[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.]
In dealing with the conflict between Loyalists and Patriots during the American Revolutionary War, Churchill said there were ‘atrocities such as we have known in our day in Ireland.’ An American general said that each side ‘seemed determined to extirpate’ the other. There would be nothing new in atrocities, massacres, or depopulation in a fratricidal civil war in France or Russia in the course of or as a result of their revolution.
The Terror in both countries was driven by fear of two things, disintegration from within, and attack and subjection from without. Any regime that has come to power with violence is apprehensive about its standing. If they had won power with the gun, might they lose it to the gun?
Lyon was the second city of France, almost a rival capital. When it rose as a city against Paris, the Committee of Public Safety sent an army to put it down. After a siege of two months, Lyon capitulated. The Convention, not just the Committee, decreed its destruction.
A commission extraordinaire was set up to punish the rebels. The name Lyon was to be struck from the map. ‘Lyon made war on liberty; Lyon no longer exists.’ Hitler or Himmler could hardly have improved on the covering instruction: ‘A revolutionary agent may do anything. He has nothing to fear, except failure to reach the level of republican legality. He who anticipates this or goes beyond it or even seems to have passed its goal may not yet have reached it.’
One commission could try twenty prisoners an hour. Using the firing squad as well as the guillotine, they managed to kill twenty-eight a day for two months. Worryingly for posterity, they experimented with alternative modes of mass killing. The commission did something that has not been attributed to the Waffen Death’s Head SS – it ordered batches to be killed by shellfire from cannons. The condemned were blown into open graves after which revolted infantrymen had to move in to finish off the screaming wounded by bayonet or bullet. One witness wrote home to Paris: ‘What a delicious moment! How you would have enjoyed it! What a sight! Worthy indeed of Liberty! Wish bon jour to Robespierre.’
The rebels in La Vendée were peasants and farmers led by nobles and priests. Their revolt struck fear in Paris for a long time, and the retribution was frightful. The victorious general said: ‘I have crushed children beneath my horses’ hooves, and massacred the women, who thus will give birth to no more brigands….We take no prisoners, they would need to be given the bread of liberty, and pity is not revolutionary.’ Even by the standards of the times, what murderous banality lay there? Pity is not revolutionary. What is? Heartless cruelty? When most of the fighting men of the Vendée had been finished off, the area was to be cleansed of rebels by a series of colonnes infernales or ‘hell columns’ marching in parallel across the terrain. Their commander had express written instructions. They were clear and there is no problem in sourcing them: ‘All brigands taken under arms, or convicted of having taken them up, are to be run through with bayonets. One will act likewise with women, girls, and children….Those merely suspected are not to be spared’. The troops equalled the bestiality of Napoleon’s troops in Spain or the Soviet peasants in Berlin in 1945. About a quarter of a million perished, half at the hands of the Republic.
Many were killed by the noyades, or drowning, another macabre experiment with mass killing. Barges were towed into the river full of manacled prisoners – they were then sunk, leaving their human cargo to drown. Others were said to have been bound up in pairs naked, and then thrown into the Loire in ‘republican marriages.’
The Revolution in Russia, as in France, had brought not liberal democracy but anarchy and war. It was fought with that animal savagery for which this part of the world is known. The political struggle between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks became a war between the Reds and the Whites. The efforts of the Red Army in battle were backed up by the efforts of the Red Guards as militia-police. There was a complete breakdown of order. One Russian writer described Petrograd as a city of ‘icebergs, mammoths and wastelands’ where ‘cavemen, swathed in hides, blankets and wraps retreated from cave to cave’. Peasants sought to protect themselves from whichever group sought to control them, or just from hungry locals. Many peasants, about eighty per cent of the Russian people, who the Communists regarded as the main beneficiaries of the revolution, just wanted to defend their way of life – the Russian way of life – against Communist rule. Hunger and famine were so bad in some areas that peasants were driven to cannibalism.
Trotsky led the Reds, but the dirty work was done by security police. The Cheka executed hundreds of people. At one time, in memory of the French drownings perhaps, they drowned their victims from barges in the Volga. They applied principles of ‘class justice’. The judges were to come from the workers. ‘For the exploiters, the only right that remains is the right of being ‘judged’’. So said The ABC of Communism: ‘….the greater the number of representatives of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we succeed in executing for this reason, the better. We must teach these people a lesson right now, so that they will not dare even to think of any resistance for several decades.’ There is Lenin speaking, with the distilled froideur of Saint-Just and Robespierre.
Martial law was imposed, and Trotsky’s military unit became the supreme organ of the State. They had to call up the peasants, but the Communists did not relate to peasants. They were a hostile and foreign lot. Marxism gave a veneer of logic to a base gut reaction – its ‘laws’ of history ‘proved’ that the peasantry was doomed. Lenin had proved that there would be two classes of peasants – the poor, who were the allies of the proletariat, and the ‘capitalist’ farmers, called ‘kulaks’. The poor were just despised; the kulaks were loathed and hunted down. It is no surprise that the Communists reduced Russia to starvation.
The Cheka was its own state. The Commissariat of justice tried to contain it for a while and then gave up. It practised the knock on the door in the middle of the night, interrogation and imprisonment without charge, torture, and summary death – it was its own universe. ‘The Cheka is a fighting organ on the internal front of the civil war…..It does not judge, it strikes’. That is a reasonable job description of the SS. One of its earlier tasks was the murder of the whole royal family. Here was the Terror made flesh – no one was immune to death at the hands of the Cheka. Trotsky had said: ‘We must put an end once and for all to the papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life.’
Lenin said that it was better to arrest a hundred innocent people than to run the risk of letting one enemy of the regime go free. That comes close to getting to the heart of the matter. What mattered was not the welfare of people at large, but protecting the life and way of life of those at the top. Their methods of torture don’t bear describing. They were lower than the beasts.