What is resistance?

Political resistance means opposing a system of rule people deem unjust with the aim of changing it, overthrowing it or preserving certain values, societal structures etc. the system of rule is oppressing.

There are many examples of resistance against injustice and oppression throughout history:

  • The fight against slavery has a very long history. Already in ancient Rome there were slave revolts (the most famous took place in 74-71 BC under Spartacus), also in North and South America there was resistance against slavery, especially known is the slave revolt in Haiti in 1791.
  • Very well-known is the non-violent resistance of Mahatma Gandhi, who rebelled against British colonial rule in India.
  • The struggle of the African-American civil rights movement in the USA, which fought for the rights of Black Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, is also frequently mentioned.
  • The struggle for women's suffrage has been waged in many countries around the world, most famously by the Sufragettes who fought for their rights in England.
  • The resistance to National Socialism and fascism was broad and organised by many different individuals, groups and organisations across many countries.

Resistance movements still exist today, some of them active locally or regionally, others even worldwide. Examples:

  • Currently there is a large nationwide resistance movement in Iran. People are fighting against the oppression of women and, in general, against the strict rules controlled and sometimes violently enforced by the morality police (Guidance Patrol).
  • In many countries around the world, there are resistance movements fighting for independence or secession or autonomy of certain areas.
  • The worldwide climate protests are partly organised in global movements, e.g. Fridays for Future or Last Generation, partly also regionally or nationally.
  • The indigenous Mapuche in southern Chile are engaged in non-violent resistance against the state of Chile and are reclaiming their territories. A small part of the Mapuche are fighting for the restitution of their territories by force of arms.
  • The Movement of Landless Farm Workers in Brazil (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra) is resisting non-violently against large-scale capitalist land ownership – partly by occupying land in order to claim territories for themselves. Inequality in land ownership is extreme in South America: on average, 1% of the wealthiest landowners own over 50% of agricultural land.

In every country and at every time, there are countless examples of resistance movements. Many of these movements have been very successful, resisting oppression and achieving improvements for the people concerned.

Democracy and resistance

The fact that we live in a democracy today cannot be taken for granted. Democracy as a form of government only came into being because people fought for their rights, wanted to have a say in the developments of their societies and resisted oppression. All democratic achievements from which we benefit today were therefore at some point won for us by committed and courageous people (e.g. in the French Revolution, in the struggle for the women's right to vote or worker’s rights struggles).

Still, less than half of all people in this world live in a democracy (about 45 percent). And the establishment of a democracy is not enough, because even in a democracy there can be injustices. Moreover, even in a democracy there can be backsliding. Therefore, it is important that people take an interest in their affairs so that rights are not taken away from them again.

Examples of resistance and protest in a democracy are:

  • Resistance against discrimination, e.g. the struggle of disabled people for inclusion (e.g. through street blockades or demonstrations)
  • The struggle of women for equal rights and against sexual abuse.
  • The struggle for better working conditions, e.g. the right to holidays and rest, the right to sick pay, the right to a fair wage, etc.
  • The struggle against racism

A special thing about democracy is that there is a right to resist and protest. The legal rules are different in each country, but in functioning democracies, certain basic human rights are always guaranteed, e.g.:

  • Freedom of expression
  • Freedom of religion
  • Freedom of the press
  • Freedom of association and assembly
  • Right to vote
  • Right to demonstrate

The right to resist and protest is important for several reasons:

  • On the one hand, it is about guaranteeing that all people can raise their concerns and represent their interests to the state.
  • On the other hand, it is important to prevent a democracy from gradually changing and eventually becoming a dictatorship (Bertolt Brecht: "Where injustice becomes law, resistance becomes a duty.")

Types of resistance

Resistance has many facets and forms. There is non-violent resistance, resistance that includes violence, open/public or underground resistance, active and passive resistance, resistance as an individual or in a group.

Examples of non-violent resistance

  • Letters to the press or to politicians
  • Songs
  • Demonstrations
  • Street theatre
  • Vigils
  • Strikes
  • Civil disobedience (not paying taxes, demonstrating without permission, blockades, …)
  • Collecting evidence of the Holocaust under National Socialism, e.g. in the form of photos, drawings, letters, ...
  • Speeches and sermons
  • Refusal to perform military service
  • blockades (street blockades, train-track, airplane blockades)
  • Occupations (squats, land occupations, tree occupations with tree houses)

Civil disobedience can be considered an umbrella term for non-violent resistance. It involves protest forms which are considered illegal in the time and place where it takes place, but legitimate because they are struggling for higher moral values and breaking the law can be taken into account (refusing military service, disobeying racist laws, blocking an airplane deporting refugees back to their home countries where they face torture or death, crossing a border without the necessary legal papers in order to achieve a better life for oneself, etc.).

Examples of violent resistance

  • Damage to property, e.g. sabotage
  • Assassinations and attacks
  • Armed struggle
  • Fighting in the armed resistance, for example the Carinthian Slovene partisans
  • Committing suicide: The chairperson of the Jewish Council in the Warsaw Ghetto, Adam Czerniaków, chose a drastic form of resistance. He refused to hand over 6000 Jews from the ghetto to the Germans every day. Because he himself had to expect terrible things from the National Socialists as a result, Czerniaków took his own life.

There is an important distinction within violent resistance between violence against things and violence against people. Many social movements have used violence against things as a means to fight for their rights. The suffragettes for example lit mail boxes on fire and shattered store windows to raise awareness for their cause. Violence against people is morally complicated to evaluate, but can also be justified if in self-defence or fighting against an oppressive regime, such as in the anti-colonization struggles in Africa in the 1960s. There is no general rule by which a certain form of resistance can be claimed to be legitimate or illegitimate. Each case needs to be analysed within its specific historical and socio-political context.


