I grew up knowing that my great-grandfather smuggled guns into the Bialystok ghetto for the resistance, which staged an armed uprising there in August 1943. As an adult, researching a book about collaboration and resistance, using my own family history, I found out why my great-grandfather had been in a position to arm the resistance: he was one of the leaders of the Bialystok Judenrat, the Nazi-appointed Jewish council that ran the ghetto.
My great-grandfather’s story was at once an extreme and a typical example. Criminal regimes function in part by forcing the maximum number of subjects to participate in the atrocities. For nearly a century, individuals in various parts of the Western world have struggled with the question of how, and how much, we should engage politically and personally with governments that we find morally abhorrent.
With the election of Donald Trump—a candidate who has lied his way into power, openly embraced racist discourse and violence, toyed with the idea of jailing his opponents, boasted of his assaults on women and his avoidance of taxes, and denigrated the traditional checks and balances of government—this question has confronted us as urgently as ever. After I wrote a piece about surviving autocracy, a great many people have asked me about one of my proposed rules: “Do not compromise.” What constitutes compromise? How is it possible to avoid it? Why should one not compromise?
When I wrote about my great-grandfather in a book many years ago, I included the requisite discussion of Hannah Arendt’s opinion on the Jewish councils in Nazi-occupied Europe, which she called “undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story” of the Holocaust. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem she asserted that without Jewish cooperation Germany would have been unable to round up and kill as many Jews as it did. I quoted equally from the most comprehensive response to Arendt’s characterization of the Judenrat, Isaiah Trunk’s book Judenrat, in which he described the councils as complicated and contradictory organizations, ones that had functioned differently in different ghettos, and ultimately concluded that they had no effect on the final scope of the catastrophe.
When my grandmother—the Judenrat leader’s daughter—read the manuscript of my book, she demanded that I remove the Arendt quote. I told her I could not: as controversial as Arendt’s view was (and continues to be, forty years after her death), one cannot write about the Jewish councils and not acknowledge it. But I sincerely assured my grandmother that I viewed her father, who had been a local politician before the war, as a deeply moral man who did only what he thought was best for his people. My grandmother refused to understand; she and I did not speak for a few years after the book came out.
My grandmother spent the second half of the twentieth century in Moscow, far away from the Holocaust historiography wars, but she and I spontaneously reproduced a debate about collaboration and resistance that has been playing out for decades: on one side of this debate are those who argue for doing good as long as good can be done, even in constrained circumstances; on the other are those who see any compromise as collaboration. Our current situation has so far brought forth mostly the pro-compromise side of the argument, which sounds seductively like the voice of reason.
Following Trump’s first on-the-record meeting with journalists after the election, The New York Times editorial board was most struck by “how thinly thought through many of the president-elect’s stances actually are.” Times columnist Thomas Friedman suggested that this lack of expertise creates an opportunity for good people with knowledge to influence Trump: “They need to dive in now and try to pull him toward the center.” Fellow columnist Frank Bruni went so far as to suggest a radical sort of cooperation based on Trump’s apparently bottomless need for adoration: “Is our best hope for the best Trump to be so fantastically adulatory when he’s reasonable that he’s motivated to stay on that course, lest the adulation wane?”
Trump is not only vain and incompetent but also, many people have suggested, uninterested in the daily business of governing. In any case, the transition has fallen far behind schedule. Normally, at this time in the cycle, the president-elect’s picks for top posts would already be in the agencies they plan to run, getting carefully prepared briefings from senior staff and taking stock. This is apparently not happening. When Trump haphazardly met the leader of Japan last week at Trump’s own offices in New York, his transition team had yet to even contact the State Department .
Could it be that as long as Trump is not looking, good things could be done, or continue to be done? The State Department could continue to support human-rights groups abroad, until or even after he fills top diplomatic posts with cronies, environmental regulations could somehow continue to be enforced—those that cannot easily be cancelled by executive order—, the National Endowment for the Humanities could continue to fund scholarship at home. Perhaps Trump and his family will be too busy pillaging the country to pay attention to the national bureaucracy.
