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En librairie

Transformation de conflit, de Karine Gatelier, Claske Dijkema et Herrick Mouafo

Aux Éditions Charles Léopold Mayer (ECLM)


Brussels, novembre 2007

Facing down the guns: When has nonviolence partially or entirely failed? An overview

There are a number of prominent failures of nonviolent movements, each of which involves the deaths of participants leading to the stopping of the nonviolent movement or the failure of the nonviolent movement to gain its goals:

  • 1. The White Rose - the Nazi government’s killing of six German opponents to Hitler in 1943

  • 2. Sharpeville Massacre - South African police killing 67 nonviolent protesters in 1960

  • 3. Tiananmen Square - killing of between 300 and 1,700 protesters by the Chinese People’s Army in Beijing in 1989

  • 4. Ibrahim Rugova vs. the KLA - nonviolence loses to the Kosovo Liberation Army, 1999.

  • 5. Quebec City - a nonviolent movement against globalization at the FTAA summit loses support due to the acts of dissident groups that destroyed property and committed retaliatory violence

The White Rose - a failure for nonviolence

Between June 1942 and February 1943, a small resistance group of students, soldiers and a professor, based in Munich, operated an underground resistance cell with the name “The White Rose“. They succeeded in distributing six mimeographed leaflets in cities all across Germany in quantities of between 1,000 and 10,000. The leaflets called for Germans to abandon Hitler and his war. Their fifth leaflet contained the words: “A new war of liberation has begun! The better part of the people already fights on our side … No pack of criminals can possibly achieve a German victory. Break with National Socialism while there’s still time.” (1)

Their sixth leaflet, which was to be their last, echoed the news of the defeat of the Wehrmacht at the Battle of Stalingrad, a fact that had just been reported on the German radio in February 1943. On February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie Scholl were discovered throwing leaflets down a staircase at the University of Munich by a porter at the university who was an off-hours Storm Trooper. They and their friend Christoph Probst were tried by the People’s Court and condemned to death. The plans of the local Gauleiter to stage a public hanging of the three were cut short by Heinrich Himmler, who, according to Hanser, wanted no martyrs and feared that public opinion would turn against them for such an act. Had there been public hangings, and had the public hangings resulted in a visible turning of the German people against the Nazi government, their deaths would have heralded the success of this nonviolent act. However, instead of facing a public hanging, the Nazi government guillotined the protesters behind prison walls. Alex Schmorell and Kurt Huber, the philosophy professor, were condemned and executed on July 13, 1943. The sentence pronounced by the judge, Roland Freisler, showed what the National Socialists were afraid of: “Alexander Schmorell, Kurt Huber, and Wilhelm Graf, have, in time of war, produced leaflets urging sabotage of the armaments industry and the overthrow of the National Socialist way of life; they have also spread defeatist ideas and vilified the Führer in the grossest manner; all of which aided and abetted the enemies of the Reich and undermined the fighting capacity of our nation. They are therefore condemned to death.” (2) The last of the six to die was Willi Graf, who was killed on October 12, 1943. The fact that their nonviolent movement, The White Rose, was stopped by the killings of its leaders (and almost all of its participants) is no discredit to those members, but it is a case where nonviolence failed. Could it have succeeded if, say, thousands of Germans were members of The White Rose and held a mass public demonstration? We shall never know.

Sharpeville Massacre - a failure for nonviolence

In South Africa, while the famous Treason Trial was taking place, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), a rival of the African National Congress, had urged people to stay away from work on March 21, 1960. The PAC urged Africans to present themselves at police stations and to say, “We do not have passes. We will not carry passes again. You had better arrest us all.” According to Meredith “At 1:15 p.m., by which time nearly 300 police were facing a crowd of some 5,000 Africans, a scuffle broke out near one of the gates to the police compound. A police officer was pushed over. The crowd surged forward to see what was happening. According to police witnesses, stones were thrown at them. No order was given to shoot. No warning shots were fired. In a moment of panic, the police opened fire indiscriminately into the crowd. The crowd turned and fled, but still the firing continued. Sixty-seven Africans were killed and 1286 wounded. Most were shot in the back.” (3)

The Sharpeville Massacre represented a failure for nonviolence, which might possibly have been avoided if there had been training and discipline among the participants. It is not certain that police would have fired on the demonstrators if the police themselves had not felt both outnumbered and threatened. Despite the killings, the nonviolent movement might still have succeeded, but harsh actions by the government overtook it. Following the Sharpeville Massacre, the African National Congress and other opposition groups were banned. In December 1961, the ANC decided to launch armed resistance to the Apartheid government. In 1964, Nelson Mandela, leader of the ANC, was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The harsh repression by the government, including the banning of nonviolent organizations in South Africa took their toll. There were no democratic elections until 1994. All in all, the Sharpeville Massacre did represent a failure for nonviolence.

Tiananmen Square - a failure for nonviolence

The student demonstrations for democracy began in Tiananmen Square on April 17, 1989, when students from Beijing’s universities came to the square to lay wreaths in memory of Hu Yaobang, a previous General Secretary of the Communist Party who had tolerated student dissent, and who had just died. By April 27, more than 100,000 students, joined by 400,000 other Chinese citizens, marched on the square to protest the charge in the April 26 issue of The People’s Daily that the students had “a planned conspiracy” (4).

