Politics in Everything: The Politics of Malicious Denunciations

by Henry Farrell on May 7, 2012 · 3 comments

in Politics Everywhere

The amusing letter that Andrew cites below is an example of a broader political phenomenon. Stathis Kalyvas’ The Logic of Violence in Civil War has already become a classic of the field – among its many interesting arguments is an account of malicious denunciations.

the practice of denunciation exists to some extent in all organized societies, though it is really at home under authoritarianism … political actors are often surprised and overwhelmed by the response they receive when they solicit denunciations … However, what political actors take time to realize is that many denunciations are malicious, and a significant proportion false … Ordinary people are liable to ignore “moral self-sanctions” and engage in activities that further their self-interest but injure others even under everyday “normal” circumstances, but the immense majority stop short of homocidal violence. By exchanging violence for denunciations, political actors assume the considerable moral and practical costs of ridding people of their personal enemies … The study of the Duesseldorf Gestapo files by Reihard Mann shows that a plurality of cases was used to resolve private conflicts. … Denunciations between spouses (and ex-spouses) got so far out of hand in Nazi Germany that in 1941 the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin sent a letter to all local Gestapo posts in which they requested that special attention be paid to denunciations between relatives – particularly married couples. (quotes strung together from pp.338-347, missing out on a lot of detail).

Kalyvas suggests that denunciation should be scarce in highly developed societies with “atomized lives and anonymous relationships” – it is most likely in contexts where people resent each other, and even hate each other, but can’t easily get away from each other.


Peter Hovde May 8, 2012 at 10:32 am

Rather relevant to U.S. counter-terrorism policies, although we actually offered bounties in Afghanistan as well. Who could predict that many of the “terrorists” would just be people that others disliked and/or wanted to sell?

Joseph Young May 8, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Seton Hall study on Gitmo detainees that offers support for this view.


Tracy Lightcap May 8, 2012 at 11:23 pm

This happened in the SU in 1936 also and continued during the Stalinist Terror. There things were a bit different. The 1936 constitution was supposed to lead to a re-birth of democracy in the SU (right). Well, how do you tell if a society is becoming more democratic when it, you know, only has one political party and everyone is walking around on eggshells? Why, by how many long standing state and party officials get denounced for whatever they get denounced for. That’s exactly what came about: “ordinary comrades” (as near as can be determined, that’s who they were at first) would get up at meetings or, especially, at election rallies to object to the continuance in office of long time incumbents.

The NKVD had the same problem the Gestapo did; it was obvious that a lot of people were getting denounced over grudges. Then Stalin stepped in on a couple of cases and allowed as how stopping denunciations was “stifling the voice of the people.” After that it was open season for awhile. When the Terror ginned up that was very bad news for those on the receiving end. Shelia Fitzpatrick’s chapter on the Terror in Everyday Stalinism is a good source.

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