This is the second extract from the book Terror and the Police State. It is part of the first chapter, and gives a short account of each of the French, Russian, and Nazi revolutions. It is a bit of a mouthful, but it is needed if we are to follow the reigns of terror and the police states that came with them. These events are fundamental to all our modern history. No one can understand Europe or Russia without at least this level of history.
The rule of the House of Bourbon, the last line of French Kings, was put on its last pedestal by one of the most formidable intellects and administrators of Europe, Cardinal Richelieu, in the 17th century. Louis XIV, the Sun King, then moved the court away from Paris to Versailles. His reign would be looked back on as a time of splendour, but he did not leave his successors with a sure or fair way of raising money, and that would be their downfall. The long reign of Louise XV would be characterised by the kind of corruption and debauchery that we associate with the decline and fall of Rome. The names of two of the mistresses live on – the Marquise de Pompadour and Madame du Barry. The latter was a commoner given in marriage to a count so that she could qualify as la maîtresse déclarée. The French monarchy was ‘absolute’ at least in the sense that the French constitution did not create or allow any substantive checks or balances on the exercise of royal power. The French notion of the rule of law was very different to the English.
The French nobility was not in good standing. Its members saw themselves as almost racially distinct from commoners. Their usefulness as defenders of the realm had passed. An antiquated system of privilege left them immune from most taxes. They expected to be kept in the manner to which they were accustomed and not to have to do anything in return. They were the ultimate passengers and they were about to be shown the door of the bus. Unfortunately for them, they would lose their status – derogate – if they accepted a lesser position when engaged in commerce. The English aristocracy was able to diversify and, if you like, trade out of trouble – and marry down into money and out of trouble.
The clergy was no better off. It was an order, not a class – it included both nobles and commoners. They were loved by neither. Catholics had the majority in France, but the Huguenots had caused stress, until they were in substance banished overseas. The obviousness of church wealth made its priests unpopular with all parts of the people and the priests were distrusted as an arm of government.
The bourgeoisie consisted of people who could live off their own means and, with some condescension and reservation, included two ‘labouring’ groups – the civil service and financiers, and the directors of the economy. The peasant laboured to feed himself and he sold only enough to acquire such cash as might be demanded by his king, the church, or his lord. He was free but was regarded by the bourgeois as uncouth and made by nature and position to support those above him and to contribute most to the royal treasury. The rural community was united against landlords and tithe collectors, taxes and towns, but there were deep divisions between rural workers. The bourgeoisie and labourers and peasants were united in their hatred of the aristocracy.
The hangover of feudalism was mainly seen in the antiquated tax system. There were varying duties and burdens owed by different peasants to different lords. Worse, the collection of taxes was often ‘farmed out’ to people whose reputation had not improved since the days of the Gospels, and this inevitably led to corruption and repression. The problem then was that too many people had a vested interest in the venality going on for the tax system ever to be reformed – and government could not be carried on with an unreformed tax system. In hindsight, it looks obvious now that if the monarchy collapsed, there would be a lot of tension between the aristocracy, the middle class, and those at the bottom about distributing the prizes.
Two things stand out about the French tax system. It was actually corrupt, arbitrary, oppressive and cruel. And as a general rule, the more wealth you had, the less tax that you paid. The whole system could have been designed to induce revulsion and rebellion.
That which we now call the French nation was a kingdom where the powers of the king varied between domains and provinces. There was no common law throughout France. We must therefore banish from our minds the notion of the modern state. There was hardly any sense of a supreme law-making power as we know it and little or no police to enforce such laws as may have been discernible. The security of the king rested ultimately on the army. If enough people were against the king, could the soldiers be trusted to train their guns on the people, or might they turn them on the king? This would be question that recent observers of Egypt would get used to, but the bigger question there was whether the army would turn against the people – and the answer to that question was another – which people?
In his History of the English Speaking Peoples, Sir Winston Churchill has a chapter on the French Revolution. It includes the following observations.