Resistance under National Socialism and Fascism

Resistance to National Socialism and Fascism was very broad and the reasons for resistance varied. There was organised resistance as well as resistance by individuals. There was resistance from all social classes and political camps in different forms:

  • Organised resistance by political groups
  • Organised resistance by church organisations
  • Local resistance groups, e.g. students
  • Resistance within the Wehrmacht
  • Resistance from exile, resistance within the country itself, transnational resistance
  • Help for persecuted population groups

During the National Socialist era there were very strict regulations and bans, a massive restriction of personal rights, which meant that even simple, normal everyday activities like listening to the radio could become an act of resistance. Here are some examples of resistance during the Nazi era:

  • Listening to banned foreign radio stations
  • Circulating news from banned Allied radio stations
  • Hiding criticism in songs and "whisper jokes"
  • Writing leaflets informing people about the course of the war and the violent crimes committed by the National Socialists
  • Helping others who were under threat
  • Hiding persecuted people, especially Jews, but also Roma and Sinti, people with disabilities, homosexuals, political dissidents, resistance fighters, deserters, escaped prisoners of war
  • Gestures of compassion for persecuted people (e.g. water and food for people on deportation trains or prisoners of war)
  • Passive resistance such as working deliberately slowly
  • Defending one's lifestyle by dressing in a certain way or having certain habits such as listening to music or dancing (e.g. Edelweiss Pirates in Cologne, Leipzig Meuten, Hamburg Swing Youth, Viennese Schlurfs)

Why does a person become a resistance fighter?

Many resistance fighters were persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and sometimes executed or taken to a concentration camp or labour camp. Resistance can be life-threatening in non-democratic and violent regimes. Every person who is against the regime must think carefully about what they dare to do and how they can protect themselves. It can also be dangerous for family and friends if someone is in a resistance movement.

Nevertheless, many people decide to risk their own lives and those of their families and friends. What motivates them? Here are a few examples:

Sophie Scholl, Germany (1921-1943):

  • "What we say and write is what so many think. They just don't dare to say it."
  • "You can't just be against it, you have to do something."
  • "The law changes. The conscience does not."
  • "Tear the cloak of indifference that you have put around your heart!"
  • "I cannot understand that now people are constantly being put in danger of their lives by other people. I can never understand it and I find it appalling. Don't say it's for the fatherland."

Ceija Stojka, Austria (1933-2013)

  • "I have to tell about how the Roma lived and how they live, and what happened to them, everywhere we were at that time, the places of the Roma, where they camped, I still have them in my head. I still have these images in me. Then I bring them out. Nature is my life; I like to stop at a tree."
  • Rosa Jochmann, Austria (1901-1994)
  • "My experiences in the concentration camp taught me to understand my fellow human beings, even if they have a different world view. The only thing that is important is decent character."

Never forget!

Why should I concern myself today with the resistance of during a different time? What can I learn from history for the here and now? What can be done to ensure that crimes like the Holocaust are not repeated? What do the survivors have to say about these questions?

Simon Wiesenthal:

"Survival is a privilege that obliges. I have always asked myself what I can do for those who did not survive. The answer I have found for myself (and which by no means has to be the answer of every survivor) is: I want to be their mouthpiece, I want to keep their memory alive so that the dead can live on in this memory.
But we, the survivors, are not only obliged to the dead, but also to the coming generations: We must pass on our experiences to them so that they can learn from them. Information is defence.”


Talk about it or keep quiet?

Some people who survived the Holocaust and National Socialism did not want to hear anything more about these terrible events afterwards and rarely spoke about their experiences. That is understandable, because it was a terrible time for everyone. Others, however, have said that it is important that they tell what happened so that it does not happen again. We call these people contemporary witnesses. Many of them say that the most important thing is that we have to stand up against injustice, that we have to be vigilant and committed to democracy.


What does it mean to be vigilant today? What are the dangers to our democracies?

  • No single democracy is perfect. There are injustices in every democracy. There are people who are discriminated against. There are laws that are unjust. There are things that must be improved.
  • There are political parties of the extreme right that promote discrimination and violence against certain parts of the population. They work towards changing democracy into an authoritarian state, abolishing human rights and the rule of law.

How do we best protect ourselves against these dangers?

Getting information: The right to information is a human right. Everyone has the right to be fully informed about all political decisions. On the one hand, the information must be provided by the government and parliament, but independent media are also needed. If we are interested in how our democracy works, we can better classify information.

Forming our own opinion: Information is the most important basis for each person to form their own opinion and to consider whether they agree or disagree with the measures and proposals of politics. These considerations are then, for example, the basis for which party I vote for.

Participation: But it is not only about informing oneself and having one's own opinion. Democracy needs people who participate. In many different ways:

  • Standing up for others, e.g. when someone is discriminated, when you observe an injustice.
  • Talking to others about observed injustices and documenting them if necessary (e.g. mobile phone photo/video).
  • Going to a demonstration or manifestation if something is very important to me or I want to show solidarity for important demands of other people.
  • Networking with like-minded people
  • Forming groups
  • Joining an association, e.g. rescue service, fire brigade, cultural association.
  • Writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper when something upsets me.
  • Sharing your ideas and concerns with politicians (e.g. district forum, office hours of district and municipal councils).
  • Participating in petitions and referendums.
  • Voting – If you have the possibility (age, citizenship)
  • Join a party or an activist group