[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.]
Waves of Terror
The Terror in France was an accident of history, substantially driven by people and events outside France. In Russia and Germany, Terror was integral to the revolution from the start. In France, terror was what was thought to be a temporary expedient to keep the ship of state afloat; in Russia and Germany, terror was just one facet of the whole apparatus of the new government. When either said that terror or the police state was imperative for the security of the state, they were referring to the security of the party or its leader or leaders. In France, at least at the start, it was the nation that was in peril.
The French reasonably believed that Terror was an emergency condition, and that they could quit it when the emergency had passed. The Russians may or may not have believed that the state would just wither away, but neither Lenin nor Stalin showed any sign of believing that the Party could quit its methods. There is no reason to suppose that the Nazis ever thought that the One Thousand Year Reich would ever be able to go without the SS, the Gestapo, or Dachau. To the extent that they ever thought about it, they presumably thought that they could dispense with Auschwitz only when it had no more work to do.
In France, the demands for what we would call strong government and repression came from the bottom, the sans-culottes (blue collars), as much as from anywhere else. The reason was simple – their need for protection in their personal security was greatest, and less likely to be deflected by some elevated theories about abstract rights of man or what we call civil liberties.
In France, terror came from the street. Violence and terror were part of the course of events from 14 July 1789 until Napoleon took over, when a more orthodox version of the Police State was set up
The Assembly initially had conservative members who were looking for a constitutional monarchy and who did not like the more radical and populist leanings of the Jacobins. These were called the Feuillants and early on they had a majority and they were the source of the ministry. The popular uprising that saw the downfall of the monarchy and the setting up of the Paris Commune in August 1792 brought an end to the effective office of the crown and the political relevance of the Feuillants.
The next conservative group would be called the Gironde or Girondistes because of their connections with Bordeaux. These people like Brissot and Vergniaud were very cultivated and capable – and therefore very likely to get up the noses of those not so blessed. Marat loathed the Gironde. They more than loathed Marat. They arraigned him, then the President of the Jacobins, before the Revolutionary Tribunal, but they failed. The Gironde then sought to overthrow the commune by arresting Hébert and other extremists known as Enragés. After a popular uprising, the Girondins were arrested and liquidated. When the wheel turned, their executioners would in turn be executed and the Girondins would later be celebrated.
Members of a rival club to the Jacobins, the Cordeliers, and what we would now call the extreme left – the Enragés – were liquidated. Then it became the turn of Danton and Desmoulins. Danton was sickened by the bloodshed and this evidence of humanity on his part was fatal. Camille Desmoulins, who had been there since day one, went in the same batch. He told the Tribunal that he was 33, ‘the same age as the sans-culotte Jesus Christ when he died’. The people who had died for seeking clemency, because they were then opposing the regime, are sometimes called the ‘Indulgents’.
The end came quickly. Fouché, who was to have the honour of intriguing against both Robespierre and Napoleon, was not a lawyer, but he was a survivor. He mingled among people saying, ‘You are on the list, you are on the list as well as myself; I’m certain’. When the game changed, Robespierre tried to kill himself by shooting himself in the face. The attempt failed. When the executioner ripped off the bandage on the scaffold, Robespierre let out a primal scream. The Terror was over. There had been about 1,500 executions in seven weeks. In the wash-up, the acolytes of Robespierre, and the prosecutor and executioner felt the blade that they had dropped on thousands of others.
The Russian Revolution was conceived in hate and born in violence. Since Russia got nowhere near the rule of law while the Communists held power, and it has never done so before or since, it is not surprising that violence and terror stayed with the regime all its life. The major terror in Russia is however associated with Stalin in the thirties. Stalin was naturally given to paranoia. He knew that Lenin had wanted to warn the party off him. This was of course kept secret, but it worked on Stalin. When a comrade roundly criticised him, Stalin wanted to have him shot ‘as a terrorist’.
Professor Hosking has defined the communist mentality: ‘They had all seen the world as a battleground between good and evil, the good tinged with millennial hopes, and the evil with apocalyptic forebodings. They and those entering the party from 1917 had forged their new world in the furnace of civil war. They had adopted the methods, the mentality, and the discourse of the battlefield, including intense self-sacrifice and loyalty to their own comrades, murderous hate of the enemy, and disdain for normal moral standards. By the early 1930’s all party documents, the speeches and articles of the leaders, were couched in language of this kind and expressed identical sentiments. The unified rhetoric had become compulsory: anyone who failed to use it might be identified as a ‘deviationist’ and lose any hope of further advancement. Those who had ‘deviated’ at some time were expected now to confess their errors and swing into step with their comrades’ marching columns. The rise to power of Hitler in Germany finally sealed this closing of the ranks. Rhetoric now became virtual reality, perhaps even reality itself.’ The Russians were heading toward the moral and intellectual black hole that we would see in China and North Korea.
The party was made the subject of rolling purges. Show trials were put on before an incredulous world press, with fantastic and induced and concocted confessions. The purges became cyclical, rather as they had in France. First you barred someone, and then you exterminated them. The intelligentsia, or the nomenklatura, got it the worst. Of the one hundred and thirty nine members of the Central Committee of the Congress of Victors, one hundred and ten were later arrested. Of one thousand, nine hundred and sixty six delegates, one thousand, one hundred disappeared. Stalin was getting rid of those who knew him when he was younger, or who may have known of the testament of Lenin. The cyclical vengeance of the French revolution looks tame indeed. Even so, Stalin echoed Robespierre: ‘Everyone who arouses the slightest suspicion should be removed’ (murdered).
Seniority in the party carried its own risks – those lower down in the ranks were always on the look-out for an opportunity to denounce a superior in order to get his job, and Stalin must have known that most victims were ‘innocent’, a word of no meaning to him or his cadres. Stalin said that if just five per cent of the people who had been arrested turned out to be real enemies, ‘that would be a good result.’ Yezhov advised his NKVD operatives that if ‘an extra thousand people are shot, that is not such a big deal’. Yezhov too would be shot.
All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. When did you last see a dictator resign – or be fondly remembered?