[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.]
Banality and the surreal
Kings do not have surnames – they do not need them. This historical fact did not suit the new regime in France. It had a fine taste for bureaucratic order and protocol. When the Convention arraigned the former King Louis XVI, he had to be given a name. They found reason in the history of the Capetian line to call him Louis Capet. (Cromwell and his men had done much the same for ‘Charles Stuart’ one and a half centuries beforehand.) Louis said ‘I am not called Capet, and the name has never been more than a sobriquet’, but the trial went ahead against him under that name.
When the Duke of Orleans presented at the relevant office to enrol to vote, he said that his name was Louis-Philippe-Joseph d’Orléans. ‘That cannot be. It is a feudal name forbidden by law.’ So, he became Philippe Égalité, but acceptance into the fold did not bring immunity. When the wheel turned, as wheels do, the çi-devant duc was guillotined under his revolutionary name, and not the ‘feudal’ title.
The English Marxist historian Doctor Christopher Hill wrote a book called The World Turned Upside Down about radical ideas coming out of the revolution in the mid-seventeenth century that ushered in the protestant ethic. The French Revolution had its full quota, and their manifestation could be bizarre. The alternation between the banal and the surreal gave some a sense of release, and just added to the uncertainty and insecurity of the rest of the world turned upside down world.
About ten years later the wheel turned again. It turned on those who had unleashed the guillotine on monarchs and nobles. A Corsican soldier of the shabbiest gentility came to be crowned emperor – in fact he would crown himself in the presence of the pope. It was a riot of pomposity, because Napoleon believed that it is by such baubles that men are ruled, what François Furet described as ‘Carolingian kitsch’. The pope was little more than a witness, and the new emperor did not believe one word of it.
The word ‘banal’ comes from France – curiously, a banalité was one of those feudal obligations that led the peasants to burn down chateaux. The dictionary says that ‘banal’ means trite, trivial, or commonplace, but there is often a suggestion of emptiness or hollowness behind feigned or usurped importance that is pejorative.
Hannah Arendt wrote a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil. She explained the sub-title as follows: ‘When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to the phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing could have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain’. Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realised what he was doing……He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.’
Arendt had previously said to the same effect: ‘The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are terribly and terrifyingly normal.’ Eichmann was no devil or demon; he was just human, and the trouble for us is that he was ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’. Those who do not accept that Eichmann was just human, and that there is a little of Eichmann in all of us, are seeking to impose some kind of grid or cattle pen over humanity and are at risk of falling into the error that fed the derangement of people like Stalin and Hitler.
An American historian said of one brutal terrorist: ‘Carrier, it may safely be said, was a normal man with average sensibilities, with no unusual intelligence or strength of character, driven wild by opposition, turning ruthless because ruthlessness seemed to be the easiest way of solving a difficult problem’
The banality could be childlike in the most revolting instances. A Commission of twenty was set up to execute the orders to punish Lyon. This brutal task would in truth involve mass murder and what we call crimes against humanity. As Professor Palmer drily observed, ‘The obscure persons thus raised to power were not above a common frailty – they wished to be recognized.’ They needed a uniform. They were not modest, and they forbade anyone else from wearing their chosen colour, bleu. The French rugby team is called Les Bleus.
The other two regimes were full of banality, the one deriving from a theory that would inevitably fail, although the theorists might have objected that the theory was never given a chance, and the other deriving from a moral and intellectual void and a deranged racism driven by thugs. Their perverted world views and incessant propaganda made their whole world surreal.
The moonshine over the funeral of Marat would come within most people’s understanding of the word ‘banal’ if not surreal, but it might all pale beside the torch-lit Wagnerian rites for the assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the former head of the Gestapo, and a vicious man of incomparable evil. There was one funeral in Prague and another in the Reich Chancellery. Himmler gave the eulogy. Hitler attended and comforted the children of the martyr and placed his decorations on his funeral pillow – the highest grade of the German Order, the Blood Order Medal, the Wound Badge in Gold, and the War Merit Cross First Class with Swords. Privately, Hitler said that Heydrich had been an idiot to expose his person, but he then set about the reprisals. A Czech town called Lidice was chosen at random and destroyed. Adult males were shot. Females were sent to camps and the correct looking children were sent for Aryan adoption to bolster the race. The deceased would have been greatly moved. Siegfried’s funeral march was just right. The Nazis could rely on Wagner.
Shostakovich could remember applause at party conferences for the Leader going on and on and on for about thirty minutes because no one was prepared to risk being seen to be one of those who stopped the ovation. Shostakovich knew he was in deep trouble when his work was criticised in Pravda. Some thought that the piece may have been written ‘by that well-known bastard Zaslavsky’, but the composer saw that the article ‘has too much of Stalin in it’. There was one lethal phrase ‘this could end very badly’. ‘Two editorial attacks in Pravda in ten days – that was too much for one man. Now everyone knew for sure that I would be destroyed. And the anticipation of that noteworthy event – for me at least – has never left me. From that moment I was struck with the label ‘enemy of the people’, and I still don’t need to explain what the label meant in those days. Everyone still remembers that.’
Stalin once sent a note to the head of the Cheka asking how many political prisoners there were in the prison. The head scribbled 1500. Lenin put a cross beside the figure and gave it back to the Cheka boss. That meant he had read it. The boss thought that he had ordered their execution. They were all shot that night – by mistake. This kind of mistake could have been common. The Communists, like the Nazis, were obsessive about paperwork, but could anyone really tell the difference between an accidental murder and the rest?