The Collaborators

The Atlantic|July - August 2020

The Collaborators
What causes people to abandon their principles in support of a corrupt regime? And how do they find their way back?
By Anne Applebaum

On a cold March afternoon in 1949, Wolfgang Leonhard slipped out of the East German Communist Party Secretariat, hurried home, packed what few warm clothes he could fit into a small briefcase, and then walked to a telephone box to call his mother. “My article will be finished this evening,” he told her. That was the code they had agreed on in advance. It meant that he was escaping the country, at great risk to his life.

Though only 28 years old at the time, Leonhard stood at the pinnacle of the new East German elite. The son of German Communists, he had been educated in the Soviet Union, trained in special schools during the war, and brought back to Berlin from Moscow in May 1945, on the same airplane that carried Walter Ulbricht, the leader of what would soon become the East German Communist Party. Leonhard was put on a team charged with re-creating Berlin’s city government.

He had one central task: to ensure that any local leaders who emerged from the postwar chaos were assigned deputies loyal to the party. “It’s got to look democratic,” Ulbricht told him, “but we must have everything in our control.”

Leonhard had lived through a great deal by that time. While he was still a teenager in Moscow, his mother had been arrested as an “enemy of the people” and sent to Vorkuta, a labor camp in the far north. He had witnessed the terrible poverty and inequality of the Soviet Union, he had despaired of the Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1941, and he knew about the Red Army’s mass rapes of women following the occupation. Yet he and his ideologically committed friends “instinctively recoiled from the thought” that any of these events were “in diametrical opposition to our Socialist ideals.” Steadfastly, he clung to the belief system he had grown up with.

The turning point, when it came, was trivial. While walking down the hall of the Central Committee building, he was stopped by a “pleasant-looking middle-aged man,” a comrade recently arrived from the West, who asked where to find the dining room. Leonhard told him that the answer depended on what sort of meal ticket he had—different ranks of officials had access to different dining rooms. The comrade was astonished: “But … aren’t they all members of the Party?”

Leonhard walked away and entered his own, top-category dining room, where white cloths covered the tables and high-ranking functionaries received three-course meals. He felt ashamed. “Curious, I thought, that this had never struck me before!” That was when he began to have the doubts that inexorably led him to plot his escape.

At exactly that same moment, in exactly the same city, another high-ranking East German was coming to precisely the opposite set of conclusions. Markus Wolf was also the son of a prominent German Communist family. He also spent his childhood in the Soviet Union, attending the same elite schools for children of foreign Communists as Leonhard did, as well as the same wartime training camp; the two had shared a bedroom there, solemnly calling each other by their aliases—these were the rules of deep conspiracy— although they knew each other’s real names perfectly well. Wolf also witnessed the mass arrests, the purges, and the poverty of the Soviet Union—and he also kept faith with the cause. He arrived in Berlin just a few days after Leonhard, on another plane full of trusted comrades, and immediately began hosting a program on the new Soviet-backed radio station. For many months he ran the popular You Ask, We Answer. He gave on-air answers to listeners’ letters, often concluding with some form of “These difficulties are being overcome with the help of the Red Army.”

In August 1947, the two men met up at Wolf ’s “luxurious five-roomed apartment,” not far from what was then the headquarters of the radio station. They drove out to Wolf ’s house, “a fine villa in the neighborhood of Lake Glienicke.” They took a walk around the lake, and Wolf warned Leonhard that changes were coming. He told him to give up hoping that German Communism would be allowed to develop differently from the Soviet version: That idea, long the goal of many German party members, was about to be dropped. When Leonhard argued that this could not be true—he was personally in charge of ideology, and no one had told him anything about a change in direction—Wolf laughed at him. “There are higher authorities than your Central Secretariat,” he said. Wolf made clear that he had better contacts, more important friends. At the age of 24, he was an insider. And Leonhard understood, finally, that he was a functionary in an occupied country where the Soviet Communist Party, not the German Communist Party, had the last word.

Famously, or perhaps infamously, Markus Wolf ’s career continued to flourish after that. Not only did he stay in East Ger-many, he rose through the ranks of its nomenklatura to become the country’s top spy. He was the second-ranked official at the Ministry of State Security, better known as the Stasi; he was often described as the model for the Karla character in John le Carré ’s spy novels. In the course of his career, his Directorate for Reconnaissance recruited agents in the offices of the West German chancellor and just about every other department of the government, as well as at NATO.

Leonhard, meanwhile, became a prominent critic of the regime. He wrote and lectured in West Berlin, at Oxford, at Columbia. Eventually he wound up at Yale, where his lecture course left an impression on several generations of students. Among them was a future U.S. president, George W. Bush, who described Leonhard’s course as “an introduction to the struggle between tyranny and freedom.” When I was at Yale in the 1980s, Leonhard’s course on Soviet history was the most popular on campus.

