Collaboration in War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Collaboration in war refers to the willful cooperation of local populations or elites with a foreign invader in a time of war.


Collaboration in war refers to the willful cooperation of local populations or elites with a foreign invader in a time of war. This can involve Fifth columns“fifth columns”–underground groups coordinated in advance of an invasion–or the impromptu recruitment of puppet regimes and auxiliary military forces in occupied territory. Collaboration is endemic to warfare, but its conflation with Treasontreason is a relatively recent Western development. Most scholarly work on the subject focuses on the motivations behind collaboration in the modern era, citing factors such as ideology, internal religious or ethnic divisions, material motives, and basic survival instinct. Both the invader and the collaborator are agents in the process.Collaboration in warCollaboration in war


Invading armies often seek the collaboration of enemy populations in order to limit casualties and expenditure of resources. Subversive activity by collaborators behind enemy lines can hasten the collapse of a defending force. Likewise, by co-opting local administrative personnel, an invader can improve security, exploitation, and communications in its occupied territories at relatively little cost. Regardless of motive, wartime collaboration can result in significant and lasting changes for a population. Whether successful or not, the presence of collaboration may ultimately force a society to redefine itself, both politically and culturally.

History of Collaboration in WarAncient World

Collaboration has existed in some form as long as groups of people with divided loyalties and survival instincts have been in conflict with one another. Before the rise of the modern nation-state, such behavior did not necessarily have the ugly connotations it has today.

The Greece;collaboratorsGreek historian HerodotusHerodotus (Greek historian)Herodotus (c. 484-c. 425 b.c.e.) demonstrates some concept of collaboration in his account of the Persian Wars, but its significance should not be exaggerated. Numerous Greek towns submitted to the Persian Wars (499-479 b.c.e.)Salamis, Battle of (480 b.c.e.)Persians during Xerxes IXerxes I[Xerxes 01]Xerxes’ invasion in 480 b.c.e. Free Greek city-states labeled them Medizers“Medizers” (the Greeks referred to Persia as Medea). The Persians gained troops and logistical support from most of the towns they occupied, not out of ideological consensus but for survival. Early resistance was crushed–towns were razed and populations enslaved–prompting widespread compliance. Based on the calculations of Herodotus, 15 percent of Xerxes’ force at the Thermopylae, Battle of (480 b.c.e.)Battle of Thermopylae (480 b.c.e.) was Greek. Persian victory at the battle was achieved when EphialtesEphialtes, a Greek seeking a reward, showed Xerxes a route through the mountains to outflank the Spartan defenders. Medizing continued even after the defeat of the Persian fleet at Salamis. Greeks provided the shock troops for the Persian forces at the Plataea, Battle of (479 b.c.e.)Battle of Plataea in 479 b.c.e. The victorious free Greeks did not seek vengeance upon the Medizers, which suggests that Panhellenism was not yet so advanced for this type of collaboration to be deemed treasonous. If one’s primary loyalty lay with one’s city-state, Medism was more reflective of opportunistic alliance making than it was of collaboration.

Greek loyalty to the city-state was made evident in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.)Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.), fought between AthensAthens and SpartaSparta and their allies. According to ThucydidesThucydides (Greek historian)Thucydides (c. 459-402 b.c.e.), the war began with an example of collaboration. A small Theban force was able to seize the town of Plataea when a local faction opened the gates at night, hoping to use the Thebans to kill off a rival faction and obtain power for themselves. In this case, collaboration came as the result of internal local politics, but it did not end well for the plotters. When the Plataeans realized how few Thebans there were, they revolted and massacred the foreigners.

The Rome;collaboratorsRomans had stronger notions of collaboration. They used the legend of Tarpeia legendTarpeia as a warning for potential traitors or collaborators. During the war with the SabinesSabines, Tarpeia, the daughter of the commander defending Rome, let the Sabines into the citadel. According to one of the versions told by LivyLivy (Roman historian)Livy (c. 59 b.c.e.-17 c.e.), Tarpeia demanded the heavy gold bands that the Sabines wore on their left arms as payment. Not willing to reward a traitor, the Sabines piled their shields–also worn on their left arms–upon the girl, crushing her to death.

