[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.]
[Warning: This chapter is gruesome and it may well cause distress in the reader.]
The surreal nature of terror is part of the horror of it. An old widow who had been ‘Madame L’Etiquette’ to Marie Antoinette had been writing in her senility long letters to the Virgin Mary on the subject of protocol in Heaven. They were answered by her confessor who signed himself Mary, but who on one occasion committed on her behalf a mistake that led the Duchesse to comment: ‘But then one ought not to expect so much of Her. She was after all only a bourgeois from Nazareth. It was through marriage that she became a connection of the House of David. Her husband, Joseph, would have known better.’ That old woman was put under the guillotine.
One survivor of the frightful eruptions known to history as the September Massacres recalled that some used to watch the butchery so as to try and learn how to die with the least pain when their turn came. Carlyle said: ‘Man after man is cut down; the sabres need sharpening, the killers refresh themselves from wine-jugs. Onward and onward is the butchery; the loud yells wearying into base growls. A sombre-faced, shifting multitude looks on; in dull approval; in dull approval or dull disapproval; in dull recognition that it is a Necessity….She [Princesse de Lamballe] is led to the hell-gate; a manifest Queen’s Friend. She shivers back at the sight of the bloody sabres; but there is no return: Onwards! That fair hind head is cleft with the axe; the neck is severed. That fair body is cut in fragment; with indignities, and obscene horrors of mustachio grands-lèvres, which human nature would fain find incredible, – which shall be read in the original language only. She was beautiful, she was good, she had known no happiness. Her head is fixed on a spike; paraded under the windows of the Temple, that a still more hated, a Marie Antoinette, may see’.
Carlyle went on to say ‘Of such stuff are we all made; on such powder-mines of bottomless guilt and criminality – ‘if God restrain not’ as is well said – does the purest of us walk’.’
The novelist Stefan Zweig wrote a book called Joseph Fouché, The Portrait of a Politician. Here is his account of ‘the first of the notorious mitraillades of Joseph Fouché outside of Lyon.
Early that morning sixty young fellows are taken out of prison and fettered together in couples. Since, as Fouché puts it, the guillotine works ‘too slowly’, they are taken to the plain of Brotteaux, on the other side of the Rhone. Two parallel trenches, hastily dug to receive their corpses, show the victims what is to be their fate, and the cannon ranged ten paces away indicate the manner of their execution. The defenceless creatures are huddled and bound together into a screaming, trembling, raging, and vainly resisting mass of human despair. A word of command and the guns loaded with slugs are ‘fired into the brown’. The range is murderously close and yet the first volley does not finish them off. Some have only had an arm or leg blown away; others have had their bellies torn open but are still alive; a few, as luck would have it, are uninjured. But while blood is making runnels of itself down into the trenches, at a second order, cavalrymen armed with sabres and pistols fling themselves on those who are yet alive, slashing into and firing into this helpless heard, of groaning, twitching and yelling fellow mortals until the last raucous voice is hushed. As a reward for their ghastly work, the butchers are then allowed to strip clothing and shoes from the sixty warm bodies before these are cast naked into the fosses which await them.
This was all done in front of an appreciative crowd. When the guillotine is put to work, ‘a couple of women who have pleaded too ardently for the release of their husbands from the bloody assize are by his orders bound and placed close to the guillotine.’
Carlyle sensed that we tip-toe around the rim of a volcano that we do not want look down into, but that what we call the French Revolution gives us a glimpse of the molten fury that lies under us all. One further citation from Carlyle will serve to link the horrors of the French Revolution with those of the twentieth century when mass murderers defiled their victims even in death:
One other thing, or rather two other things, we will still mention, and no more: the blond perukes; the Tannery at Meudon. Great talkers of these Perruques Blondes: O reader, they are made from the Heads of Guillotined Women; the locks of a Duchess, in this way, may come to cover the scalp of a cordwainer, her blonde German Frankism his black Gaelic poll, if it be bald. Or they may work affectionately, as relics, rendering one suspect? Citizens use them, not without mockery; of a rather cannibal sort. …. Still deeper into one’s heart goes that Tannery at Meudon; …‘There was a tannery of Human Skins; such of the Guillotine as seem worthy flaying: of which perfectly good wash-leather was made; for bleaches and other uses. The skin of the men, he remarks, was superior in toughness (consistance) and quality of shamoy; that of the women was good for almost nothing, being so soft in texture …’ Alas, then, is man’s civilisation only a wrappage, through which the savage nature in him can still burst, infernal as ever? Nature still makes him: and has an Infernal in her as well as a Celestial.
Finally, you might recall Julia from the chapter headed ‘Fear’. Her husband was arrested, as was her older son, and then she was arrested. Her younger son, although ill, was sent to the camp with her. After she had been denounced, she was sentenced to five years in a labour camp in Kazakhstan. She was physically and mentally frail, and in no position to withstand the hardship of camp life. But she still had her own beauty, and the commandant made demands on her. When she refused, he punished her, by sending her to work as a labourer in the construction of a dam. For sixteen hours a day, she had to stand up to her waste in freezing water to dig earth. It was a long and tortured and ultimately degrading death sentence. Another inmate called Zina found her in a sheep pen, lying on the freezing ground among the sheep.
She was dying, her whole body was blown up with fever, and she was burning hot and shaking. The sheep stood guard around her but offered no protection from the wind and snow, which lay around in mounds. I crouched beside her; she tried to raise herself but did not have the strength. I took her hand and tried to warm it with my breath.
‘Who are you?’ she asked. I told her my name and said only that I came from you, that you had asked me to find her.
How she stirred: ‘Igor – my boy,’ she whispered from her frozen lips. ‘My little boy, help him I beseech you, help him to survive. I calmed her down and promised to look after you, as if that depended on me. ‘Give me your word,’ Julia whispered. ‘Do not tell me how his mother died. Give me your word….’
She was half delirious. I crouched down beside her and promised her.
They degraded Julia by not killing her. It was nearly fifty years later that Zina felt able to treat her promise to Julia as discharged and to tell Igor that his mother, Julia, had not died in a hospital, but had been left to freeze to death in a sheep pen. Every son has a mother, but Julia Pianitskaia was just buried in the sheep pen where she was left to die. The death of Julia was a demented and perverted reprise of the birth of Jesus. God help us all.