Nonviolent resistance to totalitarian governments can be very difficult because of Draconian retaliation against such efforts and the resulting climate of fear among the populace, as well as the constant propaganda designed to reduce dissent to a minimum. But not all totalitarian regimes are alike in how far they are willing to go to crush resistance. And even the same totalitarian regime is not always willing to go equally far to crush resistance under all circumstances at all times against all comers.
The German Reich was a case in point. The Nazis were relentless in their drive to conquer Europe and make it Judenfrei. But the Nazis had a hierarchy of countries in their racial pantheon, and treated the inhabitants of those places differentially based in large part on the Nazi system of racial classification.
The top of the heap, of course, were the “Aryans” of Germany and Austria. But countries defined as “Nordic” were considered just about as good. And, although supposedly “Aryan,” the Slavic races were regarded as markedly inferior, so the conquered Poles were accordingly treated far more harshly than the Danes, for example.
In looking at the idea of whether successful nonviolent resistance to some of the Nazis’ harshest edicts was possible, one must always remember this differential treatment of occupied countries. What was successful in one place could never have been so in another. Just as Gandhi’s success depended on the fact that he was facing the relatively humane British, so it was that the brutality of the Nazi occupation in one country wasn’t the same as the Nazi occupation in another. Different policies allowed differential responses, such as, for example, the ability of the relatively autonomous and respected Danes to evacuate and thus rescue their relatively small Jewish population.
The Nazis were well aware of the possibility of resistance and the need for a cooperative captive populace. That’s one of the reasons they thought it best to disguise and keep quiet the scope of their genocide. They feared a public backlash against it, even (or perhaps especially) in Germany.
The Nazi racial laws that singled out the Jews for special persecution started slowly in Germany during the early 30s, increasing the Jews’ isolation from the general public over the years and culminating, as we know, in the Final Solution. There’s a great deal of controversy over how much the German people actually knew about the true nature and extent of the death camps. But certainly extreme persecution of the Jews of Germany and elsewhere was common knowledge, as was their deportation to parts unknown, never to be heard from again. So even if the German people didn’t know everything, they knew a great deal.
Some of those “parts unknown” were in concentration camps in Germany itself, such as Dachau and Mathausan-Gusen. So the Germans in the surrounding area clearly knew about these camps. However, the term “concentration camp” is so familiar that most people do not realize that it’s a general term covering two horrific but somewhat different types of institution: the labor camp and the death camp. The camps in Germany were labor camps.
Although conditions in labor camps were dreadful, and death was a common and expected occurrence in them, the main purpose of these camps was not to exterminate directly, but rather to harshly extract the full measure of hard labor out of the inmates with the least cost. If they happened to die from the conditions there, then so be it—and die they did, in droves. The death camps, however, existed solely for the purpose of efficiently killing virtually all their inmates shortly after arrival.
A related distinction is also not ordinarily understood: none of the death camps was located in Germany. Rather, all six were in Poland. Why was this? Poland had a large Jewish population, and therefore the camps were located near the source and less transport would be needed. But it seems that the Nazi leadership may also have wanted to protect the German population from exact and precise knowledge of what was happening, by placing the death camps far away. Perhaps they didn’t have full confidence that their own populace would support outright extermination if it came to know, unequivocally and undeniably, that this was what was actually happening.
In order to accomplish the task of genocide, especially the all-important initial action of rounding up the Jewish population, the cooperation of the local non-Jewish population was a requirement for success. And, as the example of the Danes shows, that cooperation was not always a given. So it would be best to keep the final destination as quiet as possible, to reduce the probability of protest.
It didn’t always work. In addition to the Danes, the Bulgarians were able to defy the Germans and save their Jews. The Bulgarians were even more autonomous than the Danes (in fact, they were unoccupied German allies). They saved their Jews through a combination of church leadership and the fact that anti-Semitism had never really taken much hold there. The Nazis didn’t want to strong-arm the citizens of countries such as Denmark and Bulgaria, who were not considered enemies, into giving up their Jews. They were willing to wait and concentrate on places such as France where it was much easier to get public cooperation for the roundup of their prey. Later, they thought, they’d tie up loose ends in other places.
Anyone who knows Holocaust history knows that Poland was its center. The Polish people have often been condemned for their participation in the death of their Jews–but, although there was indeed a great deal of cooperation from the Poles, it turns out that the situation was far more complex than that. Not only were there also a great many rescuers in Poland (see this book for a thorough documentation of these stirring tales), but the Poles had a great deal more to lose than most from saving Jews. Not to minimize the accomplishments of the Danes or the Bulgarians, but to be a hero in Poland was a lot more meaningful than to be one in Denmark or Bulgaria–or even, as it turns out, in Germany.
Why? Because Poland was the only Nazi-occupied country in which helping Jews would officially get you the death penalty. Here are the horrific facts (read them and ask yourself if you would have been as brave as the many Poles who did shelter and save Jews):
Poland was the only place where German law rendered any assistance to Jews punishable by death. That punishment was severe and collective: It was meted out not only to the rescuer but also to his entire family and to anyone else who knew about such activities and did not report them. Almost 1,000 Poles were killed this way, including entire families whose children were not spared.
Germans of the World War II era have defended themselves against criticism by saying they not only didn’t know the details of the Holocaust, but if they’d tried to protest, they themselves would have been imprisoned or killed. But in Germany—unlike Poland—this was not true at all. Successful resistance was most definitely possible, as the little-known but fascinating story of the Rosenstrasse Protest shows.
[In Part II, tomorrow, I will explain what this protest was and why it was important.]