On Not Being a Mitläufer

March 09, 2021

My wife’s been reading Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home (by Nora Krug) and shared a fascinating portion that she knew would resonate with me. I’d like to share it with you here. 

In recounting parts of her own family’s experience during and after WWII, Krug describes the survey her German grandfather was asked to fill out by the Americans in the U.S. sector of Germany in 1946. One question required him to choose among five options:

Major Offender – Offender – Lesser Offender – Follower – Exonerated Person

He chose “Follower,” which in German was “Mitläufer.” As a verb, “mitlaufen” means “to run with (the crowd)”; the noun “Mitläufer” describes “a person lacking in courage and moral stance.”

Krug uses a picture of a sheep in describing a Mitläufer, and still feels emotional looking at her grandfather’s confession of “his own weak-mindedness, written out in his own handwriting.”

This got me thinking about how easy it is to feel good when we don’t have to describe ourselves as an “offender,” even a “lesser” one, in our own lives. “I didn’t do anything,” we tell ourselves, as if that is actually a good thing rather than merely a less bad thing. 

Said another way, it got me thinking that it’s really nothing to be proud of to realize you’re behaving like a sheep, not a wolf. Sometimes it’s the best we can do but very rarely are the stakes actually life or death like they were during the Nazi regime. 

Speaking of which, I think Anne Frank said it exactly right one month before her family was captured in Amsterdam and sent to a concentration camp: “if you know it [that you’re weak] why not fight against it, why not try to train your character?”

Why not, indeed? I hope you’ll join others who choose courage, and work at being competent when being courageous. Find ways, that is, to be brave without being a wolf.

Written By

Jim Detert

Jim Detert is the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration in the Leadership and Organizational Behavior area at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration and a Professor of Public Policy at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Prior to joining UVA, he taught at Cornell University's Johnson School of Management and was the faculty director for the School's leadership initiative.