She was rich and many of her people prospered. Why then did revolution break out? Volumes have been written on this subject, but one fact is clear. French political machinery in no way expressed the people’s will. It did not match the times and could not move with them….The Government of France had long been bankrupt…Yet it has been well said that revolutions are not made by starving people. The peasants were no worse off and probably slightly more comfortable than a century before. Most of them were uninterested in politics. The revolutionary impulse came from elsewhere. The nobles had lost their energy and their faith in themselves….The clergy were divided. The Army was unreliable…The King and his Court lacked both the will and the ability to govern. Only the bourgeois possessed the appetite for power and the determination and self-confidence to seize it.…The bourgeois were not democratic as we understand that word today. They distrusted the masses, the crowd, the mob, and with some reason, but they were nevertheless prepared to incite and use it against the ‘privileged’ nobility, and, if necessary, in the assertion of their own status, against the monarchy itself. Rousseau in his famous Social Contract and other essays had preached the theme of equality.
Churchill was a good friend of France and he knew a lot about politics. Those observations may be put against the following summary of the main events that constitute what we know as the French Revolution.
The French king ran out of money and credit, largely as the result of helping the Americans in their War of Independence. Like Spain or Greece today, the French had to find new ways to make themselves financial. In an attempt to find a constitutional solution, if not settlement, the king called for a meeting of the Estates-General, a convention of representatives of the nobility, the church, and the common people (the Third Estate). The shortage of funds for the crown occurred at the same time as a shortage of food for the workers and peasants. Expectations were aroused, but the three Estates could not agree, and the king was indecisive. The Third Estate called itself the National Assembly. It was joined by the clergy.
On 14 July 1789 the price of bread reached its highest point that year. The king had dismissed a finance minister who was trusted by the people in Paris. The people feared that the army would be used against them. They took up arms and for that purpose went to the old fortress that was a prison called the Bastille. When the mob was refused entry they besieged it. The Bastille surrendered that afternoon and its officers were hanged from lamp posts and their heads were cut off. The absolute monarchy was no more, but violence was there at the start.
The National Assembly abolished feudalism and serfdom, but it never settled on a lasting constitution. The king did not endorse the National Assembly’s main decrees and he then sought to escape. He was apprehended and later executed. An insurrectionary commune was set up in Paris, fragmenting government. The experiment of trying to settle a limited form of monarchy – like that of England – had failed.
European monarchs threatened the new regime from outside and it was also threatened from within. The result was what is known as the Terror which finished with the death of Robespierre in 1794. After that the French experimented with a ‘Convention’, a ‘Directory’, and a ‘Consulate’, until at last a young general called Bonaparte imposed his will over Paris and France before seeking to impose it over Europe. The execution of the King had been followed by the coronation of the Emperor. The wheel had revolved full circle.
On the eve of its revolution in 1917, Russia was in many ways behind France in 1789. If you go to St. Petersburg, you might think, depending on the season, that you were in Italy, or at least Europe, with the light classical architecture and the light pastel colours. When you get to Moscow, you know that you are near to Asia, with the onion tops and thick mustard colours. It is like going to Istanbul. You can feel Europe receding behind you. St. Petersburg was built so that the Tsar could feel closer to Europe in more ways than one. Many Russians have felt a kind of horror at being thought of as being Asian.
It was Peter who built St. Petersburg – in record time, with slave labour – and he also laid the basis of the modern absolutist state when he turned all the nobles into servants of the crown. A noble was then legally defined as the Tsar’s ‘slave’. The Russian nobleman became obsessed by rank and the marks and insignia and etiquette of rank. The nobles were to their underlings what the Tsar was to his nobles. It was a trickle-down absolutism. The serfs had no rights at all. A young squire often claimed his ‘rights’ over serf girls. Serf harems were very fashionable in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Members of the ruling class were desperate to be comme il faut after the French fashion. There was therefore an identity crisis with the Napoleonic wars. War and Peace by Tolstoy is all about that crisis. The Jacobin reign of terror in France had already undermined the belief of Russia in Europe as a light unto the nations. Because of the Napoleonic Wars, Russian noblemen gave up Cliquot and Lafite for kvas and vodka, and haute cuisine for cabbage soup.
