Comparative Horrors

Timothy Garton Ash

  • Accusatory Practices: Denunciation in Modern European History, 1789-1989 edited by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Robert Gellately
    Chicago, 231 pp, US $27.95, September 1997, ISBN 0 226 25273 6

I recently received a letter from a German theatre director, objecting to a passage of my book The File in which I wrote that, back in the Stalinist Fifties, an East German friend of mine had been ‘denounced’ by one Dr Warmbier, then a lecturer in Marxism-Leninism at Leipzig University. ‘It’s the word “denounced” that is wholly inappropriate,’ the director wrote, in defence of his old friend Dr Warmbier. He gave three reasons for thinking it inappropriate. Dr Warmbier had not, he argued, decisively contributed to my friend’s dismissal from the university; the letter in which Dr Warmbier criticised my friend had not been addressed to an official body; and Dr Warmbier had no selfish motives in lodging those criticisms. He was a Communist and was merely acting on his beliefs.

The director’s letter takes us straight to the questions at the heart of this book. What makes a denunciation a denunciation? Is it the motive of the person who does it, the person or agency to which the message is addressed, or the consequences for the person denounced? How has denunciation been viewed in different places and times, and what functions has it performed in different political systems? The editors prefer the circumlocution ‘accusatory practices’ in their main title, because they think the word ‘denunciation’ suggests something that happens in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, but not in an English village. They imply that we should not be so complacent. Maybe it happens in Chipping Norton too.

They nonetheless offer a working definition of denunciations: ‘spontaneous communications from individual citizens to the state (or to another authority such as the church) containing accusations of wrong-doing by other citizens or officials and implicitly or explicitly calling for punishment’. The term ‘informer’, by contrast, generally implies a regular, paid relationship with the police.

A richly detailed essay by Colin Lucas on denunciation during the French Revolution makes the first important point that, contrary to my theatre director’s assumption, selfish motives are not a defining feature of denunciation. In fact, the French revolutionaries coined the word dénonciation precisely to define the selfless, virtuous, public-spirited unmasking of enemies of the Revolution, as opposed to self-interested sneaking to a tyranny, for which they used the older term, délation. Denunciation, in other words, is a good thing if the motives of the person doing it are selfless and the regime to which it is made is – in the eye of the beholder – good. It is a bad thing if one or both of these conditions do not apply. Lucas quotes Pierre-Jean Agier writing in 1789: ‘as far as informing is concerned, silence is a virtue under Despotism; it is a crime, yes indeed, a crime under the rule of Liberty.’ And Félix Lepeletier’s funeral oration for Marat: ‘Denunciation is the mother of virtues.’ Yet in practice, of course, many denunciations in Revolutionary France were self-interested and, Lucas concludes in a very English way, ‘the notion of virtuous denunciation simply did not hold up.’

In this, as in so many other respects, the mother of revolutions anticipated much that was to come. Although chapters follow on denunciations to the Church in late 19th-century rural Russia and under modern Catholicism, the bulk of this multi-author volume is devoted to comparing the experience of the Soviet Union under Communism and Germany under both Nazism and Communism. It is thus a small contribution to one of the livelier intellectual and moral debates in Europe today.

One might describe this, a little flippantly, as the Comparative Horrors Debate. The fact of the end of Communism in Europe has sunk in, and people across the continent are asking themselves whether the horrors of Communism were comparable to those of Nazism. If so, were they comparable merely in scale or also in kind? And why do we still hear so much about the horrors of Nazism and so little about those of Communism? Was the early Cold War theory of ‘totalitarianism’ as wrong as a generation of scholars in the Seventies and Eighties argued it was? What, if any, were the causal connections between the two great horrors? In France, and now in Italy, the debate has been sparked by the recent publication of the Black Book of Communism, a massive documentation of worldwide horrors. In Germany it started a little earlier, with Ernst Nolte’s assertion, during the so-called ‘historians’ debate’, that Nazism was in some sense an imitative reaction to Bolshevism. Even in Britain, last year saw the publication of another multi-author conference volume on the subject.[*]