On June 3, 1989, between 300 and 1,700 protesters were killed by the Chinese People’s Army when the Army cleared Tiananmen Square. Ironically, many of the Beijing student groups had left before June 3 because of indications that the government would use force to clear the square. But student groups from elsewhere in China, who had come to Beijing to take part in hunger strikes and demonstrations, had not heard the news. These out-of-town students made up most of the groups in Tiananmen Square on June 3 when the army attacked (5).

From the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 to date (September 2001) there has been no significant nonviolent movement for democracy in China. There have been a few small protests, mostly of individuals, including some self-immolations of members of the Falun Gong or Falun Dafa movement, founded in 1992 and called a sect by the Chinese government and a meditation practice by its followers. The Tiananmen Square massacre did stop the nonviolent movement in China for at least a dozen years afterward.

Ibrahim Rugova vs. the KLA - a failure for nonviolence

A powerful nonviolent movement among ethnic Albanians in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, led by Ibrahim Rugova, lost out to the Kosovar Liberation Army (KLA), ending in the Kosovo War of 1999. In that war, Kosovars of Albanian nationality were expelled by Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosovic, and NATO planes from the USA, Canada, Holland and Spain bombed cities in Kosovo and elsewhere in Yugoslavia.

David Hartsough of Peaceworkers, returning from a visit to Kosovo during which he was arrested and spent four days in a Yugoslav jail, warned of the danger of violence in Kosovo in an article in the Sonoma County Peace Press in July, 1998:

“Why has the international community so far refused to heed the Albanian people’s urgent plea for an end to the repression in Kosovo? The people of Kosovo are increasingly considering taking up arms. At the same time, many of the people we talked with hoped that the international community will force an internationally mediated solution to the conflict as finally happened in Dayton, but before a war, rather than afterwards. President Clinton stated on his recent trip to Africa that it was a tragedy that the international community had not acted quickly enough to stop the genocide in Rwanda. Isn’t the time to act now in Kosovo?” (6)

At a forum at Brandeis University in December, 2000, Justice Richard Goldstone of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, and Chair of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo, said that NATO’s intervention did constitute a war. The situation escalated in Kosovo because the international community did not take necessary steps towards early prevention. A lack of international support led to the failure of nonviolence movements in Kosovo and the consequent rise in violence on part of the KLA (7).

Howard Clark (8) identified two major factors contributing to the failure of the nonviolent movement in Kosovo:

  • 1) time for nonviolent methods to work: “In general, civil resistance is likely to be a slow-working strategy … Kosovo Albanians were deceived by the images of the ‘people’s power’ events of 1989 and by the speed with which four of the republics of Yugoslavia were granted independence."

  • 2) the existence of a military option - “The Kosovo leadership always counselled patience, but popular acceptance of its strategy rested on illusions about the timeframe and the likelihood of Western intervention »

Quebec City - a failure for nonviolence

In Quebec City on April 20-21, 2001, there were large-scale protests against a planned globalization treaty that did not include protection for the environment and for labour. The Free Trade Area of the Americas treaty was the treaty being negotiated in Quebec City by 34 hemispheric heads of state from every country but Cuba (9).

The confrontation culminated on April 20-21, 2001, when city police, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Sureté du Québec launched 4,700 canisters of tear gas and pepper spray against thousands of demonstrators. While more than 30,000 nonviolent protesters marched away from confrontation points on April 21, a few thousand demonstrators confronted police and tore down a section of the wall built to isolate the heads of state and the bureaucrats from the protesters. A few hundred demonstrators threw rocks and a there were unconfirmed reports of Molotov cocktails thrown at the police. The nonviolent marchers assembled on the morning of April 21 for a rally at the Peoples’ Summit, a counter-conference. The issues in the media and in popular opinion had been dictated by the People’s Summit until the date of the demonstrations. Things changed with images of black-masked demonstrators from the “Black Block“ throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the police, and public opinion shifted from 75 per cent in favour of the protesters to 25 per cent in favour. At the rally on the morning of April 21, two speakers who were leaders of the Council of Canadians, one of the nonviolent advocacy groups, gave mixed messages. The two, Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, tried to support the demonstrators who would not disavow violence, and gave a mixed message about whether the wall should be torn down by the protesters. Then, when the nonviolent march began, demonstrators were given a choice - either turn left and joint the protesters at the wall, where tear gas and violence were much more likely, or continue on, to a march through an industrial area that ended with exhausted marchers at a parking lot. In the end, the nonviolent protesters lost ground that they could have maintained if the protests had been completely nonviolent. The refusal to disavow a few small groups, among them the Convergeance des luttes anti-capitalistes (CLAC), cost the movement dearly.

