Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. details his definition of civil disobedience in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Dr. King clarifies that in order to participate in civil disobedience, breaking laws is necessary. This may only occur if the law is unjust. An unjust law is one that does not apply to everyone and is not applied consistently to all, like the segregation laws that Dr. King and others like Rosa Parks fought during the American Civil Rights Movement. Although Dr. King’s non-violent forms of protest greatly influenced the Civil Rights Movement, he was not the first American to resist unjust laws on American soil. The Boston Tea Party is a well-known form of civil disobedience that helped spark the fire that led to the start of the American Revolutionary War. Also, women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in the 1872 U.S. House of Representatives election, considering the 19th Amendment enabling women to vote wasn’t passed until 1920. During the Vietnam War, activists took action against the draft and all the young Americans who were fighting/being killed overseas.
As Americans, we are able to enjoy our constitutional rights that protect our ability to protest and criticize our government. In many countries, however, this is simply not the case. More oppressive regimes in countries like Communist China and the former Soviet Union, freedom of speech and the right to organize was not something those in power allowed to happen. Although those regimes both used violent means to suppress acts they considered treasonous, by far the most extreme when it comes to the consequences of speaking out against those in power, would have to be Fascist Germany.
Facing periods of unemployment and hyperinflation, many people suffered tremendously after World War I. With Germany’s Weimar Republic beginning to waver, those power made no effort to hide that it was holding on by a string, unable to cope. In a time when liberalism seemed to have failed in Europe, hope for a brighter future had all but been lost in the eyes of many Germans. It wasn’t until Italy’s Benito Mussolini crafted the definition of fascism, in which the admiring Adolf Hitler used in crafting his vision of a new Germany. Hitler was able to convince the Germans that fascism was the long awaited cure to the period of economic and cultural decline they were experiencing, as it was different from other political traditions.
Considering the University of Michigan has a course that dedicates a whole semester to discussing the genocide of the six million European Jews that were murdered, I can’t detail all the events that led up to and occurred during the Holocaust. However, the Nazi persecution and systematic extermination of Jews was something that Hitler strategically implemented in phases. Testing the waters, Hitler first began the so-called “Social Revolution”: in which he implemented measures to persecute Germany’s social outcasts, including: homosexuals, Roma (Gypsies), the disabled, other Slavic peoples, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Socialists, and Communists. Members of these groups were considered “inferior” and lacked social support from the overall German population. With little to no pushback, Hitler shifted gears toward policies to enact against the Jewish population. To ensure his plan didn’t meet political opposition, the “Enabling Law” was enacted only two months after his Chancellorship in 1933, allowing Hitler to act unilaterally, without permission from the Reichstag.
Eventually, Hitler began suppressing the rights of German Jews by attacking them economically with Nazi Boycotts of Jewish Businesses. He then began using his newfound power to enact a number of laws, which prohibited “Non-Aryans” from participating as civil servants, lawyers, physicians, professors, or appointed officials of the Third Reich. These restrictions eventually not only included “Non-Aryans” themselves, but those who were married to “Non-Aryans”. With no severe opposition from the German population, the Nuremberg Laws were enacted in 1935, ultimately beginning the process of reverse emancipation and re-ghettoization of German Jews.
With an increase in violence toward German Jews, Kristallnacht, a pogrom that took place on November 8-9, 1938 in which Jewish businesses, buildings and synagogues were attacked, only reached the surface of the violent actions Hitler had planned for the Jews of Europe. Things only got worse with Hitler’s quest for lebensraum, in which he acquired more and more land, eventually leading to his tag-team effort in the invasion of Poland with the help of the Soviet Union in 1939, marking the start of WWII.
The Holocaust claimed the lives of 6 million Jews. At the beginning of 1942 seventy-five percent of the Jews that were murdered in the Holocaust were still alive. While at the beginning of 1943, that seventy-five percent of Jews, had been killed. The rest of the victims were murdered in the last few years of WWII, in which the Nazis continued to build and run death camps, even after it became clear they were going to lose the war.