In their later campaigns of expansion, the Romans actively sought the collaboration of local auxiliaries, especially in the form of cavalry, which they lacked. From the point of view of the collaborators, however, such acts did not constitute treason. Troops in auxiliary units were primarily loyal to their leader, who might well choose to ally with the Romans against other tribes for personal gain. Thus, Julius Caesar conquered Gaul with the help of other Gauls, but their tribal nature meant that, like the Greek Medizers, they were more allies than collaborators.

Medieval World

The medieval period saw few developments in Western concepts of collaboration. Despite the bonds of chivalry, the Feudalismfeudal system ensured that loyalties remained at the level of the individual, between lord and vassal. Small armies serving for short periods of time on expeditions with limited aims provided little opportunity for large-scale collaboration. Hugh of MaineHugh of MaineHugh of Maine provides a typical example of medieval collaboration. In 1091, Hugh, a vassal of Matilda of TuscanyMatilda of TuscanyMatilda of Tuscany, informed the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV of an impending attack, enabling the latter to defeat Matilda’s forces at Tricontai.

Religious wars, such as the Crusades;collaboration inCrusades, provided the conditions for a broader range of collaboration, but religious motives often coalesced with personal and political ones. Armenian Christians supplied the Crusader armies besieging the Turkish-held city of Antioch, Siege of (1097-1098)Antioch in 1097. Their main intention, however, was to gain the Crusaders as allies in their attempt to break free from the Christian Byzantine Empire and form an independent kingdom in Cilicia. When Antioch fell to the Crusaders in 1098, it was with the help of an Armenian named Firouz, who served in the Turkish garrison but was disgruntled that the local emir had confiscated his wealth. Firouz opened the gates to the city, and other Armenian residents took part in the massacre that ensued against the Turkish population.

Modern World

The centralization of military and political authority in Europe that followed the Westphalia, Peace of (1648)1648 Peace of Westphalia brought new perspectives on collaboration. These developments broadened the scope and ramifications of treason, especially for the nation-states that had risen by the nineteenth century. If primary loyalties were to be directed toward higher legal authorities and broader communities, collaboration with a clearly defined foreign power had greater significance than before. In addition, technological and organizational developments increased the geographic range of wars and public participation within them, creating new opportunities and the likelihood for more types of collaboration.

The age of revolution brought new, ideological motives for collaboration. Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815)Napoleon I (Bonaparte)[Napoleon 01]Napoleon may never have taken his republican rhetoric seriously, but he actively used it to gain the collaboration of different national groups in his campaigns. His invasion of Italy in 1796 saw local radicals rise up against the ancien régime. Similarly, Napoleon’s “liberation” of Poland won the support of some nationalistic Polish nobles, including Prince Poniatowski, Józef AntoniPoniatowski, Józef AntoniJózef Antoni Poniatowski (1763-1813), who would reach the rank of marshal in Napoleon’s Grand Armée. Despite this, the French never attained the level of collaboration they desired within their occupied territories. Because of Napoleon’s focus on the exploitation of these countries for the war effort, the reforms and independence desired by collaborators never materialized.

Napoleon’s conquests were not equaled until World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];collaboration inWorld War II, which solidified modern notions of collaboration. Because so much of Europe and Asia was occupied, collaboration was widespread. Furthermore, because of the brutality represented by Nazi expansion, this collaboration was imbued with moral connotations that have permanently attached themselves to the concept. For these reasons, World War II provides the best case study to categorize the various types of collaboration in the modern world and to explain the different motives behind them.

World War II introduced a new term for collaborators. During and since the conflict, collaborators came to be referred to as Quislings“quislings.” The name of the Norwegian collaborator Quisling, VidkunQuisling, VidkunVidkun Quisling (1887-1945) became synonymous with treasonous collaboration. Interestingly, though, one of the most famous collaborators in history was also one of the most inept. Quisling’s Fascist-style National Union Party was politically irrelevant in 1939. Realizing that his only chance of success was through foreign help, Norway;German invasionGermany;invasion of NorwayQuisling lobbied the Germans to invade Norway. The Germans had their own reasons for an incursion into Scandinavia and initially wanted nothing to do with Quisling, whose value was limited by his lack of popularity. Nonetheless, with the fall of Oslo in April, 1940, Quisling committed the treasonous act of proclaiming himself head of a new Norwegian government. He was a complete failure. His efforts to Nazify the country only fueled resistance, and he never gained independence of command from the German occupation authorities. After the war, the Norwegian court convicted Quisling of treason, and he was executed by firing squad.

