One of the most common excuses for dismissing nonviolence as a truly comprehensive philosophy is that it “wouldn’t have worked against the Nazis.” This is an extremely serious, albeit speculative and inaccurate, assertion due to its implication that violence must always be held in reserve. Not to mention that, as Dr. Michael Nagler notes in his book The Search for a Nonviolent Future, nonviolence with the possibility of violence is not a nonviolent stance at all. The fact is that the Nazis did succumb to nonviolent resistance in Berlin. As Nathan Stoltzfus chronicled in Resistance of the Heart, the 1943 Rosenstrasse protest demonstrated the effectiveness of nonviolence even in the most extreme circumstances.
In 1943, roughly 2000 non-Jews who had Jewish spouses descended upon Rosenstrasse street for what became a week-long protest against the capture of their Jewish partners. Despite repeated threats by the Gestapo that they would be shot, the wives held their ground without fighting and refused to quietly let their spouses be taken by the Nazi authorities. The threatening possibility of even wider social unrest prevented the Nazis from being able to harm the non-Jewish protesters.
According to Dr. Nagler and Nathan Stoltzfus, the predicament was too much for Hitler, who reportedly passed off responsibility by saying “I wash my hands of this.” Joseph Goebbels caved in to the pressure, decided that harming the protesters would trigger mass social unrest, and released the Jewish spouses. Most of them also survived the rest of the war.
This is the only known instance of mass nonviolent protest within Nazi Germany and one wonders why no one went further with the protests. Dr. Nagler suggests the possibility that the protesters at Rosenstrasse were not entirely aware of how or why their defiance worked. He notes that it is probable they were not knowledgeable of the freedom struggle in India at the time and also were simply not educated enough in the philosophy of nonviolence to understand its profound effects. Whatever the reason, the Rosenstrasse demonstration is proof of the immense possibilities associated with nonviolent resistance.
1) Michael Nagler. PACS 164A. UC Berkeley.