Although the majority of Europeans that fell under Nazi rule during this period found themselves unable to protest the oppressive and inhumane ways of Hitler, it’s important to recognize that even though there were radical and deadly consequences for such acts, several different forms of resistance did take place during the Holocaust. Many people felt as though what the Nazis were doing was wrong, but often feared for their lives and the lives of their loved ones, unwilling to speak out. There has been great debate over whether or not a person or group’s passivity during the Holocaust can be defined as a form of participation or collaboration. While many Europeans fell into a passive role, there have been exceptions to this rule with examples of non-Jewish resistance. There were gentiles who took in Jews, hiding them from Nazi soldiers, ultimately saving their lives. One example of this was discussed in Jan Gross’ book Neighbors, in which a ethnic Pole, Szmul Wasersztajn and his family, took in seven of the twelve Jews from his village of Jedwabne, Poland who ultimately survived WWII.
Furthermore, there were also several forms of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. There were members of the Judenrat or Jewish councils within the ghettoes, who sometimes resisted in sending the necessary quota of Jews to the death camps. Ultimately, this just meant these men were shot and would soon be replaced by another, more willing participant. However, not all those who were thrown into the deadly climate of the Final Solution were completely passive. Also, there were forms of armed Jewish resistance, specifically in some of the Nazi run ghettos. For example, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took place during April 19-May16, 1943. In a document labeled the “Stroop Report”, the uprising was detailed in an official report written by the commander of German forces there, Jürgen Stroop. This report was sent to SS chief Heinrich Himmler, in which Stroop outlines the processes taken to suppress the uprising. The resistance began with both Jews and “Polish Bandits” hiding in dug-outs that were formed and connected to an elaborate underground sewer system. The Resistance had weapons like hand grenades and guns, which some women hid in their bloomers and used against the German forces. Although Stroop refers to the Jews as “cowards by nature”, the means by which the Germans used to finally put an end to the uprising were complex and needed around the clock. These Jewish “cowards” put up a fight, which took a great deal of man power and relentless raids to finally end.
The more common form of Jewish resistance was spiritual in nature. Yehuda Bauer’s chapter “Jewish Resistance- Myth or Reality?” from his book Rethinking the Holocaust, talked about a more common form of Jewish resistance seen among victims. He discusses the victim’s adherence to amidah. An attempt to continue their prayer and religious traditions within the ghettos was critical because it reminded them of their humanity. Bauer also discusses taking part in meaningful Jewish life or the “sanctification of life” in the ghettos and different forms of concentration camps (death, labor, etc.). Prayer, story telling and singing songs relating to their Jewish culture took place in order to achieve this.
Another form of Jewish resistance formed around the so-called Oyneg Shabes Project in the Warsaw Ghetto. This project enabled those in the ghetto to organize the archival of documents for future generations, so that the atrocities of the Holocaust would never be forgotten. A man by the name of Emanuel Ringelblum, who unfortunately fell victim to Hitler’s Final Solution, kept a detailed diary until his death. We are able to read his work today because of the Oyneg Shabes project, which smuggled such documents out of the ghetto, in this case, by way of metal boxes and milk cans.
Author Christopher Browning detailed the testimony of a member of the German Order Police in his book Ordinary Men, in which a Polish village of Jews they were sent to kill, realized their fate by hearing the sound of gunshots reigning from the nearby forest. After their gasps and screams upon the realization that their death would come sooner rather than later, it was described as a “silence and composure” that overcame the large group. Many victims handled their death with bravery and dignity, something I’m not quite sure I could ever duplicate.
Although the conditions upon which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the many victims of the Holocaust were under differed tremendously in form of consequences for their resistance, both groups faced situations in which the unjust laws written and enforced by others controlled their everyday lives. With an oppressive fascist regime which relied on violent force to obtain its goals, one wrong move and you could be killed. It’s a miracle that forms of resistance even took place during the Holocaust at all. Events like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the ways in which European Jews personally resisted with the practice of amidah and their pure sense of courage and bravery, show that even when we find ourselves under the most inhumane, indescribable conditions, we persevere. Civil disobedience as a form of resistance, as practiced throughout history long before by Dr. King himself, is the manifestation of the sheer resilience of the human spirit. Which the victims of the Holocaust give new meaning to.