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CHAPTER 26

PEACEBUILDING AND NONVIOLENCE: GANDHI’S

PERSPECTIVE ON POWER

Manfred B. Steger

Mahatma Gandhi’s theory of nonviolent power represents a much-needed perspective from

which to criticize contemporary dominant modes of representing power primarily in terms of

violence. His understanding of power offers both a theoretical and a practical approach to the

problem of peacebuilding in today’s global society. This chapter makes its arguments in three

parts. First, I point to some shortcomings of the dominant discourse of power rooted in Thomas

Hobbes’ early modern view of human nature. Second, I introduce Gandhi’s contrasting perspec-

tive on power and nonviolence based on his idea of “searching for satya” (truth, being) through

the practice of ahimsa (nonviolence). Third, I examine particularly difficult historical cases in

which the employment of nonviolent means actually produced socially transformative ends.

I am sensitive to critical voices who have rightly urged theorists of nonviolence to provide

more precise definitions of their key terms. I must admit that I use the term “nonviolence” only

reluctantly because it signifies for many people the total absence of both “direct” (physical) and

2

“indirect” (structural) forms of violence. Yet, even for Gandhi, absolute nonviolence remained a

moral ideal which might only be approximated in the world of politics. Indeed, Gandhi himself

sometimes engaged in such extreme actions as fasting-unto-death and harsh physical discipline,

which could be interpreted as weapons of psychological coercion (Borman, 1986). Moreover, in

Hind Swaraj, his sole sustained treatise on political theory, published in 1909, Gandhi relied on

the conceptual violence of constructing a “pure” Indian identity defined against a tainted British

“Other.” Thus, throughout the essay, I will therefore limit the use of the term “nonviolence” to

mean the opposite of open, physical forms of violence. After all, the earliest English usages of

violence (from the Latin violentia) describe it as “the exercise of physical force” against some-

one who is thereby “interrupted or interfered with rudely or roughly” (Keane, 1996).

THOMAS HOBBES AND THE DOMINANT DISCOURSE OF POWER

Our ideas about social phenomena are closely connected to the way we construct and use lan-

guage. We make sense of social reality through discourses and narratives that reflect shared im-

ages, ideas, values, beliefs, and ideals. Discourses provide individuals and social groups with a

coherent orientation in time and space.

Political discourses tend to focus on the meaning and legitimate exercise of power (Ricoeur,

1986). With the seventeenth-century rise of liberalism as a political doctrine challenging feudal-

ism and the king’s divine right to rule in an autocratic fashion, Western political discourses ac-

quired new meanings, most importantly the idea that power rested in individuals and their ability

to apply violence and coercion. To this day, this central assumption is reflected in the standard

definition of the liberal agency model of power: “A has power over B to the extent that he can

get B to do something that B would not otherwise do” (Dahl, 1957, pp. 203–204). This under-

3

standing of power derives from philosophical and psychological assumptions made by early

modern thinkers, most notably by the English political theorist Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679).

His ideas about human nature and political institutions gave rise to an understanding of power

which emphasized “natural” aggression, looming violent disruptions, and other “imaginings and

threats of force, disorder, and pain” (Sarat & Kearns, 1995, pp. 1–2). Indeed, Hobbes’s influen-

tial writings greatly contributed to the invention of the modern “realist” political discourse which

was later termed Realpolitik. This German term refers to the idea that the essence of politics con-

sists of a ceaseless struggle for power, material goods, and the control of the means of violence.

In order to better understand the fundamental psychological and political assumptions inher-

ent in Realpolitik’s equation of power and violence, it is useful to examine in some detail Tho-

mas Hobbes’s view of human nature. In Leviathan, his major treatise on political theory pub-

lished in 1651, Hobbes puts at the center of his analysis a particular understanding of the indi-

vidual as an isolated, self-contained being who interacts with other individuals in mechanical

fashion. As Donald Tannenbaum and David Schultz (1998) point out, Hobbes’ atomistic concep-

tion of the individual has a clear psychological basis, rooted in three motives. First, all individu-

als are amorally selfish and controlled by their hedonistic desires and physical appetites. They

are absorbed in their personal interests as they compete for scarce or limited goods such as

wealth. Second, they are impelled by the desire to seek power and domination of others to pro-

tect themselves and their goods. As Hobbes notes, “I put as a general inclination of all mankind a

perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceases only in death” (1985, p. 161). This

is due to what Hobbes calls “diffidence,” or mistrust of others. Finally, individuals desire glory,

the good opinion of others which makes them seem superior and more praiseworthy (Tannebaum

4

& Schultz, 1998).

