[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.]



If a revolution is a successful revolt, the historical justification of violence in a revolution is its success in overthrowing the old regime – plus some kind of judgment that the bloodshed and killing have all been worth it.  A revolution is merely a revolt that has succeeded.  If those who are revolting fail, they are liable to be executed for treason; if they are successful, they are ensainted as liberators and they form or provide the first government under the new regime.

The justification of terror or the police state must be more ongoing.  In the end, the regime says that it is justified in inflicting death pain or loss of liberty on some people in order to advance the interests of the people as a whole.  This will ultimately come down to a moral judgment – there are shades of a judgment that might be called political, but the ultimate criterion will be what we describe as a moral view.

For example, most countries in the West now do not believe that it is right to execute people who are found guilty of committing certain crimes – or any crimes.  At bottom, this aversion comes from a view about the sanctity of human life that is part of what might be called the culture of the West, and which is at least in part derived from the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.  It is no coincidence that the aversion to capital punishment does not run in many states where those creeds do not run, such as China or many Islamic nations.

On the other hand, the Western aversion to killing criminals is not absolute.  It is a simple fact of political life that the Americans were not going to try Osama bin Laden, or that if they had tried him, they would have convicted him and they would have executed him.  Hitler may have been tried – Churchill was against having any war trials – but all those major German war criminals knew what their end would be – and, we may be sure, they had known that for many years.

It follows that opinions about the French Terror and the Russian will change from person to person and from time to time.  Those who were prepared to stand up for Stalin were thinned down when Khrushchev disowned him, and they just about disappeared with the collapse of the empire that is now so lamented by Mr Putin.  For those outside Russia, the judgment of Solzhenitsyn was terminal.  The Communists had expressly adopted the Jacobins as their models.  The Russians had views about making a new beginning and being in the vanguard.  This led François Furet to make some observations (in 1978) that have since provoked discussion.

But these two notions – of a new beginning and of a vanguard nation – are now giving way.  Solzhenitsyn’s work has become the basic Soviet reference for the Soviet experience, ineluctably locating the issue of the Gulag at the very core of the revolutionary endeavour.  Once that happened, the Russian example was bound to turn around like a boomerang to strike its French ‘origin’…. Today the Gulag is leading to a rethinking of the Terror precisely because the two undertakings are seen as identical’.  In the first reign of terror, thousands were killed; in the second, it was millions.  And in each case, to what extent did the justification being offered on behalf of the killers improve on the proposition that ‘I need to kill you so that I and others can have a better life’?

One problem for those who justify terror in the name of the state is the same for those who justify killing in the name of the state – where do you draw the line?  It is like the problem that haunts all revolutionary regimes – if we could seize power by violence, what stops you from doing the same to us?  Bloodshed, we know, tends to breed bloodshed.  Is it the same with breaking the law?  History suggests that it is.  Each of the American, French and Russian revolutions led to frightful civil wars, as had the first revolution in England in the seventeenth century; the combination of violence and terror offered by the Nazis was in this and other ways unique, and no sane person seeks to justify any aspect of the Third Reich.  When you destroy the source of the law, you let in lawlessness.

It is not enough to say that Robespierre was in pursuit of a political ideal called liberty, whatever that might mean, or that Osama bin Laden was in pursuit of a spiritual ideal of one true faith – or that his pilots were driving into the arms of seventy-two black eyed virgins.  Something more than slogans and abstractions is required.  The facts are rather less clear or virtuous than the theories.  When the French Terror ended with the killings, as part of that same process, of Robespierre, Couthon and Saint-Just, it was in the hands of three professional revolutionaries, all three trained as lawyers, who had always been longer on intellect than humanity, and whose driven didactic virtue was fast going down the drain of a murderous amour propre.  Indeed, young Saint-Just was burying his memories of a misspent youth in a relentless hatred of the enemy that had turned him into a cold killing machine.  That kind of end calls for some human response other than justification.

Nor were you likely to take any comfort from any justification of the French Terror offered by the old school who liked to write history about a ‘class war’ that for all we know only existed in their imagination.  Albert Soboul accepted Robespierre’s proposition that ‘virtue’ as a fundamental principle of democratic or popular government ‘provides the guarantee that Revolutionary Government does not turn into despotism’  Soboul then said that the Terror purged the nation of groups considered to be ‘socially unassimilable, either because of their aristocratic origin or because they had thrown in their lot with the aristocracy’ or that ‘the Terror had the effect of cutting off from the rest of the nation elements incapable of being assimilated into society, either because they were aristocratic or because they had attached themselves to the aristocracy.’