Comparative delatology is a new subbranch of this larger comparative endeavour. Sheila Fitzpatrick, one of the editors of Accusatory Practices, has collected 200 denunciations from Soviet archives of the Thirties, though she was denied access to those of the KGB. She makes the point that denunciations were made not just to the secret police but to the Party and other agencies, and she distinguishes certain common categories of denunciation: those in which someone is denounced on the grounds of class (e.g. kulaks), those directed against alleged abuses of power, those directed against family members or other people’s sexual mores and, last but not least, ‘apartment denunciation’ – that is, denouncing someone in order to get their flat, or more likely, to get a little more space in a desperately crowded communal flat. She mentions the famous Soviet hero Pavlik Morozov, the boy who denounced his father, but in her small sample finds no evidence of children denouncing their parents. However, she does find what she calls the ‘young avenger’ type, freely and recklessly denouncing neighbours, teachers and schoolmates in the hope of becoming a hero like Pavlik. She also rightly mentions the number of denunciations made because people were themselves afraid of being denounced and usefully illustrates the diversity of the motives, subjects and effects of denunciations. Unfortunately, her account lacks the imaginative and literary power of Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror. ‘In the Soviet case,’ she writes, in a fairly typical passage, ‘ “manipulative” denunciations should be considered part of a complex of informal mechanisms of citizen agency, including client-patron relations and “pull” (blat), that were the sociocultural equivalent of the Stalinist “second economy” or black market.’ But – one wants to insist – people also died as a result.

Looking at the ‘bureaucratic handling’ of denunciations in the Soviet Union between 1944 and Stalin’s death in 1953, Vladimir Kozlov of the Russian State Archive argues that denunciation was ‘an essential element in Russia’s traditional system of bureaucratic governance’. In the absence of democracy, an effective free press, or independent courts in which the ordinary citizen could have redress, denunciation was one of the few ways of checking and controlling the conduct of imperial bureaucrats in remote places. It’s an interesting argument, but was this really the main function of denunciation in the Stalinist period? Kozlov goes on to look carefully at the way denunciations were handled in the Soviet system (‘Letters from Beria always received answers’).

In contemporary Russia, he notes, ‘denunciations are no longer a means of controlling the work of the governing apparatus’; and through this breach ‘has washed a wave of corruption and bureaucratic lawlessness’. The reason is simple: the bureaucracy has escaped from the control of the ‘chiefs’ but has not been brought under the democratic control of civil society. Paradoxically, ‘the disappearance of an ancient sin – mass denunciation – has been not only an obvious blessing but also a much more obvious curse.’ That is a sentence that perhaps only a Russian historian could write.

The last two chapters are devoted to Germany. John Connelly looks at a cache of letters to the local leadership of the Nazi Party in Eisenach, and illustrates once again how diverse were the concerns articulated. Soldiers wrote from the Front, for example, to complain on behalf of their wives. And he has some fine examples of German ‘apartment denunciations’. One woman wrote bluntly in 1940: ‘The apartment I want is still being held by a Jew from Vienna!’

In the only essay which is itself genuinely comparative, Robert Gellately, the co-editor of this volume and author of an important book about the Gestapo, looks at what he calls ‘self-policing’ in the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic. Unfortunately, he is not able to take account of more recent publications on the Stasi (this volume is based on a conference held in spring 1994), but although some of his information is out of date, his account is interesting.

He emphasises the small number of Gestapo officials (just 7000 in 1937) and the degree to which they relied on voluntary support from the population – denunciations, in other words. At least 80 per cent of Gestapo cases were initiated from outside. He tells the revealing story of a man who denounced himself in 1941. His somewhat unstable wife had loudly accused him of listening to a foreign radio station; a neighbour had overheard and, in a subsequent argument with the woman, had threatened to denounce them, thus making her a witness against her own husband. Whereupon the husband decided to denounce himself. His wife subsequently told the Gestapo that she had deliberately yelled out a false accusation in order to damage her husband’s reputation and get rid of him. Like those from Stalinist Russia, the true stories from the Third Reich are as grotesque as anything in Orwell or Koestler. At least until 1944, Gellately argues, Nazi Germany was a ‘self-policing society’.

He suggests that this was also true of Communist East Germany. But if so, it was true in a different way. For the East German regime could not rely on voluntary denunciations from a supportive population. Instead, the Stasi had a vast full-time staff (some 90,000 in 1988, for a population of less than 17 million) and a vast army of regular informers, painstakingly recruited, carefully cultivated, paid expenses and ‘premiums’. This was a different model of control, and it is difficult to see why Gellately finds the term ‘police state’ inappropriate to describe it.