For Hobbes, “reason” merely functions as a calculating device in the service of passion

which leads the individual toward pleasure and the avoidance of pain. However, the raging com-

petition among appetitive individuals for the same goals results in a state of violent anarchy—a

“natural state of war” bereft of civility, friendship, and compassion. In Hobbes’ state of nature,

“the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes, 1985, p. 186). On one hand,

their irrational desires prompt individuals to behave like solitary beasts who feel no natural obli-

gation to others and are guided solely by the urge for power and self-satisfaction. On the other,

however, they seek to use reason to escape the “continual fear and danger of violent death” lurk-

ing in the chaotic state of nature. It is this fear of death, born of their own primordial violent ten-

dencies that ultimately serves as the incentive for calculating individuals to create an artificial

“civil society” which ends the state of nature and allows for the maximizing of pleasures while

minimizing the possibility of violent death. Through a social contract, individuals transfer their

“natural right” to exercise power through violence to a common sovereign authority (the state)

which claims a monopoly on the use of violence.

Relying on a model of human nature based on an individualized psychology of primordial

violence and fear, Hobbes was the first modern thinker to argue for the creation of a more “ra-

tional” and therefore more “economical” order of violence backed by popular consent rather than

divine right. While Hobbes’ contract theory opened the door for the later development of more

democratic models of self-government based on popular sovereignty, it also provided the ration-

ale for modern Realpolitik and its claim that the exercise of political power inevitably involved

the capacity to unleash violence. The creation of a civil society through the social contract

5

merely centralized violence in the hands of a powerful state: “Covenants without the sword are

but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all” (Hobbes, 1985, p. 223). Evident in Hobbes’

connection between “strength” and the “sword,” the sovereign’s power was ultimately grounded

in force and violence, not persuasion and communication.

As I will show below, Gandhi’s model of power fundamentally challenged such dominant

“realist” discourses of power. Unfortunately, modern thinkers in the West have failed to respond

to Gandhi’s challenge of Hobbes’ one-dimensional conception of power as bringing violence to

bear on someone else’s person or possessions. Seen as hopelessly utopian and politically impo-

tent, alternative models of power such as Gandhi’s hardly ever impact the contemporary debates

on democracy and social justice. As a result, liberal democratic discourses of power perpetuate

the belief in the naturalness of violence, and a new generation of citizens resigns itself to the

“fact” that the maintenance of our individual liberties as well as our political institutions of rep-

resentative democracy inevitably involve some forms of violence. In the end, political thinkers in

the Hobbesian tradition remain suspended in discursive and cultural practices that simultane-

ously encourage, limit, and redistribute the violence of its origins. Thus, it is not hard to concur

with John Keane’s (1996) observation that the reasons for political theory’s frozen political

imagination about violence and power and its consequent glum silence about nonviolence derive

from the “confused and confusing mélange of unspoken prejudices and significant assumptions”

of the Hobbesian paradigm.

MAHATMA GANDHI’S NONVIOLENT SEARCH FOR TRUTH

The most valuable contribution of Gandhi’s theory of nonviolent power lies in its critique of

dominant discourses of power based on a psychology of fear which equates power with violence.

6

Gandhi emphasized the crucial role of moral reason in a politically anchored, nonviolent search

for truth. Gandhi’s defense of radical political action directed against oppression corresponded to

his preference for a conception of theory as a “critical program” designed to charge political sys-

tems and their institutions with violating universal human rights. From a Gandhian perspective,

nonviolent direct action—the withdrawal of popular obedience—is the most effective way of

frustrating unaccountable power networks. Gandhi and his followers thus considered both a

philosophical and a pragmatic “search for truth” as an indispensable means for challenging the

violence of colonialism and other forms of oppression.

