It was not idealism that drove him, or big ideas, … It was this: “Warto być przyzwoitym”—or “Just try to be decent.” Whether you were decent—that’s what will be remembered.


Why have Republican leaders abandoned their principles (decency) in support of an immoral and dangerous president?
By Anne Applebaum
July/August 2020 Issue, The Atlantic

“Just try to be decent”

On 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.
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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.”
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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 Germany, 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.
Both men could 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?
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 “involuntary.” 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 professional 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….

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