Passenger locator – Frank McNally on a century of poputchiks, Mitläufers, and fellow travellers

An Irishman’s Diary

For the past century, thanks to Trotsky, fellow traveller has had a pejorative meaning. Photograph: Getty Images

The Germans have a word for everything, as you know, and one of the more recent additions to the lexicon is Putinversteher. It means “Putin understander”, referring to those who express empathy with the Russian president’s worldview.

As such, it was a term of mild disparagement in the recent past but, given this week’s events, may now be verging towards abuse.

Putinversteher is the latest variant of what the Russians themselves used to call poputchik, a term coined by the Bolshevik Anatoly Lunacharsky but popularised by Leon Trotsky and usually translated as "fellow traveller".

That English phrase had a long innocent existence in travel writing (as I discovered while writing this, it features a lot in the older archives of An Irishman’s Diary, typically introducing the subject of funny things that happened on trains).


But for the past century, thanks to Trotsky, it has also had a pejorative meaning, to describe people who, while not being signed-up members of a political party or movement (originally the Communists, then the Nazis, and more recently – in these parts – the IRA) are in obvious sympathy with the cause.

The phrase had entered the western political mainstream by the mid-1930s, clearly.

Writing of the 1936 US presidential campaign, a New York magazine commented innocuously: "The new phenomenon is the fellow traveller. The term has a Russian background and means someone who does not accept all your aims but has enough in common with you to accompany you in a comradely fashion part of the way. In this campaign both Mr Landon and Mr Roosevelt have acquired fellow-travellers."

But when in 1949 George Orwell supplied British intelligence with a notorious list of people he saw as communist sympathisers (including Sean O'Casey and George Bernard Shaw), "F.T." and "Crypto" were among his damning abbreviations.

By then, or perhaps later, the Russians had coined other, cruder phrases to describe amenable friends. One, widely attributed to an earlier Vladimir – Lenin – but not found anywhere in his writings, is “useful idiot”. That started to appear in print in the late 1940s, but the earliest known references are Italian.

Cruder again was the term govnoed (literally "shit-eater"), which according to Viktor Suvorov, a former Soviet intelligence agent who defected to the UK in 1978, had become common currency in the USSR's western embassies.

It referred to members of communist friendship societies overseas and, although a mere metaphor, often involved actual eating events. A typical phrase used in embassies, Suvorov claimed, was: “Today we’re having some shit-eaters to dinner. Prepare a suitable menu.”

Getting back to fellow-travellers, the Germans had a word for them too. To anglophone ears, Mitläufer may also suggest food (or perhaps a fan of the recently deceased singer of Bat Out of Hell). But it meant literally a “runner with” and it too referred to people who, while not necessarily members of a movement, passively collaborated.

In Germany, it was through fascism rather than communism that the term became notorious. After the war, it was the lowest of the culpable categories into which people were sorted under the denazification process.

In some cases, the expression was applied even to those who had joined the party. Excusing the great conductor Herbert von Karajan for a Nazi membership card, former chancellor Helmut Schmidt said: "Karajan was obviously not a Nazi. He was a Mitläufer."

By contrast the film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, although not a member, was officially declared a Mitläufer and so barred from seeking public office. So was the architect and sculptor Arno Breker, a Nazi favourite whose career nevertheless continued to thrive after the war.

On at least one memorable occasion, Breker had been a literal fellow traveller of Hitler, accompanying him on the Fuhrer’s first and only visit to Paris: a rushed, two-and-a-half-hour tour on the morning of June 23rd, 1940.

As summarised in Graham Robb’s book Parisians, there was no time during the visit for Hitler to eat a meal, speak to locals, or even go to the toilet. But as the former-artist-turned-dictator confided in Breker and others, it was “the dream my life” to see Paris, a city he would have happily studied in had politics not diverted him from art.

Interested mainly in the architecture, he visited the Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, and the Panthéon. He also saw the old opera house and the Louvre (which he called “one of the greatest works of genius in the history of architecture”). Finally, the entourage drove up the steep hill to Montmartre, where Hitler took in the view over the city for several minutes.

Then he turned around to look at the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur and dismissed it as “appalling”.