Unarmed Resistance to Occupation: Lessons for Ukraine

With Ukraine coming under attack and potential occupation by the Russian military, Andrew Rigby draws on his studies of nonviolent resistance during the Second World War and in contemporary Palestine to suggest some lessons for the Ukrainian people.

I imagine I am not alone in being perplexed and deeply depressed by the news that Russia launched military attacks on Ukrainian cities and military bases in the early hours of this morning. There have been reports of plans being prepared by NATO members over how to arm what is expected to be fierce Ukrainian resistance in the face of Russian invasion and the toppling of the Kyiv government, which may be one of Putin’s main aims behind this criminal aggression.

What can be done – the pacifist’s dilemma

As a pacifist and an academic I have spent much of my life exploring the potentialities (and limitations) of unarmed resistance to occupation. In recent days I have found myself going back to my studies of unarmed resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War, trying to identify lessons to be learned that might be relevant to Ukraine, allowing for the contextual particularities of all violent conflicts.

Deny the legitimacy of occupation regime

In his study Unarmed against Hitler: Civilian resistance in Europe, 1939-1943., Jacques Semelin emphasised that those who engaged in such resistance did not think their activities would defeat the enemy and displace the occupation; liberation would have to come from outside. The significance of their resistance was that it symbolised their refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the occupier. Their oppressor might enjoy de facto power achieved through military might, but in the eyes of the oppressed their loyalty lay with the de jure authority that had been forcibly displaced by the enemy. The main goal of civil resistance was to preserve the collective identity and fundamental values of the attacked societies: ”Civil resistance consisted primarily of a clash of wills, expressing above all a fight for values.“ (Semelin, 1993, p. 3.)

In my own studies of Palestinian unarmed resistance to occupation I have found it useful to work with four main categories of unarmed resistance.

  1. Symbolic resistance: We remain what we were and use all means to display our continued allegiance to our cause and its values.

The illustrations that come to mind from World War II include the Dutch that took to wearing a badge made from a coin bearing the head of their exiled queen. Norwegians wore a tiny Norwegian flag or safety-pin in their button-hole. Danes wore badges bearing the initials SDU, short for smid de mut – ‘Chuck them out’. Flower-beds were planted so that they displayed the national colours.

None of these relatively low-risk actions represented a direct threat to the occupation, and only rarely did such acts coalesce into a collective demonstration, but they did enable significant swathes of the population living under occupation to feel that they were not completely without agency, allowing them to express their spirit of dissidence, a relatively low-risk way of saying ‘no’ to the occupier.

  • Polemical resistance: We oppose the occupier by voicing our protest and trying to encourage others of the need to maintain the struggle.

After the Germans occupied Norway they tried to Nazify significant aspects of Norwegian society and its institutional infrastructure. In large part they failed. Members of the Supreme Court resigned in protest. Throughout the occupation there was a boycott of sporting events organised by the agencies of the new regime. Clergy refused to endorse Nazi principles, and teachers faced significant sanctions rather than go along with the imposed regulations.

  • Defensive resistance: We aid and protect those in danger or on the run, and thereby preserve human beings and human values endangered by the occupying power.

Literature is replete with stories of how the underground resistance in occupied Europe during the Second World War established escape routes for downed allied personnel and air-crew. Less publicised were the communities like Niewlande in Holland and Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the Auvergne region of France that provided safe-havens for Jews and others whose lives were threatened by the occupation regime. Poland had a complete underground state with its own army, civil service, schools and universities, whilst over 7,000 Jewish citizens of Denmark were spirited away to safety in Sweden in 1943.

  • Offensive resistance: We are prepared to do all that we can to frustrate and overcome the oppressor by nonviolent means, including strikes, demonstrations and other forms of direct action.

The vast majority of those who engaged in unarmed resistance activities in occupied Europe did so because they had no other means of resistance, not out of any principled commitment to nonviolence. So, a significant dimension of the nonviolent activities was in support of the armed resistance: Intelligence-gathering, sheltering armed combatants, engaging in different forms of sabotage – including the relatively passive-resistance of ‘go-slows’ and Schweikism (the intentional misunderstanding of instructions) – protest demonstrations and full-blown strikes.

Concluding observations

The first step in resistance is to find the strength to say ‘NO!’, to refuse to accede to the will of the occupier whose control is based purely on military might. None of the methods reviewed in this blog will bring an end to the Russian occupation of Ukraine, in whatever shape or extent it might ultimately take. But they will make manifest to the outside world (and to the invading forces) the level of social cohesion amongst the Ukrainian population as they face up to the invader and continue to deny legitimacy to whatever regime is imposed on them by force of arms.


Andrew Rigby is the author of many studies of unarmed resistance, including most recently Sowing Seeds for the Future: Exploring the Power of Constructive Nonviolent Action (Oct 2021).


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: MaxPixel. Ukrainian flag.

, , ,

21 comments

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: