Gene Sharp on non-violent action

Gene Sharp, three time nominee for the Nobel Peace Price, is known for his writings on non-violent action and is widely seen as the one to have created a consistent theory around it. His writings have inspired many advocacy and grass-roots groups, recently he has become popular across the Middle East: Egypt, Tunisia and even Iran.

Certainly not that common for  an academic to have that kind of impact on the world, so lets look at his theory starting with some basics.

What is the Structure-Agency Debate?

Basically it is about where we think power lies in society and where change originates. The term sounds rather abstract, but really this debate is fundamental to how we think about change and worth engaging with. Whenever we take part in political debates we usually make assumptions about it.

Many people use overarching phenomena like, states, structures in world politics (anarchy), capitalism, patriarchy etc. to explain why things happen, why certain thing change or remain stable. These “structures” consist of patterns of behavior which are practiced all the time and are thus believed to have a power of their own. Karl Marx was a big structuralist, because he thought that the economic system determines the way society works, not a single individual. Kenneth Waltz is a structuralist because he believes the international system is the most important factor determining how states behave, not the individual states themselves. Anyway, you get the point (if not leave a comment).

Others thing that really doesn’t allow enough room for movement because if we all hang in these systems like puppets, how does anything ever change, and besides who would like to think of themselves as a puppet? Most of them (all I’ve ever heard of) believe that the individual (the agent) has some measure of impact.

Gene Sharps Contribution

Sharp came up with a powerful theory about why agency mattered, specifically in the context of non-violent grass-roots action. He argues societies are divided in rulers and subjects, rulers have power only as a result of the subjects’ consent. Non-violent action is a way of withdrawing consent and leads to ruler’s power collapsing. Simple enough.

He does argue that power is pluralistic, it is placed in many “loci of power” across society, meaning, big businesses, civil society groups etc. also have power and counteract the ruler.

Because consent is so important for rule Sharp also thinks about why people consent to be ruled. He suggests out of habit, fear of sanctions, moral obligation, self-interest, psychological identification with the ruler, indifference, absence of self-confidence etc. Some of these factors are linked to structures. For example, it has been argued that socialist dictatorships in Eastern Europe used to systematically dis-empower their people to the degree that they did not have the self-confidence etc. to confront injustices (check out The Authoritarian Personality). Equally if a ruler sets up a system in which it is in peoples’ economic interest to obey, that also is a way to bringing structure back in. In a way structure is a different kind of consent, or means of generating or securing consent.

At any rate Sharps theory may be simplistic, but the overall message is that individuals matter and can effect change. Not by sitting around and disagreeing with politicians, like doubtless most of us do, but by taking action (non-violently) against these “rulers” of ours.

Let me know how it works out for you guys!


Martin, B. (1989). Gene Sharp’s Theory of Power. Journal of Peace Research, 26(2), 213-222.

Sharp, G. (1973). The Politics of Non-viloent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent.

Sharp, G. (1980). Social Power and Political Freedom. Boston: Porter Sargent.

Adorno, T., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levison, D., & Sanford, N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper and Row.



What is Peace? Or, why Pacifists talk so much about War?

Peace is said to be the most desired value in all societies. Why? You can define it almost any way you like!

The absence of war, or more?

Every gun that is made,
every warship launched,
every rocket fired signifies in the final sense,
a theft from those
who hunger and are not fed,
those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone.
It is spending the sweat of its laborers,
the genius of its scientists,
the hopes of its children.
This is not a way of life at all in any true sense.

Looking at this speech of Dwight Eisenhower, he is advocating peace as the absence of violence. Early secular pacifist traditions in Europe, were essentially anti-war movements. Until today we refer to people as pacifists who to some degree reject war or violence. Thus peace is even in everyday vocabulary defined negatively (the absence rather than the presence of something). I have been catching myself writing this blog more about war then peace.

Similarly academics studied conflict before studying peace explicitly, then they realised it made more sense to talk about how you get what you want rather than about what you don’t want, so now we do Peace Studies.

Johan Galtung, the man synonymous with Peace Studies, divided two types of peace:
• Negative Peace, the absence of direct / physical violence, and
• Positive Peace, the presence of social justice and absence of structural and cultural violence (see below)

Positive Peace

Galtung, too, initially approached peace as a negative, not the absence of war, but of violence. He defined violence as

an avoidable insult to human need, and more generally to life

and argued that there are three types of violence:


Direct violence is physical violence or the threat of it. Structural violence is social injustice, lack of access to food, any systematic or institutionalised injustice. Cultural violence are symbols, ideas and ideologies in our culture which can be used to justify violence (direct or structural). Racial theory and Social Darwinism were for example ideas which justified the apartheid system in South Africa, which exercised both structural and direct violence.

However this positive definition is inherently problematic. Leo Sandy and Ray Perkins comment rightly, that

It is difficult not to see in these “positive” approaches to the definition of “peace” radical implications for a reorganization of our society and, indeed, our entire world.
As soon as we give a more substantive meaning to peace it becomes controversial, you define it as whatever you find desirable for your society, naturally people differ.
Therefor pacifists, like myself, often stick to what can be most “neutrally” argued against – war.



Bar-Tal, D. (2002). The Elusive Nature of Peace Education. In G. Solomon & B. Nevo (Eds.), Peace Education: The Concept, Principles and Practices in the World (pp. 27-36). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Elbaum.

Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research, 6(3).

Galtung, J. (1996). Peace by Peaceful Means: Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilization. Oslo/London: PRIO/Sage Publications.



Commemorating the Wehrmacht? Germany since 1945

I used to think of Germany as universally apologetic about pretty much anything to do with World War II. Now I have made the (for me) surprising discovery that a number of war monuments across Germany were built to commemorate Wehrmacht soldiers.

I will introduce the major memorials to the Wehrmacht built and/or maintained after 1945 here.

The Laboe Naval Memorial

ohne Überschrift

Laboe Naval Memorial, finished in 1936 and opend by Hitler personally it was initially to commemorate the naval forces of World War I. Under British occupation the memorial was almost destroyed in response to  Directive No. 31 which ordered the destruction of militarist or national socialist monuments and museums in Germany. The British decided it was non of these and handed it back to the German Naval League in 1954. Since then it has been remodeled twice to fit the changing attitudes to World War II in Germany.

The inscription dedicates it today to the

‘Sailors of all nations who died at sea’ and as a ‘memorial for peaceful sailing in open seas’

Nevertheless, it has bee question whether the building will ever really make the transition to a peaceful commemoration site.

Monument to the German Resistance


The Monument to the German Resistance, the statue was initially unveiled in 1953 and commemorates the plot of 20 July 1944, an attempt to over through Hitler by members of the Wehrmacht, aristocrats and administrators. The plot was chiefly organised from the Bendlerblock, a military administration center which today houses the memorial.

In the West German state the members of the plot were commemorated both as heroes of the resistance and victims of Nazi rule, in an effort to establish a positive legacy from World War II. It has been said that in this process their achievements were exaggerated at the expense of other resistance groups. The commemoration of the military and conservative resistance was also a clear move to separate Western German commemoration from Eastern German commemoration, which focused on the communist resistance instead, and thus an early Cold War maneuver.

However, the monument only became gradually accepted by the public who had long viewed Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg as a traitor. In 1952 a politician was taken to court for stating this. When Germany re-militarised acceptance of Stauffenberg was a recruitment criteria for new officers.

Memorial to the Airforce


Completed in 1966 with private donations in Fürstenfeldbruck, the Airforce Memorial is a round complex with an iron cross embedded into the ground. The inscription reads,

‘To the dead of the air force and air travel’

In 1977 a phrase was added,

‘You are not forgotten’

Together with the Memorial of the German Army and the Laboe Naval Memorial it is seen to represent the three military categories.

Memorial to the German Army


Built in 1972 on the fort of Ehrenbreitstein near Koblenz, the Memorial to the German Army was intended to replace the Neue Wache memorial, which West Germany was cut off from by the wall. In style it is the most classic war memorial built since 1945, with a grave of an unknown soldier, the iron cross and the original inscription:

‘To the death of the German Army 1914 – 1918 + 1939 – 1945. Their legacy: Peace’

The current inscription reads:

‘To the dead of the German Army’

I find it difficult to comprehend how this memorial, built with Bundeswehr funds as well as donations did not inspire more protest. Especially compared to the new Bundeswehr Memorial which was so controversial even though it does not commemorate Wehrmacht soldiers. Rüdiger Scheideges suggests it maybe because this monument is so far away from both Bonn and Berlin, as centers of power. While it was considered to built it in Bonn at the time, that was seen as sending the wrong message and since Berlin is now that capital, this monument is even more provincial.

Neue Wache Memorial


The Neue Wache building is historically significant and has been a military memorial dedicated and rededicated to may wars. After German reunification it was remodeled as Germany’s national memorial:

‘To the victims of war and tyranny’

As such it is the only “national” memorial which includes in its memory fallen Wehrmacht soldiers. This memorial has been criticised mainly for lumping together both victims and perpetrators of World War II as well as for suggesting a comparison between Nazi tyranny and “socialist tyranny”.

The first of these phenomena the view of Germans and even German soldiers as victims of Nazism and World War II has been evident since the 1950s and the inscription phrase became popular for monuments across Germany. Scholars such as Elke Grenzer and Sabine Moller have written extensively about this.

Since 1990 the comparison between the Nazi regime and the Socialist dictatorship in East Germany arose and is also expressed in the Neue Wache Memorial. Particularly conservative politicians in Germany were seen as seeking to relativise the German Nazi past by focusing on exposing the crimes of SED and Stasi. Multiple museums and memorial places have been created which commemorate victims of both Nazism and Socialism. However, the Socialist dictatorship has not come to replace the Holocaust centered memory.


Alliierter Kontrollrat. Kontrollratsdirektive Nr. 30 Beseitingung Deutscher Denkmähler and Museen Militärischen Und Nationalsozialistischen Characters. Berlin: Amptsblatt des Kontrollrats in Deutschland, 1946.

Deutscher Marinebund. “Das Marine-Ehrenmal in Laboe.” Deutscher Marinebund,

Gedenksätte Deutscher Widerstand. “Der Bendlerblock 1945 Bis Heute.”

———. “Geschichte.”

Gedenktafeln in Berlin. “20. Juli 1944.”

Georg, Hans. “Kein Kritischer Wandel: Neue Marine-Austellung in Laboe Verwischt Täter- Und Opferperspectiven.” Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 07/07/2010 2010.

Grenzer, Elke. “The Topography of Memory in Berlin: The Neue Wache and the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 11, no. 1 (2002): 93-110.

Jaworski, Rudolf, and Witold Molik. Denkmähler in Kiel Und Posen: Paralellen Und Kontraste. Kiel: Ludwig, 2002.

Kuratorium Ehrenmal des Deutschen Heeres e.V. “Ehrenmal Des Deutschen Heeres.” Deutsches Heer,

Mitting, Hans-Ernst. “Zum Bundeswehr-Ehrenmal: Zeitbezug, Ortswahl, Material.” Zeitgeschichte Online,

Moller, Sabine. Die Entkonkretisierung Der Ns-Herrschaft in Der Ära Kohl. Hannover: Offizin Verlag, 1998.

Niven, Bill, and Chloe Paver. Memorialization in Germny since 1945. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2010.

Scheideges, Rüdiger. “Schwieriges Gedenken.” Handelsblatt, 17/07/2007 2007.

Thielen, Katharina. “Das Ehrenmal Des Deutsche Heeres.” Institut für Geschichtliche Landeskunde an der Universität Mainz e.V.,


Do states have to use violence to defend their people?

I have recently been asked by Dave Frame whether there are states which do not threaten violence when they are threatened, and whether these threats do not keep the people in these countries ultimately safer.

There are many possible approaches to answering these questions and I will try to cover a few different angles here.

Are states always violent?