From time to time, some of the better people took it into their heads to do something about the appalling standing of the serfs. There was a kind of aristocratic uprising when people dreamed that every Russian peasant would enjoy the rights of citizens instead of being treated as the slaves that they were. If they went to Paris or London and came back to Moscow, they felt that they were going back to a prehistoric past. But the intellectuals wanted to see the Napoleonic War – the war of 1812 – as a war of national liberation from the intellectual empire of the French. The old Russian values were seen not in St. Petersburg but in Moscow, the head of old Muscovy. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moscow saw itself as the last surviving centre of the Orthodox religion, and as the heir to Rome and Byzantium, and as such the saviour of mankind. The veneration for the motherland or fatherland was as much religious as patriotic.
The lives of the peasants were miserable beyond description. According to an 1835 digest of laws, a wife’s duty was to ‘submit to the will of her husband’ and reside with him in all circumstances, unless he was exiled to Siberia’. Additionally she may have had to put with the sexual advances of not just her husband, but his father too, because there was an ancient peasant custom that gave the household elder rights of access to her body in the absence of his son. Also the better people frequently resorted to peasant women for sex. The great writer Turgenev himself had several love affairs with his own serfs; Tolstoy also exercised the same ‘squire’s rights’. Russia was the most infamously patriarchal state in the history of the world.
But some of their better people and intelligentsia thought that they were, nevertheless, civilised. Indeed, they thought that they had a mission to the world. Gogol in his novel Dead Souls said: ‘Is it not like that you too, Russia, are speeding along with a spirited troika that nothing can overtake?….The bells fill the air with their wonderful tinkling; the air is torn asunder, it thunders and is transformed into wind; everything on earth is flying past, and, looking askance, other nations and states draw aside and make way for her.’ Trotsky said: ‘We can construct a railway across the Sahara, we can build the Eiffel Tower and talk directly with New York, but surely we cannot improve one man. Yes we can! To produce a new improved version of man – that is the future task of communism.’
Russia was still a peasant country at the turn of the century. Eighty per cent of the population were said to be peasants. But the upper classes had no idea of how the peasants lived. There were in truth ‘Two Russias’ separated by a gulf of mutual ignorance, distaste, and distrust. Some of the better people – like Tolstoy – had romantic visions, possibly encouraged by frequent sexual congress with them. These were Populists, but their zeal did not often survive physical contact. Dostoevsky told the truth: ‘We, the lovers of the people, regard them as part of a theory, and it seems that none of us really likes them as they actually are, but only as each of us has imagined them. Moreover, should the Russian people at some future time, turn out to be not what we imagined, then we, despite our love of them, would immediately renounce them without regret.’ This is what the Communists would do in both Russia and China.
The problem was worse than one of mere incomprehension. The Russian intelligentsia had a kind of craving for and a faith in the idea of absolute truth. They wanted to embrace Marxism as a science, and therefore a vehicle of demonstrable truth. If you combine this ignorance of the Russian peasant with a romantic vision of what he may aspire to, then you might find the faith to say that you have found the way to go straight to the socialist utopia without going through what Marx had said was the necessary phase of bourgeois development. It is as if the ancient peasant somehow supplied ‘the Missing Link’, or as if ‘the ancient commune would be preserved as the basis of Russian communism.’
The truth is that the love of the better people for the peasants was an illusion. They were in love with their own ideas and their own conceits. They were repelled by the real thing, and they turned inwards to their own abstractions. They became like Rousseau – long on humanity in the abstract; short on love for real men, women, and children. Those who became revolutionary fought the police state, and learned its methods. The poachers became gamekeepers. This happens all the time – the lure of power, and the craving for revenge. These hardened but superior types felt able to ‘liberate’ those under them according to their own conceptions of revolutionary justice, and by means appropriate to the inferior condition of those being blessed with liberation. We are then near the apex of the political thought of the Evangelist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau – the people may have to be forced to be free.
