When is Resistance Right?

For months, student members of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition had been staging protests, decrying their universities investments in the fossil fuel industry. On September 20, 2019, Divest Harvard partnered with other student organizations and professors to stage a walk-out and climate justice rally where they estimated 1,000 people had been in attendance. Five days later, the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition estimated that 1,500 students walked out in protest of “Yale’s unethical profit from climate destruction, Puerto Rican debt, and the fossil fuel industry.”[1] In mid-November, three Harvard students in white T-shirts sat outside the campus on a white sheet as three students in suits, bearing signs that read “Exxon,” “Shell,” and “Chevron,” poured motor oil over their heads. The oil spill was supposed to be a visceral representation of the damage caused by the fossil fuel industry and lack of human concern the students feel the fossil fuel industry effuses. While these student actions didn’t go completely unnoticed, they failed to generate much media coverage. As with most protests, the bigger the stage, the bigger the stakes, the bigger the response. Students needed fuel for their fire.

For their next protest, they chose November 23, 2019, the date of an event they knew would provide that fuel. It was the Game, a Harvard-Yale rivalry football game and a tradition dating to 1875. The match between Harvard and Yale’s football teams has been a time for fun and for showcasing school pride. Over 144 years, it has endured through changes to the rules of football, drafts, and wars. There have been small disruptions: in 2015, student protests against racism at Yale resulted in the cancellation of the Harvard-Yale participation challenge, a pre-Game fundraising competition between the two schools. The divestment activists at both schools knew that the Game was visible and the perfect opportunity for a protest. “The Game is the target of national media attention and many alumni return to watch it, making it a prime event at which to spread our message,” the organizers wrote on a website dedicated to explaining their actions and calling for more action.

On that Saturday, the initial trickle of bodies onto the field was thin. The coordinated groups had planned that about 150 students would rush the field. They appeared holding banners that said “Nobody Wins: Harvard and Yale Are Complicit” and “This is an emergency.” Students sat in the middle of the field. Then, like the droplets of a rainstorm, more and more students, alumni, and spectators streamed from the stands, creating a mass of people in the center of the field. The organizers thought that at least five hundred people occupied the green space. Their chants rang out across the stadium: “Hey hey, ho ho, fossil fuels have got to go!” and “What do we want? Divestment! When do we want it? Now!”. Then came a new chant: “OK Boomer!”, the cutting of-the-moment cry from millennials and Gen Z, young people tired of the excuses and simultaneous criticism they receive from the Baby Boomer generation. The protestors delayed the Game for nearly an hour and forty-two protesters were arrested and issued summonses for disorderly conduct. National news outlets picked up the story.

The OK Boomer chant preempted the criticism that the students must have known was looming on the horizon. The Washington Post quoted Chuck Crummie, Boomer and father of a former Yale football player, who said earnestly, “They’re all supposed to be intelligent people,” and “It goes to show that this generation is all about themselves and not a football game.”[2] A Harvard spokesperson wouldn’t comment on the protest for the article, but they added that the University doesn’t agree with divestment as a way to combat climate change. Yale University spokeswoman Karen Peart wrote in a statement that Yale stood with the Ivy League’s statement that, “It is regrettable that the orchestrated protest came during a time when fellow students were participating in a collegiate career-defining contest and an annual tradition when thousands gather from around the world to enjoy and celebrate the storied traditions of both football programs and universities.”[3] Peart added that Yale doesn’t allow students to disrupt any university events.

The Harvard and Yale students disrupted a large university event precisely because it could get the cause the attention they believe it needs. Yet the responses from the universities (and many upset spectators) begged the question: would there have been a right way for the students to stage this protest? If people in power refuse to accept criticisms against them, will they ever deem resistance acceptable?


On November 10, 1944, Bartholomäus “Barthel” Schink was one of thirteen boys and men unloaded from a truck in front of a gallows in the Ehrenfeld neighborhood of Cologne, Germany. He was just sixteen years old, weeks away from turning seventeen. The Gestapo had determined that he and the others were a terrorist group and had sentenced them to death. It wasn’t surprising that Schink and the others, who became known as the Ehrenfeld Group, were considered a dangerous resistance by the Nazis: the Gestapo had accused them of burglaries, weapons smuggling, and the sale of stolen goods. They had confessions in which Bartel and the others admitted to shooting a Nazi officer, stealing weapons, and plotting to blow up the Gestapo building in Cologne. Bartel had been a member of a teenage resistance group who called themselves the Edelweiss Pirates, part of a larger youth resistance movement during the Third Reich often called bündische Jugend. They were distinctly anti-Nazi and the Nazis thought their clothing style, songs, and meet-ups outside the Hitler Youth were dangerous to society. The Gestapo regularly rounded up teenagers who they suspected of being bündische, throwing them into prison, brutally interrogating them, and sometimes even sending them to youth reeducation camps. In the fall of 1944, the Nazis were desperately losing the war, and they had even less patience than before with any type of resistance activity. In those months, they arrested hundreds of people they believed to be resistance.

Fort X in Cologne. The Gestapo accused the Ehrenfeld Group of trying to steal bombs and munitions from this armory. Image courtesy of Kristina Gaddy.


In Connecticut, a person can be arrested for disorderly conduct if they “congregate with other persons in a public place and refuse to comply with a reasonable official request or order to disperse.” It is a Class C misdemeanor. The people who stormed the field during the Game and stayed after the police asked them to leave were doing something illegal. So, too, was Barthel. Not all Edelweiss Pirates committed armed resistance, but the way they lived their lives during the Third Reich often meant breaking the law, or at least behaving contrary to Nazi protocol. Some Edelweiss Pirates got into fights with the Hitler Youth, some handed out fliers with anti-war messages or painted anti-Nazi graffiti, some refused to join the Hitler Youth. Some simply dressed in a way that didn’t conform to Nazi standards, or went on unauthorized hikes, or sang songs that had anti-Nazi lyrics.

Gertrud Kühlem (center) with her friends on an unauthorized hike. Image courtesy of NSDOK.

Long after the end of World War II, Dr. Franz Josef Antwerpes, a politician in the regional government of North Rhine-Westphalia, commented that Bartel’s actions were criminal, and that Barthel was “not politically motivated according to the documents made available to us.”[4] He suggests that if Barthel’s actions had been politically motivated, it would qualify as resistance against the Nazi regime and the illegal vs. legal nature of his actions would change. But in a totalitarian state, isn’t refusing to comply political? Doesn’t it suggest that the non-compliant do not agree with the politics of the people in power? Isn’t it resistance?

The American and British occupiers right after the war didn’t see it that way. In examining the post-war perceptions of the Edelweiss Pirates, Perry Biddiscombe writes that the Allies believed the Edelweiss Pirates didn’t have “fundamental objections” to the Nazi state, just the control of the Hitler Youth.[5] The Allies had a theory that the disruption of life caused by war led to delinquent behavior and a “severe loss of respect for all forms of authority and [created] a growth of dissident youth cliques.”[6] They, too, were saying that what the Edelweiss Pirates had done wasn’t real resistance, it was just bad kids doing bad stuff. Because they did not have an organized group with a political message, their actions didn’t matter.

In their essay “Conceptualizing Resistance,” Jocelyn A. Hollander and Rachel L. Einwohner provide examples of how broad the definition of resistance is, and they examine what the word means contextually. They note that, “Scholars have used the term resistance to describe a wide variety of actions and behaviors at all levels of human social life (individual, collective, and institutional) and in a number of different settings, including political systems, entertainment and literature, and the workplace,” so it shouldn’t be surprising that, “there is little consensus on the definition of resistance.”[7] They reviewed social science papers with “resistance” in the title to try to define what scholars mean when they write about resistance. They found that acts labeled “resistance” can be large or small; coordinated or uncoordinated; vocal or silent; targeted at individuals, groups, organizations, governments, or social structures; and political or identity-based. They admit that all of the actions they describe are not considered resistance by all people.

However, they found two common elements in all of the literature they reviewed. Resistance included “a sense of action” and opposition.[8] Although the practical use of resistance is broad, these common elements make sense in the literal definition of the term. The word “resistance” originates from the Latin “to take a stand,” and was first used in the 14th century as an act or instance of exerting force in opposition. In German, the word for resistance is Widerstand and literally translates as “standing in opposition.” All of the actions of the Edelweiss Pirates, from hairstyles to bomb plots, qualifies as standing in opposition to the Nazis.

Memorial to the Edelweiss Pirates in the Ehrenfeld neighborhood of Cologne, with the names of those executed and portraits of resisters, including Gertrud Kühlem. Image courtesy of Kristina Gaddy.

