The resurgence of war in Europe and the Russian invasion have thickened the mist surrounding the meanings of several contemporary vocabulary terms: peace, resistance, and then the most unpronounceable word of all: surrendering. Would surrendering to the Russian invasion then mean condemning the Ukrainian people to massacre? Is the only option, then, to accept the war and win it? In the text, the word 'surrender' implies yielding, surrendering and submission as if they were synonyms. Which is puzzling, as the comparison with rugby is. Not everything is the equivalent of everything. The sporting opponent is not an enemy. Passive, non-violent resistance as the author describes it is a bit naive. What worked with Mandela over time, did not work with Aung San Suu Kyi or for Tibet or the Uyghurs, etc. Bonhoeffer himself participated in a failed assassination attempt against Hitler, which led to his arrest and execution. It is not a question of being in favour of war, but of asking, 'In the face of a totalitarian ideology that demonises (Nazifies) the adversary in order to destroy it, what to do?
Then you want surrendering! The mere sound of the word 'surrender' stops one's breath. If 'war' has never been taboo, 'surrender', the act of surrendering, has been taboo since time immemorial and in every corner of the world. Everyone would aspire to peace, but only madmen or infamous plunderers could think of surrendering as one of the possible means in that direction. But, are we sure that surrendering necessarily means the end of struggle and conflict?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians and a luminous figure of German opposition and struggle against Nazism, argues that this is not the case at all, quite the contrary. In the celebrated collection of his last writings, Resistance and Surrendering, he states in a key passage, “I have often thought about where the boundaries lie between the necessary resistance to ‘fate’ and the equally necessary surrendering”.
Bonhoeffer, in trying to explain this statement, makes direct reference to Cervantes' masterpiece and Kleist's very famous short story, Michael Kohlhaas. He defines Don Quixote as “the symbol of the continuous resistance to the point of absurdity, indeed to madness” and Sancho Panza as “the exponent of adapting to circumstances, in unproblematic ways, cunningly”. He believes that both, resistance and surrendering must be present in a “mobile and living attitude” in order to “stand up” in a strong and meaningful way to the “situations of the present making them fruitful”.
Bonhoeffer wrote these words from the Gestapo prisons - that is his present situation - shortly before being executed in the Flossenbürg concentration camp, at dawn on 9 April 1945, a few weeks before the Nazi regime’s final fall.
I believe that many of the proposals and reflections following the nefarious and unacceptable Russian invasion of Ukraine stem from the often nebulous, confused, or ill-concealed meanings assigned to the words peace, resistance, and precisely, surrender.
There is in the peace of the 'peaceful', a profound mystification, which enjoys a fair amount of consensus. It is the condition allowing to entertain for decades fruitful business relations, good neighbourly relations, 'peaceful relations', with anyone, even with those who - despite unquestionable evidence - take little or no account, in their respective countries, of human rights, for the minimum acceptable conditions of freedom, justice, democracy.
Thus, it is possible to be good friends, peacefully and without a blink, of nations ranging from the North African quadrant, to Asia, to the Arab countries, to China, which are included, for various reasons, in the lists drawn up by the UN and international agencies for violations, sometimes very serious and repeated, of those 'peaceful principles. These peacemakers are the same ones who, from the dark side of their abyss, do not hesitate to nurture, support and continue, 'until victory' as in the Ukrainian case, the armed response against Russia, their old friend and partner in business and trade, until 24 February 2022. This peace is a hideous blasphemy. It elevates the most nauseating hypocrisy to the general criterion of every political choice. The others’ blood and pain, even when it involves thousands, millions of people, is a variable dependent on business, profits and geopolitical positioning, privileges.
Conflict is one of the social relationships conditions also experienced with great frequency in personal relationships. It is one of those situations that we can 'make fruitful', according to Bonhoeffer's far-sighted vision, precisely with that mobile and living attitude to which he referred in his last words. However, there are ways, many ways, to act and manage conflict in a non-destructive manner mainly of people.
One can do without the use of violence in conflict. Both physical and moral. In that much-quoted 'love your enemy' the enemy does not cease to be one. It is there, before you, in opposition! The equally quoted 'I have come to bring not peace but a sword' tells exactly the essence of that conflict, the choice - sharp, precise, like the cutting edge of a sword - that we are called upon to make in countless, often difficult and delicate, situations.
These two biblical passages are not in opposition, they are bound together, tightly. Thanks to their juncture, we will not act out the conflict in a discrediting, insulting, infamous language. My action will not be an attempt to overpower, to subjugate, to coerce, to injure, to annihilate. What is war - any war, even that of candid and beautiful defensive intentions - if not the summation of ignominies sequentially raised to the nth power?
