NONVIOLENCE IN WORLD WAR TWO
INTRODUCTION

 
 
 STUDY AND TEACHING
 RESOURCES
   
     

 
 

DENMARK
- introduction
- ultimatum
- unconquered
- protesting
- crackdown
- rescuing the Jews
- the spiral of violence
- departure and return

NORWAY
GERMANY


- further reading

 

There are many examples of nonviolent action against injustice or for a cause. Most people have heard about Gandhi's nonviolent struggle for peace in India and the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, which sought political equality for black Americans. But what about nonviolent response to war itself?

There are examples of that too. During the Second World War, for example, many individuals and groups made nonviolent protests against the war and what fuelled it. And in two countries, Denmark and Norway, large sections of the population took nonviolent action together to resist the power of an armed invading force.

These were people who, like many of us today, opposed the use of armed oppression. None of them had learned or were trained in what are now the recognised skills and good practice of nonviolent protest. With those advantages, their actions would almost certainly have been even more effective and widespread. As it is, what they did was remarkable.

Because these people and groups acted spontaneously, often without publicity or organisation, nonviolent resistance to war didn't get the full test it deserves. As you read the following accounts of what happened in Denmark and Norway, ask yourself: if a community or a country were to adopt a policy of nonviolence and educate its people in nonviolent practice, couldn't it deter not only an aggressor but also war itself?

Background
In 1919, after the First World War, the map of Europe was redrawn with new frontiers. The Treaty of Versailles meant humiliation for Germany in particular; and the terms of the treaty were devised with no consideration of the fate of civilian people whose lives were changed by the shifting borders (many people woke up to find that they were now officially in a different country) and devastated by the harsh aftermath of war. Nor did the treaty-makers consider the possibility that their decisions might lead to a future war.

The so-called 'peace' treaty made many people resentful. This made it relatively easy a decade or so later for nationalist leaders, particularly Adolf Hitler, to re-arm and change Europe's frontiers once more. Twenty years after the First World War, in March 1939, German troops invaded Czechoslovakia. Then Adolf Hitler turned his attention to Poland.

The British and French governments said that they would support Poland if the Germans invaded. The German government promptly formed a temporary alliance with Soviet Russia, and on September 1 they entered Poland. On September 3 Britain and France declared war, but were unable to stop the German army, who took no more than a month to overrun half the country. The Second World War had begun.

At the end of September Adolf Hitler and his chiefs of staff sat down to discuss what plans they should make in case the war 'had to be fought to a finish'. They looked thoughtfully at the map of Scandinavia. Sweden, Norway and Denmark were all neutral countries, which meant they would not take sides or take part in war. This didn't stop the German government from planning to make use of them. Submarines would be crucial if a siege of Britain became necessary: naval bases on the Norway coast would therefore be useful. The sea roads needed to be kept under German control, too: freighters carrying Swedish iron ore, vital for the German arms industry, had to sail via the Norwegian Sea in winter when the Baltic was ice-bound. And Denmark, Germany's northern neighbour, just across the sea from Norway, ought to be secured for German purposes too.

In December 1939 Hitler met Vidkun Quisling, the leader of Norway's small Nazi party (2% of the population). What Quisling told him made Hitler think about actually occupying Norway. There were rumours that the British had similar plans - they were certainly likely to send troops to Norway on the way to support Finland (currently in conflict with the Soviet Union). The British might even get hold of the Swedish iron mines.... When a British ship sailed into Norwegian waters to rescue 300 captured British sailors from a German tanker, Hitler's mind was made up.

In the event, Finland and Russia made peace, and the risk of a British take-over of Norway faded; but the German plan held. It was now March 1940 and the northern nights would soon be too short to provide cover for attack. Hitler gave the order: on April 9, German troops would invade Denmark and Norway simultaneously.
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