Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity and Ingenuity Can Change the World, by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson, Union Square RRP £9.99, 240 pages
On October 9 1989, about 70,000 citizens of Leipzig in what was then communist East Germany marched through the streets demanding more political freedom. This was not just any demonstration. It followed weeks of similar protests, but on this occasion the authorities had made clear that they would use lethal force to break it up.
Those who marched that Monday night were very brave, knowing that they might not return home. The protesters, as the account in this powerful new book notes, “chanted, ‘no violence’, even as they braced for the gunfire”. In fact, no guns were fired. The authorities “became too frightened of the crowds’ lack of fear” and backed down. The stand-off was one of the key triggers for the fall of the Berlin Wall exactly a month later.
A few years ago, I walked the route the marchers took that night and found myself wondering what had been going through their minds. What induced them to risk everything? They could not have known that their sacrifices would have changed anything. Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson’s book Small Acts of Resistance seeks answers to these questions, focusing not just on Leipzig in 1989 but on about 80 other similar acts.
They include well-known cases, such as ordinary people shielding Jews from the Nazis and the businessman who protected Tutsis made famous by the film Hotel Rwanda. But the more obscure examples are equally heroic. My favourites include efforts by Nepali journalists to evade a media ban by asking a comedian to present news as “entertainment” (an acceptable genre to the censors); and the Sudanese woman who went to jail for wearing trousers.
The authors are committed social activists – Crawshaw works for Amnesty International, while Jackson is an anti-poverty campaigner turned media manager. So the book is, in some ways, an explicit call to arms, encouraging us not to be complacent or defeatist, but to recognise how often change appeared impossible, then happened. In many ways this is uplifting. The book reminds us that totalitarian regimes are essentially nasty places. This sometimes gets lost in, for example, media coverage of China (rising superpower), Cuba (cool holiday hangout) or North Korea (quirky backwater); but the accounts here of pre-1989 eastern Europe, current-day central Asia and Burma, tell a much harsher tale. Stories of people standing up to the excesses of the new counter-terrorism culture in post-9/11 Europe and the US are equally stirring.
There are shortcomings. Organised as a compendium for dipping into, as much as to be read cover-to-cover, the accounts are a somewhat eclectic mix. Each is only a few pages or less, sometimes leaving a sense that rough but potentially significant corners have been rubbed off. But the book does bring us closer to understanding why people act for the greater good. The authors, perhaps wisely, do not attempt complicated analyses of these motivations. Instead they argue that while “realists” find excuses for why action would be futile, others “are brave or deluded enough to believe they can change things, if enough people only believe change is possible”.
Often, most challengingly, the decision to act boils down to people simply doing what they believe anyone else would, or should, do in the situation. The now-famous example of “Neda”, the ordinary-but-extraordinary Iranian student shot and killed last year at an anti-government protest, brings this home. Her death was an internet-fuelled rallying cry for those fighting injustice in Iran. And her explanation to her anxious mother, only hours before mounting her fateful protest? “If I don’t go out, who will?”
Hugh Williamson is the FT’s Europe news editor and former Berlin correspondent