Some have argued that the state as an institution is prone to the use of violence. Charles Tilly said

‘War made the state and the state made war’

The idea is that there may be a connection between the organised use of force and the emergence of the modern state. This particularly targeted at European state formation. For example after the French revolution, France was able to raise a citizen army, bigger than the previous professional armies, which revolutionised warfare. Since then war became more and more “total”, especially with the involvement of strong fascist states until World War II.

If the state is the problem by definition, then perhaps it is worth considering the state as the primary unit of international politics, can we change it? Can we change the institutional structures in which international politics is conducted? If so, in what way? Some people argue that the state in its current form is losing power anyway, to international organisation and regimes.

What exactly do states protect?

We also need to consider that the safety of the people is by no means synonymous with the safety of the state. In fact, the state can be the greatest threat to the security of its people, e.g. through human rights violations. As a result the term “human security” has been introduced to capture the idea of keeping people safe.

It has been argued that above all the state defends itself as an institution, mainly consisting of its governance structures and clearly defined territory. Noam Chomsky suggests another interpretations, that

‘States are violent to the extent that they have the power to act in the interests of those with domestic power … ‘

What I’m trying to say here is that we need to nuance our idea of what the state is, what it protects and which means it is willing to use to protect what or who.

Does the use of force make people safer?

So, depending on the threat a state is responding to and for whose protection this could make the countries’ people more or less safe. We just need to think about a few examples:

Is Ukraine’s “civil war” fought to protect the Ukrainian people? Who are the Ukrainian people? From what are they protected, e.g. violence in general, Russian control, self-determination (depending on standpoint)?

Did the war on terror make American citizens safer? From terrorism, from attacks in the Middle East or in their own ideology, lifestyle? Did it strengthen the American state, its government? Did that make the people safer?

I think it is possible that in certain instances the aggressive behaviour of states can ensure their citizens physical safety. However, I would point to two limitations of that approach:

  1. State aggression will not lead to a more harmonious relationship with other states and societies, so the safety that can be achieved through violence is very limited. This point also leads back to what security you think is possible based on your view of human nature, see my post on Are humans naturally violent?
  2. It is also worth pointing out that the aggressive behaviour of states equally leads to the escalation of conflicts which endanger their citizen, such as in the case of World War I.

Thus I think where you stand on this question depends on what sort of security you’re aiming at and whether you think aggression is more likely to protect people than to endanger them unnecessarily.

Are there peaceful states?

Even though states are generally quite aggressive, there are instances when states do not respond violently to issues which most states would respond to violently.

One example is the UK accepting the prospect of losing a substantial section of its territory based on a popular vote. Secessionist struggles around the world lead in most cases to a violent response by the state, because territory is as mentioned above such an integral part of the state as an institution. However the UK does not consider Scotland’s secession a threat. Arguably democratic states in general seek other ways of dealing with this issue, think of Canada and Quebec.

So really, it comes down to what the state sees as an existential threat. George W Bush labelled international terrorism and existential threat and tried to use force to stop it. Many states consider threats on their people a threat, in some cases they don’t. This leads us to the issue that really whether a state uses force in response to something depends on how it constructs reality, what is a threat and what is not. If it is a threat how dangerous is it.

What about the people in other states?

Here we come to another issue. While states may care about protecting their own people, there are intense arguments as to whether they are also responsible for the lives of people beyond their borders. This is typically understood in the context of humanitarian interventions and a UN document called the Responsibility to Protect, which demanded international intervention when governments violently abuse the rights of their populations, suggesting other states do have a duty to protect people outside their borders.

This responsibility can be understood in two ways, either it gives states to duty to use force against those who are seen to threaten the populations of other states. Or, it gives them a duty to also consider the citizens of other states when they are using violence to defend their own populations.

So …

I think Dave is right, states do tend to behave violently when they are (or consider themselves to be) threatened. However sometimes they don’t feel threatened even when their core defining characteristics are on the line. States do not always make threats when their citizens are in danger; in fact, often they put them in danger themselves.

Whether the threat or use of violence is really any good at protecting a state’s citizens really depends on how you compare this possibility to the danger of creating a violent confrontation out of nowhere, thus endangering your citizens. It is also a question of what sort of security you want to realise. You might be able to secure the physical security of a people but perhaps there will never be a positively peaceful relationship.

