The Collaborator’s Song

We often ask why some people choose to resist authoritarian regimes. But the better question might be why so many decide to cooperate.

Photo by AFP/Getty Images
Photo by AFP/Getty Images

In 1949, a Czech-German communist named Louis Fürnberg, fearful of being expelled from the Party, wrote a song dedicated to his comrades. Hugely admired when it was performed at the Congress of the Communist Party of East Germany, Fürnberg’s "Song of the Party" not only lengthened its author’s political life, it was adopted as the German communist party anthem. It was duly sung, with fervor, right through the 1980s. The refrain went like this:

The Party, the Party, she is always right!
And Comrades, so it will always remain…
Since he who fights for the right, is always right…
He who defends mankind is always right….
As raised to life by Lenin’s spirit, as welded by Stalin
The Party, the Party, the Party!

Now, to our modern (or should I say post-modern) ears, those words sound absurd, much in the way that old films of Hitler seem absurd. If you poke around on the internet, you can now find Mickey Mouse singing that song in someone’s home-made video, as well as spiky-haired teenagers pretending to dance to it. Without an intact ideology to support them, the art forms of Soviet-style totalitarianism are not merely outdated, they are laughable.

Nevertheless, if you had attended an official assembly or a party conference in the eastern half of Europe round about 1950, such as the East German Communist Party youth rally in the photo above, everyone around you would have been singing. Some would have done so because they truly believed that the Party was always right. In this period, just after the devastation of World War II — a cataclysmic crisis which caused many in both Eastern and Western Europe to doubt everything they’d ever been taught — communism seemed to some people like the only viable alternative to the fascism which had just been defeated, and to the democratic capitalism which had failed so spectacularly in the 1930s. The world had been shattered. Communism offered a better way to rebuild it.

Others would have been singing because they were afraid. The Soviet invasion of Eastern Europe, then in recent memory, had been accompanied by an extraordinary wave of violence. After the war’s end this was not indiscriminate violence, but was rather carefully targeted at intellectuals, priests, merchants, political figures — including anti-fascist political figures — and anyone who might be capable of organizing a group, club, or society of any kind. Potential leaders were harassed, arrested, sometimes tortured, sometimes deported, or murdered. The communist regimes’ intention was clear: Eliminate not only dissent, but even the possibility of future dissent. Most people knew or would have heard of a victim, and thus most people came to fear similar retribution.

Yet at the same time, many others would have been singing because they were, for the lack of a better word, reluctant collaborators. These were the people who did not necessarily believe the slogans they read in the newspaper, but neither did they feel compelled to denounce those who were writing them. They did not necessarily believe that Stalin was an infallible leader, but nor did they tear down his portraits. They did not necessarily believe that idea that the party, the party, the party is always right, but nor did they stop singing the song.

In fact the horrifying genius of Soviet communism — as conceived in the 1920s, perfected in the 1930s, imposed experimentally on the Baltic states and Eastern Poland in 1939, then spread by force across Eastern Europe after 1945 — was the system’s ability to get so many skeptics in so many disparate cultures to play along for so many years. In the end, Soviet-style communists ruled primitive Albania, industrial Bohemia and even Poland, which had fought and won a bloody war with the Soviet Union in 1920. Though they did not always succeed, the Soviet and the East European communists certainly intended to create permanent, totalitarian regimes in the regime. Towards that end, they set out to control not only the economy, not only property, not only the political sphere, but also sports, leisure time, hospitals, universities, summer camps, children’s afterschool activities, art, music, and museums.

That ambition put people in ethical and moral binds which we can hardly imagine today. In 1947, for example, the Soviet military administrators in East Germany passed a regulation governing the activity of publishing houses and printers. The decree did not nationalize the printing presses, it merely decreed that they had to be licensed. It also stated that all licensed printing presses were required to print only books and pamphlets ordered by central planners. Failure to comply with these simple guidelines did not necessarily lead to murder or arrest, but could cause the printing press to be shut down.

But what if you are the owner of a printing press in Dresden, and you are presented with such a law? Perhaps you have a wife who is ill, a couple of children, a cousin under arrest. How likely is it that you will defy the law, and agree to print pamphlets which have not been officially ordered by the central planners? You might not be killed for doing so, but you will lose your printers license and your job. Your children might not get into university. Your wife might not get her medicine. Your cousin might suffer. It just isn’t worth it.

