Neil Funk-Unrau

Recovering Nonviolent History challenges the common conception that nations are created through war and through the blood of its warriors by presenting fifteen case studies of nation building through nonviolent resistance in the shadow of warfare. The authors of this publication assert that the bloody battles of liberation, so often glorified in subsequent national histories, may only mask or perhaps even subvert the task of developing a strong national identity through the quiet unheralded communal and collective actions of resistance.


The work begins with two introductory chapters that reinforce the themes tying together the case studies to follow. In the first, Bartkowski provides a general introduction to themes and examples. The second, written by Lee Smithey, provides a deeper theoretical context for understanding civil resistance in terms of social movement development and collective identity formation. Smithey introduces aspects of the interaction of identity and resistance which are implicit in many chapters, but which could have been discussed and developed more explicitly throughout the subsequent case studies as a way of strengthening the main arguments of the publication.


The book then presents five different geographical regions: Sub-Saharan Africa; North Africa and the Middle East; Asia and Oceania; Europe; and the Americas. Each section includes several case studies chosen to represent resistance movements less familiar to many political scientists and peace study scholars. Thus, the more familiar examples such as South African liberation from apartheid, and the Gandhian revolt against British colonialism, are deliberately excluded although other geographically nearby resistance movements are included so as to illustrate the wider but often unacknowledged international impact of these more famous situations.


The first section on Sub-Saharan Africa includes studies of Ghana, Zambia and Mozambique. While all three present interesting narratives of resistance and revolution, the analysis of civil resistance in Mozambique stands out as the strongest chapter in this section. Within a situation where military revolt generally is celebrated as the root of independence, Matt Meyer shows the necessity of nonviolent collective action for building a sustainable national identity and thereby ensuring the success of the subsequent military action.


The North Africa and Middle East section is the longest in the book, consisting of chapters on Algeria, Egypt, Iran and Palestine. The chapters on Algeria, Egypt and Iran focus on social movements of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, explaining how the collective action and identity formation inherent in these historical movements still shape the contemporary social and political context in this part of the world. This analysis once again challenges the concept of national identities created through violence. The chapter on Palestine provides a more recent example – the nonviolent movement in the late 1980s now known as the first intifada – but also does an excellent job of demonstrating how contemporary resistance, whether violent or nonviolent, is rooted in a tradition of nonviolent collective action.


The third section covers Asia and Oceania with case studies on Burma, Bangladesh and West Papua. All three situations demonstrate the importance of the assertion of local culture and language as effective means of resisting colonial occupation and creating national identities. Jason MacLeod’s chapter on West Papua should be commended for including a more deliberate and explicit examination of social movements than the other two case studies in this section. However, by focusing on a current struggle rather than on historical events and perceptions, this case study has less data for analysis than can be provided by the other chapters.


In the fourth section, European liberation struggles are presented in case studies on Hungary, Poland and Kosovo. The chapter on Hungary profiles Ferenc Deak, a mid-nineteenth century reformer, who may have been a significant influence for Gandhi. In the chapter on Kosovo, Howard Clark provides a unique perspective on one of the regions affected by the break-up of Yugoslavia. Clark makes the provocative assertion that nonviolent civil resistance was successful in delaying the outbreak of open ethnic warfare to such an extent that when violence did erupt, it was not nearly as destructive as it was in neighboring regions.


The fifth section, covering the Americas, includes only two case studies but both are intriguing choices to represent this huge and diverse geographical area. The first directly challenges the North American national mythology of the United States born out of a violent War of Independence, asserting that the birth of the nation actually occurred before war was declared through the many previous nonviolent campaigns against British taxation and governance. The second case study uses a similar lens to probe the historical record of two Cuban wars of liberation in the mid to late nineteenth century, and offers another narrative relatively unknown especially to North American English-speaking readers.


In the concluding chapter, Bartkowski briefly explores a series of issues that are raised by the case studies but never adequately discussed in them. These topics include the impact of gender dynamics in violent and nonviolent resistance, the roles of external parties to the conflict (whether potential allies, militant diaspora communities, etc.), and the international diffusion of the skills and knowledge required for effective nonviolent resistance. With perhaps a little too much presumption, the editor calls for the establishment of a new discipline of civil resistance studies. While this topic may be too narrow for another new interdisciplinary field, it has been and can remain an extremely important aspect of the peace and conflict studies discipline.


As can be expected in this type of volume, the quality of writing and the depth of analysis vary from chapter to chapter. As a whole the volume raises very important issues and questions, but too many of these are not explored in a consistently insightful manner. For example, the issue of the relationship between violent and nonviolent resistance could have been debated more thoroughly. Within the text the authors show that violent campaigns can arise from nonviolent campaigns, but violent campaigns also can subvert and disrupt the progress made nonviolently. Although both trajectories are addressed, there is not a thorough discussion regarding the complex relationship between violent and nonviolent political action. Also, more could be said about the overwhelming dominance of the warrior narratives of national origins, and about how the competing narratives of growth of national identity through civic collaboration can be fostered and given more prominence.


Given the wealth of material presented in this book, however, these are relatively minor concerns. The case studies provide much information and raise many provocative questions that can generate further study and research. An appendix consisting of a 50-page conflict summary chart provides an invaluable resource to enable the most thorough use of this text. In conclusion, this book is a fascinating read for the interested layperson and an excellent resource for any scholar interested in issues of war and nonviolence.


Neil Funk-Unrau, Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution Studies, Menno Simons College, Canadian Mennonite University. Review was published on Academic Council of United Nations System website, November 5, 2013.