Separately, each man’s story makes sense. But when examined together, they require some deeper explanation. Until March 1949, Leonhard’s and Wolf ’s biographies were strikingly similar. Both grew up inside the Soviet system. Both were educated in Communist ideology, and both had the same values. Both knew that the party was undermining those values. Both knew that the system, allegedly built to promote equality, was deeply unequal, profoundly unfair, and very cruel. Like their counterparts in so many other times and places, both men could plainly see the gap between propaganda and reality. Yet one remained an enthusiastic collaborator, while the other could not bear the betrayal of his ideals. Why?

IN ENGLISH, THE WORD collaborator has a double meaning. A colleague can be described as a collaborator in a neutral or positive sense. But the other definition of collaborator, relevant here, is different: someone who works with the enemy, with the occupying power, with the dictatorial regime. In this negative sense, collaborator is closely related to another set of words: collusion, complicity, connivance. This negative meaning gained currency during the Second World War, when it was widely used to describe Europeans who cooperated with Nazi occupiers. At base, the ugly meaning of collaborator carries an implication of treason: betrayal of one’s nation, of one’s ideology, of one’s morality, of one’s values.

Since the Second World War, historians and political scientists have tried to explain why some people in extreme circumstances become collaborators and others do not. The late Harvard scholar Stanley Hoffmann had firsthand knowledge of the subject—as a child, he and his mother hid from the Nazis in Lamalou-les-Bains, a village in the south of France. But he was modest about his own conclusions, noting that “a careful historian would have—almost—to write a huge series of case histories; for there seem to have been almost as many collaborationisms as there were proponents or practitioners of collaboration.” Still, Hoffmann made a stab at classification, beginning with a division of collaborators into “voluntary” and “in voluntary.” Many people in the latter group had no choice. Forced into a “reluctant recognition of necessity,” they could not avoid dealing with the Nazi occupiers who were running their country.

Hoffmann further sorted the more enthusiastic “voluntary” collaborators into two additional categories. In the first were those who worked with the enemy in the name of “national interest,” rationalizing collaboration as something necessary for the preservation of the French economy, or French culture—though of course many people who made these arguments had other professionals or economic motives, too. In the second were the truly active ideological collaborators: people who believed that prewar republican France had been weak or corrupt and hoped that the Nazis would strengthen it, people who admired fascism, and people who admired Hitler.

Hoffmann observed that many of those who became ideological collaborators were landowners and aristocrats, “the cream of the top of the civil service, of the armed forces, of the business community,” people who perceived themselves as part of a natural ruling class that had been unfairly deprived of power under the left-wing governments of France in the 1930s. Equally motivated to collaborate were their polar opposites, the “social misfits and political deviants” who would, in the normal course of events, never have made successful careers of any kind. What brought these groups together was a common conclusion that, whatever they had thought about Germany before June 1940, their political and personal futures would now be improved by aligning themselves with the occupiers.

Like Hoffmann, Czeslaw Milosz, a Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet, wrote about collaboration from personal experience. An active member of the anti-Nazi resistance during the war, he nevertheless wound up after the war as a cultural attaché at the Polish embassy in Washington, serving his country’s Communist government. Only in 1951 did he defect, denounce the regime, and dissect his experience. In a famous essay, The Captive Mind, he sketched several lightly disguised portraits of real people, all writers and intellectuals, each of whom had come up with different ways of justifying collaboration with the party. Many were careerists, but Milosz understood that careerism could not provide a complete explanation. To be part of a mass movement was for many a chance to end their alienation, to feel close to the “masses,” to be united in a single community with workers and shopkeepers. For tormented intellectuals, collaboration also offered a kind of relief, almost a sense of peace: It meant that they were no longer constantly at war with the state, no longer in turmoil. Once the intellectual has accepted that there is no other way, Milosz wrote, “he eats with relish, his movements take on vigor, his color returns. He sits down and writes a ‘positive’ article, marveling at the ease with which he writes it.” Milosz is one of the few writers to acknowledge the pleasure of conformity, the lightness of heart that it grants, the way that it solves so many personal and professional dilemmas.

We all feel the urge to conform; it is the most normal of human desires. I was reminded of this recently when I visited Marianne Birthler in her light-filled apartment in Berlin. During the 1980s, Birthler was one of a very small number of active dissidents in East Germany; later, in reunified Germany, she spent more than a decade running the Stasi archive, the collection of former East German secret-police files. I asked her whether she could identify among her cohort a set of circumstances that had inclined some people to collaborate with the Stasi.

She was put off by the question. Collaboration wasn’t interesting, Birthler told me. Almost everyone was a collaborator; 99 percent of East Germans collaborated. If they weren’t working with the Stasi, then they were working with the party, or with the system more generally. Much more interesting—and far harder to explain—was the genuinely mysterious question of “why people went against the regime.” The puzzle is not why Markus Wolf remained in East Germany, in other words, but why Wolfgang Leonhard did not.

