From the first day of Donald Trump’s presidency, millions of Americans have taken to the streets to challenge what they see as his unprecedented efforts to destroy this country’s democratic institutions and to turn back the clock on social and economic justice.
Facebook and other forms of social media have served as the primary engines for this massive grassroots protest, with Twitter — and the hashtags #Resist and #The Resistance —leading the charge.
Today’s American resistance campaign has fascinating parallels with the resistance movement that took root in Nazi-occupied Europe more than seventy years ago. In both cases, there was an initial sense of shock that the unthinkable had happened, accompanied by fear, helplessness, and even despair. In both cases, too, a call for action by the media provided the spark for citizens to band together and fight back.
During World War II, the role now played by Facebook and Twitter was taken by the BBC, whose surreptitious news broadcasts were avidly listened to by the inhabitants of occupied Europe. Every night, millions of Europeans retrieved their radio sets, which had been outlawed by the Germans, from wherever they had hidden them and turned them on to hear the chiming of Big Ben and the magical words: “This is London calling.”
In 1941, a BBC broadcast to Belgium urged Belgians to demonstrate their defiance to German rule by scrawling the letter V (for Victory) on the walls of buildings throughout the country. They did so with gusto, chalking Vs on walls, doors, pavements, and telegraph and telephone posts. So did a growing number of Frenchmen, many of whom learned about the V campaign by listening to the Belgian broadcast. In both countries, chalk sales skyrocketed. A letter to the BBC from Normandy noted “a multitude of little Vs everywhere.”
By the early spring of 1941, the BBC’s entire European Service had taken up the V campaign, with similar results. Not long afterward, someone realized that the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony sounded like Morse code for the letter V — dot-dot-dot-dash. Those notes, played on a kettle drum, became the European Service’s call sign, and they, too, spread like wildfire throughout occupied Europe. People hummed and whistled them. Restaurant diners tapped them with spoons on their glasses and cups. Train engineers blasted them on their whistles. Schoolteachers called their students to order by clapping their hands with the V rhythm. When a British bomber used its landing lights to flash the letter V over Paris, its crew watched the city light up with Vs beamed back from cars and apartment windows.
The most celebrated champion of the V symbol was Winston Churchill, whose raised right hand, with his index and middle fingers pointed up in the shape of a V, became his signature gesture for the rest of his life.
The V campaign was, as one historian noted, “the first pan-European gesture of resistance, helping Europeans shed their sense of isolation and helplessness and come together in thumbing their noses at the Germans.” It got Europeans used to the idea of fighting back — an idea that morphed into a powerful groundswell of resistance that eventually helped Allied troops liberate the Continent.