[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.]



It is hard to think of any culture in the West that has ever been in favour of informers.  If the Old Testament bears the mark of Cain, the New Testament is scarred by the mark of Judas.  Judas betrayed his leader, the Son of Man.  The very idea of betraying someone close shocks us; the betrayal is wrong, and diabolically wrong, and it cannot be excused by the lure of specious legalism any more than it can be excused by the lure of actual gold.  But a police state is a dream come true for informers and grudge-bearers.  Such a government offers would-be informers the chance to work off their grudges under maximum security, for maximal returns in the loss and damage to the victim, including death, and with something like carte blanche on the grounds of accusation and the readiness of those in power to accept and act decisively on such accusations.  One function of a police state is therefore to bring out the very worst in humanity.

The poison of informing is seen at its worst in the three reigns of terror that we are looking at because the evidence commonly offered by the informer is put forward to support a most general allegation of lack of loyalty.  The lack of loyalty that matters is loyalty to the regime, but the allegation is frequently dressed up as a lack of loyalty to the nation, and it is loaded up with an invocation of that weasel word patriotism.

In a book called The Police and the People, Richard Cobb spoke from hard experience from looking at records of what people told authorities under the Jacobins and in the Empire.  He said you could formulate at least four rules for reports to authority from informants.  The elementary rule is that ‘if you have nothing to say, say it at length’.  Never use plain speech – always use riddles or euphemisms.  Use two adjectives rather than one.  And, always tell your patron something he wants to hear.  Cobb said that ‘one can go from one end of France to the other to hear the same long-winded information expressed in the same ponderous prose.’  We find precisely the same behaviour in informants for the NKVD, Gestapo, KGB, and Stasi.  People have to say something to avoid being suspect and it needs to be what the police want to hear.

Historians now believe that there were not in fact many officers of the Gestapo on the ground – less than 800 in Berlin, a city of four million, at the end of the war.  Only a small part, about ten per cent, of their work came from referrals from orthodox police.  Most of their work came on referrals by party officials – such as the Block Wardens – or V-men, or informants from the rest of the population.

V-men were Vertrauens-Mann, ‘persons of trust’, rather like kapos in the concentration camps.  A typical candidate was someone that the Gestapo had something over, a person who was compromised politically in some way.  He might have had a doubtful political past, such as having been a member of a banned organisation, or he may have been caught offering a bribe.  Some may have been in camps and let out on a form of probation which meant a promise to cooperate with the Gestapo and to rat on others.  The mere fact of their collaboration with the forces of darkness made them complicit in their secret work, and even more compromised.  They became locked in as both victims of and collaborators with a regime that was bent on inflicting pain and loss on any person that got in its way.  This would be a pattern that would recur in dealings between the Stasi and informants in the DDR, perhaps the grimmest and most drab police state ever.

Prosecutions under the Malicious Gossip Law came from members of the Party, agents, and the general public.  In Saarbrucken nearly 90% of these cases came from innkeepers or people in their bars, work colleagues, passing pedestrians, or members of the family.  Even the loathsome Heydrich was worried by the ‘constant expansion of an appalling system of denunciation’.  Richard Evans says that party leaders were dismayed that people acted out of malice!  This is an example of the kind of moral madness or blindness that descended over these fanatics who were becoming so removed from their own world – they wanted to see denunciation as a sign of loyalty to the regime, a kind of badge of purity, or ascension up the ladder, like those claimed by boy scouts.  They did not understand or they had forgotten how hateful the role of an informer is.  They had lost touch with humanity.

Pubs were a real trap.  Two thirds of defendants in the Frankfurt Special Court were tried under the Malicious Gossip Law after action taken by the innkeeper or other drinkers at a pub.  This of course was noticed, and statistics show a sharp decline in reporting from pubs as the regime sterilised yet another part of social life.  Men did most of the denouncing and were most of those denounced. The Reich proceeded on the same basis as our ancient law of libel – the greater the truth, the greater the libel.  They wanted to strike back at anyone who exposed one of their biggest lies – that the people were massively behind the Leader and the Party and were all so much better off.

Criminologists teach that what deters criminals is the prospect of detection; the Reich worked on another view- it was the randomness, the unpredictability, of denunciation that had such a quietening or chilling effect on the populace.  People literally walked in fear.  What was known as ‘the German glance’ developed – there would be a nervous look over each shoulder before saying something dangerous.

Schoolteachers may have been the hardest hit.  In any school you could expect a couple at least of party fanatics on the staff making the common room a very restrained meeting place.  Students denounced teachers they did not like.

It is idle to speculate on how much the actions of the secret police ensured adherence to the Reich.  Anyone who has seen close up the dead hand of the secret police of a totalitarian state knows how much it can shut down people’s lives.  Their purpose is to extinguish humanity, and even jokes about them could get you a beating and six months.

We see similar trends during the Great Terror in Russia, quite possibly with more sinister and painful consequences because the whole idea of civil rights is yet to take root in Europe’s most difficult neighbour.  The priests under the Tsars had informed on their flock.

‘Lenin taught us that every Party member should become an agent of the Cheka, that is, that he should watch and write reports.’  Party members were ordered to inform on their comrades if any private thought or action threatened Party unity.  Invitations to denunciation became central to the purge culture of the 1920’s and would reach hellish levels in China much later.  No part of the private life was safe – there was no private life.

According to one senior official, every fifth Soviet office worker was an informer for the NKVD.  Moscow was heavily policed and there was said to be at least one informer for every six or seven families.  There were millions of paid ‘reliables’, and the law said that ‘loyal Soviet citizens’ were expected to report suspicious behaviour or speech – ‘lack of vigilance’ was a punishable offence, and this doubtless caused many people to collaborate, or just gave them an excuse to do so.  The Party was a vicious self-policing collective like that in China during the Cultural Revolution.


  1. I fear social media will take us somewhere adjacent. You’ve probably seen The Lives of Others …chilling movie about the way the Stasi worked… Any thoughts on whether the right or left extremity is more prone to spawning these monstrosities? That column from the oz guy was insane… You are right about tribes. The problem is almost everyone believes they belong to at least one or two. I am with Groucho on the matter!


    • The Looney Tunes used to be Labor – now they are the other side. Next post will show that Kenny is a recidivist. Agree on Groucho.
      The letters to The Age today were about Margaret Court – sane and balanced. Those in the Oz were about Trump and shitholes. God help us.

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