Holland and Einwohner posit that the disagreements about the definition of resistance come from the concepts of recognition and intent. They ask: Must the action be recognized as resistance by others? Must a person be aware and intending to resist a power to qualify as resistance? From these two questions, they develop a framework to determine seven types of resistance, which include: overt, covert, unwitting, target-defined, externally-defined, missed, and attempted resistance.

In the strongest type of resistance, overt resistance, the act is intended as resistance by the actor, and the act is recognized as resistance by both the target and observers. In 1942, the Gestapo in Wuppertal found a flier that began, “To the subjugated German youth!” Created by and directed at young people, the hand-written message goes on to criticize the Nazis, saying “German youth, bring yourself to the fight for freedom and rights for your children and your children’s children, because if Hitler is to win the war, Europe will be in chaos and the world will be as enslaved as it was in its youngest days. Bring the bondage to an end before it is too late.”[9] The flier was clearly meant as resistance by the young people who created it, who disobeyed the law by creating it and who are asking other young people to stand in opposition to the Nazis and their ideology. It was also recognized as resistance by the Nazis, otherwise the Gestapo would not have collected it and kept it in their files on resistance within the Reich. Anyone in society would have seen it as resistance as well; they would have seen illegal criticisms of the Nazis and an attempt to disrupt “order.”

A photo from a hike with Edelweiss Pirates. On the back was written “Crazy World.” Image courtesy of NSDOK.

A more nuanced form is what Hollander and Einwohner term “missed resistance,” where the actor is conscious of resisting and the target also recognizes the actor as a resister, but the resistance is not recognized by an observer. In the case of the Edelweiss Pirates and associated groups, their clothing and hairstyles became a way to recognize each other and go against the Hitler Youth, and the Nazis saw their dress as a part of their resistance. The Guidelines for the Hitler Youth Patrol Duty outlined how to intervene against illegal bündische groups, claiming that these unauthorized youth groups constitute “antigovernment activity.” They also outline how to identify them by their “distinguishing characteristics” including “cut-up caps…decorated with a number of pins, buttons, feathers, etc.” and “leather sandals or tall leather boots with very short shorts, that often have tassels;… [and] checkered shirts and colorful handkerchiefs.”[10] But not every observer may have understood that this funny way of dressing constituted resistance against the Nazis, either because they didn’t understand the anti-Nazi stance that the young people had or because they didn’t believe clothing could be a form of resistance, a problem which persists for contemporary scholars. In analyzing their table, Hollander and Einwohner admit, “For some writers, it is inconceivable that seemingly apolitical hairstyle choices, for instance, could be considered in the same category as an expressly political march on Washington.”[11]


The definition of resistance in World War II has become much more specific than what Hollander and Einwohner put forward, yet a complete consensus still doesn’t emerge. It most often references actions against the Nazis in Germany and occupied territories, but less often talks about resistance within fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini, for example. Everything from attempting to kill Nazis, to refusing compliance, committing sabotage, creating anti-Nazi fliers or newspapers, or listening to illegal radio has been considered resistance, and yet the German government wouldn’t recognize Barthel Schink as a resister. But in 1984, Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims and heroes of the Holocaust, designated Barthel and fellow Edelweiss Pirate Jean Jülich as “Righteous Among the Nations,” or “non-Jews who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust.” The actions of the Pirates and other bündische youth groups also qualify as resistance according to the European Resistance Archive’s definition. The ERA writes that German resisters, “In spite of terror and persecution, … addressed the population in flyers, newspapers and paroles at house walls, supported accused ones, sabotaged the war production, contacted forced labourers and prisoners of war, put up resistance in concentration camps and confinement sites.”[12]

In the social history Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition, and Racism in Everyday Life, Detlev Peukert examines how German citizens reacted to Nazi policies in their lives. Believing resistance to be a much narrower concept than many historians and scholars believe, he created a chart of “dissident” behavior. He judges behavior based on the scope of the criticism, ranging from partial to general, and the sphere in which it occurs, ranging from public to private. Peukert determines that resistance is dissident behavior that is public and broad, meaning people who protested openly and vocally against the entirety of the Nazi state. He sees protest as slightly less general, directed toward a particular policy or action, using the Catholic Church’s criticism of euthanasia policies as an example. Refusal is another middle ground of dissident behavior; Peukert writes that refusals “were more than just breaches of particular norms of the system” and “undertaken in opposition, say, to orders issued by authorities,”[13] for example. To Peukert, and to many others, the Edelweiss Pirates fell at the very lowest end of dissident behavior: they were simply not conforming to how the Nazis wanted people to act. He said that they did not follow “an explicit political doctrine”[14] and didn’t want to integrate into Nazi Germany. Rather than standing in opposition to the Nazis, they were unangepasst, non-conformist.