HERE IS ANOTHER pair of stories, one that will be more familiar to American readers. Let’s begin this one in the 1980s, when a young Lindsey Graham first served with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps—the military legal service—in the U.S. Air Force. During some of that time, Graham was based in what was then West Germany, on the cutting edge of America’s Cold War efforts. Graham, born and raised in a small town in South Carolina, was devoted to the military: After both of his parents died when he was in his 20s, he got himself and his younger sister through college with the help of an ROTC stipend and then an Air Force salary. He stayed in the Reserves for two decades, even while in the Senate, sometimes journeying to Iraq or Afghanistan to serve as a short-term reserve officer. “The Air Force has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me,” he said in 2015. “It gave me a purpose bigger than myself. It put me in the company of patriots.” Through most of his years in the Senate, Graham, alongside his close friend John McCain, was a spokesperson for a strong military, and for a vision of America as a democratic leader abroad. He also supported a vigorous notion of democracy at home. In his 2014 reelection campaign, he ran as a maverick and a centrist, telling The Atlantic that jousting with the Tea Party was “more fun than any time I’ve been in politics.”

While Graham was doing his tour in West Germany, Mitt Romney became a co-founder and then the president of Bain Capital, a private equity investment firm. Born in Michigan, Romney worked in Massachusetts during his years at Bain, but he also kept, thanks to his Mormon faith, close ties to Utah. While Graham was a military lawyer, drawing military pay, Romney was acquiring companies, restructuring them, and then selling them. This was a job he excelled at—in 1990, he was asked to run the parent firm, Bain & Company— and in the course of doing so he became very rich. Still, Romney dreamed of a political career, and in 1994 he ran for the Senate in Massachusetts, after changing his political affiliation from independent to Republican. He lost, but in 2002 he ran for governor of Massachusetts as a nonpartisan moderate and won. In 2007—after a gubernatorial term during which he successfully brought in a form of near-universal health care that became a model for Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act—he staged his first run for president. After losing the 2008 Republican primary, he won the party’s nomination in 2012 and then lost the general election.

Both Graham and Romney had presidential ambitions; Graham staged his own short-lived presidential campaign in 2015 (justified on the grounds that “the world is falling apart”). Both men were loyal members of the Republican Party, skeptical of the party’s radical and conspiratorial fringe. Both men reacted to the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump with real anger, and no wonder: In different ways, Trump’s values undermined their own. Graham had dedicated his career to an idea of U.S. leadership around the word—whereas Trump was offering an “America First” doctrine that would turn out to mean “me and my friends first.” Romney was an excellent businessman with a strong record as a public servant— whereas Trump inherited wealth, went bankrupt more than once, created nothing of value, and had no governing record at all. Both Graham and Romney were devoted to America’s democratic traditions and to the ideals of honesty, accountability, and transparency in public life—all of which Trump scorned.

Both were vocal in their disapproval of Trump. Before the election, Graham called him a “jackass,” a “nutjob,” and a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.” He seemed unhappy, even depressed, by the election: I happened to see him at a conference in Europe in the spring of 2016, and he spoked in monosyllables, if at all.

Romney went further. “Let me put it very plainly,” he said in March 2016, in a speech criticizing Trump: “If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.” Romney spoke of “the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics.” He called Trump a “con man” and a “fraud.” Even after Trump won the nomination, Romney refused to endorse him. On his presidential ballot, Romney said, he wrote in his wife. Graham said he voted for the independent candidate Evan McMullin.

But Trump did become president, and so the two men’s convictions were put to the test.

A glance at their biographies would not have led many to predict what happened next. On paper, Graham would have seemed, in 2016, like the man with deeper ties to the military, to the rule of law, and to an old-fashioned idea of American patriotism and American responsibility in the world. Romney, by contrast, with his shifts between the center and the right, with his multiple careers in business and politics, would have seemed less deeply attached to those same old-fashioned patriotic ideals. Most of us register soldiers as loyal patriots, and management consultants as self- interested. We assume people from small towns in South Carolina are more likely to resist political pressure than people who have lived in many places. Intuitively, we think that loyalty to a particular place implies loyalty to a set of values.

But in this case the clichés were wrong. It was Graham who made excuses for Trump’s abuse of power. It was Graham— a JAG Corps lawyer—who downplayed the evidence that the president had attempted to manipulate foreign courts and blackmail a foreign leader into launching a phony investigation into a political rival. It was Graham who abandoned his own stated support for bipartisanship and instead pushed for a hyper-partisan Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden’s son. It was Graham who played golf with Trump, who made excuses for him on television, who supported the president even as he slowly destroyed the American alliances—with Europeans, with the Kurds—that Graham had defended all his life. By contrast, it was Romney who, in February, became the only Republican senator to break ranks with his colleagues, voting to impeach the president. “Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office,” he said, is “perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.”

One man proved willing to betray ideas and ideals that he had once stood for. The other refused. Why?

TO THE AMERICAN READER, references to Vichy France, East Germany, fascists, and Communists may seem over-the-top, even ludicrous. But dig a little deeper, and the analogy makes sense. The point is not to compare Trump to Hitler or Stalin; the point is to compare the experiences of high-ranking members of the American Republican Party, especially those who work most closely with the White House, to the experiences of Frenchmen in 1940, or of East Germans in 1945, or of Czeslaw Milosz in 1947. These are experiences of people who are forced to accept an alien ideology or a set of values that are in sharp conflict with their own.

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