When Nicholas II knew he would be the Tsar, he burst into tears. ‘What is going to happen to me and to all of Russia? I am not prepared to be a Tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling.’ (Louis XVI had said much the same.) A senior minister would observe of Nicholas, ‘Our Tsar is an oriental, a hundred per cent Byzantine’. The problem was that he was set on ruling, but he was no good at wielding power. His wife was not much help. She had been brought up by her grandmother, Queen Victoria. The two conversed in English and got factory made furniture from Maples.
The end of the Romanovs’ rule came quickly in February 1917. The Great War again showed up Russia’s military ineptitude and aggravated fears of food shortages. Queues of women gathered outside shops in Petrograd, as it was then known. They were joined by workers and there was a general strike. Nicholas II sought to rule through his army, but his army was fighting the Germans. His generals advised him to step down (abdicate), and he did so. The double eagle came down and the end of the Tsars was almost bloodless. The Order No.1 of the Petrograd Soviet called for democratisation of the army and recognition of the authority of the Soviets
on all policy questions relating to the armed forces.
This was the revolution described by John Reed in his book, Ten Days that Shook the World. It was a coup d’etat. Lenin had to scrap his idea that the revolution would be carried out by disciplined intellectuals directing the workers. There was a popular uprising. Meetings of Soviets were clamorous, standing room affairs that made the leaders take the real decisions between themselves in caucus. When those on the fringe sought to assert themselves, Trotsky dispatched them to ‘the dust-heap of history’.
But Lenin had departed from Marx and his party’s script. Marx was clear that there had to be a bourgeois phase before the people would be ready to move to the next phase – Lenin in his ‘theses’ called for the immediate transfer of power to the proletariat and the peasants. This was the gamble that Lenin was prepared to take. The stake was Russia. As Professor Hosking observed: ‘Whether they liked it or not, the Bolsheviks had come to power on the wings of a largely peasant revolution imbued with that spirit. They found themselves trying to found a modern, industrialised world-wide proletarian state on the basis of the backward, parochial Russian village community – a contradiction which haunted them, and which they later tried to overcome violently.’ What Gorky thought that he saw immediately was not any kind of social revolution, but ‘a program of greed, hatred and vengeance’. There may not be, it might be said, any necessary contradiction. Greed, hatred, and vengeance are there in full in every revolution.
Lenin wanted the Party to take power, not the Soviets. At a November 1917 election, the Bolsheviks won 23 per cent of the popular vote (almost exactly half of the highest vote recorded for Adolf Hitler in Germany), but what matter, they had taken power in the name of the working class, not in the name of all of the peoples of all of the Russias. Then, Afghan-style, they arrested the three electoral commissioners and installed a Bolshevik. Lenin then secured the dictatorship of his party and his own dictatorship over the party itself. Did any Bolshevik seriously believe that they were in this for anything other than themselves? In condemning any compromise, Trotsky asserted the primacy of the party: ‘There was no point organising the insurrection if we don’t get the majority.’
There in a few words is the sell-out of all the Russias. They were just hijacked. People thinking of democracy were just dreamers, and probably bourgeois dreamers to boot. The Bolshevik Party had undergone a Leninist Management Buy-Out; the armed coup was just a front. This happens a lot with takeover merchants of all sorts. The capitalists wanted control of capital then labour. The communists wanted control of labour then capital. Their motives and styles were similar, as was their general want of decency; the difference came in the priority awarded to the differences in their greed.
Because they believed that their revolution heralded a world-wide revolution, the Bolsheviks changed their name to Communist, after the rising in the Paris Commune of 1871. Lenin signed the treaty that ended the war with Germany. Land was transferred to village assemblies and Lenin was trying to found proletarian internationalism on the basis of peasant parochialism. The Communists truly believed, they said, that socialism would rule the world – including China and Brazil. They also believed that they would need at least a European revolution to support their own revolution. They had a limitless capacity for projecting their dreams on to places that they knew nothing at all about.