Altogether, because of the richness and accessibility of the documentation, and the fact that the two systems took hold in the same nation, Germany offers the best possible ground on which to compare Nazism and Communism. Gellately is not able to take the comparison very far here, because he has not yet worked enough on the Stasi, but he does suggest one interesting common feature. While there is obviously no single type of denouncer or informer, apparently almost all of them were men. Gellately has discovered that 80 per cent of letters of denunciation to the Nazi Party came from men. We know from the Stasi files that only around 10 per cent of informers were women. It would be interesting to learn if the same applied in Russia.

The editors make two more general claims for the new science of comparative delatology. One is that it need not confine itself to dictatorships. ‘Practices of denunciation may be found close to home as well as far away,’ they say on the first page. ‘Denunciatory statements may be solicited from individuals by police during interrogations ... or by public bodies like Royal Commissions or the notorious US House Committee on Un-American Activities.’ And again: ‘while the late 20th-century American may have the impression that denunciation plays little role in his everyday world, this is partly a matter of semantics. Incidents of “whistle-blowing” are regularly reported in the US press, as are exhortations to the public to inform the authorities about a range of minor delinquencies by fellow citizens.’

Dissenting from theories of totalitarianism, they argue that the difference between the Nazi or Communist systems and others is ‘not qualitative but quantitative’. In her own chapter, Fitzpatrick writes:

In the Soviet Union and elsewhere, denunciation may also serve [present tense!] functions of justice. In all societies, there are citizens who use public accusation as a means of correcting injustice or protecting the interests of the community. They may be American ‘whistle-blowers’, seeking to disclose wrong-doing in corporations and government departments, or Frenchmen exercising ‘the competence of justice’, in the words of the sociologist Luc Boltanski, by writing letters to Le Monde exposing scandals or seeking rectifications of injustices done to them.

It is surely right that in principle all systems may be compared, and it is also right that we should not be complacent. We do not know how we would behave in a dictatorship. Which of us can be sure that he (or even she) would not be an informer? Moreover, there have been and probably still are some nasty little corners of our own secret worlds which deserve illumination. ‘Denunciation’ seems to me, for example, an entirely appropriate term to describe some of what was done in the McCarthy witchhunt. We can also quite reasonably take the KGB or Stasi example as a warning to ourselves. While writing this article, I received another letter in response to The File, this time from a gentleman in Eastbourne signing himself ‘John Ford, Citizen, Pensioner, World War Two (for freedom!) veteran’. Mr Ford’s concern is with the use of ‘informants’ by the police on crime, drunk driving and drugs, by the immigration service on illegal immigrants, and most recently the establishment of a Freephone hotline for the reporting of social security benefit fraud. (He might have added MI5’s recent announcement of a hotline for people to tip them off as well.) ‘No,’ he writes, ‘I do not want to encourage drunk drivers or drug dealers but neither do I want to see an informers’ society.’ And he makes the point that some of the calls to the benefit fraudline will be motivated by personal malice, rather than a disinterested concern for the fair administration of the system – just as the motives of Soviet and Nazi denouncers were very mixed.

So we need to look closely at the ways in which our own authorities invite us to act against each other. Even if we conclude that at least some of the ends (preventing terrorism, for example) justify these means, they will always leave a nasty taste in the mouth. For, however morally justified, these are still invitations by the state to secret personal betrayal. It is the same reservation which traditionally made fathers tell their children not to sneak to teacher. And somewhere behind this reservation is the knowledge that, however good the cause, the motives of the person doing it will never be wholly disinterested. The ‘pure’ denunciation remains everywhere a utopian dream.

All this being said, the editors’ comparison between Stalinist denouncers and American whistle-blowers or persons testifying to a Royal Commission is a ludicrous piece of pseudo-liberal moral relativism and intellectual woolliness. The denouncer in a dictatorship and the whistle-blower in a democracy are not merely different things; they are opposites. The former secretly passes information about fellow citizens to the authorities, the latter publicly passes information about the authorities to fellow citizens. There is no comparison between Pavlik Morozov and Clive Ponting. Nor is a Sir Nigel, trundling up on the 8.40 from Oxford to testify to a Royal Commission (if there were still Royal Commissions), about to indulge in anything that can seriously be called ‘denunciation’. If the difference between Moscow in the Thirties and London in the Nineties is not ‘qualitative’, I do not know what a qualitative difference is. Comparison is useful, but not everything is comparable.

