by Amber FrenchOctober 16, 2017
I recently had the good fortune of interviewing Jacques Semelin, an historian and political scientist who has notably studied civil resistance during Nazi and communist Europe.
Speaking with him brings past and present together. It is as close as I can get to experiencing—over an hour-long conversation in Paris last August—how past nonviolent movements operated and how they impacted societies. I’m grateful for this. Expanding our knowledge of nonviolent history helps all of us to re-imagine the potential of today’s movements, and apply strategic lessons that have stood the test of time. Collectively, it enables societies to reflect, remember, and build upon their movement heritage in ways that rattle traditional powerholders.
It also shifts the emphasis from dominant historical narratives of violence. Scholar Maciej Bartkowski describes the near ubiquitous emphasis on the role of violence in past events, which often comes at the expense of a deeper understanding of the critical role nonviolent movements can play:
“Most people look to historical accounts to understand how their own nations emerged and fought for their freedom. Such explanations, whether found in books or imparted through public ceremonies and national memories, often tell of violent battles and insurrections, victories and defeats in wars, and fallen heroes in armed struggles. These narratives support the common belief that violence is the indispensable weapon to win freedom from foreign subjugation, but they ignore the power and historical role that nonviolent civilian-led resistance has played in many national quests for liberation.”
Recovering Nonviolent History: Civil Resistance in Liberation Struggles (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013)
This popular perception that violence is the only or main source of power benefits traditional powerholders, just as they benefit from popular ignorance of civil resistance history.
This is why efforts to document, preserve, and transmit information about past nonviolent movements are themselves acts of civil resistance—a sort of “documentary resistance.” As many readers can attest, leaving raw traces of movements (photos, videos, etc.) is sometimes a risky and difficult task. For example, earlier this year, and much to the dismay of the Chinese government, a man with the alias David Chen finally decided to release rare photos of Tiananmen protests he had taken, after keeping the film hidden for 28 years.
It’s also quite the undertaking to gain access to—and draw edifying conclusions from—evidence of past movements. In the following interview, Jacques Semelin describes the role historians and others play in documentary resistance—how they distill information about movements, what they do with the information, and why it matters.
Q: What is the value of an historical approach to understanding nonviolent movements?
Semelin: A nonviolent movement never came from nothing. Its historical background is absolutely necessary to understand how it developed, and its successes and limits. As I have demonstrated in my two books on civil resistance within Nazi Europe, Unarmed Against Hitler, Praeger 1993) and later in the Communist Europe until the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Freedom over the Airwaves, ICNC Press 2016), historical research helps us to fathom how unthinkable unarmed movements can nevertheless emerge and defy extreme violent repression. It gives us distance to better understand how this movement can overcome fear, strengthen its support among the population and can sometimes be partly or mainly successful in a favorable international context.
Q: What types of primary and secondary materials are useful for historians to study nonviolent movements of the past?
Primary sources are internal archives such as meetings reports, instructions given to its members, discussions around its strategic goals. Often, researchers cannot find such historical documents since activists are generally careful not to leave evidence of their work which can be used against them by the police.
All communication materials produced by the movement are also key sources: leaflets, posters, videos, leaders’ speeches and interviews, etc. We also need to take into account different documents coming from the “other side”. Thus, internal memorandums and analysis produced by the repression forces themselves can also be considered as primary sources. How did the power agencies perceive/analyze the strengths and weaknesses of this nonviolent movement? Did they consider it is a real threat?
Q: What kinds of insights can historians gain from studying these materials?
They are indispensable to decipher how activists define their own role and their goals’ movements. They can give precious information to understand whether the dynamics of the movement were mainly spontaneous or tried to achieve strategic goals (step by step). We can also get access to important indications regarding their perception of risk and danger or about the real influence of the leader on the conduct of the movement. Finally, how did the movement pander to the population in order to win their support, or to get sympathy and support on the international scene?
At the heart of Semelin’s remarks is the idea that movement historians and others prepare past episodes of civil resistance for incorporation into a society’s historical narratives and trajectories. By unearthing, analyzing and trying to make sense of a movement in its unique historical context, these actors draw attention to and lend value to a movement—regardless of its outcome.