Terror in Paris V – Surveillance

Murders like those in Paris committed in the name of organisations prompt calls for surveillance of the members of such organisations.  Below is an extract from Terror and the Police State dealing with surveillance in the Paris Terror and elsewhere.



The proposition ‘Big Brother Is Watching You’ has become justly famous since the luminous mind and the graphic pen of George Orwell depicted the totalitarian state in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is an essential part of that sense of entrapment, powerlessness, enclosedeness, inevitability and hopelessness which, together with the prevalence of informers and denouncers, and a feeling of randomness, leaves mere objects of a police state feeling utterly helpless – and that is in large part the object of the exercize – to sterilise the individual. The end condition of unaccommodated man was described in King Lear as follows:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,

They kill us for their sport. (Act 4, Scene 1, 36-37).

We have seen that the Nazi regime did not just threaten those in a minority – this colossal machine rose up and brooded over every single person in the Reich. The threat of arrest and detention, and dismissal and disgrace, hung over everyone except the Leader, and no one knew when it might come or how it might fall. The collective fear within the nation left in a kind of submission or acquiescence those who had not been seduced by the glitter and the lies – and the successes, at home, and across borders.

In Nazi Germany, every group of houses had a ‘Block Warden.’ These were at the bottom of the hierarchy, neither respected nor loved. Every local branch of the Party had an average of eight cells with about fifty households in each. The Blockwart was responsible for what might be called the political supervision of about fifty households. He was in charge of seeing that flags and bunting were put out, and that his people voluntarily attended parades, but he was also an access point for informers, and a source of information in his own right. He was commonly a very minor party functionary, doubtless with the social scars to prove it, and he was concerned with both propaganda and the maintenance of order. Those who had been bombed out or who had issues with ration cards would go to him first, but he was also a reporting post.

Like any good German, he had to report dangerous or suspicious behaviour, and when he did, the suspect could expect a visit from the Gestapo. He was therefore what might be called an ‘officious bystander’, and he was loathed accordingly. In many cases, he was called simply der Braune, ‘the brown one’, after the brownshirt that many of his ilk commonly wore. They were also called Political Leaders, and by 1935, there were perhaps 200,000 of them. Richard Evans makes the remarkable assertion that ‘including their helpers there were almost two million Block Wardens by the beginning of the war.’ They must have been like a sinister and all pervasive Dad’s Army, and since a majority were middle class, they may have been even more unpopular in working class areas.

Professor Evans describes this level of surveillance as follows:

They were often the first port of call for denouncers, and they exercised close surveillance over known dissenters, Jews and those who made contact with them, and ‘politically unreliable’ people, usually former opponents of the Nazis. Known derisively as ‘golden pheasants’ from their brown-gold uniforms with their red collar epaulettes, they were required to report ‘rumour-mongers’ and anyone who failed to conform to the district Party organisation, which would pass on their names and misdemeanours to the Gestapo. Those who fell foul of the Block Wardens could also be denied state benefits and welfare payments. Other branches of the huge Nazi Party apparatus had similar local officials, ranging from welfare service to the Labour Front and the women’s organization, and all of them carried out similar functions of surveillance and control. In factories and work places, officials of the Labour Front, the employers, the foremen and the Nazi Security Service took over the functions of the Block Warden. Those workers who did not toe the line were singled out for discriminatory treatment, denial of promotion, transfer to less congenial duties, or even dismissal. ‘You couldn’t say anything,’ recalled one worker in the Krupp engineering factory later: ‘the foreman was always standing behind you, nobody could risk it.’ The Nazi terror machine reached down even to the smallest units of everyday life and daily work.

During the time of the French Terror, France was hardly a police state, at least in the sense that we understand the term now. But, in and from March 1793, France found itself facing mortal threats from within and without, and to help it to survive those threats, it passed a series of emergency measures, such as the creation of the Committee of Public Safety and the Declaration of Revolutionary Government (in October), that were bona fide emergency measures. Their General Dumouriez was about to defect; the Vendee and Marseilles were about to erupt; they were yet to win their first major victory against monarchist regimes; and they were fairly obviously heading to a showdown between the two completely different points of view on how the revolution might go forward – for constitutional change to make the middle class and property feel secure; or for radical change to make the people at the bottom better off. It was in short, time to take the gloves off, and what we know as surveillance was an essential part of the package, and one that would see those at the bottom – the sans-culottesgiven direct power to control events in the revolution. This would be, for better or worse, people power in action.

On 21 March 1793, the National Convention made a law to set up Surveillance or Watch Committees. The recital said that the Convention considered that ‘at a time when the allied despots threaten the Republic still more by the efforts of their intrigues than by the success of their arms, it is its duty to prevent liberticide plots.’ Propaganda is rarely either pretty or sensible, but every commune, and each section in a larger commune, was to have a committee of twelve citizens elected by ballot – former priests and nobles were excluded. They were to take ‘declarations’ from foreigners in each arrondissement, but their work came to be directed against all suspected persons, French as well as foreign. They came to be known as ‘revolutionary committees’ in the Parisian sections. They might in truth be said to represent a devolution of power, but they were the vehicle in which the sans-culottes might at least feel that they were realising some political ambition.

These people had no small power in a time when being suspect might get you in prison (although the Law of Suspects was not passed until September.) They had a role of general surveillance that was utterly inhibited by forms and equally uninhibited by legality. These committees would be in charge of ‘Civic Certificates’ or ‘Civic Cards’, certificats de civisme. These attested to the patriotism of the bearer, and would be essential to anyone wishing to move around France if they were not to be treated as suspect where they arrived. Every citizen was required to certify before the commune or the committee his place of birth, his means of livelihood, and ‘the performance of his civic duties.’ We have seen a committee like this at work in the extracts from Les Deux Amis. They gave ordinary people the chance to terrify other ordinary people.

These committees look to have had great power, much more power and status than the German ‘Block Wardens’, although their roles had something in common. In parts of Paris there was a concerted effort to spread the sans-culotte zeal into less ardent arrondissements. Anyone with any experience of politics at the most local or grass-roots level will understand the power that bodies like these would possess, not least in a revolutionary state at war.

In September, the Paris Commune set out even broader grounds on which Civic Cards might be refused, some of which might now afford grounds to smile to those who struggle with the concept of patriotism at the best of times – ‘Those who pity the farmers the and greedy merchants against whom the law is obliged to take measures, …those who in assemblies of the people arrest their energy by crafty discourses, turbulent cries and threats, ….those who speak mysteriously of the misfortunes of the Republic, are full of pity for the lot of the people, and are always ready to spread the bad news with an affected grief, ….those who received the republican constitution with indifference and have given credence to false fears concerning its establishment and duration, or ….those who do not attend the meetings of their Sections and who give as excuses that they do not know how to speak or that their occupation prevents them.’ What might fairly be described as the clincher was ‘Those who having done nothing against liberty but have also done nothing for it.’

It is in its way a telling list of demons, but it would have been difficult to have opened your mouth without risking what may even then have been described as political incorrectness. What we do know is that the more insecure a regime is, the more it wants to know everything that you do and the more that it worries about anything you do that is somehow different. It is for that reason hostile to any reasonable conception of personal freedom. You could not afford to deviate, or even to be seen to combine, since, as Saint Just said, ‘Any faction is criminal, since it tends to divide the citizens.’