In James Clavell’s classic novel Shogun, two characters are arguing a point of politics. The Japanese Lord Toranaga states, “There are no ‘mitigating circumstances’ when it comes to rebellion against a sovereign lord.”
The Englishman Blackthorn retorts, “Unless you win.”
On September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War between Great Britain and the United States of America. The rebels of 13 English colonies had met the condition for “mitigating circumstances.” They began as traitors—they ended as patriots. The shooting phase of that war began in several Massachusetts towns and became known as the Battle of Lexington and Concord. It happened on April 19, 1775.
On May 16, 1943, German officials declared that a rebellion of Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto had been put down. Despite great valor and sacrifice on the part of the fighters, the Jewish population of Poland had spent the previous several years failing to meet the conditions for “mitigating circumstances.” As a result, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the ghetto were slaughtered. The shooting phase of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began on April 19, 1943.
In both conflicts, amateur fighters went up against professional soldiers, trained members of the major military force of their day. In both conflicts, naysayers predicted a swift and humiliating defeat for the rebels. In the case of Warsaw, they were right. In the case of Massachusetts, they were very wrong.
So what was the difference? Why did one end so well and one so badly?
The main difference seems to be in the groups themselves. Early Americans were famously combative, jealous of their prerogatives, and just generally not ready to put up with a lot of crap from anyone— even a king. They’d spent the last couple of centuries carving their colonies out of the homelands of other people who had been there first, and who often objected violently. Given how often they had had to fight Indians, the provincial militias were well-manned, well-equipped, and probably more experienced in actual warfare than the British regulars they met on the road from Concord.
The Patriots started it. The Massachusetts Circular Letter, the “Loyal Nine,” the Liberty Affair, the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the Continental Congress, the Suffolk Resolves, the Powder Alarm—Patriot propagandists had been making monkeys of the British occupiers for a decade, even while the “official” line remained that Americans only wanted better treatment, not separation.
Make no mistake: It was treason. British subjects were in rebellion against the duly constituted British government. But by the time the militia companies came scrambling along the roadside, harrying the Redcoats in a disorderly retreat from Concord to Boston, nobody cared anymore. It was time for blood, and the whole countryside turned out for it. On the morning of April 19, about 80 militiamen faced the British in Lexington. By the next morning, more than 15,000 surrounded Boston. The war hadn’t even been declared yet, but everybody knew it was on.
On the other hand, European Jews in the early 20th century had made a virtual culture of going along to get along. Prior to the Nazis, they figured they’d been oppressed by the very best, and they had always gotten through it by lying low and waiting for the oppressors to go away. Historically, that approach had often worked for them. We’re talking about people who survived the Diaspora and the Inquisition with their culture intact. Strong people who knew how to endure. They thought they knew about oppression, and saw the Nazis as just another temporary phase in their often unpleasant history.
Looking back on it with the glorious clarity of hindsight, it’s easy to shake our heads at them. What were they thinking? Why didn’t they fight when they could? But in a horribly ironic way, I think they’d actually been lulled by the very hardships they had endured all those centuries. They’d been robbed, they’d been raped, they’d been blamed for other people’s troubles, they’d been forcibly converted, they’d been scattered. All this their ancestors had survived, and they’d done it by staying quiet, lying low, out-waiting it. But until the Nazis, nobody had ever had the wherewithal to completely exterminate them, and they just couldn’t believe it was happening.
By April 19, 1943, after two major “resettlements” of hundreds of thousands of unresisting Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto (most of whom were never heard from again), a portion of those who had survived to that point finally accepted that there was nothing left to lose. They had very little to fight with—some pistols and grenades, a few rifles, Molotov cocktails. Hardly any ammunition. Most of them had never even held a gun. Their tactical position was absurd. They had no hope at all. And it’s clear, even after taking the official casualty numbers with a grain of salt, that they never really hurt the Germans very much.
Yet from April 19 to May 16, they held off a much larger German force: dying, sacrificing themselves one city block at a time, but never surrendering. The Germans resorted to destroying the Ghetto itself, block by block, until there was simply no place left to fight from. Few escaped. Few even tried to escape.
Heroic? Absolutely. But their brave resistance was doomed from the start because they’d waited too long.
If you consider provocation and the nature of the oppression a group suffers as justification for rebellion, the Warsaw fighters had a much better cause than the American Patriots did. The British weren’t trying to exterminate the Americans. The British Parliament had as good an argument as can be made about taxation, and the Americans were, after all, British subjects. If you compare the list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence— which wasn’t even written at the time of Lexington and Concord— with the outrages Americans currently endure under their own duly elected government, you have to wonder what our forefathers were so upset about.
But justification doesn’t determine success. Timing, circumstance, and planning do.
The American Patriots had given themselves all the advantages the European Jews threw away. The Patriots were well-equipped and quite competent with weapons. The Warsaw fighters had few weapons and didn’t know how to use them.
The Patriots had the support of much of the surrounding countryside. The Polish Underground didn’t like Jews much better than the Nazis did, and most of the help they promised never materialized.
The Patriots developed an intelligence and communication system that let them know what their enemies were doing and how best to respond to it. The European Jews ignored their danger for years, and barely even tried to resist.
For all the failings of the American provincial militias, on April 19, 1775, they were up to the task and they set the standard for the long war to come. Though few gave them much chance of ultimate victory, at least they’d taken the time to improve their odds before striking.
By comparison, on April 19, 1943, a small number of starved, doomed men and women simply determined that since they had to die, they would die on their feet. They had already thrown away all the time they had, and in the end they acknowledged it.
But it’s always history that gets to separate the patriots from the traitors, the heroes from the hopeless. If the Battle of Lexington and Concord had gone the other way, we’d all be speaking British English now and singing “God Save the Queen.” Maybe.
Sometimes it’s fun to speculate about what that would have brought. If independent American states hadn’t become the industrial juggernaut they did, would England have been swamped and destroyed by the Germans in World War II? Maybe we’d all be speaking German now. Or for that matter, without the involvement of an American president like Woodrow Wilson, maybe the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I would have been more reasonable, the Weimar German economy wouldn’t have collapsed, the operatic Nazis wouldn’t have risen, and there’d have been no WWII. Who knows?
Hindsight suggests that in the decades leading up to the rise of the Nazis, European Jews had one massive card they could have played to their advantage, had their mindset been just a little different. They were as culturally homogeneous as any ethnic group in history, and they were everywhere. The Nazis wanted to treat them like rats? They could have shown those heil-Hitlering oafs the kind of damage rats can do—if they’d planned for it, if they’d led circumstance instead of being driven before it, if they’d used the time they had instead of squandering it in false hopes.
The American Patriots did it right, and became heroes. The European Jews didn’t, and the Warsaw Ghetto fighters became footnotes to the Holocaust.
Ultimately, those two events of April 19 teach one lesson—the importance of timing, circumstance, and planning. There’s a time and a place to fight tyranny, especially when you’ve got to do it with guns. And the time is before you’re on your knees, waiting for the executioner.