[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 Common features; 22 Justification: Epilogue. The short version is about one quarter the length of the original. Each instalment is about 1200 words.]
Here then are some of the features, for better or worse, of our three regimes.
Each of France – under the Terror or under Napoleon – Communist Russia, and Nazi Germany had something more than mere righteousness, or self-righteousness. Each of them believed, and was convinced, that their way was the way of the future. France and Russia hoped and believed the rest of the world would follow their lead. Hitler had no such delusion.
One result of this triumphalism, this splendid newness and hard-won sanctity, was a kind of absolutism that promoted intolerance. Saint-Just, a true fanatic, said: ‘Since the French people has manifested its will, everything opposed to it is outside the sovereign. Whatever is outside the sovereign is an enemy.’ This was an invocation of Rousseau’s Social Contract to justify the Terror. These notions are inherently vicious over and above their waffly foundation of an abstraction of ‘the people.’ The people of France rose up in 1789 against privilege.
Napoleon and Mussolini manipulated religion as a tool of government and to keep the hordes content. In the course of their revolutions, both the French and the Russians took the opposite view. The objection was not to the teaching of Christ. They were objecting in a way to what the Roman emperors were attracted to – the role of the church as a part of governing.
The French and the Russians were taking over from autocrats. Those leading the revolutions had little or no experience in government, and they were not inclined to trust any of the machinery of their predecessors. And just as importantly, Louis and Nicholas had no experience in politics or negotiation.
In neither France nor in Germany did the regime as a whole ever feel at peace or at rest. France went from being threatened by all around them to something close to perpetual war and the defeat of Napoleon brought no settlement. Lenin’s personal need to short-circuit Marx meant that the Russian process was off-keel from the start. The New Economic Policy showed that they were making it up as they went.
Anxiety and intolerance were mutually self-supporting. Professor Furet said: ‘As early as 1789, the French Revolution could envisage resistance – real or imaginary – only as a gigantic and permanent conspiracy, which it must ceaselessly crush… Its political repertoire had never given the slightest opening to expressions of disagreement, let alone conflict: the people had appropriated the absolutist heritage and taken the place of the king.’
You can see this need for absolutism all the time during the French Revolution. It is as if moderation had been banned. Everything is over the top – someone said that the whole Third Reich was just one long, bad opera. Robespierre wrote to Danton, one of those whose death he would compass: ‘I love you more than ever. I love you until death. At this moment, I am you.’ That could have come from Wuthering Heights.
Armed insurrection became something of a habit for the French, and barricades became moveable parts of municipal furniture. Some kind of civil war was inevitable. Napoleon convulsed Europe for about a generation, and five million died. The Russian Revolution was based on received dogma of inevitable and universal class wars, and led to a civil war more frightful than anything the French had known
Mein Kampf is a flat denial of thought. But at least some in the lead of the French Revolution, and almost all those in the vanguard of the Russian Revolution, claimed some intellectual background to their violence. This was not helpful in either case. Intellectualism has never been a problem in England.
The nationalism inherent in the Nazi regime is obvious from its name and nature – an attempt to win living room and to conquer at least Europe. But it very soon also emerged with the revolutions in France and Russia, and in ways that were equally obnoxious and lethal to the neighbours.
Patriotism now has an aura very different to what it had in 1789, and even then it varied greatly from one nation to the next. Its history is in part linked to that of nationalism. It too is a dirty word. Both the French and Russian revolutions saw aggressive nationalism which achieved its nadir under Hitler.
When people revolt against a system of government, they commonly want to transfer shares of power down the ladder, but they hardly ever want to go all the way down. If you had suggested to those behind the English Revolution of 1689 or the American Revolution in 1776 that they were democrats, they would have been scandalised.
Nowadays, the opposition to repressive regimes is facilitated by communication over the internet. The reverse problems obtained in much of France, and even Paris, and even in some of Germany. The absence of quick and reliable communication encouraged rumour, suspicion, and fear, the lifeblood of the mob. Ignorance can lead to almost a cult of suspicion. Now social media enables others to manipulate elections and to murder the very idea of truth.
All these people were going where no man had been before, and most of them did not know what they were doing – but only the French understood that. Ignorance deterred none of them.
We all know that all power corrupts. Robespierre was incorruptible financially but his political success, the adulation of a crowd, and a belief in his own nonsense about the Supreme Being turned his head. He was one of those responsible for the execution of hundreds or thousands of enemies of the people. Before that, he had been opposed to capital punishment