When nonviolence advocates recommend their tactics as superior to violent ones, someone inevitably says something like “but of course that would never have worked against the Nazis.” And when they do, the nonviolence advocates point out that nonviolent techniques were rarely attempted in any sustained and organized fashion against the Nazis, and when they were, they had remarkable success, for instance in Denmark.
Hannah Arendt discussed the case of Denmark in Eichmann in Jerusalem and suggested it “as required reading in political science for all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent action and in resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence.” Today, in fact, Nazi-occupied Denmark is a favorite case study in the literature of nonviolent resistance theory.
There’s another side to the story, though, and it’s told in part by an anonymous member of the Danish resistance in one of a set of reflections on Thoreau that were published on the centennial of his death:
What was the special appeal of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” for some members of the Danish resistance movement during the German occupation of Denmark in the Hitler-war? Here is my personal testimony of what Thoreau meant to me as an individual during .
For , Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, in spite of an old, often renewed non-aggression pact. The occupation, unfortunately, met without appreciable resistance. The Danish government, desiring not to make matters worse, forbade resistance, commanding submission and obedience to the huge, superior German force. It was my resentment against the mean treatment of shot-down, wounded English and Canadian airmen that first forced me into the resistance. With my knowledge of foreign languages and as a former telegraph operator in my youth, I was at once put into a team having direct communication with London for .
Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” stood for me, and for my first leader in the resistance movement, as a shining light with which we could examine the policy of complete passivity which our government had ordered for the whole Danish population. The German Wehrmacht behaved well if not provoked, but the Gestapo was boundlessly cruel. Non-violence, as a means of resistance, was completely unfit for this scum of the worst gangsters of Germany from whom they were all recruited. I lent Thoreau’s books to friends, told them about him, and our circle grew. Railroads, bridges, and factories that worked for the Germans were blown up.
Since the Hitler-war, too, “Civil Disobedience” has been of very great interest for us resistance people. We are all disgusted with the seemingly endless expedience of politics, with politicians and statesmen who never have unambiguous attitudes. Integrity makes it impossible sometimes for many of us to even vote in local and general elections.
My teacher of English as an undergraduate had learned English from a considerable philosopher, Aage Werner, the son of a rich businessman in Copenhagen. Werner was an outstanding teacher, the first Dane who used phonographic wax cylinders carrying the voices of teachers and famous actors whom he had met in London during his student years in England. Werner’s textbooks are still used. He died in , only forty-two years old. He was aflame with enthusiasm for Thoreau, took pride in living as simply as possible, so that his pecuniary and physical needs were minimal. He spent his great fortune to relieve the distresses of others. He never charged for his teaching, avoided “society,” but spoke readily to the common man. Like Thoreau, he lived unmarried, because, as he said, “God will not revenge himself on my children unto the third and forth generation.”
Thoreau, during the thirty-seven years I have read his books, has continually influenced very deeply the conduct of my life. He has increased my natural reticence towards the man in the street, whose ravenous materialism I loathe. I like to call on the man of the sea, the sailor and the fisherman. Their occasional life-and-death struggles often show us a religious instinct and a more earnest outlook than the farmer’s and the townsman’s.
All detestation is despicable, but since the Hitler-war I have undergone a daily inward struggle to quell a profound spite against that nation that twice in my days has set fire to the world, and now manages with one of the hardest currencies of all, wallowing in the grossest materialism.
Though I am a bad disciple of Thoreau, rather than visit the Acropolis I would go to Walden and to his grave.