Maria von Lingen, a countess in Silesia, liked to listen to BBC radio broadcasts. Not on the surface a particularly daring activity carried out in private within the confines of her own home. However, in the summer of 1942, it was a dangerous thing to do, particularly if you failed to realise there were potential enemies all around you.
Before departing for a visit to Italy, Maria mistakenly left the dial on the illegal radio station. Her household staff – the housekeeper, the nanny and the kitchen maid – discovered this so-called act of treason and promptly denounced Maria to the Nazi authorities. Why were these women so keen to betray and intentionally harm their employer? What, if anything, did they hope to achieve from their actions? It was widely understood that the Gestapo was far more interested in denunciations motivated by a commitment to Nazi ideology than personal gain. Yet, while one can speculate about a spectrum of depressingly human and self-serving motivations, ranging from resentment to jealousy, it is perhaps impossible to know for sure.
Rather than fall down the rabbit hole of individual psychology, Patrick Bergemann, assistant professor of organisations and strategy at the University of Chicago, turns to the Spanish Inquisition, Romanov Russia and Nazi Germany, combining empirical historical data and quantitative analysis to explore why it was that some individuals reported their neighbours to the authorities. The result is the first truly theoretical analysis of the mechanics of denunciation under repressive regimes.
So many of the denunciations were ridiculously banal: during the Spanish Inquisition, people were reported for blasphemous outbursts expressed in moments of anger; Romanov citizens were quick to report petty insults to the Tsar’s honour; and in Nazi Germany former friends denounced each other for malicious gossip. Some individuals denounced their friends and colleagues out of fear or self-preservation, others did so from malice or petty grievances. Regardless of the motivating factor, it appears that throughout history – from the early modern witch trials to present-day liberal democracies such as the US and UK – denunciation and fear of being denounced act as a crucial agent of social control.
In a world where it is becoming ever easier to report our neighbours through myriad different means, this book comes at a particularly timely moment. Whether it be contacting social services, the Inland Revenue, the police or the immigration services, there seems to be widespread acceptance that contacting the “proper authorities” is often the right thing to do. At the same time, with the rapid increase of surveillance technologies and the increasing erosion of individual liberties, it might be asked whether personal denunciations should be confined to the history books. For Bergemann, the answer is no. As long as governments maintain their authority and individuals retain their desire to improve their social and economic lives, we will always find people willing to report those who seem to stand in their way.
Zoë Waxman is lecturer in modern Jewish history at the University of Oxford and the author of Women in the Holocaust: A Feminist History (2017).
Judge Thy Neighbor: Denunciations in the Spanish Inquisition, Romanov Russia, and Nazi Germany
By Patrick Bergemann
Columbia University Press, 288pp, £47.00
Published 5 February 2019
Print headline: The temptation to tell tales
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