Essays English 2008 - What Can We Learn From Peace Movements? Lessons in Dissent: The Principles of the "Others"

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What is the Truth? Thoughts on the…

[1] Martina Topic[2] Introduction What is the Truth? Normally, people do not ask too many questions about this because there is always something perceived as a generally or personally accepted truth. For example, the...

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Peace Academy Reflection

Tory Tevis I would like to begin my reflection on the Sarajevo Peace Academy by first stating how difficult it was to settle on a topic to write about.  All the...

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Lessons in Dissent: The Principles of the "Others"

Lessons in Dissent: The Principles of the "Others"

Marina Vasilj

"Nothing is more unworthy of a civilized people than to allow itself to be "governed" by an irresponsible ruling clique motivated by the darkest instincts"

(The White Rose leaflet, summer 1942)[1]

 

The country I grew up in no longer exists. The city I was brought up in no longer represents what it used to stand for. Over the past sixteen years, societies in the region have suffered through the gruesome civil war and continue to struggle through even more gruesome post-war transition. Yet, throughout these turbulent times I have encountered stories of people whose persistent faith in human principles such as personal integrity, moral courage, accountability, honesty, and love for their neighbor has seen them through the darkest hours and grown even stronger in time; it is the kind of faith immanent to those who confronted the adversity in self and others and embraced their vulnerability realizing they have the power to convert it into a source of enormous personal strength. This essay examines the accounts of some of the resolute men and women who, at different points in time and in different political contexts, chose to exercise the highest human quality - their free will - by taking non-violent actions and being at variance with the dominant social thought of the time, how effective were their actions and what lessons can be drawn from their successes or failures.

 

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., whose movements for peace and nonviolent action for social change in the 20th century have not ceased to inspire and provide guidelines for followers and observers all over the world, influenced masses by their own example of strong commitment to their vision through years of setbacks and defeats. But what leaves one equally in awe are the individual acts of resistance performed by the common people who refused to accept various forms of social intolerance and injustice towards the few as a principle to be encouraged for the benefit of the many and chose to do something about it within the context of their own community.

One of the stunning lessons in non-violent dissent was thought by Rosa Parks, an African-American woman who refused to give up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama bus back in 1955. Her action had immediate effect on the black community of Montgomery which organized and conducted a year-long boycott of the city bus line. Rosa was imprisoned and fined for her action but this simple act of defiance turned into a movement that ended racial segregation in America. Rosa Park thought us a very simple yet powerful lesson: that there is a way if one is willing to look for it and follow through.  Her strong faith and determination in preserving her human dignity has made the seamstress from Alabama a pioneer of the civil rights movement.

There are times in life when one is compelled to act in order to prompt others to confront the forces of oppression and preserve not only their own dignity but the dignity of the entire nation as well. Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans and several of their fellow students from the University of Munich were members of the White Rose group who, sometime between June 1942 and February 1943, ran an anonymous leaflet campaign calling for the active opposition to the evil regime of Adolf Hitler. The one-time enthusiastic members of the Hitler Youth who, like many other Germans, had believed Hitler would restore their country into the position of great force, Sophie and Hans soon began to realize the whole country was on the road to destruction. Believing it was the duty of every citizen to stand up against the evil regime Sophie, her brother and their friends wrote six leaflets in which they called the Germans to rise up against their own government which was destroying its own people. Copies of leaflets were dispatched at the University of Munich and sent to people in various parts of Germany by mail. In February 1943, Sophie and Hans were captured after leaving the pamphlets at the University of Munich.  Within three days, they were tried and beheaded for the treason against the German State.  Although the efforts of these young people at that particular time in history did not induce mass resistance against the Nazi regime and the war, quite the contrary, they remained firm in their belief that it was the right thing to do and that their voice against collective mindlessness of the society would eventually be heard and responded to. For me personally, it is the stamina and integrity which Sophie demonstrated during her interrogation and the subsequent court trial that personifies those who "..have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity ........have acted in faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant."[2] For a twenty-one-year-old girl to exhibit such strong convictions, resilience and strength of character is truly admirable. But even more remarkable is the courage with which she faced the ordeal, fighting her fears along the way. By acting on their principles, Sophie and her friends did not only perform an act of resistance, they thought us a powerful lesson in dissent from the moral and intellectual degeneration of the society. Their actions have resonated powerfully in the years to come and the White Rose movement became one of the models of struggle for the freedom of human spirit.

It is during such times as war when thousands of people are affected that our confidence in human principles is most severely tested. The history of Bosnia and Herzegovina is rich with stories of human kindness, personal integrity and solidarity with one's fellow humans. Here I wish to recall just two of these Bosnian stories; one took place during the World War II, the other during the most recent conflict 1992-1995.

