. This was the fate of nearly 6,000 Jews in Berlin. Another group, the 1,800 Jews with non-Jewish German wives, were rounded up according to a separate list, and held in a building on Rosenstrasse, Rose Street. The German women, upon discovering their husbands were gone, raced to the location and began an impromptu unarmed, nonviolent demonstration demanding the release of their husbands. For a full week, hundreds to a thousand women protested night and day, defying orders to disperse, withstanding threats of being shot to death. The German Gestapo office sat within earshot; the women persisted despite the danger. On March 6th, as thousands of other Jews were being sent to Auschwitz, the husbands of these Berlin women were released. Even the thirty-eight who had already been sent to the camps were returned to Berlin. It is said that the Rosenstrasse protest also halted the plans to round up the intermarried Jews in France, a change that saved thousands of lives. The German government felt that the dissent and visible signs of resistance would be detrimental at this time, and that releasing the men was easier than risking more uprisings.
Today, as Islamophobia and anti-refugee rhetoric is whipping the American populace into a frenzy of fear, we need not wait until the eleventh hour to see where this type of discrimination leads. Before politicians allow bigots to require Muslims to register (like the Jews in the 1940s), or wear a symbol (like the yellow star), or be deported to concentration camps, let us take a chapter out of German history – the Rosenstrasse chapter, that is. If the threatened registry appears, let us protest it, or sign it en masse as an act of protest. If the parallel to the yellow star occurs, let us all, as citizens, resist the labels unanimously. Let us remember the words of Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me
And if they come for any of us, let us be prepared to use nonviolent action, like the women of Berlin, to rescue not just our loved ones, but all of our human brothers and sisters, so that the tragedy of the Holocaust can never be repeated. With courage and preparation and knowledge, we can stop the dangerous cycle of history from repeating in the context of our contemporary lives.
Norwegian Teachers’ Defense of Education
In April 1940, the Nazis invaded Norway and occupied the country. In 1942, as part of an attempt to implement a fascist curriculum in the schools, Minister-President Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian collaborator, disbanded the existing teachers’ union and required all teachers to register with the new Norwegian Teachers’ Union by February 5th. Between 8,000-10,000 of Norway’s 12,000 teachers responded by signing a letter of refusal to cooperate. The Quisling government panicked and closed the schools, sending the children home to their parents. 200,000 of these annoyed parents wrote letters of protest to the government. Norwegian teachers began to hold classes in secret, in defiance of orders. The government ordered the arrest of a thousand teachers, five hundred of whom were sent to a prison camp in the Arctic.
As the trainloads of teachers were shipped north, students and families gathered along the tracks, singing and offering food to the teachers as they passed. Once in prison, the teachers formed choirs and offered lectures to one another. The government tried numerous intimidation tactics, but the strike continued. On November 4th, 1942, the Quisling government released all the teachers and abandoned their earlier plans. The Norwegian teachers, through nonviolent resistance, had defended their youth from being subjected to fascist curriculum, and protected Norway from sliding into a fascist state.
The Norwegian Teachers’ Defense of Education offers pearls of strategic wisdom for us as we see a rise of bigotry and hatred in the United States. Resist and organize amongst your professional colleagues. It was not individual action that produced such a successful campaign, but rather collective action through an entire profession, supported by students and parents. As we see a rise of fear and hatred, look carefully at the intersection of your profession and cultural indoctrination. Perhaps this is a place where a line of resistance can form. Churches, schools, media, universities, and large institutions are all places to address and resist the dangerous slide toward fear-based bigotry and hatred. Talk with one another, initiate conversations, prepare strategies, share stories like this one, and ideas for how your profession might take a stand together. Like the Norwegian teachers, each of us – in our profession and personal lives – forms a line of defense in the heart of our culture. Here we can wage nonviolent struggle for compassion, respect, equality, and dignity.
Denmark Saves 7,220 Jewish Citizens
The Danish resistance to Nazi occupation contains many chapters, each with dazzling tactics and creative solutions. There is none more jaw dropping, however, than the Danish people’s rescue of 7,220 of their 7,800 Jews. On September 28th, 1943, Nazi occupation forces intended to arrest the entire Jewish population of Denmark and transport them to concentration camps. Word of the plan leaked, however, and thousands of Danes hid the Jews in their homes. Fishermen ferried the Jews across the ocean to nearby Sweden, saving all but a few hundred people.
The rescue was facilitated by a few factors: a German diplomat, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, not only leaked the warning of the round-up, he had also attempted earlier to secure asylum for the Danish Jews in Sweden. The Jewish population of Denmark was held in high regard, and fully integrated into society. The Nazis’ earlier attempts to discriminate against the Jews had been roundly rebuffed by the Danes. When the orders of the round-up occurred, Danish citizens saw it as an affront to all Danes, and mobilized to protect their fellow countrymen and women.
The question this raises for us, as American citizens, is would we do the same? During World War II, we allowed our fellow citizens of Japanese descent to be interred in camps. We allow our political figures to spout anti-Muslim rhetoric and threaten to put all Muslims and refugees in camps. When our turn comes, will we stand up with organized nonviolent action and protect our fellow human beings? Do we have in our hearts, the greatness of spirit demonstrated by the Danes?
And if not, let us begin the work of changing our culture. Let us assert the values of human dignity, our shared humanity, human rights and civil rights. In conversation, writing, on the radio, and in our actions, we must put forth the values for which we stand. Only then, when the moment of crisis comes, can we be assured that our populace will respond in a way that will withstand the critique of history.
Author/Activist Rivera Sun, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of The Dandelion Insurrection, Billionaire Buddha and Steam Drills, Treadmills, and Shooting Stars, the cohost of Occupy Radio and Love (and Revolution) Radio, and the cofounder of the Love-In-Action Network. She is a trainer and social media coordinator for Campaign Nonviolence and Pace e Bene. Sun attended the James Lawson Institute on Strategic Nonviolent Resistance in 2014 and her essays on social justice movements appear in Truthout and Popular Resistance.www.riverasun.com