[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.]
Propaganda, religion, and cults
These regimes are so full of themselves that there is no room for God. They eject Him. That is understandable, but then they try to put something in His place, which is not so understandable – especially when they offer up one of their own for Him, which is at best ridiculous and at worst revolting. We are used to looking at the worst of these excesses with Stalin and Hitler, but unfortunately for him and his reputation, Robespierre came very close to pioneering their path to becoming the object of a cult.
The French tended to look to Rousseau, the Calvinist from Geneva. The Russians looked to Marx, the German Jew living in exile in England. Since Hitler made no intellectual or philosophical claims, he did not look to anyone; Mein Kampf is scarcely literate and barely readable claptrap fuelled by hate.
The Church in France was part of the old regime that would come under attack and fall. The Church had acted as an arm of government, and bishops, and in many areas priests were viewed with the same hatred as the aristocrats. This was far more marked in France than in England. This question was put, and with predictably fearful consequences that continue to this day to resonate within France on the felt need to keep Church and State utterly separate.
On 12 July 1790, two days short of an anniversary, the Assembly decreed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. They were attempting to make Catholic worship part of the general structure of public life. The number of dioceses was reduced to the number of departments. Parish priests and bishops were to be elected by ‘active’ citizens. The clergy were to be paid by the State. They also had to take the oath to the constitution. Spiritual investiture no longer depended on the Pope. Louis agreed but the pope did not. Pope Pius VI was an aristocrat who was advised by a French cardinal who was also opposed to the revolution. The pope had in secret condemned the principles of the Declaration of Rights. He then denounced the reorganisation of the clergy. The Assembly insisted on the oath, and there was a frightful split that led to a cleavage at large in the allegiances of people. Rebellious priests were suspected of being against the Revolution, and they suffered as much as if not more than the aristocrats.
Fouché launched what would be called de-Christianisation in the Church of Saint-Cyr at Nevers. He preached a ‘sermon’ attacking ‘religious sophistry’ and unveiled a bust of Brutus. The republicans were immoderately fond of their Roman predecessors, but did he know how great an insult this was? Dante put Brutus in the lowest ring of Hell with Judas for the murder of Julius Caesar. Church vestments were burned, crucifixes and crosses destroyed, and property confiscated for the nation or the war effort. Fouché even put signs outside cemeteries saying ‘Death is an eternal sleep.’
The absurd cult of the Supreme Being in France in 1794 shows the limitation on the extent of what we call philosophy. Robespierre and Saint-Just may have read philosophy and sought to state their political position in philosophical terms, but this was worlds away from the blue collar boys, the sans-culottes, and for that matter almost everybody else in the rest of France. Once again the Government had lost contact with the ordinary people whom it idealized but never understood. The comparison with Lenin is instructive. He never understood ordinary people – but he was not disposed to idealize them either. He, too, was on the way to becoming a cult figure before he became ill. The Supreme Being died with Robespierre and has not been missed.
The revolutionary government did however take steps toward propaganda of a more lasting kind. There was a body called, appropriately, the Committee of Public Instruction. It, obviously, was in charge of education. It aimed at universal literacy, since knowledge of the truth cured all ills, and by this means to cure the nation of prejudices (other than their own) and wean them off relics of darkness like the monarchy or the church. The American Revolution was a fit subject, ‘the first philosophical revolution.’ By studying the heroes and constitutional liberties that the Revolution had produced, children at school would become steeped in ‘that national pride which is the distinctive character of free peoples.’
The Soviet Government confiscated all church property without compensation and took away the legal standing of the Church – it was annihilated juristically. Groups could hire buildings for worship if they hired a ‘servant of the cult’ to perform services. No other activity was allowed. Education was of course forbidden to the Church. The priest was just an employee, a hired hand, and charitable work, social meetings, and even bell ringing were all outlawed. There was hardly anything left outside the weekly service.
The cult of Stalin was the Russian version of the myth of Hitler. Every office school factory and farm was presided over by ‘Our Beloved Leader’ – who just happened to be the greatest mass murderer that the world had seen. Stalin was a successor to Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible. And, as with Hitler, this deification or mythologizing enabled the myth to develop that anything bad was the work of the minions. The Russians were often content to say ‘If only the Little Father knew…..’
Hitler admired the Church of Rome, and he also feared it. He, like Napoleon, struck a deal with the Vatican, a kind of mutual hands off arrangement. The SS said ‘we live in the age of the final confrontation with Christianity.’ The SS developed its own marriage service with runes, fire, and Wagner. Himmler said true morals came with denying the individual in the service of the race. The torch parades, banners, and Wagner offered at least an alternative ritual. Stalin relished being the object of a cult. Hitler forbade it. ‘National Socialism is a cool, reality-based doctrine, based upon the sharpest scientific knowledge and its mental expression’.
We need not pause to look at propaganda under Stalin or Hitler. Each strived to use all means of communication and repression to control the way their people thought to an extent that would amaze Google and Facebook now. Truth simply did not matter.
So, each of these three regimes sought to wipe out religion. Their motives were different, but most governments, especially the very repressive sort, prefer to live with religion and its representatives, on the principle that religion can offer comfort or sedation to the oppressed, or join in helping to keep them that way. Robespierre wanted to set up a whole new religion. The idea seems so weird to us, but it does suggest a naivety deriving from political immaturity. Stalin relished being the subject of a cult, but it had nothing to do with religion. Hitler rejected a cult and settled for a myth generated by the same means; his was the cult of death, and perpetual struggle. Robespierre rejected atheism for the same reasons that Napoleon would do a deal with the pope.
The egos of Stalin and Hitler were too big to permit competition from God, and any way, there was all that lucre to be had. At least when those who are at war with religion now say that it is at best ridiculous and at worst cruel, they might have the courtesy to acknowledge that when it comes to cruelty and ridiculousness, religion has nothing on those that have been offered up in its place.