[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.]
Police are people employed by government to enforce the law. Secret police are police whose work and identities are kept as secret as possible. They might sometimes be described as ‘under cover.’ The word Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, the Secret State Police) is now used throughout the world to signify the most terrifying form of secret police. The word Stasi, from the DDR, is less well known, but stands for a police that is forbidding, intrusive, repressive, and everywhere.
The ‘police’ at large in the French Revolution played a very minor part in the Terror compared to the part played by secret police in Communist (or Bolshevik) Russia and Nazi Germany. Those two regimes are models of the police state and the totalitarian state, and it is not surprising then that their police agencies, especially the secret police, were at the very top of the pyramid of power, second only to the dictator. In France, there was no police force as we understand that term during the revolution, and we only get to see police operating at anything like that level under Fouché and Napoleon.
Fouché survived the revolution and Napoleon, and he showed amazing versatility to do so – Napoleon made Fouché his chief of police and later ennobled him, but he never trusted him. Fouché, like Talleyrand, betrayed Napoleon and lived. Like Talleyrand, he had a rat cunning bordering on greatness. Georges Lefebvre says that ‘what really put an end to the attempts on his [Napoleon’s] life was the terror and the perfection of police surveillance.’
Stalin and Hitler ran totalitarian states – everything is controlled by the state. Power comes from the force realised by channelling numbers. Stalin saw all government as a ‘transmission belt connecting the party with the people.’ He believed that Soviet greatness came from the ‘cadres’ of the party – the police. The secret police were the elite of the Party and they were only drawn from the ranks of the party. Hitler said that sixty thousand men ‘have outwardly become almost a unit, that actually these men are uniform not only in ideas, but that even the facial expression is almost the same. Look at these laughing eyes, this fanatical enthusiasm and you will discover…..how a hundred thousand men in a movement become a single type.’ This is a horrifying glimpse of the SS, and Hitler only committed suicide after he concluded that the SS had failed him and could no longer be relied on – the ‘best’ of them were blowing their brains out all around him.
The object of the secret police is to eliminate the enemies of the state. All dictators rely on their secret services and for that reason they may be vulnerable to them, as was the case with the Roman Emperors and the Praetorian Guard. Himmler’s position as Reichsfuhrer-SS and head of German police effectively put the police in the hands of the SS and achieved some kind of unity of party and state. The SS was the new Praetorian Guard, and the sole armed branch of the party, the elite from which the future leadership would be drawn. Totalitarian dictatorships invariably become police states.
Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism distinguished between suspects – those who are suspected of breaking the law or of being an actual threat to the regime – and ‘objective enemies’. People come within the class of objective enemies not because they want to overthrow the regime, but because of a policy of the government to exclude or condemn them simply because they are members of a class – like kulaks for Stalin, or Jews or Gypsies or homosexuals for Hitler.
These targets are not individuals whose dangerous thoughts might be provoked or whose individual histories warrants suspicion, but members of a class who are like ‘carriers of tendencies’, like a carrier of a disease. The Nazis frequently invoked the analogy of disease when speaking of Jews or Gypsies. Hans Frank distinguished between those ‘dangerous to the state’ and those ‘hostile to the state.’ A lawyer who went over to the SS said in an obituary of Heydrich that he regarded his opponents not ‘as individuals but as carriers of tendencies endangering the state and therefore beyond the pale of the national community.’ Hannah Arendt expressed this mordant view: ‘Practically speaking, the totalitarian ruler proceeds like a man who persistently insults another man until everybody knows that the latter is his enemy, so that he can, with some plausibility, go and kill him in self-defence. This certainly is a little crude, but it works – as everybody will know whoever watched how certain successful careerists eliminate competitors’.
A French historian of the Tsarist Okhrana said that provocation was ‘the foundation stone’ of the secret police. After 1848 in Europe it may be hard to find much anti-government action for some time that was not inspired, or provoked, by the secret police. But they hardly have to resort to provocation if they can put people away on suspicion. And what happens if the agents eliminate any apparent threats and then look like they may have disposed of the objective enemies?
Most civil servants are seasoned at concealing any basis for suggesting that they are superfluous. Secret police, like arms manufacturers, find ways to generate demand for their services, but the secret police may become entirely dependent on government to identify sufficient targets to keep them in work. It looks like Hitler was thinking of turning on Germans who were not physically good enough, and that Stalin was looking to turn on the Jews, perhaps as a comradely gesture to his satellites who were predisposed in that direction.
Fouché was if nothing else flexible and financially adept, and during his time and later, secret police would seek to profit from their victims. A simple way would be to go into partnership in illegal activities like prostitution and gambling. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, cadres of ‘chastity commissars’ lived off the earnings of blackmail. The NKVD lived off the exploitation of slave labour: the labour in the gulag paid for the apparatus that got people inside in the first place. Himmler first financed his SS through the confiscation of Jewish property. The SS raised funds the way political parties and cultural institutions do – people who became ‘Friends of the SS’ might ‘volunteer’ donations in return for benefits that might not be so easily defined – perhaps what we call a ‘get out of jail card.’
Stalin’s need for purges extended to the secret police. People got improved positions when others got shot. Informers are offered incentives. Each jobholder becomes complicit in the system, a conscious accomplice of Stalin. This is likely to turn them into more ardent supporters of the regime. The wielders of the highest power get to understand the nature of caprice and arbitrariness, and this in no way abates their professional inhumanity and dedicated cruelty. It is just this randomness that tears away by the roots the very humanity of both the oppressor and the oppressed.
Yet the all-embracing secrecy leaves people with a capacity for denial. They all know that people disappear, and that they do not come back, and they suspect many of these may be ‘innocent’, if there is such a thing, but they also know that the one way to end up the same is by talking about this kind of thing. The one thing that you do not talk about is anything that is ‘secret’. Even a child knows that.