Before discussing the basic elements of Gandhi’s political thought—satya (truth, being),

agraha (firmness, force, power), and ahimsa (nonviolence)—we must remember that he consid-

ered himself primarily a spokesman for the marginalized and downtrodden, such as the Indian

caste of dalits (“Untouchables”). Gandhi’s writings and speeches can hardly be detached from

their cultural context, reflecting the concreteness of his political location within an intricate web

of existing power relations which routinely undermined a sense of human dignity and cultural

self-expression. Thus, it was only through concrete political struggles that he developed his new

model of political power as the nonviolent search for truth (satyagraha). Yet, nonviolent resisters

(satyagrahis) could not unilaterally impart privileged philosophical knowledge to the masses;

rather, they developed their own theoretical understanding of nonviolent political power out of

their daily interactions with those social groups most exposed to the effects of colonial power.

Indeed, Gandhi’s political theory represents less a cognitive affair than a problem-driven, theo-

retical extension of concrete experiences of domination and resistance at the level of everyday

existence. The violence of racism, for example, was embodied by the colonial policeman who

7

threw the young Indian barrister out of the first-class cabin of a train bound for Maritzburg or the

English barber in Pretoria who refused to cut the hair of a “bloody coolie” (Gandhi, 1948).1 Such

moments of intense suffering served as the crucial catalysts for Gandhi’s formidable challenge to

the dominant Hobbesian discourse of power.

Deeply influenced by the Jain philosophy of anekantavada—the many-sidedness of all phe-

nomena—Gandhi defended througout his life the importance of an ethical and spiritual pluralism

rooted in the fragmentariness of our understanding of satya (Chatterjee, 1983). Noting the deri-

vation of the term from the Sanskrit verb sat (“to be” or “to exist”), Gandhi opted for an “ex-

perimental” basis of truth which differed sharply from Cartesian rationalism and its various

philosophical offshoots. In other words, while explaining truth as epistemological (truth as “fac-

tual correctness”), pragmatic (truth as “selfless political action”), psychological (truth as “hon-

esty”), and religious (truth as “God”), Gandhi remained nonetheless firmly wedded to the skep-

tic’s position regarding the difficulty of ever grasping satya in its fullness (Iyer, 1973).

In spite of the complexity of moral choices, the political activist was called upon to continue

the struggle for a political realization of satya through the employment of nonviolent means: ne-

gotiations, demonstrations, strikes, civil disobedience, and other nonviolent forms of non-

cooperation. Deeply concerned with the practical applicability of truth, Gandhi insisted on a

tight connection between theory and practice; this allowed him to address head-on the practical

difficulties associated with the notorious political ineffectiveness of rational discussion and the

ensuing moral problem of the proper relationship between means and ends in instances where

1 For an interpretation of Gandhi’s spirituality as attention to the details of social and political life, see Brown (1989); Chatterjee (1983); and Green (1993).

8

reason had fallen silent. “I have found that mere appeal to reason does not answer where preju-

dices are age-long and based on supposed religious authority. Reason has to be strengthened by

suffering and suffering opens the eyes of understanding” (Gandhi in Bose, 1948, p. 222).

But what exactly did Gandhi mean by “strengthening reason through suffering”? Wasn’t it

much more “reasonable” to avoid suffering and pain at all cost, especially in times of crisis when

the thin garments of civility were stripped away and naked imperatives for self-preservation pre-

vailed? It was precisely in such situations that the Hobbesian model of violent retaliation seemed

to offer commonsensical, practical guidance for eliminating human suffering caused by arbitrary

acts of violence.

