Of course, not everyone falls for such cognitive falsehoods. Furthermore, some people—as the psychological research suggests—are not so prone to blindly follow authority, are not so vulnerable to the pressures of conformity. Instead, some people seem psychologically predisposed to resistance. This minority group includes those who are the first to fight against injustice, the first to join and organize resistance groups. Rather than “early adopters,” such people are “early resisters.”
Claude Bourdet (a leader in the Combat movement of the French Resistance during WWII) said that early resisters were people who had already “broken with their social and professional milieu.”15 Famed French resistant Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie believed that “one could only be a resister if one was maladjusted.”16 However, in his history of the German occupation of France, Julian Jackson argued that most early resisters were “far from being outsiders,” but they were people with strong moral convictions who may have been from traditional backgrounds or occupations. Jackson writes: “These were not maladjusted mavericks although clearly they were individuals of exceptional strong-mindedness, ready to break with family and friends.”17
Although some postwar stories about France portray a broad base of resistance against the Nazis, in fact only a very small minority of the population participated. The French Resistance at most comprised perhaps 1 percent of the adult population, or about 200,000 people.18 The postwar French government officially recognized 220,000 people19(though one historian estimates that the number of active resisters could have been as many as 400,00020). In addition to active resisters, there were perhaps another 300,000 with substantial involvement.21 If you include all of those people who were willing to take the risk of reading the underground newspapers, the pool of sympathizers grows to about 10 percent of the adult population, or two million people.22
This is, of course, not unique to 1940s France. At the peak of Irish resistance to British rule, the Irish War of Independence (which built on 700 years of resistance culture), the IRA had about 100,000 members (or just over 2 percent of the population of 4.5 million), about 15,000 of whom participated in the guerrilla war, and 3,000 of whom were fighters at any one time. Among Jews in Nazi Germany, the number of people who actively fought back was often tragically outnumbered by the people who simply killed themselves. In Berlin, roughly 4 percent of Jews called up for “relocation” committed suicide, almost all of them upon the arrival of the notice (those who chose to kill themselves were mostly older and highly assimilated to German society).23 Within Nazi Germany, resistance mostly consisted of small and isolated groups.
Even after the war, retroactive support for German resistance was limited. In 1952, after the Nuremberg Trials, and after information about the concentration camps, horrific medical experimentation, and other Nazi atrocities had become known, surveys of public opinion about resistance were made in West Germany. Members of the public were asked whether a person convinced that “injustices and crimes” were being committed by the Nazis would be justified in resisting them—whether any resistance of any sort was justifiable. Only 41 percent said it was. Worse, when asked whether resistance was defensible in wartime, only 20 percent of people said yes. Another 34 percent said that potential resisters should wait until the return of peace (which, under the Nazis, as under any empire, means never). The second-largest group of 31 percent was undecided about whether resistance against the Nazis could have been justified. They were not undecided about whether they would participate (we can safely assume they would not), they were undecided about whether resistance should have existed at all! And another 15 percent insisted that resistance was never justifiable, whether in peacetime or wartime.24 I found all this sickening and deplorable. I deeply wish I could say I found it surprising.25
Those who are willing to undertake serious resistance are always a small minority regardless of circumstances, largely for the psychological and social reasons discussed above.26 To put it bluntly: we have to get over the hope that resistance will ever be adopted by the majority and focus on doing what we can with who we have. Given all that, the purpose of a resistance organization is to enable as many of those people as possible to resist, and to organize those people in ways that makes maximum use of their limited numbers.
As we discussed a few chapters ago, we too often base our activism on the idea that we need to have a mass movement to overturn this wretched system. But Germany suggests the exact opposite: that overturning the system is the prerequisite to a mass movement. Even years after Germany’s defeat, the great majority of Germans did not think resistance would have been justified. Only after the Nazis’ authoritarian grip had been broken, and only after years or decades had passed, would the German people understand why resistance was not only acceptable, but needed.27
I can only believe that if there is ever a mass movement against those in power, it will happen after civilization collapses, and not before.
The effective resister has some important personality characteristics, with bravery, intelligence, and persistence among the most important. Intelligence alone is never enough. Though an intelligent person may be better able to see through propaganda and to understand the problem at hand, real courage is a requirement for action in the face of danger. The brilliant coward simply has a more sophisticated rationalization for inaction. And persistence is required to continue in the face of unfavorable odds against a powerful enemy in a struggle that is bound to be rife with setbacks and mistakes.
For those individuals who are psychologically predisposed and willing to resist, a number of factors influence whether or not they will actively engage in that resistance: the perceived benefits of resistance, the perceived chance of success, the perceived risk of participating, the perceived degree of personal responsibility for the problem (the bystander effect), the perceived legitimacy of the resistance organization or activities, and the availability of potential resistance comrades. You can probably think of more—just think about what would influence your decision.
In any case, a good resistance organization addresses all of these factors. It can propagandize about the problems with the status quo and the benefits that would come with its success. And the very existence of proper organization increases the chance of success. There is always some risk to resistance, but good organizing reduces that risk through a security culture and good tactics. Solid recruitment overcomes the bystander effect by addressing specific people and giving them specific means to act. A resistance organization can increase its own legitimacy through good decision-making practices, adherence to a moral code, endorsement by sympathetic authorities, and, most importantly, by its own longevity and effectiveness.