In June 2008, Sarajevo hosted an exhibition and a presentation of a new book bearing the same title "Kad su komšije bili ljudi" (When Neighbors Were Humane), honoring 43 citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina who helped save the lives of their Jewish neighbors during the World War II. Each exhibit stood for one harrowing story, corroborated by old photographs of the persons at the time, of how people risked loosing not just their own but the lives of their entire families for hiding, sustaining and smuggling their Jewish neighbors to safety. Some of these people inevitably paid the ultimate price for what they did. I was deeply touched by how inventive these people were in devising strategies to outsmart the Germans: on one occasion they dressed a male into a traditional burqa and put him on a train that would take him out of Bosnia and later to Israel. One photograph taken in the broad daylight at a promenade pictures two beautiful young women surrounded with a couple of children. One woman is tightly holding her friend's arm under her own. The story below the photograph reveals that she is doing that to cover the yellow band with the Star of David attached to the upper arm of her friend so that she would not be harassed while out in the street. These brave acts of neighbors' dissent were recognized and granted the title of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. It must be noted that this was not the first time the citizens of Bosnia stood up for their Jewish neighbors. The first Sephardic Jews arrived to Bosnia in the 15th century where they have lived along with their Christian and Muslim fellow citizens ever since. Back in 1820, the citizens of Sarajevo were united against the unjust treatment of their Jewish neighbors by the then governor Ruždi-pasha during the incident known and celebrated as Purim di Saraj (Sarajevo Purim).

In her 2003 speech on "The Power of Principle"[3], Susan Sontag stated: "Generally, a moral principle is something that puts one at variance with the accepted practices. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences, as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions - who want society to actually uphold the principles it professes to defend." In January 1993, Srđan Aleksić, a twenty seven-year-old Serb from Trebinje in eastern Herzegovina literary found himself at the receiving end when a group of armed, uniformed and drunken men harassed and attempted to kill his Bosniak fellow citizen Alen Glavović in the center of the town and in the vicinity of the police station. Srđan jumped in and managed to prevent the men in their intention enabling Alen to escape to safety. But four outraged men took their uncontrolled anger on Srđan beating him unconscious. He was transferred to Trebinje hospital where he died a week later never regaining consciousness. In recognition of his faith and love for others, his family published an obituary that red: "He died doing the duty of a human being". His townsmen remember Srđan as an accomplished sportsman, a theater-lover and an amateur actor and the first and only soldier who, terrified with what he saw as at the Dubrovnik battle front went to Trebinje Municipality building and threw his gun away.

For a long time, fear prevented his fellow citizens and neighbors from recognizing and commemorating Srđan's audacious act because many Serb nationalists considered him a traitor. Srđan's father still remembers a lawyer who represented the men who killed his son and what he said about Srđan: "He got what he deserved for protecting a Muslim." Last year, Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina posthumously awarded Srđan Aleksić for exceptional contribution to protection and promotion of human rights.

In one interview, Srđan's father has said: "We are disappointed with what had been going on in the war, we are mostly disappointed in people, but Srđan and I knew that there was no collective madness in Trebinje and that not all people, despite being silent due to fear, hate other people, so I was really proud when people, never him, would tell me about his "war accomplishments", like: Srđan helped this man, he saved this person's house, he protected a friend, a neighbor, in one word, protected his and his family's dignity ... They did not intend to kill Srđan, it just happened. But, it did not have to happen and reach such cruelty, they did not have to attack unprotected young men in the street, nor that scared Bosniak, nor my son. It does not matter any more who they were, it is important that they then attacked a human being, wishing to annul with their boots and pistol-whips everything that is humane and noble, what had represented the most beautiful part of Trebinje. That is what hurts the most."[4]

Times change, some countries cease to exit and others emerge, people move away and cities transform. But one thing never changes: in every society there are always "others", those who, at one point or another, feel compelled to step out of their comfortable lives, as if urged by some unknown inner force, and act in a manner deemed unwise by the cautious. They do not wait for the consent by some outside authority but act in accordance with their own better judgment, heralded by the noble call to preserve human dignity, to promote freedom of the human spirit, to encourage expression of one's free will and offer unconditional love and support to other fellow humans. Their actions prove time and again that one does not have to reach his/her immediate objectives to accomplish something valuable.  The stories of the people remembered in this essay stand in testimony to a set of values every civilized person should uphold and to actions that have left a lasting impact on the society, teaching us that even in the worst of times one should behave like a proper human being.


[1] The White Rose Society: The First Leaflet; http://www.whiterosesociety.org/WRS_pamphets_first.html

[2] Martin Luther King, jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail ,http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/frequentdocs/birmingham.pdf

[3] Susan Sontag, The Power of Principle, speech 2003;http://www.jfjfp.org/BackgroundW/sontag_yeshgvul.htm

[4]See: Srđan Aleksić Posthumously Awarded, article 2007;http://www.humanrightshouse.org/dllvis5.asp?id=5367