“Could nonviolence have stopped Hitler?” was a question President Obama asked when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, and it is a question many often ask as a retort to those of us who advocate for nonviolence as a means to confront power and injustice. Like Obama, not only do the men and women who ask the question already assume that a “non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies,” as Obama stated; they also already believe that nonviolent resistance would have enabled Hitler ultimately to rule the world. Nonviolence is simply no match for those who are committed to violence and tyranny.
Well, that’s probably true. But “putting nonviolence on trial in the manner of Obama [and others] is problematic because the question,” as Michael Allen Fox argued in Understanding Peace, “is open to more than one interpretation. If it is taken to mean (as Obama obviously intended): ‘Could forms of nonviolent resistance have defeated the juggernaut in battle or in the midst of its rolling over weaker countries?’ then the incontestable answer would seem to be: ‘No, certainly not.’
But if instead “the question being asked is rephrased in this way: ‘could Hitler’s rise to power have been thwarted by nonviolent campaigns?’ then the answer is not so apparent; the only thing we do know is that this tactic wasn’t tried in any ongoing, large-scale manner.” In Fox’s view, the fact that nonviolence “wasn’t tried in any ongoing, large-scale manner” is “an instance of a bigger issue: Nonviolence cannot be written off as an inadequate or failed response to particular human problems if it has not been tried as a means to solving them.”
Which brings me to Donald Trump and his competitors for the Republican nomination, all of whom have been clamoring to out-do each other on providing Nazi-like solutions to the terrible suffering of the Syrian people and to the threat of ISIS. Trump wants to require all Muslims (who’s next??) to register in a national database and/or make them carry special identification designating their religious beliefs – much like the stars and triangles the Nazis required of Jews and gays (Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush want to give refuge only to Christian Syrians (shades of “whites only”?) – a policy position that suggests how willing they are to leave Syrian Muslims, those of other faiths, and secularists all subject to continued violence, hunger, despair, and death).
Trump’s support among potential Republican voters has surged.
We can watch these developments from the sidelines and write them off as election year antics. And if Trump or any of his colleagues capture the Oval Office, we can take comfort, I guess, in the fact that the people have spoken and that 2020 presents another opportunity to change course.
Or we can recognize that this is a moment for us to confront and thwart, through militant nonviolence, the rise of those who have made abundantly clear that they disdain not only the constitution and our democracy, but also humanity itself.
Hitler was elected, after all.