The Communists’ hold on power was not strong. The Soviets formed Red Guards, workers’ police militias, a little like the Brownshirts of the Nazis. As a sign of things to come, the Communists closed down the newspapers that were not socialist, and established their own security police called Cheka – the Extraordinary Commission for Struggle against Capitalist Speculation and Counter-Revolution.
In truth, the Communists could only hold their power by brutal means. But since they believed that the ends were ordained by history, as taught by Marx, they believed that savage means were warranted. People’s courts and revolutionary tribunals were set up. These worked with the Cheka, much as the Committee of Public Safety had worked in Paris. The People’s Courts would be guided by their ‘revolutionary conscience’ in line with the view of Lenin that the legal system should be used as a weapon of mass terror against the bourgeoisie.
Yet the workers were not seeing dividends. There was no improvement in their lives. And throughout Russia, many of the peasants were unhappy and unsettled. There was a scarcity of goods and runaway inflation. And once a regime stoops to lawless brutality to maintain itself in power, it finds it very hard to give it up and turn over a new leaf, or hand over to new people whose hands have not been dirtied and bloodied.
Language was violated in a movement that came to be crystallised in Orwell’s 1984. Trade unions were replaced by ‘political departments’. One party operative said that ‘militarisation is nothing other than the self-organisation of the working class’. The Communist Party, as might reasonably have been predicted, shrank within itself and came to be dominated by the Red Army veterans who saw themselves as the true believers charged with leading a suspicious and suspect but mindless citizenry to its Marx-given glory. One worker’s group was denounced as ‘anarcho-syndicalist deviation’.
By a process that others might see as the inevitable climax of Marxist historicism, the party became the be-all and end-all, transplanting the drab, uncomprehending working class and peasantry as the ultimate beneficiary of all the bloodshed. The Civil War militarised and brutalised the Communist cause and destroyed any inkling of the rule of law in Russia. What else could a minority dictatorship be but ruthlessly repressive? Terror became both necessary and desirable for both Lenin and Trotsky. Lenin asked: ‘If we are not ready to shoot a saboteur and White Guardist [the other side in the Civil War], what sort of revolution is that?’
The theoretical basis of the revolution was founded on hostility between classes. In one sense, at least, the revolution may be seen to have been predicated on hate. The Russian Revolution, like the French, started in violence. This is entailed by the notion of ‘revolution’, and it led to a brutal suppression and an even more brutal civil war. Did those responsible for all of this violence, terror and bloodshed, all of this upheaval, chaos and repression, truly believe that in the result they would all come to walk in peace, happiness and prosperity in what Churchill would come to call ‘these broad, sunlit uplands’? The answer, apparently, is ‘yes’.
Before he died, Lenin introduced a scheme that we now see as the embodiment of a regime like that of the Communists. His Plan for Monumental Propaganda was meant to surround workers with architectural and sculptural statements about their new world, but artistic life, like intellectual life, cannot survive under a totalitarian regime.
Lenin died in 1924 and, contrary to a wish expressed by him before his death, Stalin succeeded Lenin as the Secretary General of the Party. As such, he had more power than any Russian Tsar had ever had and the real Russian nightmare was about to begin.
The nation that we know as Germany did not come into being until the second half of the nineteenth century. Its architect was a most formidable Prussian statesman called Bismarck. Under him, Germany became the foremost liberal democracy in the world, with movements toward the Welfare State that would lead Lloyd George and Winston Churchill nearly to cause a revolution in England when they sought to keep up with the Germans’ tenderness toward the halt and the infirm. Then it all fell apart for Germany and Europe when most of the world descended into the First World War. It would be the last fling of the old monarchies, empires, aristocracies, and ruling classes, and the carnage was horrific and unimaginable. About eight million people were killed. The world was being introduced to numbers of dead that the living just could not get their heads around. The loss to a whole generation in people, and the damage to national economies, meant that people were reluctant to take up arms against new aggressors, and that the world as a whole might be more subject to economic collapse in the form that we know as a depression.
