While researching this post on the phrase “speaking truth to power,” I discovered that it originated among Quakers, and I promised that I’d write something soon about Quaker pacifism. I had planned that this post would be that “something.”
But my Quaker post will have to wait a little longer, because I got sidetracked when doing my research–one of the perils of Google. There are many varieties of pacifism, and although the Quaker version is an interesting, complex, and multifaceted one, today I’m going to write about a more absolute and extreme form of pacifism, that of Gandhi.
I had grown up hating and fearing war. As a woman, I knew I’d never be forced to fight one. But at the same time I certainly knew that I would and could (and, during the Vietnam War, did) have loved ones who would probably eventually fight in one.
The dilemmas inherent in deciding whether a war was just or not became familiar to me, both in the abstract and personally. How did I resolve them? You might say that, originally, when quite young, I had a sort of pacifist ideal; I just wanted us to “all get along.”
But even back then I realized there was a flaw; I hadn’t a clue as to how that might actually happen. The United Nations of my early youth was an early hope, but I soon began to realize that it was at best impotent (and later, at worst, counterproductive). It could not prevent conflict after conflict from happening. I was a post-WWII child, and it seemed clear to me that Hitler could not have been deterred by any human forces known to me–whether it be the power of love or that of the international courts–and those who thought otherwise seemed hopelessly, naively, and dangerously foolish.
Absolute pacifism–the most extreme form–eschews war in any guise. And what would absolute pacifism have suggested as a response to the Holocaust? Many years later I came across Gandhi’s answer, in an essay he wrote in 1938 advising the Jews on the subject of what to do about Hitler. In it, he sets out the case in unequivocal terms; and clearly, he understands that the Jews face grave dangers:
…the German persecution of the Jews seems to have no parallel in history. The tyrants of old never went so mad as Hitler seems to have gone. And he is doing it with religious zeal. For he is propounding a new religion of exclusive and militant nationalism in the name of which any inhumanity becomes an act of humanity to be rewarded here and hereafter. The crime of an obviously mad but intrepid youth is being visited upon his whole race with unbelievable ferocity. If there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified.
So, Gandhi recognizes that, if ever a war would be justified, this is the war. And here is the Gandhian pacifist answer, that of the absolute pacifist–a non-negotiable and rigid faith that makes such justification impossible:
But I do not believe in any war. A discussion of the pros and cons of such a war is therefore outside my horizon or province.
So for Gandhi, whatever the question, “war is not the answer.”
And what is? He wrote:
Germany is showing to the world how efficiently violence can be worked when it is not hampered by any hypocrisy or weakness masquerading as humanitarianism. It is also showing how hideous, terrible and terrifying it looks in its nakedness.
Can the Jews resist this organized and shameless persecution? Is there a way to preserve their self-respect, and not to feel helpless, neglected and forlorn? I submit there is…If I were a Jew and were born in Germany and earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German may, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon; I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment. And for doing this, I should not wait for the fellow Jews to join me in civil resistance but would have confidence that in the end the rest are bound to follow my example. If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription here offered, he or they cannot be worse off than now. And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can. Indeed, even if Britain, France and America were to declare hostilities against Germany, they can bring no inner joy, no inner strength. The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the godfearing death has no terror. It is a joyful sleep to be followed by a waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep.
When I read this passage of Gandhi’s, I experience a profound weariness. I have long felt that religions focusing on the transient nature of life on earth and emphasizing instead the glory of the world to come, although giving much comfort and joy to their adherents, run the risk of exhibiting just this sort of thing: a callous disregard of suffering in the here and now (not that they inevitably fall into that trap, of course).
Here Gandhi, with what I believe were the best intentions, does just that. He is casually suggesting the Jews use his method of satyagraha (which he developed and honed against the far milder British) against the Nazis, an example of an attitude that can at best be called naive, and at worst, fatally flawed. The transformative power of nonviolent non-cooperation was something Gandhi had, quite literally, staked his life on, and it was an article of faith to him that it could (and should!) be applied universally. If it could save the Jews, fine. But if not, then at least they would be massacred while doing the right thing. It almost sounds as though, to Gandhi, one result would be nearly as good as the other,and that makes me shudder.
A belief that powerful can’t be argued with; it simply is. This is the case with absolute pacifism; it lies beyond the realm of logic and argument, and is an article of faith. But if one tries to imagine that somehow, all six million Jews–men, women, and children–had somehow complied with what Gandhi suggested, what would have been the result? He says their action would either have wakened the respect of the Germans and they would have been spared, or it would have stirred up German anger and they would have been killed on the spot. My guess is that German reaction would have resembled the latter far more than the former, although there is no way to know for certain.
However, it’s a moot question, and not just because the Holocaust is over and done with. It’s a moot question because no people on the face of the earth could be expected to sustain that sort of response in the face of such danger. So Gandhi’s premise would be impossible to test. His suggestion shows a profound lack of understanding of human nature, and is an example of where idealism can take us–to what appears to be an absurdity, and a dangerous one at that, well-meaning though it may be.
