[This is a short version of a book ‘Terror and the Police State; Punishment as a Measure of Despair’, published in 2015. The book focussed on France after 1789, Russia after 1917, and Germany after 1933. The instalments will follow the 21 chapter headings that are as follows: 1 Terms of Engagement; 2 Enduring emergency; 3 Righteousness; 4 Good bye to the law; 5 Instruments of terror; 6 Civil war; 7 Waves of terror; 8 Degradation; 9 Secret police; 10 Surveillance; 11 Denunciation; 12 Fear; 13 Popular courts and show trials; 14 Scapegoats, suspicion and proof; 15 Gulags; 16 Propaganda, religion, and cults; 17 Surrealism and banality; 19 The horror; 20 The meaning?; 21 Justification. The short version is about one quarter the length of the original. Each instalment is about 1200 words.]
During the seventh century before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, at a time of economic strife and depression, Solon was appointed arbiter and given the job of restructuring the constitution of Athens. He annulled debts, but he could not ban envy or greed. Those primal emotions translate into faction in politics. A man called Peisistratus had been a friend of Solon. He organised a faction of the Hill, mostly poorer people and others who had lost out under Solon, although Peisistratus himself was aristocratic. Peisistratus wanted to take over as the ruler of Athens, to become what we call a tyrant. Peisistratus made himself tyrant of Athens by a stunt that might fairly be called textbook. It is described by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus as follows.
Gathering together a band of partisans, and giving himself out for the protector of the Highlanders, he contrived the following stratagem. He wounded himself and his mules, and then drove his chariot into the market-place, professing just to have escaped an attack of his enemies, who had attempted his life as he was on his way to the country. He besought the people to assign him a guard to protect his person … The Athenians, deceived by his story, appointed him a band of citizens to serve as a guard who were to carry clubs instead of spears, and to accompany him wherever he went. So strengthened, Peisistratus broke into revolt and seized the citadel. In this way, he acquired the sovereignty of Athens …
There in microcosm you see the rise of many later tyrants, such as Mussolini and Hitler – an exaggerated threat; an ‘emergency’ response; and the seizure of power, which is not relinquished. The notion of emergency or crisis or threat to personal or general security that was so glibly exploited more than two thousand five hundred years ago is close to the centre of the reigns of terror in France, Russia, and Germany.
The sense of emergency was real throughout the five years in France from July 1789 to July 1794. A lot happened during this time, but three things did not happen: France did not achieve a settled constitution; France did not establish a settled and adequate food supply for all her people; and France was never freed of the threat from inside and out from people who wanted to deprive France of the benefits of the revolution so far. For the most part, people were living in anarchy, and many of them lived in constant fear and hunger. We have to bear these things steadily in mind as we watch the nation descend into a cycle of violence and vendetta, and then a degradation of the human spirit that may come when all legal order is gone, and the lid is lifted off to reveal all of the worst that humanity can show or do.
The fall of the Bastille was followed by the Great Fear – the whole nation lived in dark fear of robbers and brigands as the violence of the uprising launched the French people into the political unknown. The foreign reactions soon began to harden. Aristocrats plotted from abroad. The Pope condemned the reorganisation of the French church. Then the king and his family tried to escape, and were brought back to Paris, effectively as prisoners. In 1792, the National Assembly issued a declaration, ‘La Patrie est en dangère’. A state of emergency was proclaimed. All Frenchmen capable of bearing arms were called up for national service. This emergency was real.
Europe threatened the ‘total destruction’ of Paris if the royal family were not respected and protected. Five hundred patriots marched from Marseilles to Paris. They sang a song written for the army of the Rhine by a man called Rouget de Lisle. This is probably the best known anthem in the world, but not many people know just how ferocious the lyrics are. The danger facing France was the reason for the ferocity. In August 1792, there was a further revolution, when the commune of Paris was set up. The king was not deposed but merely suspended. Government was fragmented even further. The sense that the patrie was really en dangère – which risks the heads of those found on the wrong side – led to the ghastly eruptions known as the September Massacres. The Paris mob gave a frightening glimpse of Hell.
In March 1793, the Revolutionary Tribunal and the Committee of Public Safety were set up. The period from then to July 1794 when Robespierre fell is generally seen as the time of the Terror in France.
In short, for the whole of the time of the main events of what we call the French Revolution, France went from one violent episode to another while it had no effective central government and when it was entering into wars which would when extended under Napoleon consume Europe for a generation. There was a general and continuing sense of crisis and emergency before Napoleon; he pacified France and then he detonated the world.
Government under the Tsars had broken down, but after the revolution in 1917, there was worse anarchy and civil war than even France had experienced. Stalin was in power for decades. The party had the machinery for a police state from the beginning, and one that might be structured on lines that some might call scientific, but for the most part the Terror under Stalin was not practised in any sense of crisis or emergency, but because some very cruel people had never been educated to see any other way. Stalin and his aides were also morally empty.
Hitler would be another emperor-like figure for whom war would be eternal, but the process to get to that result was very different. The reign of Terror was commenced in France when those leading and defending the revolution had good reason to fear for the survival of the political results that had been obtained, and the freedom that had been earned, and many of them had fear for their very lives if the Monarchists returned. The existence of the nation itself was threatened. This was never the case for the Nazis.
Hitler and the Nazis never got fifty per cent of the vote. They came to power in 1933 by a combination of terror, deceit, and seduction. The terror came at first with the rough-house bullying of the Brownshirts which when they got into power would become the lethal brutality of the Blackshirts – the Gestapo and the SS. The steps between Kristallnacht and Auschwitz were not that great or steep. The deception did not come in holding back on their long term aims. Hitler in Mein Kampf was open about his intention of eliminating the Jews and enslaving the Poles and the Russians, even if he had a confused way of saying things, and a manner that would put any sane person off reading the book – or, perhaps, taking it seriously.
The deception came because Hitler and his aides were morally empty. They had no principles or decency, none at all. They could not be taken at their word, or trusted in anything. The Terror was with Hitler and his Nazis from the beginning to the end. The only contribution to a sense of emergency from outside came with the burning down of the Reichstag which led to a propaganda extravaganza which is still exercising historians and scholars. It was this incident that gave the Nazis the pretext to scrap what was left of the rule of law and turn Germany, which fifty years ago had been the foremost liberal democracy on the planet, into a police state that was far more powerful and horrific than anything seen before.