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Pacifism, which literally refers to making peace (from pace and facere) is often mistakenly understood as passivity.


Demonstrations in New York after the destruction of the World Trade Center


To assess the effectiveness of nonviolent versus violent ethical philosophies means we have to come to grips with the problem of Nazi Germany. World War Two.

Most people regard World War II as a just war. Many who opposed the war in Vietnam say they would have fought against Hitler. The question is whether anything short of violence could have been effective against as a ruthless a tyranny as Hitler's and, if not, whether this is not decisive against nonviolence?

To assess the comparative effectiveness of violence as against nonviolence one must specify the relevant ends or goals to whose attainment the war against Hitler is said to have been instrumental. What were they? To halt Nazi aggression? To eradicate fascism? To secure world peace? Defenders of the war usually do not make clear what it was the war was effective in accomplishing, but it usually has something vaguely to do with "stopping Hitler."

Now whether or not nonviolence could have stopped Hitler once the war began, had enough German citizens acted responsibly with or without a commitment to nonviolence, but particularly with it, say, in the 1920s and early 1930s, fascism could never have advanced to the stage where it could be deemed necessary to reverse it by military means. Had German industrialists not financed Hitler's rise to power; had German youths refused to serve in the military; had conservatives not supported him and communists deluded themselves that anything would be better than the liberal democratic Weimar regime, Hitler might have remained the frustrated and ineffectual architect he was and very nearly remained. He was considered washed up in 1923 following an attempted putsch, his imprisonment, and the crushing of the German Workers party that he headed; again in 1928 when the growing prosperity of the Weimar Republic temporarily deprived the Nazis of much of the discontent upon which they fed; and still again as late as 1932 following setbacks at the polls and the loss of much needed financial backing. Despite the strong-arm methods and street violence we usually associate with the Nazis, Hitler worked primarily through legal institutional channels, and his future hung precariously in the balance more than once. Compared with what it took to stop him years later when he had consolidated his position, he could easily have been denied power in the first place by concerted nonviolent (particularly political) action.

So while nonviolence obviously could not have pushed German armour back on the battlefield once the institutions of militarism had been allowed to mature and the self-propelling mechanism of a military state put into motion, it might have been effective at an earlier stage in preventing the rise to power of those responsible for all of this. If historical fact is that military means stopped Hitler once he began to march, it is also an historical fact that reliance upon such means on the part of the world's nations did not prevent his rise to power in the first place.

The militarist may reply that it would have been all well and good if people had stopped fascism nonviolently years earlier, but the fact is they did not. They were neither ready nor willing in sufficient numbers to act, and it is precisely this fact that led to the crisis that eventually called for a military solution.

This cuts both ways. The advocate of military violence cannot make a plausible case for its effectiveness unless it is presumed that there are tens of thousands of well-trained and equipped persons willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in the service of the cause for which the action is undertaken; not to mention millions more in the society at large who are willing to support this effort financially and often through direct participation in the maintenance of the machinery necessary to war. Military action cannot, in other words, hope to succeed without armies, guns, money, and equipment. By the same token, nonviolence cannot be imagined to succeed when the basic conditions necessary to its success are similarly absent. These may well include, at least if it is contemplated on a grand scale, a willingness to sacrifice and a degree of discipline and training on the part of tens of thousands comparable to that required in the military; and it will require extensive background research into techniques of nonviolence against various forms of aggression. To point out, therefore, that nonviolence would not have succeeded if tried in a context in which these conditions were absent may refute simplistic versions of the theory, but it will not tell against versions that hold, among other things, that these conditions ought to be promoted.

Some of the most effective forms of nonviolent resistance in the twentieth century were undertaken, mostly without advance preparation and co-ordination, against the Germans in World War II-a fact consistently overlooked by those who reply to the examples of Gandhi and King by saying that they could not have done it against the Nazis. One could profitably speculate on what might have been the consequences if whole nations had been geared in advance for such action. Any attempt to conquer and rule a modern nation must in the long run be a multifaceted one of which what takes place on the battlefield is but one aspect. For only by enlisting the support or co-operation (willing or coerced) of whole populations can dictators remain in power. Mass strikes and boycotts can cripple the administration of a country far more quickly and effectively than all but the most devastating of military means. The key lies in concerted action by large numbers. It is with regard to its potential for devising ways of withholding necessary support and making such concerted action possible that nonviolence must be assessed.

That Hitler was stopped is true, and if among the possible aims of the war this were the only relevant one, then the war succeeded. But considering some of the other ends mentioned, it is either questionable that they were accomplished or clear that they were not. It is arguable, for instance, that fascism in Germany and elsewhere was not eradicated but merely temporarily suppressed. Neo-Nazi groups have continued to thrive in both West Germany and the United States (and elsewhere), and it is significant that following the death of Rudolf Hess, the last of Hitler's close associates, Spandau prison in which he had been held was torn down so it could not be turned into a shrine by Nazi sympathisers. A more realistic assessment is suggested by the following:
They tell us we had to fight, we had to win the war against Hitler. We haven't won the war against Hitler. He's still around; he's just hiding behind other men's faces. You can't defeat Hitler with guns. As long as you have to have guns to keep him off, he's not defeated. Hitler will be defeated when we could let him come back, reincarnated, with all the charisma and all the hate; when we could let him make speeches in the public square, and people would pass by, stop and listen for a minute to see what he was saying, then laugh a little and go on their way.

In this sense, Hitler has not been defeated and with regard to the broader aim of securing lasting peace, World War II failed abysmally. Power was redistributed and enemies redefined. But injustice and oppression remain. If ever they had a usefulness, they have outlived it. Nor should the comparison be of nonviolence in its present embryonic form, in which it has only been tried occasionally, with a system of violence that is in an advanced stage of development and deeply entrenched in the socio-economic systems of the world. This would be as though one had compared air travel with rail travel at the time of the Wright brothers and said, "Look, we have only two pilots, no airports, and one plane that can fly a few hundred yards but we have thousands of miles of railroads and a nation accustomed to rail travel," and then argued on that basis against the development of the airplane. It is the potential of nonviolence that must command our attention. The comparison should be of our present system of violence with nonviolence as it might realistically be developed. Humankind has given violence a chance; it has dealt with conflict repeatedly through bloodshed; it has waged wars with all the energy and passion it can muster and devoted its time, energy, and resources into perfecting its capacity for destruction. And it has in the process only increased the insecurity throughout the world. The time now is for a change. Nonviolence may not only be a better way of getting along in the world; it may be the only way.

Vast resources of power lie untapped within the people of a country. These sources remain to be explored with all the determination that presently goes into the study of war and the refinement of techniques for waging it. Just as we need alternative sources of energy, we need alternative sources of national power. And we should be developing the one as assiduously as the other.

Extract from On war and morality.
Robert L. Holmes. Princetown University Press

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