The occupation of a country subjects both the people and the invaders to a strange game of mutual suspicion: The occupier acts like a new owner and wants the tenants to behave and pay the rent on time, but those invaded feel violated they know the country, by right, belongs to them, and while they cannot physically throw the occupiers out, they may well want to resist the invader’s terms. Perhaps, if the invader finds the game is not worth the effort, he will leave. Or perhaps he will start killing uncooperative tenants. But the game gives one major advantage to those occupied: They will define the extent to which they are going to cooperate. And the offender, ironically, will have to defend his ill-gotten gains.
The Danish resisters took the offensive against German occupying forces. Through symbolic and cultural protests, they asserted their right to govern their own lives, and that strengthened public morale which inspired bolder resistance. Through strikes, defiance at work sites, and damage to physical property, nonviolent resisters attacked the economic interests of the invaders. Through underground publishing, an alternate network of communication was established, to subvert the lies of the occupiers’ propaganda. By involving so many civilians in strikes, demonstrations, and other forms of opposition, Danish resisters forced the Germans to stop violent reprisals and suspend curfews. They denied the Nazis their prime goal, on which other objectives depended: making the fact of occupation normal.
By definition, a successful military invasion gives the occupier superiority on the ground and in the air, in the ability to use physical force and violence. Despite that, when a military invader loses control of what the people read and believe, of when and if they work, of how they spend their money when the occupiers are constantly on the defensive, as they try to maintain their position their ability to command events is detached from their ability to use violence.
War contorts the history of the nations it touches, but it also exhibits the greatness of their peoples. The Danes challenged the most barbaric regime of the modern period and did so not with troops or tanks but with singing, striking, going home to garden, and standing in public squares. Yet the power they brought to bear in resisting the Nazis did not come only from these things. It came first from the essential decision that tens of thousands of them made, to refuse the terms they were offered by their tormentors and it came from the underground movement they built and the strategy they used, to fling that decision in the face of their enemy and constrict his ability to fight.
Thanks to the civic solidarity that had nourished the resistance, Denmark emerged from the war in good condition. Allied authorities found that Denmark could not only feed itself but had surplus food to export to the rest of Europe. The Danes had withstood German occupation without undergoing many of the rigors experienced by other Europeans held down by the Nazis a dividend of having resisted without violently tearing their society apart in the process. Some Danes were disappointed that more of their countrymen did not, like many Norwegians, Greeks, or Serbs, pick up guns and fight their occupiers at every depot, pier, and airfield, but the watery lowlands of Denmark were not ideal maneuvering ground for armed partisans, and by the time the Germans were pressed on all fronts in Europe, the Danish resistance had imposed a different but discernible cost on Nazi capabilities.
The Danes proved that however dreadful the opponent faced by those using nonviolent action, if resistance is resilient and imaginative, military sanctions are not enough to stamp out a popular movement and violent reprisals may only harden the opposition. Knowing the Germans wanted normalcy in Denmark, the Danish resistance worked to deny them that, and it refrained from magnifying any disruption to the point of prompting overwhelming repression or endangering the lives of many civilians. If the Nazis, the cruelest killing machine in the century’s history, could be kept off balance by Danish schoolboys, amateur saboteurs, and underground clergymen, what other regime should ever be thought invulnerable to nonviolent resistance?