Other groups collaborated with the Nazis on ideological grounds, but without subordinating their ideas so completely to German chancellor Hitler, AdolfHitler, AdolfAdolf Hitler’s worldview. French marshal Pétain, Henri-PhilippePétain, Henri-Philippe[Petain, Henri Philippe]Henri-Philippe Pétain (1856-1951) signed an armistice with the Germans in 1940 and headed the collaborationist French government in Vichy FranceVichy partly out of defeatism and the conviction that he was saving France from an even worse fate. However, Pétain and other Vichy leaders also hoped to institute a patriotic national revolution in France to replace republicanism. Disaffection with the Third Republic had been fairly widespread before the war, which gave the Vichy regime some degree of popular backing until Hitler ordered the complete occupation of France at the end of 1942. Pétain’s death penalty after the war was commuted to life imprisonment.

German and Italian occupation forces were able to use religious and ethnic divisions in the Balkans to their advantage, gaining collaborators to help administer and police the conquered territories. A fascist regime was established in CroatiaCroatia, headed by Pavelić, AntePavelić, Ante[Pavelic, Ante]Ante Pavelić (1889-1959), to free the Axis from the direct occupation of that country. When Pavelić‘s regime proved incapable of maintaining security against the communist-led partisan movement, the Italians had few qualms against using Orthodox Serbian Četniks[Cetniks]Četniks as auxiliaries. TheČetniks themselves were royalist or nationalist guerrilla fighters opposed to Axis occupation, but they saw communism as the greater evil. These examples demonstrate the frequently ambivalent nature of collaboration.

As the war progressed and partisan resistance became greater, local auxiliaries became increasingly important to Axis policies in occupied Europe. Large numbers were recruited in the occupied Soviet Union;auxiliariesSoviet Union–far more, in fact, than the Soviet partisans themselves could muster–more out of the need to feed themselves and their families than out of support for the Nazis, who envisioned their eventual reduction to slavery. It was nonetheless this widespread form of collaboration that Europeans found most difficult to come to grips with after the war. Particularly disconcerting was the predominant role of local auxiliaries in the Holocaust;auxiliariesHolocaust. These forces, rather than German units, were frequently used in the rounding up and execution of Jews in Eastern Europe. As in previous eras, the most important motive behind collaboration during World War II was survival. Although collaboration was widespread, Hitler’s ideological aims and overbearing nature ensured that it could never be total.

Collaboration remains an important goal of occupation forces in present operations, though for very different aims and in new ways. In Afghanistan, North Atlantic Treaty OrganizationNorth Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces seek the cooperation of village elders in formulating reconstruction plans, thereby promoting the creation of democratic traditions at the local level. This type of collaboration faces the same challenge it did in previous times: the need to balance the aims of the occupier with that of the occupied. Collaboration has always been a two-sided affair.Collaboration in war

Books and Articles
  • Dean, Martin. Collaboration in the Holocaust: Crimes of the Local Police in Belorussia and Ukraine, 1941-44. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Dean catalogs the actions of Belorussian and Ukrainian auxiliaries in the antipartisan campaign and genocide in the east. These forces outnumbered their Nazi colleagues.
  • Ghazarian, Jacob G. The Armenian Kingdom in Cilicia During the Crusades: The Integration of Cilician Armenians with the Latins, 1080-1393. Richmond, Surrey, England: Curzon, 2000. Ghazarian traces Armenian efforts to form an independent kingdom in Cilicia between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. Part of their strategy was to ally with the Crusaders against their former masters.
  • Gillis, Daniel. Collaboration with the Persians. Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner, 1979. In one of the few works to deal explicitly with concepts of collaboration in the ancient world, Gillis analyzes the actions of Greek Medizers in the Persian War.
  • Hoidal, Oddvar K. Quisling: A Study in Treason. Oslo: Norwegian University Press, 1989. Hoidal’s is the most thorough account of the archetypal collaborator: Vidkun Quisling. Alongside biography, Hoidal ably places Quisling in his Norwegian and European context.
  • Jackson, Julian. France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Dividing his focus between collaboration and resistance in occupied France, Jackson argues that the Vichy regime enjoyed some popular backing.
  • Tomasevich, Jozo. War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945: Occupation and Collaboration. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001. Tomasevich focuses on Pavelić’s regime in Croatia, arguing that his collaboration was misguided: The Axis would never have allowed the complete independence Pavelić desired.



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War Crimes and Military Justice

Categories: History