Germany lost the Great War, but we can now see that the victorious nations, known as the Allies, made two errors in the way that they concluded hostilities and then settled the terms of the Peace. The first mistake was not to reduce the losing nation to a level where it had to accept unconditional surrender. This enabled the Germans to say that they had not been beaten. The second mistake was to show a complete lack of statesmanship in the Treaty of Versailles, and to seek to crush the German nation and to render it economically helpless – with no corresponding benefit to the victors. The first mistake enabled someone like Hitler and a party like the Nazis to get off the ground. The second mistake, combined with the Depression, enabled Hitler and the Nazis to get control of Germany. Once that happened, we now know that something like another world war was almost inevitable. The Allies would not repeat either mistake after the next war. They insisted on crushing both Germany and Japan, and then conducting sensible occupations, fixing fair peace terms, and even giving support and relief to the vanquished.
John Maynard Keynes saw it all from Versailles. He wrote in The Economic Consequences of the Peace:
The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading the lives of millions of human beings, and of depriving a whole nation of happiness, should be abhorrent and detestable – abhorrent and detestable even if it were possible, even if it enriched ourselves, even if it did not sow the decay of the whole civilized life of Europe. Some preach it in the name of justice. In the great events of man’s history, in the unwinding of the complex fates of nations, justice is not so simple. And if it were, nations are not authorized, by religion or by natural morals, to visit on the children of their enemies the misdoings of parents or of rulers.
In case people did not want to face the corollary, Keynes also said:
If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long that final civil war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilization and progress of our generation.
The Germans were held responsible for starting the first war, but they could not bring themselves to accept the fact that they had lost the war. They invented the myth that they had not been defeated at all, but that they had been stabbed in the back. General Pershing of the U S had specifically warned the Allies of the consequences of not bringing Germany to its knees. He forecast just how the Germans would react.
The moral and political upheavals infesting Europe between the wars were tailor-made to produce simplistic dictators peddling snake-oil potions of nationalism, militarism, and command-style economic methods, a bizarre kind of feudal concoction that in the hands of people like Mussolini, Hitler and Franco now look to us to be at best stupidly implausible and at worst, if you could take them seriously, cruel and lethal.
Hitler had an additional scapegoat – the Jews. Anti-Semitism was alive if not raging across Europe in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Hitler really believed in his crusade against them, and enough Germans were prepared to put this dark side behind them while Hitler was restoring national pride and ending unemployment and getting the trains to run on time. If the Jews had to take pain while Germany reversed the outrage of Versailles, so be it; they were at least used to being on the outer. You can assess the prevailing virulence of European anti-Semitism by looking at the roles that the people of France and Italy later played in assisting Germany deal with the Jews and the appalling atrocities committed against the Jews in Eastern Europe and in the Balkans. There would be fascist governments in Italy, Spain, Vichy France, Greece, and the Balkans. It would be in the Balkans that some of the worst racist atrocities would be committed, and long after the war.
But Hitler’s campaign was foundering. He never got to 50% of an electoral vote for parliament, and his final ascent was only made possible by the chaos following the Great Crash of 1929, and the Great Depression. If Hitler had been brought to the door of Germany, the Depression blew out the whole doorway. The national ‘socialists’ liked to go on about ‘plutocrats’, before retiring to their villas, to dine with the Krupps and the Fabens.
Hitler got to power by a combination of brute force, mass seduction, and fraud. His party consisted at its heart of perverts and thugs who were happy to beat up or kill anyone whom their leader (fuhrer) had not seduced. He had a kind of magical power over crowds who were ready to surrender to him. His word meant nothing; nothing, not even Germany, could stand in his way. In the Night of the Long Knives, he did not hesitate to murder those who had brought him to power. He was dealing with opponents weakened by the same thing as Germany – a brutal war that had robbed whole nations of their manhood and their humanity, and that had left the world without an enforceable moral compass.
The Germans cannot be heard to say that they had not been warned precisely of the terrors and moral horrors that would come with Hitler. They could not be heard to say that they did not know he was intent on annihilating both the Russians and the Jews. It was all there in chapter and verse in Mein Kampf. But, while Hitler was getting results, decent Germans, or enough of them, were prepared to look the other way. For whatever reason, the Germans did not take Mein Kampf seriously. For probably similar reasons, England and the rest of Europe chose not to take Keynes seriously, although the forecasts of both Keynes and Hitler were all ruinously fulfilled.
