Class of Nonviolence – University Essays
Lesson 11, Reading 3
By Colman McCarthy
In courses on nonviolence that I’ve been teaching for the past seven years in high schools and colleges, no question arises more frequently than this: Nonviolence is fine as an abstract intellectual system, but do you seriously believe it would have succeeded in the real world against the Nazis?
The question — usually thrown up as a statement wanting to end the discussion, not broaden it — is currently being answered in a low-budget film, now playing at the Key in Georgetown, that is making its modestly advertised way across the country. Weapons of the Spirit, written, directed and produced by Pierre Sauvage, tells the story of Le Chambon, a farming village in central France that nonviolently defied the German Army in the occupation during World War II.The film — in understated narrative and with simple photography — presents surviving villagers whose fearlessness and quality of love in the early 1940s led them to harbor 5,000 Jewish refugees.
Other villages hid Jews, but they were few and did so only reluctantly. Le Chambon deliberately sought refugees by putting out the word that all were welcome. The Chambonnais were Huguenots—Protestants in a Catholic country who had not forgotten centuries of persecution. Le Chambon was unique for another reason: It did not adopt pacifism as a strategy the day the Gestapo swept into town. Citizens had embraced it as a way of life years before. Saving Jewish refugees was the external fulfillment of the internal commitment to peace through the strength of nonviolence.
In their defiance of Nazis, the villagers, most of them peasants, were led by their pacifist minister, Andre Trocme. When France surrendered to Germany, he called on his people to resist Nazis with “weapons of the spirit.”
Trocme and his family came to Le Chambon in 1934 — Part of his ministry was establishing a parish-supported school where the study of nonviolence and pacifism was emphasized. When the Nazis came, the town had a choice for self-defense: violent or nonviolent. It could choose the superior one of nonviolence because it was educated by the pastor in the theories and techniques.
In Weapons of the Spirit, villagers, now in their seventies and eighties, recall their nonviolent resistance and harboring of refugees as exercises in common decency, not uncommon valor. What is life for, they had been taught to wonder, if not to risk for others? What is peacemaking for, if not to do it at the moment of crisis. Anyone can be a pacifist between wars.
Two years after Trocme’s death in 1971, some of his essays were collected in Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution. The writing is as virile as anything found in Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. when they wrote of nonviolence. Trocme addressed the question of how to stop the world’s Hitlers:
“People say, ‘ Our nation is about to be exterminated; or the future of our civilization, of our moral values, of true religion, is threatened; or yet, our institutions violate human rights to save human rights, we must temporarily forget our scruples and use violence, sacrificing men to destroy unjust structures, and thus saving the poor from oppression.’ For centuries both progressive and reactionary camps have been ‘temporarily’ choosing violence, ‘temporarily’ shedding the blood of millions of victims in the name of a better future. Because each side speculates about ‘what would happen if we let the enemy win,’ they mercilessly sacrifice man, whether friend or enemy. .And every generation is faced with new options time after time considered to be so important that it repeatedly believes itself compelled to use violence.”
In addition to Weapons of the Spirit, the story of Trocme and Le Chambon is told in Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed by Philip Hallie. In the 1979 book, Hallie, a professor at Wesleyan University, captures the soul of the pastor much as Pierre Sauvage’s film reveals the iron of the villagers: Trocme “believed that decent people who stay inactive out of cowardice or indifference when around them human beings are being humiliated and destroyed are the most dangerous people in the world. His nonviolence was not passive or saccharine, but an almost brutal force for awakening human beings.”
After World War II, the historian and military strategist B.H. Liddell Hart interviewed German generals on the different kinds of resistance they met in occupied countries.
As practiced in Denmark, Norway, Holland and such places as Le Chambon, nonviolent resistance was effective. The Nazis, Hart writes, had an “inability to cope with it. They were experts in violence, and had been trained to deal with opponents who used that method. But other forms of resistance baffled them… It was a relief to them when resistance became violent.”
By defending themselves with love, the strongest weapon of the spirit, the Chambonnais gave the Nazis no relief.
from The Washington Post. February 25, 1990
The Class of Nonviolence – University Essays is an sixteen session curriculum developed by Colman McCarthy, founder of the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C. It uses classics in peace and justice literature to teach peacemaking. Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372