For Gandhi, a genuine process of peacebuilding had to involve the use of nonviolent means

to secure a sustainable satisfaction of human needs of security, identity, self-determination, and

quality of life. His most serious challenge to the dominant Hobbesian discourse of power be-

comes apparent in his conscious break with the assumption that the nature of political power was

to be found in the capacity to unleash violence, and thus, that the exercise of political power in-

evitably involved employing violent means of physical coercion. Instead, he offered a compel-

ling rationale for why the principle of ahimsa might constitute the core of an alternative model of

power:

[It] is a method of securing rights by personal suffering; it is the reverse of resis-

tance by arms. When I refuse to do a thing that is repugnant to my conscience, I

use soul-force. For instance, the Government of the day has passed a law which is

applicable to me. I do not like it. If by using violence I force the Government to

repeal the law, I am employing what may be termed body-force. If I do not obey

9

the law and accept the penalty for its breach, I use soul-force. It involves sacrifice

of the self. (Gandhi, 1938, p. 71)

As Dennis Dalton (1993) noted, the term “power” appears to be a much better translation for

satyagraha than “soul-force,” because “force” is usually associated with “violence.” After all, it

was precisely this supposedly natural connection between power and violence that Gandhi

wished to challenge in his assertion that satyagraha represented power “born of Truth and Love

or nonviolence” (Gandhi, 1958, Vol. 29, p. 92). For Gandhi, the infliction of violence on another

person presumed society’s ability to pass ultimate judgment in terms of right and wrong; but

since there was never absolute certainty as to the truth of one’s own position, there could be no

“natural right” or competence to punish: “In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the

earliest stages that pursuit of Truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent,

but that he must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy. For what appears to be Truth to

one may appear false to the other” (Gandhi, 1958, Vol. 19, p. 46). Even forms of corrective vio-

lence undertaken by agents of the state or other “legitimate” claimants of authority amounted to

the dogmatic posture of violently enforcing one’s partial understanding of truth. Thus, Gandhi

insisted that the practice of arriving at uncoerced, consensual truth through the practice of

ahimsa represented the only rationally defensible course of action. Employed as nonviolent di-

rect action, such as in Gandhi’s famous 1930 Salt March when he and his followers defied the

British monopoly on salt-making, satyagraha overcame the dilemma of political impotence

without violating its theoretical emphasis on nonviolence. It allowed for a settling of conflicts

which did not involve the elimination of enemies or the application of physical force. As Joan

Bondurant (1988, p. 195) has put it, “The claim for satyagraha is that through the operation of

10

nonviolent action the truth as judged by the fulfillment of human needs will emerge in the form

of a mutually satisfactory and agreed-upon solution.” This practical reconciliation of self-interest

and other-interest could only be consistently applied through the practice of satyagraha: “Means

and ends are convertible terms in my political philosophy” (Gandhi, 1958, Vol. 25, p. 480).

But the firm adherence to such an ethic was not an easy option for the fainthearted. To put up

a determined resistance to British troops and their deadly firepower without resorting to violence

required tremendous courage of the sort that seemed to ignore the biological imperatives of self-

preservation. Once again, Hobbes’ psychologically effective story of the omnipresent danger of

society’s descent into war seems to make the more convincing argument for basing political or-

der on the ineradicable persistence of fear and violence. For Hobbes, to be alive meant to experi-

ence the fear of violent death. Early modern political thinkers skillfully interwove their influen-

tial postulations of natural imperatives for self-preservation with the development of a psychol-

ogy of fear in which the horrors of physical pain and violent death were the essential components

constituting human identity. Political leaders who disregarded fear in favor of love were seen by

realists as fools blind to the “commonsensical” claim that without violence, politics had to come

to a halt, for politics was essentially a commerce with violence.

Gandhi never denied the existence of fear in the face of the unsettling possibility of having to

endure physical pain, torture, and violent death in the course of nonviolent direct actions. But it

was precisely because of his clear recognition of the pivotal role of fear that he refused to go

along with Hobbes’ conclusion. For Gandhi, any attempt to exclusively link fear to a discourse of

power as violence merely served as a means to disrupt dialogue.

Gandhi insisted on the possibility of overcoming fear with the result of realizing self-rule in

11

both a political and psychological sense. The traditional Hindu virtue of abhaya (fearlessness) in

the face of violence, repression, and even impending death was a quality which the satyagrahi

could gradually develop through rigorous spiritual, political, and social training in ahimsa: “Just

as one must learn the art of killing in the training for violence, so one must learn the art of dying

in the training of nonviolence.…The votary of nonviolence has to cultivate the capacity for sacri-

fice of the highest type in order to be free from fear….He who has not overcome all fear cannot

practice ahimsa to perfection” (Gandhi, 1958, Vol. 72, p. 416).2 Undoubtedly, Gandhi’s familiar-

ity with Indian philosophies and religions facilitated his adroit utilization of self-suffering as a

method for simultaneously transforming one’s own fear and morally persuading one’s oppressor.