Sorry, I realise I got a bit carried away here, I still think I’m only scratching on the surface here …



Berta von Suttner’s critique of military nationalism

Born into the militarised aristocracy of the Austro-Hungarian empire Berta von Suttner (1843-1914) critically reflected on the culture and contradictions of the nationalism which surrounded her. She was a close friend of Alfred Nobel and the first woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. One of her pet ideas was the creation of an international court or organisation to mediate international disputes.

Her best known book ‘Lay down your arms!’ is written as a novel, the calculation being that advocacy is more powerful when combined with entertainment rather than presented in lecture style. The book’s style is perhaps comparable to Elisabeth Gaskell’s North and South, though the political message is more dominant.

Quotes from the book (translations are my own):

Usually the majority of people is unaware why and how a war comes about. They see it coming for a while, then it starts. And while it lasts no-one inquires after the small differences in interest or opinion which caused it, focusing instead on the important events which it brings. And is it finally over, one remembers only once personal loss and terror or once triumph and gain. The political reasons are not remembered.

Every war – whatever its result – inevitably contains the seed of a war to follow it.

It has been my experience that treaties are often there to be violated and produce what one calls a ‘casus belli’ (just cause for war).

She also highlights six core arguments for war in aristocratic society:

1. War is created by god

2. Wars always existed, consequently they will always exist

3. There would be to many people, if they would not be occasionally decimated

4. Continues peace breads weakness in society

5. War creates the opportunity for heroism and sacrifice

6. People will always argue, therefore perpetual peace is impossible

Antiquated or still relevant?


War was always there, right?

Most people realise that war and violence have changed in character radically say from the crusades, over the Napoleonic Wars, World Wars to asymmetric guerrilla warfare. However, often we assume that in some form it has always been part of human existence, or at least so did I.

I visited the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle (Germany), in the middle of Stone Age bones and mammoths the exhibition recorded the beginning of organised warfare in central Europe. It was some time in the Neolithic period. How do the archaeologists know? They found that up to that time humans only had hunting weapons, no weapons made to hurt humans. They might have used them in the occasional brawl but nothing of any scale. However, when warfare began to emerge they started crafting instruments specifically for this purpose. What was so special about this time?

It was the single most fundamental revolution of human existence – the beginning of agriculture. Agriculture meant people settled down, they divided-up plots of land. As a result they became dependent on this land, property rights and inheritance became an issue. They were able to produce more food, have more children and were able to store surplus food. Thus some people grew wealthier then others and social hierarchies arise. What has all that got to do with war? The archaeologists conclude that war arose during this time (1) because suddenly there were surplus resources and wealth to fight for and (2) there was now a more hierarchical society, which meant that some people had enough power and control over others to get them to fight together. It probably also helped that people had more children and populations grew.

So, am I saying let’s go back to hunter-gatherer-life? No, also some do, check out John Zerzan if you want to go there. The idea behind this is simple. If war has not always been there, it doesn’t always have to be there in the future.

Is war-making is old and peace-making new?

Related to the question above there is sometimes the perception, that while war has existed for a long time, even if not forever, ideas about peace and human rights are reasonably new. This idea is often a result of the way we think about history: a progression of wars and battles. Some academics have become so disillusioned with this aspect of history education that they claim it should be termed “violence studies” instead. Early movements to limit warfare and its impact were grass-roots groups, which are easily overlooked with we associate history with elites.

Where efforts to limit warfare are associated with elites, they are also more known. The best example is perhaps, Just War Theory, the basic rules about when war is thought to be acceptable. These kinds of rules exist in many cultural traditions, in Christianity they are associated with Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas and thus promoted through the institution of the church. Overall, the history of peace-making is just as long and rich than that of war-making. It is just a different kind of history.


State Museum of Prehistory, Halle

Page, J. (2000). Can History Teach us Peace? Peace Review, 12(3), 441-448.

Boulding, E. (2000). Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

And lectures by Dr Leticia Anderson, University of Sydney, 2014


State Museum of Prehistory,, 27/08/2014