Many people think Nazi Germany was beaten only through military violence, and mainly by men. As Barack Obama said in 2009: “Nonviolence could not have halted Hitler’s armies”. In fact, non-violent action was widely used in resisting Nazism. Brave women often led it. They later got little recognition, though this is now changing.
Some German women used overt, concentrated tactics – such as those who were thrown into jail for speaking out against Hitler, and the “Rosenstrasse” group, who protested in Berlin in 1943. These non-Jewish women shouted for their Jewish husbands to be set free, despite the threat of being machine-gunned. Amazingly, they succeeded – at least in the short term – with about 2,000 men released. Most of these men survived the war.
Resistance campaigns ranged from those waged by individuals to those involving large sections of the population. For example, about 10,000 Norwegian teachers, supported by around 100,000 parents, successfully resisted the Nazification of schools. Dutch strikes in 1941 and 1943 involved hundreds of thousands.
But secret, dispersed tactics were more common.
Flyers were written by Sophie Scholl’s White Rose group and posted around the country. Scholl was a kindergarten teacher, philosophy student and daughter of an ardent Nazi critic. She founded White Rose with her brother Hans and a group of like-minded friends in 1942.
She and Hans were arrested after dropping flyers into a courtyard at a Munich university. Convicted of high treason by the Nazis, she was executed in Munich on 22 February 1943, aged just 21.
Spying, though non-violent, often helped the Allies carry out violence.
Some women were pacifists, such as SOE radio operator Noor Inayat Khan. She came from Indian Muslim royalty, and would be shot in Dachau concentration camp. She had struggled with the moral questions of war, as her brother Vilayat explained:
[We] had been brought up with the policy of Gandhi’s nonviolence, and at the outbreak of war we discussed what we would do. She said, ‘Well, I must do something, but I don’t want to kill anyone.’
Resistance came at a cost. Exact figures are hard to establish, but it’s thought that more than 4,000 women of various ages were hanged by Nazi forces (separate to those who died in the Holocaust). Many more were shot or guillotined. Although terrible, this is a tiny fraction of the 68 million or more killed by military violence during the war.