Graffiti documented by the Gestapo in December 1942 with the words “PX Heil,” possibly a reference to Chi Rho or Jesus Christ, or the banned Catholic youth groups. Image courtesy of Landesarchiv NRW.

Peukert is more sympathetic to the Edelweiss Pirates and other bündische youth groups than many German scholars have been. He admits that their unauthorized hikes both allowed them to “withdraw from the constraints of the world of adults,” but also “took on a political charge.”[15] He also writes that there is no consensus on the Pirates, but they “were neither merely ‘deprived children’ (or delinquents) nor unimpeachable political resistance fighters.”[16] For years after the war, in the Ehrenfeld neighborhood of Cologne where Barthel Schink was hanged in 1944, people murmured that the Pirates were delinquents. They might say that some of the Pirates had stolen food, which may have been true, but was a claim gleaned from forced confessions taken by the Gestapo and from lies that store owners told after they themselves illegally sold goods on the black market. Some Pirates admitted they stole weapons, but people accused them of doing so solely their own protection rather than as any type of resistance. Other people said that their desire was to simply end the war, to end the Nazi regime, and their lack of thought about building a democratic state after the war didn’t disqualify them as a resistance movement. Boiling this down, some observers might say that the Edelweiss Pirates were selfish and stupid, or that they simply weren’t resisting in the right way. They shouldn’t have stolen food, they shouldn’t have connected with escaped concentration camp prisoners, they shouldn’t have stolen weapons, they shouldn’t have attempted armed resistance, they should have been more overtly political, they should have had a political message, they should have done their protest in a more civil manner. But did they have another choice?

If to resist is to stand up to an opposing force, it is also to be asked to be knocked down. Resistance is often derided as inconvenient for everyday society, a selfish disruption. Protests cause disorder and are often cause for arrest. What happened to the Edelweiss Pirates and other bündische groups during the Third Reich isn’t surprising, given the ruthlessness and complete control of the Nazi regime. And then, after the US Army arrived in Cologne and the war ended, the Pirates were devalued and dismissed. The Pirates didn’t have a defined political ideology, and yet after the war they were often accused of wanting to get rid of occupiers and of having Communist and Socialist sympathies. During the occupation of Germany and the following Cold War, no Allied government was likely to celebrate their legacy. They never resisted in the right way, which really meant that they didn’t resist in a way that people around them agreed with. We like to believe that the righteous will be recognized and venerated, but the treatment that the Edelweiss Pirates have received shows the lie. “To resist” is also defined as “to withstand the force of.” Resistance is withstanding the force denigration, insults, and arrests. Resistance won’t be right if it is being done right.

By many definitions, the pro-divestment students are resisting. They know they are standing up against an opposing force, their school administrations. They are also withstanding the forces of being arrested or dispersed from protesting. With these basic definitions, they are resisting. By Detlev Peukert’s dissident behavior chart, however, the students are not necessarily a resistance movement, but simply protesting. Although their criticism is political and very public, it is only against a particular policy of the universities, not say, the universities’ financial system as a whole.

In Hollander and Einwohner’s chart, the students fall somewhere between overt resistance and missed resistance. The protesters at the Game knew they wanted to disrupt play, and the universities and the Ivy League condemned the action, so both the actor and the target acknowledged it as resistance. But part of determining the type of resistance also relies on positing a universal, although contextualized, observer, which assumes that everyone will see the same action in the same way, or at least designate the action as resistance or not. But what about the observers in this situation? Chuck Crummie saw that they were protesting, but he thought that it was a selfish, stupid action—he did not name it a politically motivated act of resistance. The over 2,500 comments on The Washington Post article about the protest range from focusing on the football game to the merits of yelling “OK Boomer,” but at least one person commenting on the article saw the action as a protest and students “taking their institutions’ managers to task.” And the faculty of Harvard recognize the ongoing protests: in February 2020, they overwhelmingly voted for fossil fuel divestment, which according to The Washington Post, “add[s] considerable weight to calls from students and activists.”[17]