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF FEAR3

In the previous chapter on Gandhi by Dan Mayton, some social psychological explanations for

the effectiveness of nonviolent action were hypothesized. In this section, the control of fear

through cognitive mediation and learning is discussed.

Gandhi argued that fear need not be linked to violent behavior. This insight is supported by

psychological work on the emotion of fear. Stressful environmental stimuli trigger the fight or

flight mechanism, whereby physiological responses in the nervous system arouse the body and

prepare it for action. Any situation that is interpreted as dangerous can activate a range of chemi-

cal and hormonal changes throughout the brain and muscular system, changes which stimulate

the muscles for action. Specifically, the hypothalamus controls the sympathetic system, releasing

2 For a discussion of the traditional Indian cardinal moral virtues, see Datta, 1953, pp. 86–104.

3 This section was contributed by Deborah Du Nann Winter, Laura Boston, Sara Houck, and Matthew Lee.

12

neurotransmitters to activate various organs and smooth muscles, such as heart rate and pupil di-

lation. Simultaneously, chemical transmitters are released into the bloodstream to elevate blood

sugar levels that prepare muscles for quick action. The combined effect of these chemical and

muscular changes is a heightened probability of fight or flight, and the accompanying emotional

experience of anger and/or fear.

Therapists have developed a range of techniques to lower the stress response in their patients

and reduce the likelihood of fight or flight, thereby supporting Gandhi’s claim that fear need not

lead to violence. For example, patients suffering from a phobia, or excessive fear, can be classi-

cally conditioned to emit alternative responses to anxiety-provoking stimuli. Just as a patient

who is deathly afraid of snakes can be taught to breathe deeply and gradually learn to enjoy play-

ing with one, so training for nonviolence teaches political activists to stay calm, resist the temp-

tation to run or fight, and stay near a buddy who can monitor one’s actions (see Montiel’s chap-

ter, also in this section). Rehearsals and drills for nonviolent actions are important features of the

method’s success, demonstrating the behavioral approach to changing stress responses.

Cognitive therapy also offers insights. Fight or flight behavior is most likely when thoughts

about danger are unexamined, leading to self-protective strategies. However, Gandhi teaches that

suffering is a crucial feature of truth, and that self-protection is less important than ultimate truth,

which addresses the human needs of more people than the self. Thus attributing one’s personal

suffering to a necessary struggle against unjust social conditions helps activists endure discom-

fort and personal pain. Clear recognition of the justness of one’s cause fortifies nonviolent activ-

ists to remain steadfast, rather than cave in to fight or flight. Again, training in nonviolence is

necessary because thoughts and cognitions about risks and physical pain are important in mediat-

13

ing fight or flight.

The psychology of fear might be seen as indirect evidence for Hobbes. After all, we are

physiologically wired for fight or flight, and must be taught to resist these actions when chemi-

cally aroused. Without the cortical areas of the brain, Hobbes’ view might prevail. However, the

fact that we can be taught to resist violence, as well as the fact that we have to be taught to emit

it (as in the strenuous training procedures of boot camp for military institutions), demonstrates

that the human propensity for violence greatly depends on learning, thinking, and even spiritual

dimensions. The ability to endure personal suffering for the greater good is a spiritual capacity

which Gandhi and other great religious leaders, including Christ, have demonstrated.

In summary, then, Gandhi’s conceptualization of power as seeking truth through the practice

of ahimsa challenges the dominant discourse of power as the ability to inflict violence. He opted

for a model favoring the idea of common people exercising power nonviolently through volun-

tary self-suffering and sacrifice for a cause they consider to be just and true according the stan-

dard of fulfillment of human needs. As such, Gandhi’s ideas are clearly reflective of a position

espoused by the authors in this volume—a peace psychology that seeks to elucidate psychologi-

cal processes involved in the prevention and mitigation of destructive conflict, violence, domi-

nance, oppression, and exploitation.

