[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.]
The Instruments of Terror
When it comes to the application of terror in France, Russia, and Germany, the abandonment of the rule of law consists in large part of creating no-fly zones for the law at each end of the process – you deny all rights to the targets and the victims, and you create not just privileges but absolute immunities for the government agents of the terror. They are all outside the general law at either end. It’s like Anglo-Saxon outlawry or apartheid.
The guillotine was invented by a French doctor as a humane replacement for death by hanging, firing squad, or the axe. Death was the main instrument of the French Terror, and the guillotine became the prime symbol of its inhumanity. Unlike Russia or Germany, the French had no substantial police force, or at least nothing like the Gestapo or NKVD, and no concentration camps, Siberia, or gulag. For an infringement of laws made during the Terror, the penalty was usually death. For the most part at its start, the Convention kept some right of control over the Revolutionary Tribunal, but there was nothing like a judiciary that was either independent, or professional, and the prosecutor was not easily distinguished from the executioner. The Terror lasted less than two years in France; about twelve years in Germany; and about forty years off and on in Russia. If around 16,000 passed under the blade in the nine months from the death of Marie-Antoinette to the death of Robespierre, the toll in both Germany and Russia is beyond our understanding.
But the horrors of the twentieth century cannot obscure the horror of the French Terror. The Tricoteuses (knitting-women) of the sisterhood sat beneath the the sharp female called La Guillotine and calmly counted off the number as each head fell into the sack, or into a bucket that on a big day overflowed. Imagine the impact of terrorists killing 16,000 people in France in two years in our time.
Lenin had a Rousseau-like schizophrenia in his affection for humanity. Maxim Gorky said: ‘Lenin is a leader and a Russian nobleman, not without certain psychological traits of this extinct class, and therefore he can consider himself justified with performing for the Russian people a cruel experiment which is doomed to failure.’
Through a series of accidents and coups, the Bolsheviks found themselves in charge. At the head of affairs, they put all power in the hands of the party, and then used terror to wipe out all political opposition. Fourteen years before this, Trotsky had warned that when the party got control, the Central Committee would take over, and a single dictator would then take over from the Committee. How else would a country that had so little experience in self-government be governed? You can see a similar descent in France with the Committee of Public Safety and Robespierre. It is a natural descent in times of disorder and violence.
The Bolsheviks went through a form of election, but they only got about half of what the Nazis would get – and the Nazis never got 50%. The Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) therefore arrested the electoral commissioners. The Bolshevik leaders set about a kind of civil war on a whole social class. A cult of violence arose. Trotsky said that ‘There is nothing immoral in the proletariat finishing off a class that is collapsing: that is its right.’ Gorky said: ‘I am especially distrustful of a Russian when he gets power into his hands. Not long ago a slave, he becomes the most unbridled despot as soon as he has the chance to become his neighbour’s master.’ The Communists clothed mob trials with a garb of government. The People’s Courts had twelve judges. They had no training. They were to be guided by their ‘revolutionary conscience.’ When you extend the law by saying that anyone outside the true sentiment of the people is outside the protection of their laws, you are getting close to the heart of the police state.
When the Germans invaded Russia, Lenin issued the decree of ‘The Socialist Fatherland in Danger!’ The Revolutionary Tribunals were ordered to shoot suspects on the spot. The Cheka did not look for proof. ‘First you must ask what class he belongs, what his social origin is, his education and profession. These are the questions that must determine the fate of the accused. That is the meaning of the Red Terror.’
Revolutionaries develop a halo, a feeling of purity. They think that things will turn out for the best, but they are just as selfish as the rest of us. They look forward to their own Utopia, but it is a simple fact of history that a state that acquires these powers does not want to give them up.
Hitler knew that he had engineered a revolution. He told the faithful that the Nazi revolution had succeeded, and that power was theirs alone. He said: ‘Revolution is not a permanent condition. It must not develop into a permanent condition. The stream of revolution… must be channelled into the secure bed of evolution … A second revolution can only direct itself against the first one.’ This political insight was sure. Hitler instigated the murderous purge called the Night of the Long Knives to avoid a German second revolution like that of 10 August 1792 in France.
Hitler got his emergency powers. He signed the army up to personal loyalty. His word was law – The Law for the Guarantees of the Unity of Party and State. He set up the Geheime Staatspolizei, Secret State Police, or Gestapo. . When Himmler was put in charge of all German police, he put Reinhard Heydrich in charge of the Gestapo and SS Security Service. Heydrich was therefore in charge of the instruments of terror in a police state run on terror. He may well have been the most feared man alive, a title he would have dreamed of. In February 1936, the German people made a law that took the Gestapo out of the jurisdiction of the courts. This was part of the pact that the German people were entering into with the Devil, but they were too far gone to pull out.
The Schutzstaffel or SS, the ‘Protection Squad’, began as the private bodyguard of Hitler, and ended as the prime agent of the Final Solution, and with its leaders sticking their Lugers into their mouths and blowing their brains out in final fealty to their oath to the Fuhrer. They were like Spartans – fanatically, self-annihilatingly disciplined, puritanical, racially pure, and exquisitely Teutonic – and bereft of conscience or humanity.
A People’s Court was set up in April 1934 – the Germans were in every way so much swifter and more focussed than the French had been 140 years ago. This court was to deal with treason cases – that meant any kind of political case. The objective was to ensure that no one person could stand in the way of the State – and that meant, as night follows day, that everyone was subordinate to the State. The police state puts people in boxes and characterise them – to brand them. Then it visits every person in that box with the same legal consequences – the state refuses to see each case being treated on its own merits, to treat you or me as individuals each having our own worth or dignity. The individual simply ceases to exist. In March 1933, Goebbels uttered a frightful truth that could have been written by Orwell or Koestler: ‘On 30 January, the era of individualism died … The individual will be replaced by the community of the people.’