[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; 18 The numbers; 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.]
If you accept as an article of faith that each of us has our own dignity or worth just because we are human, then it is wrong for anyone to treat anyone else as a mere number. We are at risk of doing just that when we seek to compile numbers of the victims of the three regimes that we have been looking at.
The essential crime of both Hitler and Stalin was that they degraded humanity by denying the right to dignity, by denying the very humanity, of people beyond count – by denying the humanity of one man, woman, and child multiplied to our version of infinity. Every one of those victims – every one – had a life and a worth that came with that life that was damaged or extinguished. In his book Bloodlands, Professor Richard Snyder endorsed the proposition that ‘the key to both National Socialism and Stalinism was their ability to deprive groups of human beings of their right to be regarded as human,’ and when we descend to statistics, we might do the same.
Should we not be looking at Jean Baptiste Henry the eighteen year old apprentice tailor decapitated for sawing down a tree of liberty? Or the mother of Angelina and Nelly who was separated from her children and sent to a concentration camp because she had not denounced her husband? Or the young schoolboy at Munich whose brain was so washed that he could not abide the sight of a dirty Jew in his classroom in the form of a crucifix? Would he grow up to fire up the ovens?
But, we have to make at least some comparisons. The Reign of Terror up to the execution of Robespierre accounted for about 30,000 deaths with another 10,000 who died in prison. Much the greater part of those 30,000 were killed because of their alleged participation in the civil war. The Revolutionary Tribunal despatched about 2,600. About 300,000 were detained under the Law of Suspects. Professor Hampson sought to add some perspective by adding that about 15,000 members of the Paris Commune were shot in May 1871, and that there were about 40,000 people executed after the liberation of France in 1945. Of 14,000 victims of the Terror whose social origin is known, about 1150 came from the nobility and 200 from the upper middle class. About seven out of thirty five of the highest caste of nobility was killed. Death alone could not therefore account for the decline and fall of the nobility.
The French Revolutionary Wars of 1792 to 1802 cost about two million lives. The Napoleonic Wars of 1803 to 1815 destroyed about five million lives. We cannot get our heads around those figures any more than estimates of eight to ten million lives for the First World War. None of these figures would mean anything to someone putting their head through the window of the guillotine or being dismembered by Napoleon’s cannons.
Stalin and Hitler murdered fourteen million people between them over twelve years. Nearly 700,000 were shot in Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937 to 1938. Some four million Soviet citizens were in the Gulag when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. As we saw, the NKVD massacred many of their own prisoners as the Germans advanced in order to stop the Fascists getting their hands on more forced labour. The Soviets sentenced a further two and a half million people to the Gulag during the war. The NKVD remained active anywhere that the Fascists did not reach – including those poor wretches starving to death in Leningrad under siege. More than half a million deaths were recorded in the Gulag in two years. They all died without grace or dignity. The Germans killed about three million Soviet prisoners of war, which is about the number of Ukrainian peasants that were starved to death by the Soviets in 1932-1933. The total Russian casualties of that war, civil or military, were of the order of 20,000,000 which is more than two and half times greater than the casualties of all nations for the First World War.
Alan Bullock put a number of eighteen million on the victims of Nazi brutality for the whole of Europe and Russia (apart from the victims of the orthodox war) and he said this:
It is important to place these figures on record. But because they can have the effect of numbing the imagination, which cannot conceive of human suffering on such a scale, it is equally important to underline that every single figure in these millions represents acts of cruelty, terror, and degradation inflicted on individual human beings like ourselves, a man, a woman, a child or even a baby.
Whatever else humanity can do, it cannot come to terms with its degradation like this, or, as the poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe said: ‘Whatever Christ meant, it wasn’t this.’