As for their own determination of what they were doing, Harvard and Yale students, in their press releases and on their website, use many verbs to describe their actions: “demand,” “fight,” “stand together,” “disrupt,” “act,” “sit-in,” “challenge,” and “hold accountable.” Absent from descriptions of their actions: the words resist or resistance, even if we recognize that the words they use fall could qualify as resistance. Perhaps for them, the word resistance isn’t enough, just standing in opposition to the universities’ policies is not enough. Like climate activist Greta Thunberg told leaders at the World Economic Forum in 2019, hope and fear are not enough: “I want you to act, I want you to act as if you would in a crisis.” Resistance must include action.

The Edelweiss Pirates who survived the war believed that the actions they had taken made them part of the resistance, whether or not others recognized them as such. From 1945 to 2005, no one thought that the actions Gertrud Kühlem had taken during the war were resistance, even though she had been arrested by the Gestapo for her suspected involvement in illegal meetings and flyering. “We fought for the recognition of our Edelweiss Group as a political resistance group,”[18] she writes at the end of her memoir.  Another bündische youth group member, Fritz Theilen, who was sent to a youth camp writes that he and others, “have a place in the history of resistance against National Socialism.”[19] Their resistance to oppressive regimes was, like young people’s resistance to our own era’s political inaction and systemic violence, never quite right. Too little disruption or too much, too tightly focused or too broad, too idealistic or not idealistic enough. The final part of resistance must be taking that action against the oppressor, whether or not anyone will say it was resistance.


[1] Yale Daily News, “Resounding Voices: Yale Climate Strike,” Facebook, September 27, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/YaleDailyNews/videos/400717533945641/

[2] Jacob Bogage and Hannah Knowles, “Students swarm field at Harvard-Yale football game, chant ‘OK boomer’ in climate change protest,” The Washington Post, November 24, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2019/11/23/climate-change-protesters-swarm-harvard-yale-football-game-with-chants-ok-boomer/

[3] Associated Press, “Harvard-Yale Halftime Protest Results in Charges for 42,” The Wall Street Journal, November 25, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/harvard-yale-halftime-protest-results-in-charges-for-42-11574701436

[4] Kuchta, Walter. Personal archive of the former president of the Vereinigung der Verfolgten des Naziregimes–Bund der Antifacschistinnen und Antifaschisten (VVN-BdA), Cologne. Now belongs to the VVN-BdA.

[5] Perry Biddiscombe, “The Enemy of our Enemy: A View of the Edelweiss Pirates from the British and American Archives,” Journal of Contemporary History 30, no. 1 (January 1995): 43.

[6] Ibid., 46.

[7] Jocelyn A. Hollander and Rachel L. Einwohner, “Conceptualizing Resistance,” Sociological Forum 19, no. 4 (December 2004): 534, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4148828

[8] Ibid., 538.

[9] Landesarchiv Nordrhein-Westfalen. LAV NRW, R: Ger. Rep. 17/230, Bl.003.05. (My translation as it appears on p. 111 of my book Flowers in the Gutter).

[10] Dittmar, Simone. Wir Wollen frei von Hitler sein:’ Jugendwiderstand im Dritten Reich am Beispiel von der Kolner Edelweisspiraten (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2010), 28. (My own translation as it appears on pp. 56-57 of Flowers in the Gutter).

[11] Hollander and Einwohner, 546.

[12] European Resistance Archive, “The Resistance Movement in Germany,” https://www.resistance-archive.org/en/resistance/germany/

[13] Detlev Peukert, Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition, and Racism in Everyday Life (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1987), 84.

[14] Ibid., 164.

[15] Ibid., 156.

[16] Ibid., 162.

[17] Susan Svrluga, “Harvard faculty votes overwhelmingly to call for divesting endowment from fossil fuels,” The Washington Post, February 5, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/02/05/harvard-faculty-votes-overwhelmingly-call-divesting-endowment-fossil-fuels/

[18] Koch, Gertrud. Edelweiss: Meine Jugend als Widerstandskämpferin. Rowohlt Verlag: Hamburg, 2006. p. 253

[19] Theilen, Fritz. Edelweiss Piraten. Hermann-Josef Emons Verlag: Köln, 2009, p. 149.