The confrontation has since escalated between laissez-faire globalization and demonstrators urging ecological and social goals. The meeting of heads of state of the G8 countries in Genoa, Italy in July 2001 drew further protest and this, time the death of a demonstrator, shot by police as he raised a fire extinguisher to throw at a jeep full of police. Charges of torture and beatings by demonstrators who were jailed, and of police-state methods in Genoa, accentuated the danger of such confrontations. Demonstrations were planned for the World Bank/IMF meetings in Washington, DC, USA, in September 2001, and at the next G8 summit at Kananaskis Park, Alberta, Canada in June, 2002.

Third party nonviolent intervention that failed

There are a few cases of prominent failures of third party nonviolent intervention involving either the deaths of more than one participant in those movements or the failure to achieve the protesters’ goals:

  • 1. World Peace Brigade - its fading away after the threatened march on Northern Rhodesia, 1960

  • 2. Mir Sada - the break-up a large-scale nonviolent intervention to Bosnia, 1993

World Peace Brigade - a failure for nonviolent intervention

The fading away of the World Peace Brigade after the early 1960s was the reason that Peace Brigades International was organized in 1981. There were three failed or mixed-results campaigns before the WPB faded into inaction. The first was a planned march from the Tanzanian border into Northern Rhodesia in 1962 to protest the denial of rights to Africans by the settler regime. This march never took place because of changed political events. The second project was begun in 1963 by the Indian section to calm the conflict on the Indo-Chinese border. The march they organized from Delhi to Peking never got to the Chinese border, and was met with hostile reaction from both governments. The conclusions drawn, by those who met in 1981 to create PBI, were to begin small, encourage a lower, more sustainable level of activity, and not to risk everything at the beginning by organizing large-scale nonviolent intervention.

The fading out of the World Peace Brigade from Africa began after the international situation changed and the nonviolent march from Dar-es-Salaam to the Zambian border was cancelled due to Roy Welensky’s failure to get more than 10 per cent of white settler support for his proposed unilateral declaration of independence. “Worst of all, it confirmed the African suspicion that non-violence was mainly talk and that in the hard realities of political action, non-violence was largely irrelevant.” (10)

Their second project was the voyage of the ship Everyman III in October, 1962 from London to Leningrad, where they were refused to be let ashore because the Cuban Missile Crisis had broken out. This voyage was undertaken “before the Brigade had organized its leadership, an effective mailing list for people interested in becoming members, or even a proper office”, according to Devi Prasad (11).

Their third and last project was a Delhi to Peking peace march after the India-China border clash of October 1962. It began on March 1st 1963 and fizzled out when the marchers were refused permission to enter China, after having been accused of being pro-Chinese in the Indian press.

Mir Sada - a failure for nonviolent intervention

What would have been the largest third party nonviolent intervention across borders took place in 1993. Between 2,000 and 3.000 people from Italy, France, USA, Japan, Germany, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Greece, Sweden, Norway and the Czech Republic gathered in Split, Croatia, in December, 1992, for a caravan to Sarajevo. The action was called “Mir Sada”, or “Peace Now”.

Its appeal sounded majestic, but had no concrete explanation of how the group would achieve such goals as:

  • To stop the war, starting with a ‘cease fire’ during the Mir Sada period.

  • To be in solidarity with each person suffering from this war, regardless of his/her ideology, sex, religion or ethnic origin.

  • To represent civilian interposition against violence.

  • To support and encourage a multi-ethnic population to live together in Bosnia.

  • To implement negotiations that will go beyond armed conquest and will impose both respect for, and the safeguard of, human rights under international law.

This project was carried out by two organizations: Beati i costruttori di pace, and a French humanitarian organization, Equilibre. The group got as far as Prozor, beyond which there was fighting going on between Croatian and Bosnian (“Muslim”) troops. “From our camp, we could watch, at short distance, grenades being shot towards the Bosnian-held area of Gornji Vakauf”, wrote Christine Schweitzer, “This fighting finally caused the organizers at first to doubt the advisability of, and then to cancel, travel to Sarajevo.” (12)

In her analysis, Schweitzer lists the following as reasons for the failure of the project:

  • imprecise goals

  • uncertainty about political positions, such as whom to recognize and speak to

  • uncertainty about whether to be neutral or in solidarity with a particular group

  • insufficient preparation and training

  • a flawed decision-making structure

  • lack of equal relationships with peace groups on all sides of the conflict


  • (1) : Hanser 1979:225

  • (2) : Hanser, 1979:295

  • (3) : Meredith 1997:173

  • (4) : Ackerman and Duvall 2000:423

  • (5) : Thomas 1994:158

  • (6) : Hartsough, David. “Report From the Front Lines in Kosovo”, Sonoma County Peace Press, June/July, 1998.

  • (7) : Goldstone, Richard, Brandeis University website on the forum, “Intervention and Prevention: the Lessons of Kosovo”:

  • (8) : Clark, Hoawrd 2000(p. 191-192, Civil Resistance in Kosovo, Pluto Press: London, 2000, 266 pp, ISBN 0-7453-1569-0),

  • (9) : Fithian, Lisa, “Quebec A20 demo - summary info“, Z Magazine,

  • (10) : Weber 1996: 18-20

  • (11) : Weber 1996: 21

  • (12) : Schweitzer 2000:270