And, once you have made that one compromise, others follow. Though you dislike Communist ideology, when you are presented with the collected works of Stalin, you agree to print them: Why not? If you don’t, others will. Though you disagree with the new government policy on land confiscation, it doesn’t affect you personally, and you don’t object to printing pamphlets about that either. Meanwhile, all across Eastern Germany, other owners of other printing presses are making the same decisions. And, after a while — with no one being shot and no one going to prison and no one even suffering any particular pangs of conscience — the only books left to read are the ones of which the communist regime approves.

Who then, was singing "The Party, the Party, the Party is always right?" People who wanted to get on with their lives, rebuild their countries, educate their children, feed their families and stay far away from those in power — but who nevertheless lived in a system which demanded that all of these things be done through state institutions.

As a result of this kind of pressure, the public sphere had been cleansed so thoroughly that a tourist visiting Warsaw, Budapest, or East Berlin — or Prague, Sofia, and Bucharest in the early 1950s would have observed no political opposition whatsoever. The press contained regime propaganda. Holidays were celebrated with regime parades. More than one outside analyst believed this system would last forever — and some therefore admired it. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya received advice directly from Soviet and East German secret police; Egypt and Syria, as well as China, North Korea, Angola, and Cuba, received Soviet training at different times too. In this sense, the West was also taken in by Soviet ideology: We also believed it was possible to create a totalitarian society, into which no outside information would ever or could ever penetrate, and we were as surprised by the events of 1989 as anyone inside the Soviet bloc.

And yet we were wrong. As it turned out, the experience of living in a society which forced everyone to agree with everything dictated by the central government had profound psychological consequences. Despite all of the state’s efforts, despite the education and the propaganda, many people retained an inner sense of disjunction or discomfort. If the genius of Soviet totalitarianism was its ability to get people to go along without apparent protest, this was its fatal flaw: the need to conform to a mendacious political reality left many people haunted by the sense that they were leading double lives. At the time of the Arab spring, Francis Fukuyama wrote a brilliant article for Democracy Lab that described the role dignity, and the deprivation of dignity, played in convincing people to protest. The communist regimes made this same mistake: By forcing people to collaborate they made them ashamed, resentful, and eventually rebellious.

Even the people who were the most active collaborators sometimes felt this. Jacek Trznadel, a Polish writer and a youth activist at the time, remembers it like this:

"I was shouting from a tribune at some university meeting in Wroclaw, and simultaneously felt panicked at the thought of myself shouting … I told myself I was trying to convince [the crowd] by shouting, but in reality I was trying to convince myself…"

This sense of disorientation was reinforced by the wide gap between the regimes’ promises and their ability to deliver. All across communist Eastern Europe, the banners and posters, the solemn speeches and the newspapers spoke of ever-faster growth. But living standards never rose as quickly and dramatically as they did in Western Europe. In 1950, Poland and Spain had very similar GDPs. By 1988, Poland’s had risen about two and half times — but Spain’s had risen thirteen times. Radio Free Europe, travel and tourism all brought home this disparity, which only grew larger as technological change in Western Europe accelerated.

In the end, the combination of these two factors led people to rebel, if not openly then more subtly, in private. Indeed, if is a lesson from the experience of Soviet totalitarianism it is this: Sooner or later, people who have been forced, persuaded or cajoled into collaboration will object, especially to a political system which fails to deliver on its promises. In Eastern Europe, this happened almost immediately. After Stalin’s death, when memories of post-war violence had subsided, protests took place across the bloc, most famously during Hungary’s armed rebellion of 1956 but also in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and even Bulgaria. Though none of these led to an immediate collapse of communist power, they and others which followed later on did help erode the authority and legitimacy of the entire system, in the Soviet Union as well as Eastern Europe.

Since then, the most powerful and successful dictators of our era have learned some lessons from the Soviet collapse. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, and Communist China have all reduced the burden of collaboration imposed on the individual, so that the discomfort anyone feels is minimal. In these and other modern authoritarian societies you can travel, consume what you want, read or watch what you want and often even say what you want — as long as you aren’t too public about it and not too many people are listening. You aren’t forced to attend party meetings and shout "long live Hu Jintao" or "long live Brezhnev." One element does remain similar, however: The legitimacy of all of these regimes still rests upon promises of economic growth and on arguments about the superiority of their systems which may not be sustainable in the long term. When the gap between ideology and reality begins to widen — and when power has to be maintained by violence — then cracks begin to open.

As we saw in Eastern Europe, it is always possible to make people collaborate for a time. But by doing so, they do not therefore acquire immutable "totalitarian personalities," as Hannah Arendt once speculated. Even when it seems as if they are in full agreement with the most absurd propaganda — even if they are marching in parades, chanting slogans, singing that the party is always right — the spell can suddenly and dramatically be broken.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola