Resistance is a long game

What does resistance really look like?

In the United States, at least since November 2016, the idea of resistance seems to reflect a broadly imagined popular opposition to the presidency of Donald Trump.

At best that sentiment shows up in thousands of grassroots organizations that have taken to the streets or organized on behalf of local political candidates. At worst it functions as little more than the latest lifestyle brand.

Since The New York Times published an op-ed by an anonymous author declaring “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” many commentators have weighed in about the extent to which the actions described in the piece rise to the level of “resistance.”

The anonymous op-ed writer, who claims membership in the resistance, projects an expectation, or perhaps a hope, that he will be able to claim, after the political “wars” over Trump have ended, a position of admirable rectitude.

Once the Trump administration comes to an end, this “quiet resistance” will no longer be necessary, since, as the op-ed writer asserts, these actions will have “preserved America’s democratic institutions.” Politics will be back to normal. Resistance, in this formulation, rights what is wrong.

As a historian of everyday life in 20th-century Germany, I approach the question of resistance with a rather different perspective, one that sees collaboration and resistance as two sides of the same coin. Even ardent anti-Nazis could act in ways that abetted the exercise of Nazi power.

The anonymous opinion piece in The New York Times, Sept. 6, 2018. AP/Richard Drew

Resistance or complicity – or both?

The writer Sebastian Haffner, who fled Germany for England in 1938, described how Nazi stormtroopers confronted him in a Berlin library in March 1933.

When they asked him if he was an Aryan, Haffner answered, “Yes.” In retrospect, he believed his reply indirectly validated their question and thus facilitated Nazi efforts to eject Jews from the library.

Even if Haffner’s complicity was unintentional, his failure to speak out publicly on behalf of those whose humanity the Nazis denied helped that argument carry the day.

Nazi Germany was hardly a hotbed of resistance. Unlike Haffner, most Germans accommodated themselves to the Nazi regime and fought on its behalf until the bitter end of World War II.

Ordinary people may have pushed back against the regime in small ways, whether by telling political jokes or surreptitiously listening to foreign radio broadcasts. But they only rarely challenged the legal and political structures on which the regime’s genocidal violence depended.

It is hard to distill people’s actions down to their moral or political essence, because those actions take place within a social, economic and political context of which these individual actors are also an integral part.

Was the decision by a socialist politician in Berlin to purchase a shop owned by a Jewish acquaintance an act of humanity that helped that person escape Nazi tyranny or an act of complicity that facilitated Nazi efforts to “Aryanize” the German economy? The fact that it was probably both helps to explain why it proved politically contentious in Berlin’s city assembly after World War II.

Resistance as alibi

Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, German politicians could point to examples of German resistance to repudiate international assertions of German “collective guilt.” It took the combined forces of the Soviet Red Army and the Western Allies to bring down the Nazi regime. But the existence of a few heroic resisters gave credence to the idea of another Germany, one that could safely play a role in postwar socioeconomic and political reconstruction.