Perhaps. But what happens when he does start to pay attention and restrictions of the sort that his character and his views suggest are imposed? He has promised to put an end to civil-service tenure and start firing. Then a sister argument will kick in: “If I don’t do this job, someone else will.” In one version of this argument, the imaginary someone would be worse—or there would be no one at all, since Trump has also promised to institute a federal hiring freeze. In another, the someone would be no better or worse, but the job would still get done.
That was the argument my other grandmother used when she became a censor for the Soviet government. Her argument was by no means a moral cop-out. On the contrary, it was a moral choice. She had been trained to be a history teacher, but she decided that she could not engage in the act of active lying, especially to children. She did not want to use her charm, beauty, and kindness to make children think the way Stalin wanted them to think. So she became a censor. Her job was to open personal mail that arrived from abroad, read it, and block it if it contained banned material, such as a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls or Western natural-science magazines that an émigré kept sending his scientist brother.
After three years, my grandmother was rewarded for her aptitude for languages and promoted. In her new job, she read dispatches filed by foreign correspondents accredited to work in Moscow and deleted words, lines, or entire stories that Stalin did not want to be published (whenever she was in doubt, she called the question in to Stalin’s secretary). My grandmother thought of this job as impersonal—she worked behind a curtain, and the correspondents never saw her—and mechanical: she followed clear rules. In over ten years on the job, she never made a mistake—or else she would not have survived. But it had real consequences: Western newspaper readers generally did not realize that foreign correspondents were prevented from writing about Soviet food shortages, some of the arrests, and the general state of fear in which the country lived.
My family supplies other examples of this slippery slope of collaboration. Take my own. In 2012, I was working as the editor-in-chief of a popular science magazine called Vokrug Sveta when Vladimir Putin, who fancies himself an explorer and a nature conservationist, took a liking to the publication. His administration launched a kind of friendly takeover of the magazine, one that the publisher could not refuse. I found myself in meetings with the Russian Geographic Society, of which Putin was the hands-on chairman. They wanted me to publish stories about their activities, most of which, as far as I could tell, were bogus. In exchange, they promised to help the magazine: at one point every school in Russia was ordered to buy a subscription (like many Kremlin orders, this one ended in naught). I felt a slow rot setting in at a magazine I loved, but I kept telling myself that I could still do a good job—and keep many fine journalists gainfully employed. Then I was asked to send a reporter to accompany Putin on his hang-gliding adventure with a migrating flock of endangered Siberian cranes. I refused—not on principle but because I was afraid that the reporter would see and describe something that would get the magazine in trouble. The publisher fired me, but then Putin called me in for a meeting and offered me my job back—legally, it wasn’t his to offer, but for practical purposes it was.
In comparison to the Putin regime’s major abuses of power and suppression of the opposition, the story of the cranes and my firing does not deserve a mention. All that happened as a result of the hang-gliding trip (from what I know) was that two or three of the cranes were badly injured for the sake of the president’s publicity stunt, and I lost my job. But I also lost a bit of my soul and the sense of moral agency I had earned over decades of acting like my best journalist self. When Putin offered me my job back after the trip, I hesitated to say no: I loved that job, and I thought I could still edit a good magazine and keep some fine journalists employed. I didn’t want to imagine what would happen the next time I was asked to cover a Putin photo op or a fake story produced by his Geographic Society, which siphoned money off like every other part his mafia state. Fortunately for me, my closest friend said, “Have you lost your mind?,” by which she meant my sense of right and wrong.
In Bialystok ghetto, my great-grandfather’s responsibility in the Judenrat was to ensure that the ghetto was supplied with food. He ran the trucks that brought food in and took garbage out, he ran the canteen and supervised the community gardens that a group of young socialists planted. He also discouraged the young socialists from trying to organize a resistance movement: it would be of no use and would only jeopardize the ghetto’s inhabitants. It took him almost two years to change his mind about the resistance efforts, as he slowly lost hope that the Judenrat, by generally following the rules and keeping the ghetto inhabitants in line, would be able to save at least some of them.