That there is an aggressor and an aggressed does not make the former into the bad guys and the latter into the good guys if the latter also agree to use the same violent, devastating and destructive instruments of war. Volumes of historical research and data collected by the UN throughout the last century and up to the present day certify that for every war - none excluded! - fought from 1940 to the present day, the civilian victims, the innocent, have always been between 80 and 90 per cent of the total number of those who have fallen under both sides’ actions. Massacres of defenceless men and women that is what wars are.
But then how to defend oneself against dictatorial regimes, against armed and military aggression? The very long and multiform history of nonviolent struggles is a history of resistance. A resistance that by now a long and thorough historiographical elaboration has recounted with great precision, in its undoubted and recurrent difficulties but above all in its numerous and unquestionable successes. Speaking of resistance, in the 21st century, without placing among the first and most fruitful options for managing the conflicts, particularly the most terrible and bloody ones, non-violent choice - choosing instead, and without delay, the armed and military option of war - is a subjugation to the violent and brutal thinking of the most trivial patriarchy. It is a willingness to remain hooked on the mists of the adversary’s destruction and annihilation option, with no qualms about the indiscriminate killing of men, women, and children.
In dozens of countries, from the fall of South American dictatorships to the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the successful fight against bloody and military regimes has been pre-eminently non-violent. The collapse of the South African regime, to take just one example, after more than 40 years of apartheid, came after the armed struggle was abandoned and the choice of non-violent resistance by the racist regime’s opponents. It came only after a long international trial that finally isolated the segregationist rulers in favour of Nelson Mandela's side. Yet this long and significant history still seems insufficient to convince of the final urgency of abandoning the war option.
The spectre today is surrendering.
That mobile and living attitude between resistance and surrendering, to which Bonhoeffer invited us from the Nazi prisons, with a very lucid and prophetic vision, is still overwhelmed by the miserable acceptance of the ancestral foundation, from which all crime stems. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, through which the adult male washes every outrage, in blood.
"One cannot give in to the brutal Russian invasion. It would consign the Ukrainian population to slaughter”, this is the assumption that would force Kiev to accept the field war.
Yielding, giving up means to lower oneself, to withdraw, it can be the sign of a fracture, of a break, but it also means to give, to agree, to succeed. To yield also means to pass, and here I immediately remember a game with multiple symbolic values, rugby.
As everyone knows, it is a demanding, rough game with strong physical contact. In rugby, you have to score a try, to pass the ball over the other team's goal line and stop the opponent by tackling, to prevent him from doing the same in turn. Tackling has rules but, basically you have to grab the opponent, block him, make him fall, make him 'give in' by trying to get hold of the ball. It is a game where the team sense is very strong. However, you only become strong by learning the art of yielding. It means, accepting at the same time to fall, to be stopped, blocked, shortly defeated in being able to dispose of your body, your will. And, at the same time, learning the art of yielding, even though in the other sense. That is, passing the ball to the free partner, the one who is behind you, but who advances with you, ready, in turn, to give you his 'support', to break free, to yield in turn until a player - but that will be the point at which the plan of the entire group will be fully configured - reaches the goal. Nelson Mandela must have sensed much of this game to assign it such great importance, both symbolic and material, in the reconstruction of a free South Africa.
So giving in is also a surrender. Most of the time, it is a noble act, a gesture of courage, especially when at stake is the salvation of human lives, whose loss could be a grave and insuperable wound. In surrendering, one almost never finds slothfulness, cowardice, disloyalty. Those are manifested, often unbeknownst to many, in the hidden plot, in the haggling. Surrendering, precisely by treasuring Bonhoeffer's reflections, by no means coincides with the end of the struggle. On the contrary, in many situations it represents its most incisive and lasting beginning. Every conflict has its moments of surrendering, of yielding.
These are struggle stages, particularly of non-violent struggle. Sometimes then - history is full of these moments - it is not possible to close or settle a conflict without 'intercession'. Which really means being in the middle, interposing oneself between two parties, accepting the consequent risks and responsibilities. There is nothing shameful about the act of yielding. It is hypocrisy, ambiguity and cowardice that have it.
Civic strength, mass opposition, the conviction that without consensus no dictatorship, no military occupation can last indefinitely were the authentic engine of change, of liberation, chosen by Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi, to name those closest to us in time. A resistance made up of boycotts, of sabotage, of non-cooperation would, even and especially in Ukraine, have enormous chances of success to make the Russian invader retreat to its borders and restore territorial integrity and freedom for its people.
In the first days after the invasion, we saw several spontaneous, powerful demonstrations of Ukrainian citizens going precisely in this direction. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian government has so far chosen the albeit understandable and legitimate path of armed defence through a military counter-offensive. And yet, it would be the task of a responsible and far-sighted international forum to point out the serious consequences of this choice, not to support and nurture it. As well as placing itself without delay on the side of the aggressed by exerting all the countless international pressures, which are becoming increasingly significant in an interconnected world, even at the cost of paying very high prices. The road to the conquest of freedom, the full exercise of human rights, social and civil justice and democracy without the widest sharing is a severed root, destined to wither, to disappear.