DOES NONVIOLENCE “WORK”? TWO CASE STUDIES

Gandhi’s perspective has served as an inspiration to other twentieth-century proponents of non-

violence, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, and Aung San Suu

Kyi. Still, many critics have questioned the practicality of nonviolent power to redress social in-

14

justices, arguing that Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns or the Civil Rights Movement under Martin

Luther King, Jr. merely represent exceptional cases which show that nonviolence will only

“work” with principled oppressors such as Great Britain or the United States. Inevitably, such

skeptics point to more difficult cases of oppressive authoritarian governments that are not bound

by a democratic logic. George Orwell (1950) most clearly captures this common objection: “It is

difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the re-

gime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again” (p. 101).

Drawing on two extreme cases, I will argue that Orwell’s assertion is open to serious chal-

lenges. The nonviolent resistance of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo against the murderous

Argentine military dictatorship of the 1970s, and the little-known 1943 Berlin Rosenstrasse Pro-

test of ordinary Germans against the genocidal policies of the Nazi state show that the power of

satyagraha can be successfully employed even against the most repressive political regimes in

modern history.

Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo

During the Argentine junta’s 1976 to 1983 “Dirty War” against political “subversives,” whose

crimes consisted of demanding Argentina’s return to democracy and the government’s adherence

to human rights, tens of thousands of ordinary citizens were abducted and tortured, often disap-

pearing forever in the secret prisons of the military dictatorship (Guzman Bouvard, 1994). The

power of the junta rested on its total control of the coercive state apparatus and the mass media.

Moreover, its virulent anti-Communist rhetoric secured the tacit support of the United States and

heightened a sense of general helplessness and all-pervading fear on the part of the population.

15

Beginning in 1977, a small group of middle-aged women—most of whom were homemakers

who had never before actively participated in politics—formed the core of a growing dissident

movement in Argentina which resolved to “speak truth” to the military government. Known as

the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, these women gathered regularly at the central square of Bue-

nos Aires and publicly demanded from the regime that it disclose the whereabouts of their ab-

ducted sons and husbands. Circling the Plaza de Mayo arm-in-arm and wearing white shawls

which symbolized the innocence of their children, the Mothers broke through the wall of fear and

passivity in spite of mounting repressive measures employed by the police. Employing Gandhian

methods of nonviolent struggle—demonstrations, strikes, and noncooperation—the Mothers de-

fied police barricades, tear gas, attack dogs, arrests, and even assassinations. Undeterred, they

continued their weekly display of solidarity, motherly care, and nonviolent power. By the late

1970s, the Mothers had built an impressive network of support that included church leaders, hu-

man rights activists, labor unionists, and other ordinary citizens who felt inspired by the women’s

ongoing political dialogue on truth. Having acquired an international reputation and a distinct

identity as nonviolent protectors of human life against brute force, the Mothers’ activities ulti-

mately proved to be instrumental in bringing down the military dictatorship in the wake of Ar-

gentina’s 1982 war with England over the Falkland Islands.

The impressive example of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo shows the efficacy of nonvio-

lent power even in struggles against brutal oppressors who refuse to identify with the logic of

liberal democracy. In particular, three important lessons can be drawn from this Argentine case.

First, the Mothers proved that the values and language of militarism can be successfully chal-

lenged by a nonviolent, maternal discourse of life, family, love, and trust. Emphasizing the con-

16

tinuity between the private sphere and public responsibility, the Mothers ingeniously employed

traditional concepts of maternity for their own revolutionary purpose without resorting to violent

or immoral tactics. Second, like Charter 77—Vaclav Havel’s dissident organization in commu-

nist Czechoslovakia—the Mothers represented the ever-present possibility of a moral regenera-

tion of society through the nonviolent creation of a resistance movement within an oppressive

society. Founded on principles of self-management, shared responsibility, and direct democracy,

the Argentine dissident organization demonstrated the awesome power of solidaristic, nonviolent

action. Third, the Mothers provided another impressive example of a new political consciousness

of women challenging male conceptions of power and strength. Seemingly one of the most pow-

erless groups in society, these middle-aged women took control of their lives and moved beyond

their culture’s restraints and expectations, in the process enlarging the political sphere of all Ar-

gentine women. Organized around the Gandhian principle of ahimsa, the Mothers of the Plaza

the Mayo united feeling, thinking, and acting in their powerful display of maternal love and indi-

vidual responsibility.

