Would Nonviolence Work on the Nazis?

Posted on June 13, 2017 By

by Rachel MacNair


While it took time to realize the extent of the Nazis’ brutality, the night of November 9-10, 1938, gave intense warning that Jews were in great danger. Hundreds of synagogues and thousands of businesses were attacked with sledgehammers. Several dozen Jews were killed, in what became known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. People around the world were shocked.

Beyond words of outrage, one obviously necessary action to protect people and to protest most strongly was for countries to take in Jewish immigrants. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress to allow those already in the U.S. on visas to stay; it would be inhuman to return them. But he didn’t ask for the quota to be raised to allow more in.

Members of the Heldenmuth family board the SS St. Louis in Hamburg harbor

In May of 1939, the transatlantic liner St. Louis with 937 mostly Jewish passengers set sail from Hamburg with permission to land in Cuba.  The permission was revoked, and all but 28 were denied entry. They begged for entry into the United States as they passed Miami and were denied. Most were sent back to Nazi Germany.

After Kristallnacht, Brazil actually added an immigration requirement of a baptismal certificate dated before 1933, a Christian document no Jew would have.

The question of whether nonviolence works with people as vicious as the Nazis runs up against this basic point: at the beginning, when the problem was clear enough and the numbers of people killed were in the dozens rather than the millions, the nonviolent approach needed was simple, clear, and insufficiently tried.

But while it’s all very well to point out that things should be nipped in the bud, what can be done when things have in fact gotten out of hand?

When the Nazis took over Denmark, Danes organized a Freedom Council. Though there was some sabotage, the Council found through experience that massive nonviolence worked better. When staging strikes brought more bloody action from the Germans, workers would go to work but then leave early, claiming the curfew made them need to tend to their gardens.

The most dramatic and clearly successful part of the Danes’ resistance to the Nazis was the rescue of Danish Jews. The Nazis arranged to start arrests at 10 PM on Friday night, October 1, knowing that Jews were likely to all be home for Rosh Hashanah. But the Danes got a warning that this was the plan. They sent word around so quickly that all the Jews went into hiding in hospitals, people’s homes, and other places.

So a German order on October 2 said all non-Jews must turn Jews in. Organizers decided to send the Jews across the lake to Sweden, which the Nazis had not yet reached. During the night about 7,200 people, almost all the Jews of Denmark, were smuggled onto anything that would float.

They all made is safely to the Swedish shore. Then came word that the Swedish king, being afraid of the Nazis, was refusing to give them asylum. But Niels Bohr, winner of the 1922 Nobel Prize for physics, had Jewish ancestry on his mother’s side and had escaped to Sweden already. He sent word to the king that if the refugees were turned in to the Nazis, he would turn himself in with them. The king immediately allowed the refugees in.

The Bulgarian king and parliament, on the other hand, went along with the Nazis and proposed a “Law in Defense of the Nation” that would basically outlaw Jews. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church and many Bulgarians flooded them with letters not to pass it, but they did anyway. The plan was to begin by deporting 20,000 Jews. But on May 24, 1943, there was a huge demonstration. It began with a rally at a synagogue in Sofia and turned into a large march. The march was broken up by clashes with the police. But government officials were alarmed, and the deportations never happened. The cattle cars remained empty. The saving of Bulgarian Jews was a massive nonviolent action by the Bulgarian people.

Nonviolence in defense of Jews also occurred in the very heart of the Nazi empire: “Rosenstrasse” was the name of the street in Berlin where this remarkably effective protest happened. The Gestapo picked up Jewish men in Berlin who had non-Jewish wives. The wives demonstrated outside their husbands’ prison and demanded their release. They were persistent.

Gestapo headquarters were close by. A machine gun could have wiped the women out. They never fired. Instead, the government negotiated and let the men go. This wasn’t a trick; most were found to be still alive at the end of the war. (This protest is dramatized in the movie Rosenstrasse).

Left: from the movie.  Right: Part of the memorial “Block der Frauen” by Ingeborg Hunzinger


These are a few examples; many more could be cited – we haven’t even started on the trouble that the Nazi leader Quisling had in Norway. And of course thousands more Jews were saved by brave souls through an underground railroad.

But the consistent-life mind will naturally be curious about more than war and genocide. How did it build up into such a monstrosity?

Jurist Karl Binding and psychiatrist Alfred Hoche published a book in 1920 called Life Unworthy to be Lived, which helped set the ball rolling. Euthanasia of disabled people was rampant in the hospitals of Germany before the concentration camps were set up, and eugenics that kept the “undesirable” people from reproducing had advanced to widespread abortion by the time the principle was extended to the idea that being Jewish (or Roma/Gypsy, or homosexual, or a member of another group viewed as inferior in Nazi ideology) constituted a disability to which the same “medical treatment” of death should apply.

For years now, the Nazis have served as a lesson about opposing violence: protecting the innocent and vulnerable – unborn and recently born children, people with disabilities, targeted minority groups of any kind – is not only inherently worthwhile, but is crucial to preventing escalation. Genocides don’t come full-blown. They start out small and grow. To stop large horrific slaughters, we most oppose the killing of any human being. If the most vulnerable are protected, then the rest of us are safer too.



For another of our blog posts on the dynamics of the world wars, see:

Self-Defeating Violence: The Case of the First World War

See all of our blog posts put in categories.




  1. Rob Arner says:

    There is a fabulous book addressing just this issue from a spiritual point of view. It’s called What about Hitler?: Wrestling with Jesus’ Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World, by Robert Brimlow. It’s not so much an airtight logical apologetic for pacifism (though there are elements of that) as a rubber-meets-the-road honest spiritual meditation of what it means to practice nonviolence when the world is constantly telling us that path is futile.


  2. Tom Hoffman says:

    A very informative and encouraging article! I was somewhat familiar with the Danish resistance to Nazi anti-semitism, but the Bulgarian action and the Rosenstrasse protests were completely new to me.

  3. […] of excessive punitiveness towards Germany. Some people know about the times when the world could have stood up for the Jews early on and did not, thus emboldening Hitler. But those people did not learn about these things from watching this […]

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