All great visionaries are extremists, and Gandhi was no exception. By the sheer force of his personality he managed to hold together a movement against the British that ended up with a measure of success in terms of winning Indian independence. But that initial success was followed by the unleashing of internal forces of violence of such an extreme nature that they dwarfed any outrages the British had committed in India. When partition (which Gandhi had opposed) occurred, the country was already on the brink of a turmoil that erupted into a series of massacres which killed at least a million or more, although the true figures will never be known. Gandhi’s methods were utterly powerless against the violence between Moslem and Hindu, as opposed to his relative success against the British colonial authorities.
Gandhi was not only extremist, he was utterly consistent as well. I was shocked to learn that what he had earlier recommended for the Jews in the face of Hitler, he also applied to his own people on partition: that they surrender themselves to death. In this article by Dr. Koenraad Elst, a Belgian scholar on India, the author discusses a number of mistakes he feels Gandhi made. Elst writes:
Gandhi refused to see the realities of human nature; of Islamic doctrine with its ambition of domination; of the modern mentality with its resentment of autocratic impositions; of people’s daily needs making them willing to collaborate with the rulers in exchange for career and business opportunities; of the nationalism of the Hindus who would oppose the partition of their Motherland tooth and nail; of the nature of the Pakistani state as intrinsically anti-India and anti-Hindu.
In most of these cases, Gandhi’s mistake was not his pacifism per se…The Khilafat pogroms revealed one of the real problems with his pacifism: all while riding a high horse and imposing strict conformity with the pacifist principle, he indirectly provoked far more violence than was in his power to control. Other leaders of the freedom movement, such as Annie Besant and Lala Lajpat Rai, had warned him that he was playing with fire, but he preferred to obey his suprarational “inner voice”.
The fundamental problem with Gandhi’s pacifism, not in the initial stages but when he had become the world-famous leader of India’s freedom movement (1920-47), was his increasing extremism. All sense of proportion had vanished when he advocated non-violence not as a technique of moral pressure by a weaker on a stronger party, but as a form of masochistic surrender…
During his prayer meeting on 1 May 1947, he prepared the Hindus and Sikhs for the anticipated massacres of their kind in the upcoming state of Pakistan with these words: “I would tell the Hindus to face death cheerfully if the Muslims are out to kill them. I would be a real sinner if after being stabbed I wished in my last moment that my son should seek revenge. I must die without rancour. You may turn round and ask whether all Hindus and all Sikhs should die. Yes, I would say. Such martyrdom will not be in vain.” (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol.LXXXVII, p.394-5) It is left unexplained what purpose would be served by this senseless and avoidable surrender to murder.
Even when the killing had started, Gandhi refused to take pity on the Hindu victims, much less to point fingers at the Pakistani aggressors. More importantly for the principle of non-violence, he failed to offer them a non-violent technique of countering and dissuading the murderers. Instead, he told the Hindu refugees from Pakistan to go back and die. On 6 August 1947, Gandhiji commented to Congress workers on the incipient communal conflagration in Lahore thus: “I am grieved to learn that people are running away from the West Punjab and I am told that Lahore is being evacuated by the non-Muslims. I must say that this is what it should not be. If you think Lahore is dead or is dying, do not run away from it, but die with what you think is the dying Lahore…”
This is absolute pacifism run amok; as Elst writes, “a form of masochistic surrender.” There is an ancient Talmudic saying: “He who is kind to the cruel ends up being cruel to the kind.” The fact that in Gandhi’s efforts to stop violence “he indirectly provoked far more violence than was in his power to control” is a good example of that principle in action.
Gandhi is venerated by peace activists worldwide. I wonder whether they have studied his actual words, or the real-world consequences of his actions. If they did, would they still emulate and revere him?
If you study the history of what the Nazis actually did, they practiced all sorts of clever deceptions to make sure the people they were rounding up did not know what was happening. There were told they were being relocated, and to pack bags, and many believed them. The entire roundup apparatus was geared to maintaining the deception to the bitter end, including the false showers at the death camps, in order to forestall any chance of rebellion. In additon, as many have pointed out, there were many women, children, and old people involved, and the populace, unlike that of the US, was not armed. Furthermore–and this is also of the utmost importance to remember–where would they have gone, even if they had been successful? Remember that Jews who managed to flee were turned back in droves, into the arms of the Nazis. Most of Europe would not accept them, nor would the US, and they were not even able to go to Israel (see the film “Exodus,” which contains a fictionalized version of some real incidents of this nature where ships were turned back to certain death). This fact is one of the main reasons the world later allowed the founding of Israel.
One likes to think there was a way out. It would have required 20/20 hindsight, perfect organization, knowledge, arms, and a safe haven–none of which were possible. As for awakening the German conscience–another nice dream, I’m afraid. Although the Germans (like the Jews) were not especially aware of death camps at the time, they witnessed and participated in terrible persecutions of Jews on a daily basis, mostly with no pangs of conscience whatsoever. It is hard and painful to look back and see how truly evil the behavior was, even without the death camps, but it was.]
[ADDENDUM II] Go here for the next post in the series, Part IIA, about the Quakers.]