Rosenstrasse Protest

Let us now turn to the most difficult case: Nazi Germany at the height of its power. Nathan

Stoltzfus’ study, Resistance of the Heart (1996) charts the lives of ordinary Germans who mar-

ried Jews in the context of Nazi persecution and social harassment. Using interviews with surviv-

ing resisters and thousands of Nazi records never before examined in detail, Stoltzfus brings into

sharp focus the frequently neglected issue of German-Jewish intermarriages in Nazi Germany. In

December 1942, with the “Final Solution” at its height, there were still close to 30,000 intermar-

ried couples in the German Reich and its Czech protectorate area. Given that the large majority

17

of intermarried Germans were women, the story of opposition by intermarried Germans is

largely (but not only) the story of German women married to Jewish men (Stoltzfus, 1996, p.

xxvii).

The existence of these intermarried couples was disturbing to Nazi ideology for a variety of

reasons. First, under the Nazi logic of “racial purification,” intermarried Jews should have been

the first Jews to be isolated and deported. Yet, it proved to be impossible for the regime to forci-

bly break up these marriages without undermining social traditions such as the “sanctity of mar-

riage,” fervently supported by Nazi ideology. Second, intermarried couples gave birth to a “pol-

luted mixture of Master Race and Jew” called Mischlinge. Third, their noncompliance with racial

laws and their unwillingness to divorce their spouses directly challenged Nazi power and its

propaganda of flawless German unity and the people’s unquestioned loyalty to concepts of racial

purity and superiority.

The sole known mass demonstration against Nazi racial policies, the 1943 Berlin “Rosen-

strasse Protest,” involved hundreds to thousands of Germans protesting the mass arrest of inter-

married Jews. Stoltzfus explains not only why the demonstrations ended successfully in the re-

lease of the detained Jews, but he also offers a compelling narrative framework that shows the

power of nonviolent resistance. For six days, hundreds of German women engaged in public

demonstrations. Demanding their husbands, sons, and brothers back, they defied menacing

guards and refused to comply with Hitler’s Total War decree ordering them to register for work.

Joseph Goebbels was ultimately forced to order the release of the Jewish prisoners, because he

realized that Nazi power rested, first and foremost, on popular accommodation ranging from en-

thusiastic support to passive acceptance. A withdrawal of accommodation touched off by the Ro-

18

senstrasse Protest could cause serious problems for the regime. The Nazi dictatorship feared so-

cial unrest more than it feared compromising its racial ideology or even rescinding its racist ini-

tiatives. The successful Rosenstrasse protest is extremely significant, for it proves that nonviolent

opposition to the Nazi state was possible and that limits could have been placed even on the most

notorious aspect of the regime—genocide. On Rosenstrasse, the protesters expressed the nonvio-

lent power of “living in truth”—the willingness to live according to one’s own conscience and

reason, in the process defying the most murderous regime in the twentieth century (Stoltzfus,

1996).

CONCLUSION

Rejecting the dominant discourse of power based on Hobbes’ psychology of fear which equates

power and violence, Gandhi instead provided a model of political power based on fearlessness

and ahimsa. Emphasizing the crucial connection between political theory and social practice,

Gandhi’s perspective on nonviolent power appeals to the kind of “practical wisdom” that can ac-

tually be used and applied by peace activists. The reassertion of such a problem-driven approach

reinvigorates the critical impulse to understand and address concrete political problems in the

world. By raising the crucial question of how political power can be conceptualized and prac-

ticed in nonviolent ways, Gandhi focused on the importance of linking social theory to the con-

crete task of diffusing violence in society. Thus, his perspective on power and nonviolence con-

tains a strong injunction to link morality and politics without abandoning the great Enlighten-

ment ideal of individual self-realization. At the end of a long century of violence, Gandhi’s per-

spective on power and nonviolence indeed offers an appealing vista for the twenty-first century.