From Violence to Non-Violence:
Putting Nelson Mandela’s Contribution into a Broader Context
The twentieth century was, arguably, one of the bloodiest in human history. Just halfway through the twentieth century’s second decade, Europe organized itself into a relentless slaughter of an entire generation of its young men, as year after year they charged each other from sodden trenches just to be mowed down by machine guns. When they stayed in their trenches, distant artillery tore them to pieces or choked and blinded them with poisonous gases. It was called the “war to end all wars,” but now most of us cannot think of any justification for it having taken place.
Twenty years after the armistice that ended that World War, the Second World War was under way with violence on an even greater scale, truly global in the extent of the slaughter, ending with most of Europe in ruins and some Japanese cities transformed into radioactive wastelands.
Separate and apart from World War Two, there was mass slaughter as totalitarian political systems swept over a good part of Europe, Stalinism across the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe and Asia and Fascism across a good part of Western Europe. Even when these empires were not actively at war, they were imprisoning and slaughtering their own citizens to eliminate all who were not “pure” in background and belief.
The end of World War Two did not bring stability to the world. The defeat of the imperial ambitions of Germany and Japan and the weakening of the other European colonial nations encouraged the push for political independence and self-governance in the former colonies and subjugated nations around the world. The United States and the Soviet Union saw those struggles as the new frontlines in a “cold war” between the two superpowers that had emerged from the Second World War. Backed by their threat to use their mindless stockpiles of thousands of nuclear weapons, the two superpowers fought proxy wars around the globe while the world waited for the assured mutual self-destruction that each of the super powers had promised each other.
Few expected the emergence of a non-violent approach to political change to emerge from this century of global mega-violence and believable, if morally outrageous, threats of global nuclear incineration.
But the global effort to repel both the Japanese and German efforts to build their new empires in Asia and Europe undermined the legitimacy of European colonial control over much of the rest of the world. Mahatma Gandhi, having been introduced to struggles for civil rights in South Africa, challenged Britain’s control of the Indian sub-continent. His primary tool was not armed insurrection but a systematic challenge to the legitimacy of Britain’s right to rule hundreds of millions of other people half a world away. He used European Enlightenment values against the European colonialists, with powerful impacts both in Europe and in the colonies. With relatively little bloodshed, European nations ultimately surrendered political control of their colonies to indigenous populations.
Nelson Mandela’s struggles in South Africa can be seen as the second stage of that movement of indigenous people taking control of their own destinies. Bitter enemies, who had threatened each other with vicious violence, saw that the outcome of full scale civil war in South Africa could only produce a ravaged society and landscape that would impoverish everyone both materially, culturally, and spiritually.
Simultaneous with Mandela’s release from prison and the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the Soviet Empire was dissolving across Eastern Europe and Asia. At the same time the Soviet Union itself dissolved without hardly a shot being fired. In one Eastern European country after another, the communist regimes imposed by the Soviets lost power. The Soviet Union did not use its troops that were stationed in these countries to resist and the secret police forces and armies of the puppet communist regimes did not use violence against their fellow citizens to try to save the communist governments that were being displaced.
These were not just events in distant lands where citizens faced down morally unsupportable political arrangements and peacefully “forced” change. The same had been taking place in the United States. A century after the end of our own bloody Civil War, ex-slaves were still not full citizens of this nation. The centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation was celebrated by American blacks in a nationwide struggle modeled on Gandhi’s non-violent approach for civil rights. The women’s rights movement also surged to the forefront and the struggle for gay rights gained momentum. Each of these relatively peaceful struggles within the United States, in its own way, has shown the power of cultural and ethical opposition to oppressive forces that seek to limit human rights, even when those oppressive forces are backed by the potential to use overwhelming state violence.
In that sense, the end of the bloody twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century brought us proof that we can make moral progress and we do not have to slaughter each other to do so. That is why Nelson Mandela was such a towering symbol of what is best in all of us, both in our friends and in our bitterest enemies.