The first time Mohandas Gandhi, the leader of nonviolent protest against British rule in India, wrote to Adolf Hitler was in July of 1939. Gandhi was almost seventy. The world was, as it appears to be today, on the cusp of some huge transformation, although then, as now, the complete price of the change was unknown. “Dear friend,” Gandhi implored Hitler from behind a typewritten page, “friends have been urging me to write to you for the sake of humanity.” Hitler, the letter goes on to say, is the only “person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to a savage state.”
I can imagine Gandhi writing the letter, the humid air of an Indian July hanging heavy and oppressive, like the threat of war over the world. That first letter was barely over a hundred words, and it was never delivered. The British colonists who ruled India at the time minded Gandhi’s correspondence; they intercepted it well before it had any chance to reach Hitler. It is unknown whether Gandhi, an astute political strategist, knew this would be the case when he wrote the letter. He may have known that his audience was his own oppressors rather than the oppressors of European Jews.
Whatever Gandhi’s motives, the appeal to Hitler was not new. The year before, American missionaries meeting with Gandhi pleaded with him to condemn Hitler and Mussolini, but he refused, insisting that no one, even these two fascists clearly uninterested in human dignity, was “beyond redemption.” Czechs and Jews were told to engage only in passive resistance, a sacrifice that would redeem them. Passive resistance failed to deliver either group, but Gandhi, for his part, never quite acknowledged this. (It was also not the only strategy they employed: consider the Warsaw Uprising of 1943, or the revolt at Auschwitz-Birkenau the following year.) Gandhi did write another, more vehement letter to Hitler, but this, too, was never delivered.
Gandhi got many things wrong about World War II. But in the days after George Floyd’s death, with protest ascendant, many reached for his prescriptions and other histories of nonviolent resistance, which present crucial questions about methods of opposition and defense. While there is much talk of the passive nonviolent resisters of old—Gandhi and his eventual disciple Martin Luther King Jr.—there is physical, psychic, and emotional violence being deliberately inflicted on the oppressed. Before the flowers have even begun to wilt at Floyd’s grave, there have been predictions of backlash, new rules and redefinitions that will cover police brutality in new clothes, embellished with the language of a pretend thoughtfulness and faux-empathy. Much of the police rank-and-file, encouraged by the president and weak Democratic mayors, backed up in some cities by active white supremacist networks, believe they are in a civil war, and they do not intend to be disarmed.
While there is much talk of the passive nonviolent resisters of old, there is physical, psychic, and emotional violence being deliberately inflicted on the oppressed
Gandhi believed that the doctrine of passive and peaceful resistance applied always and to everyone. Prominent intellectuals, including the Jewish intellectual Martin Buber, questioned his dogged attachment to the universality of this prescription. “Jews are being persecuted, robbed, maltreated, tortured murdered. And you, Mahatma Gandhi say that their position in the country where they suffer all this is an exact parallel to the position of Indians in South Africa at the time you inaugurated your famous Strength of Truth . . . campaign?” Buber wrote in 1938. “Do you or do you not know Mahatma, what a concentration camp is like and what goes on there? Do you know of its methods of slow and quick slaughter?”
Where the Holocaust was concerned, Gandhi was wrong. But the strategic impetus of nonviolence is to prove the moral virtue of the suffering. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized this. His adoption of Gandhi’s non-violent agitation tactics was likely strategic, for it was well-known that Gandhi was himself a racist, advocating for racial “purity” and against the mixing of races. (He had also supported British suppression of the Zulu uprising in South Africa.)Yet, King saw beyond that: whether it was colonized Indians during the days of the British Empire, or black Americans during the civil rights era, the preservation of virtue through nonviolence was central. The agenda of the dominating powers in both cases was to subjugate and barely permit the oppressed to subsist. Indians in the British Empire, like black Americans during the civil rights era, were allowed to live, but without dignity or humanity, and always with the threat of state-sanctioned violence and incarceration.
During the Holocaust, the strategy was extermination. Hitler was not interested in permitting Jews some kind of minimal existence where they labored for the benefit of the German state; his plan was the active and intentional extermination of all of them from the face of the Earth. There was no question of the relative virtue of the oppressed vs. their oppressors; it was about their actual and pointed and complete extirpation. No amount of moral virtue could save them from the end that had been so meticulously planned for them.
Gandhi failed to see this. But he provided a workable plan for certain liberation movements—and this post-Floyd second chapter of America’s civil rights movement could be one of them. The situation of black Americans today is more similar to that of the colonized Indians. The vast web of subjugations small and large directed toward black Americans insures that their labors will be ignored, their character continually besmirched, their voices silenced in service of white supremacy. The American brand of subjugation is one of not only outright violence—from agents of the state as well as white nationalists—but also deprivation and neglect: excluding many millions of black people from access to health care, functioning educational systems, and countless other privileges that most white Americans enjoy.
Gandhi believed that the doctrine of passive and peaceful resistance applied always and to everyone.
Like the British did with native Indians, white America has historically justified its cruelties by insisting that there is something inherently immoral, inherently criminal, inherently dissolute about black people. British India believed that natives (and of course, those colonized throughout the Empire) were deficient, a perspective they substantiated by creating metrics of education, health, etc., that would ground their white superiority in “fact.”
America has done the same thing. The social narrative of the United States locates virtue in whiteness; its power and entitlements are justified by white altruism, white benevolence, white entitlement. We see black trauma turned into white virtue signaling, a process to which the murder of Floyd has already been converted. Social media features a plethora of white people who are—all of a sudden—justifying their every decision: a firing they may have seen coming, a donation they may have given, a phone call they may have made, as stemming from their deep-sprung empathy toward black people. Crowing for themselves under the pretext of feeling for Floyd, they are underscoring again just how good (and hence deserving of commendation) they are.
A useful counterpoint to this habit was given by Cornel West in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper this week. Speaking immediately after George Floyd’s funeral, West described the black tradition of marching for justice without words of hatred or revenge. He described the insistence on freedom for everybody as a “grand gift to the world.” “White America ought to give black people a standing ovation,” West said. “After four hundred years of being terrorized, we refuse to create a black version of the Ku Klux Klan.” West noted that Floyd’s funeral in Houston was marked with uplift. “You can put us down, but you’re not going to put us down in such a way that we’re going to hate you, because you become the point of reference.” The presumption of goodness cannot be allowed to rest with white America. But if Gandhi’s precepts for British India modeled anything, it is the fact that it is not enough for the oppressed to actually be good; they are continually asked to perform their goodness, to prove it against the decrepitude of the other side.
Ultimately, the British were driven out of India in part by the battering they took in World War II. White America has been similarly battered by the Covid-19 pandemic and the rapid spiral into Trumpian racism and denial. While many protesters have turned to King and the example of Gandhi before him, this moment has also shown that great change can come from more confrontational tactics, like the burning of a police precinct in Minneapolis, where a majority of City Council members have since vowed to disband the police department and “dramatically rethink” their approach to public safety. Either way, the moment of change is no longer a sentence that begins with when, but one that starts with now.