As in other ghettos, the Judenrat was ultimately given the task of compiling the lists of Jews to be “liquidated.” The Bialystok Judenrat accepted the job, and there is every indication that my great-grandfather took part in the process. The arguments in defense of producing the list, in Bialystok and elsewhere, were pragmatic: the killing was going to occur anyway; by cooperating, the Judenrat could try to reduce the number of people the Nazis were planning to kill (in Bialystok, this worked, though in the end the ghetto, like all other ghettos, was “liquidated”); by compiling the lists, the Judenrat could prevent random killing, instead choosing to sacrifice those who were already near death from disease or starvation. These were strong arguments. There is always a strong argument.
But what if the Jews had refused to cooperate? Was Arendt right that fewer people might have died? Was Trunk right that Judenrat activities had no effect on the final outcome? Or would mass murder of Jews have occurred earlier if Jews had refused to manage their own existence in the ghetto? We cannot know for certain, any more than we can know now whether a scorched-earth strategy or the strategy of compromise would more effectively mitigate Trumpism. But that does not mean that a choice—the right choice—is impossible. It only means that we are asking the wrong question.
The difficulty stems from the realist tradition in politics. In contrast to what is sometimes called idealism, the realist position holds that the political world is governed not by morality but by clear and calculable interests. Alliances and conflicts turn into transactions with predictable outcomes. The realist reasoning is applied most clearly and most often to international relations, but it has seeped into all political life, turning virtually every conversation into a discussion of possible outcomes.
Realism is predicated on predictability: it assumes that parties have clear interests and will act rationally to achieve them. This is rarely true anywhere, and it is patently untrue in the case of Trump. He ran a campaign unlike any in memory, has won an election unlike any in memory, and has so far appointed a cabinet unlike any in memory: racists, Islamophobes, and homophobes, many of whom have no experience relevant to their new jobs. Patterns of behavior characteristic of former presidents will not help predict Trump’s behavior. As for his own patterns, inconsistency and unreliability are among his chief characteristics.
Of course, it is not entirely impossible that, if Bill Gates follows Frank Bruni’s advice and starts wining and dining Trump, the president-elect will be so flattered that he will take some good policy proposals to heart—but it seems exceedingly unlikely. It is not impossible that if the Times and the political establishment follow Friedman’s advice and shower Trump with praise whenever he is so much as civil, he will respond positively—though one suspects that one or more of his wives have tried this age-old trick of training a man like one trains a puppy and have failed, despite being better positioned to exert influence than is the Times. Perhaps, if hundreds of federal employees stand firm and do their jobs exactly as they should be done in the face of breaking norms—and assuming they don’t get fired—Trumpism will fail. Or perhaps it will fail if they refuse to do their jobs. We cannot know.
Similarly, we cannot know whether Western sanctions have kept Vladimir Putin from invading more neighboring countries or shedding more blood in Ukraine—or, on the contrary, have caused him to be more stubbornly brutal and militaristic than he would otherwise have been. In other words, we cannot know whether economic punishment of the Russian government has been, in the realist sense of the word, “effective.” What we do know is that sanctions were the correct response from a moral standpoint—even if it is a response we have applied inconsistently elsewhere—simply because it is right to refuse to do business with a dictator and his cronies.
We cannot know what political strategy, if any, can be effective in containing, rather than abetting, the threat that a Trump administration now poses to some of our most fundamental democratic principles. But we can know what is right. What separates Americans in 2016 from Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s is a little bit of historical time but a whole lot of historical knowledge. We know what my great-grandfather did not know: that the people who wanted to keep the people fed ended up compiling lists of their neighbors to be killed. That they had a rationale for doing so. And also, that one of the greatest thinkers of their age judged their actions as harshly as they could be judged.
Armed with that knowledge, or burdened with that legacy, we have a slight chance of making better choices. As Trump torpedoes into the presidency, we need to shift from realist to moral reasoning. That would mean, at minimum, thinking about the right thing to do, now and in the imaginable future. It is also a good idea to have a trusted friend capable of reminding you when you are about to lose your sense of right and wrong.