[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 Ancient Greece there was a practice or rite of casting out someone like a beggar or cripple or criminal in the face of some natural threat or disaster. There are traces of a far older tradition in Syria when a goat would be invoked in the purification rites for the king’s wedding – a she-goat was driven out into the waste with a silver bell on her neck. More recently, but before the Greek custom developed, the Old Testament, Leviticus 16:8, said that ‘And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel.’ The goat of the Lord was sacrificed, and the high priest by confession transferred the sins of himself and the people to the goat that was permitted to escape in the wilderness – where its fate would depend on what sort of predators it may have to contend with. There was a form of atonement. The goat that escaped became the ‘scapegoat.’ The traditions or rites might be said to prefigure the role of the Son of God being offered up to redeem mankind by atoning for its sins. A scapegoat is one who is punished for the sins of others. This ancient Middle Eastern rite has become a universal custom involving people rather than goats.
But the term has got much wider than that – a scapegoat now is not just one that has to answer for the sins of others; it has to answer for all the problems and failings of what might be called the host people. So, in the most gruesome example, the Nazis held the Jews responsible for all the lesions on the German people, moral or economic. The war had been lost only because of the failings of some generals and because Socialists and Communists had stabbed the nation in the back. Once the German people got released from the hold of these forces of evil, it could realize its potential for the first time, and nothing could stand in its way. The German character was not just innately good – it was superior; therefore the reason for any failings had to be found elsewhere. The notion of scapegoat was vital to the perversion of what passed for thought under Hitler. It is the natural first base for a weak and insecure person who is a moral coward. It is also the kind of sloppy thinking that attracts insecure people, edgy commentators and journalists, and weak governments.
Scapegoats played a far smaller role in the French Revolution. Pitt’s gold – bribes from the British government led by Pitt – came to be a convenient source of all of the discontents of the people, and the aristocracy and church were loathed and attacked. They had been principal pillars of the ancien regime that had failed and that was being rejected and replaced, and large parts of the aristocracy and of the church were opposed to those seeking to advance the objects of the Revolution. The émigré royals and nobles were a real and not just imagined threat, or one conjured up for the purposes of propaganda. The aristocracy was no more of a scapegoat than the clergy.
Nor does it make much sense to look for the role of scapegoats in the Russian Revolution. The convoluted theories of Marx would lead to serious differences of view upon implementation at the best of times. They were predicated on classes being in a conflict that was terminal, and the theories had an apocalyptic and prophetic air that commanded an adherence that was most devout among those who did not understand the theories – which meant most Communists, let alone Russians. To that you must had the cold egomania of Lenin, who hardly gave the theories a chance, and the manic paranoia of Stalin, who could not care less, and you see that it hardly helps us in our inquiries to ask if the kulaks may have been seen as scapegoats. The thinking that determined who might be targeted by regimes led by Lenin or Stalin – or, for that matter, Mr Putin – may be something that just passes our understanding.
A scapegoat may afford a kind of out for a regime, but suspects are at least a potential threat to it, at least ‘suspects’ in the terms that we are about to see. There is no reason why one person may not fulfil the criteria of more than one category. An aristocrat may have passed through a journey in time from being an enemy, to a threat, to a suspect, to a scapegoat. One of the infamies of Hitler was his treatment of the Jews as scapegoats. One of the darkest parts of the French Revolution is seen to be the Law of Suspects.
That law did not say that certain acts are criminal – rather it just empowers some people to take some action against some other people without the intervention of a court. But what is clear is that if you had been refused your Civic Card, or if your Committee did not think that you had steadily manifested your devotion to the Revolution, they could cause you to be arrested and be held in prison indefinitely – without any charge having been made or even any breach of the law alleged; without any evidence having been required, collected, or tendered against the target; and without any intervention from any kind of judicial officer whatsoever. And all at the expense of the victim.
There is nothing in the law that says that a suspect may be executed or otherwise punished for a breach of the law – it merely says that one class of persons may be detained for the duration, or until the peace. Some historians have believed that your being a suspect might of itself have led to the guillotine – this may have been so in fact, but not because of this law. It is not at all uncommon to find a law permitting a government to detain certain kinds of persons in a nation at war.
Nor is there much point in talking about onus of proof. That notion is hardly determinative if lay people are asking whether they ‘suspect’ someone within the terms of the relevant law. If someone was charged with an offence, then under the general French law, those bringing the charge had to prove facts sufficient to found a finding of guilt. That was the theory, but the practice was different – for the most part, there was a kind of presumption of guilt rather than innocence, and a kind of onus fell on the prisoner to ‘beat the charge.’ There was a sense that the prosecutor, judge, and jury were all on the same team, and someone on the outer had real trouble getting back into safety.
When the accused were tried, each found himself involved in vague charges, based on a casual word here, or a piece of gossip started by some malicious neighbour – charges which it was pointless to disprove in detail, but which in total were fatal.
In The Russian Revolution, Sheilah Fitzpatrick said this: ‘Suspicion of enemies – in the pay of foreign powers, involved in constant conspiracies to destroy the revolution and inflict misery on the people is a standard feature of the revolutionary mentality that Thomas Carlyle captured vividly in the passage on the Jacobin Terror of 1794…..In normal circumstances, people reject the idea that it is better that ten innocent men perish than that one guilty man go free; in the abnormal circumstances of revolution, they often accept it. Prominence is no guarantee of security in revolutions; rather the contrary. That the Great Purges uncovered so many ‘enemies’ in the guise of revolutionary leaders should come as no surprise to students of the French Revolution’.
As the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.