TERROR AND THE POLICE STATE: CHAPTER 8

 

 

[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.]

8

Degradation

According to Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon, the first person singular pronoun meant nothing to his principal targets, the Communists in Russia.  There the secret police say that the word ‘I’ is ‘a grammatical fiction.’

It is not surprising to hear this asserted in a totalitarian state.  The whole object of such a state is to ensure that the individual – the owner and the professor of the word ‘I’ – does not get in the way of the state.  For them, the state is everything, and the individual – the ‘I’ – is nothing.  The sense of self, or a person’s sense of worth – their dignity – is degraded in so many ways.  Representatives of the state or the party belittle people.  The very emptiness of the system and its slogans and symbols reduces people in their own eyes.  Do decent people, even the most incurable addicts of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, really want to bow down before a broken cross, lightning runes, or a death’s head?

And people hear of or see things which debase or degrade them further.  They hear of things that revolt them, and they go into blank denial.  But they see or hear of things that make them complicit in a denial of truth, decency, and even life.  A combination of terror and propaganda plays very ugly games with their minds, and they feel altered and demeaned.  This in turn lowers their inclination to object, and so the downward cycle progresses, sometimes to the finite regress of suicide if the state does not get there first.  By then they have bought into or they have been locked into crimes against humanity that would previously have been unthinkable to them. These regimes have to reduce their people to their level.

We associate the grosser forms of that cycle with Communist Russia under Stalin and with Nazi Germany under Hitler.  It can give you a jolt to see the same forces at work in France during the Terror in 1793.  In Les Deux Amis (Two Friends), a primary source much relied on by Carlyle, there is a long firsthand account of man returning to Paris and after being away for ten months and confronting life under the Terror in Paris.

He is surrounded by ‘sinister faces’ and in a binary or black and white world, only two types of one group matter – revolutionaries or government agents.  He is full of apprehension in this strange, hard new world.  He feels guilty for leaving his family.  Will he ever see them again?  How different is Paris – muted, sombre, deserted at night; even the street names have changed (and they are named after some awful people).  He reads that a friend has been executed – most cruelly, and for nothing.  He calls on another friend who has become a terrorist (Jacobin) for ‘insurance’ and who is terrified to be seen with him and who cannot get rid of him soon enough – the agents raid homes and make arrests at night.  He sees that everyone has been frightened into showing support for the terrorist regime, and he reflects on the mindless banality – the spectral hypocrisy! – of their slogans.  He has to deal with regulations that make Kafka look easy.  You cannot comply with these Byzantine laws.  No one will give him a bed.  Everyone is scared.  He sees police patrols in action – he has been warned not to get picked up – and he hears the anguish of a mother with a child who is another victim of the Great Terror.  It is a random and capricious world of heartless and mindless cruelty to people.  How did France come to this?

Then he has to come face to face with the regime, dirty, rotten people way above their station wreaking frightful revenge on their betters.  Now he feels the full weight of Hamlet’s insolence of office, the proud man’s contumely and the oppressor’s wrong – all those things that Hamlet thought of when contemplating suicide.  He is offered a corrupt out – most police states are rotten to the core, and give an out to those who can afford it.  A person will attest to him for a fee.  But this man keeps laughing about the entertainment offered before the daily batch of the guillotine (only twenty-five, so small a batch that his wife did not think that it was worth his time to go).  He reflects on the public beheading – sneeze into the sack – of a blithe seventeen year old girl.

All this takes place at the end of a century of what we are pleased to call the Enlightenment in Paris, perhaps the most civilized city in the world.  Even allowing for some journalistic licence, how did the people of Paris become so degraded?  How is it that a civilized French couple could sit down for dinner and happily swap notes about peoples’ heads being cut off in public and dropped into a bucket of blood, splashing the pavement?  Was Dickens’ picture of the Terror and the Tricoteuses underdone?

Most people reading this will have experienced countless examples of rudeness and nastiness of people in power, but very few will have experienced it under a regime that has no conception of the rule of law, due process, or basic human rights.  It is precisely that void, which seems to bring with it a general moral vacuum, that is of the essence of a police state.  It is that which makes such a state so frightening and revolting – and degrading.

There is a hideous photo of a kind of crucifixion practised in the Russian civil war.  The Reds have taken a Polish officer, stripped him, hanged him naked upside down, and then beaten, cut and tortured him until death.  About twenty red soldiers are standing around looking sedate and only mildly interested.  In the catalogue of the museum Topography of Terror at what used to be the headquarters of the Gestapo, there is a photo taken from a distance in the market square at Ulm in 1940.  A nineteen year old woman was being publicly shaved because of a relationship with a French P O W.  She was later sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and two years’ loss of civil rights.  Someone had objected to this brutal humiliation.  The caption in the press was ‘Thousands of faces expressed mockery and disgust.’  In fact the photo up close shows people laughing and smiling as if their team had just won in football.  It may be the most appalling photo in the book.  You are watching people degrading themselves.

There is also a photo of SS guards and female administrative personnel at Neuengamme concentration camp in December 1943.  There are more than a hundred seated at well laden tables under the runic slashes of the SS in what the SS called a ‘Yule celebration’.  With all the red and white wines and the holly and the napkins on the tables, there were ‘Yule lights’ produced by the inmates.  This photo, too, is appalling in its own way.  Not one person is smiling.  They might as well be dead.  Their degradation has brought them to the Kingdom of Nothingness.

Degradation by its nature tends to occur over time and often so that people are not aware of how they are being changed for the worse.  The career of a man called Simonov took off during the Great Terror of 1937-1938.  On his death-bed in 1979, Simonov dictated a testimonial that was remarkable for its candour and insight.  ‘To be honest about those times, it is not only Stalin that you cannot forgive, but you yourself.  It is not that you did something bad – maybe you did nothing wrong, at least on the face of it – but that you became accustomed to evil. …You lived in the midst of these events, blind and deaf to everything, you saw and heard nothing when people all around you were shot and killed, when people all around you disappeared’.

People becoming ‘accustomed to evil’ might be close to the heart of the darkness confronting us here.

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