The second claim the editors make for comparative delatology is the familiar cry of all such academic volumes: ‘more work needs to be done’ on this subject or that. The archives of the Communist dictatorships are only just being opened. We may learn from them something more about how such systems could be made to work, and how men (and a few women) were brought to do these things. We may discover that denunciation was not an optional extra of the terror, but vital to the everday functioning of the whole system. In doing so, however, I hope that younger scholars will remember that each case was different and that each must be judged in its context.

Take Dr Warmbier. I spent several hours talking to him in Leipzig before I mentioned him in The File. He came from a working-class Communist family in Danzig (as it then still was) but went to a good school where most of his fellow pupils were children of the cultured bourgeoisie. At the end of the war, the family fled to what became East Germany, and he ended up studying in Leipzig. He was a convinced Communist himself, with a distinct chip on his shoulder about the privileged, cultured bourgeois. My friend was one of the bourgeois, and when they travelled together on a very rare trip to Göttingen University in West Germany he was plainly in his element, complaining about the difficulties of life in East Germany, whereas the young working-class Communist Warmbier was nearly beaten up by rowdy members of a Göttingen duelling club.

Some time later, the Secretary of the Communist Youth Organisation at Leipzig asked Warmbier about this trip, since they were planning to lever my friend – a talented scholar of German literature – out of the university. Warmbier obliged, in a letter concluding: ‘I wish you much success in kicking out this miserable Tartuffe.’ He subsequently repeated his story to a Stasi officer who came to see him about it. (Dr Warmbier says, and I believe him, that he had forgotten all about this until confronted with the documents.) A few months later, my friend was expelled from the university. Part of the evidence against him was Warmbier’s report.

So, contrary to what the theatre director suggested in his letter to me, Warmbier did indeed write (and speak) to an official body, and it did have serious consequences. Whichever way you look at it, the concluding flourish of his letter, written to a senior Communist official, makes it a denunciation. The fact that he acted as an idealistic young Communist does not make it any less of a denunciation. But the story does not stop there. In the Fifties and Sixties, Warmbier became increasingly disillusioned, taking refuge in his private passion: singing Schubert songs. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, his lectures, ostensibly on ‘scientific Communism’, became so critical that he was cautioned, disciplined, and finally expelled both from the university and from the Party. He went to work as a motor mechanic. (He showed me his certificate: ‘motor mechanic Dr Helmut Warmbier’. He is much prouder of that, he says, than of his doctorate.) However, he continued not only to sing Schubert songs but also to write critical texts, and to correspond with other critics of the regime, such as Rudolf Bahro. Of course the Stasi were interested in him. After Bahro sent him a typescript of The Alternative, Warmbier was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison. He served one year, during which the criminals in prison informed on him, and then went back to work as a motor mechanic.

When the great change came in 1989, he was among the first to demonstrate against the Honecker regime and became a city councillor under the new dispensation. In time, he also got to read his own Stasi file: 14 volumes of it, full of colleagues who, it now emerged, had been informers. One colleague even asked the Stasi to instal a bug in his own flat, because he could not be sure of remembering all the subversive things Warmbier was telling him. Yet now Warmbier is being denied rehabilitation, because of that one youthful sin. It was a denunciation; there is no doubt about it. But he was also, subsequently, a dissident who paid heavily for his convictions. And as he sat before me, round-faced, earnest, energetic, slightly choleric, I could see that the qualities which made him a dissident were not entirely different from those that had once made him a denouncer, but actually a development of those same qualities.

Millions of men and women were drawn into similarly tragic life-webs in the course of the ‘short 20th century’ that ended in 1991. If a new generation of historians, using the archives, can help people who never experienced it to understand how it really was, they will have earned their keep. But first they will have to understand it themselves.

[*] Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison, edited by Ian Kershaw and Moshe Lewin (Cambridge, 381 pp., £45 and £15.95, 15 May 1997, 0 521 56345 3).