The failure of decent, sane people in Europe to respond to dictators like Mussolini, Hitler or Franco in a way that we would regard now as sensible or responsible is uncomfortably reflected in the fact that the Pope, the principal guardian of the religion of the West, found a way to come to terms with each of those dictators through deals called Concordats. Each dictator – and only Franco had any sort of religion and anything but contempt for Christ – regarded his deal with the pope as an essential plank in his political platform.
The failure of educated Germans to deal with Hitler led to a kind of national nervous breakdown that was summed up by Sebastian Haffner, who was a law student in Berlin when the Brownshirts evicted the Jews from the law library, as follows.
The only thing that is missing is what in animals is called ‘breeding’. This is a solid inner kernel that cannot be shaken by external pressures and forces, something noble and steely, a reserve of pride, principle and dignity to be drawn on in the hour of trial….At the moment of truth, when other nations rise spontaneously to the occasion, the Germans collectively and limply collapsed. They yielded and capitulated, and suffered a nervous breakdown….The Kammergericht [superior court] toed the line. No Frederick the Great was needed, not even Hitler had to intervene. All that was required was a few Amtsgerichtsrats [judges] with a deficient knowledge of the law.
What might be described as the failure of the better people of Italy has been described by a biographer of Mussolini in terms that could be transposed word for word to the Germans and Hitler.
Mussolini still needed their [the moderates’] help, for most of the liberal parliamentarians would look to them for a lead. He also took careful note that chaos had been caused in Russia when representatives of the old order were defenestrated en masse during the revolution: fascism could hardly have survived if the police, the magistrates, the army leaders and the civil service had not continued to work just as before, and the complicity of these older politicians was eagerly sought and helped to preserve the important illusion that nothing had changed.
The liberals failed to use the leverage afforded by his need for their approbation. Most of them saw some good in fascism as a way of defending social order and thought Italians too intelligent and civilised to permit the establishment of a complete dictatorship. Above all, there was the very persuasive argument that the only alternative was to return to the anarchy and parliamentary stalemate they remembered….Mussolini had convincingly proved that he was the most effective politician of them all: he alone could have asked parliament for full powers and been given what he asked; he alone provided a defence against, and an alternative to, socialism. And of course the old parliamentarians still hoped to capture and absorb him into their own system in the long run; their optimism was encouraged by the fact that his fascist collaborators were so second-rate.
Does that not seem to be a correct rendition of how decent Germans probably reacted to Hitler? Still today you will find Christian apologists for Franco, and not just in Spain, who say that his fascism was preferable to republican socialism.
Mussolini had the other advantage that for reasons we now regard as obvious, no one outside Italy could take Mussolini seriously. As his biographer reminds us, Mussolini was, rather like Berlusconi, seen as an ‘absurd little man’, a ‘second-rate cinema actor and someone who could not continue in power for long’, a ‘Cesar de carnaval’, a ‘braggart and an actor’, and possibly ‘slightly off his head.’ Churchill always took Hitler seriously; he could never do that with that Italian buffoon. The Fuhrer would betray his nation and kill himself and his mistress; the Italians would revolt from and then murder their Duce and his mistress, and hang them upside down in public. (The Italians have rarely had any idea of political stability or succession.)
Once war was declared, the German people overwhelmingly supported their fighting men and their Fatherland. For whatever reason, the middle classes and those above them in Germany, Italy or Spain, and the popes, did not realise that they had a tiger by the tail with Hitler, Mussolini, or Franco until it was far, far too late. Hitler had said that Germans should be ready to enter into a pact with the devil to eradicate the evil of Jewry. He entered into just such a pact with the devil and the German people entered into just such a pact with him. As usual, the devil won. The principal quarry of the Nazi Terror was the German people. The death squads of the SS were something else.