The first proposition is falsified by all history, not least that of Robespierre; the second is falsified by the evidence and is morally revolting.  ‘If your membership of a group means that in our judgment you cannot live with us, you will be liquidated’ is a maxim that could not have been improved on by Stalin.  It would be in bad taste to refer to Hitler, but he did seek precisely to implement that world view.  Nor is it surprising to find Robespierre tersely noting that ‘the word virtue made Danton laugh.’

It remains, then, to say something about those who were responsible for our three reigns of terror, in France, Russia, and Germany.  Is it too simplistic to say that Stalin and Hitler were evil but that the French terrorists were not?  Those driving what we call the Communist Revolution may or may not have had altruistic notions about working for others, but before Lenin died, the basis of Stalin’s regime was set, and most now agree that the original scheme was flawed in any event.  Both Lenin and Stalin were in truth guilty of appalling crimes against humanity – Lenin possibly being the more morally culpable on the ground of hypocrisy alone – and their reputations are not as bad as they might have been mainly because Hitler and Mao would prove to be even more murderous.  The only thing that can be said in favour of Hitler is that he entered into a pact with Stalin which Hitler broke and for which Stalin killed him.


Here and there – Being a Conservative


The word ‘conservative’ is sadly abused.  Nasty people claim it.  So do fakes.  So, when the English conservative philosopher Roger Scruton writes a book called ‘How to be a Conservative’, we sit up and take notice.

First, some caveats.  On the very first page, we get this about ‘ordinary conservatives’:

Their honest attempts to live by their lights, raising families, enjoying communities, worshipping their gods, and adopting a settled and affirmative culture – these attempts are scorned and ridiculed by the Guardian class.

Don’t ordinary liberals or socialists, if there any left, want to raise families and enjoy communities?  Are there people around who scorn and ridicule people who do?  And is not the reference to the Guardian class an indication that the author may have succumbed to tribalism?  Does he stand for the Spectator class?  Then, a few pages later, Scruton tells us that he got his cultural conservatism ‘from the literary critic F R Leavis, from T S Eliot, whose Four Quartets and literary essays entered all our hearts at school…..’  Can I say that I have never met a man whose heart was so entered – at school, or at all?  As well as a tribal war, we may have a class or culture war on our hands.

But to business – Scruton refers to what might be the Conservative bible, Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution.  Burke did not believe politics could be reduced to a plan – he was opposed to ‘a politics that proposed a rational goal, and a collective procedure for achieving it, and which mobilised the whole of society behind the resulting program.  Burke saw society as an association of the dead, the living and the unborn.’  That is a very English position and a useful introduction to being a Conservative.  It’s a view I share – with other views, of course.

Burke was appalled at the popular revolt – in France or anywhere else.  Eventually, most of the world joined him in that revulsion.  When government fails, things get out of hand.  That’s why I cannot understand how people who claim to be Conservatives support popular revolts – the position that we now call ‘populism’.  How can someone who claims to follow Edmund Burke also claim to follow Farage, Hanson, or Trump?  God only knows what Burke may have said (and Burke was not short-winded).

Then we get eight chapters seeking to find the truth in eight –isms.  Did anything good ever come out of an –ism?  Are we comfortable with a search for truth in abstractions like Liberalism or Environmentalism?  If we are going to find truth in each of these –isms, of which Conservatism is the last, then are we not in for long journey in political or ideological Multiculturalism –another of the eight – isms?  For example, under the truth in Socialism we get:

But socialism means, for most of its advocates, a political program designed to secure for all citizens an equal chance of a fulfilling life….That idea of social justice may not be coherent.  But it speaks to sentiments that we share….Hence British conservatives in the nineteenth century frequently acknowledged common cause with the Chartists, and the greatest conservative thinker of the Victorian age, John Ruskin, addressed many of his homilies to the urban working class.  Disraeli was not the inventor of ‘One Nation’ Toryism, but he certainly made clear….that the conservative cause would be lost if it did not also appeal to the new migrants to the industrial towns, and if it did not take their position seriously.  A believable conservatism has to suggest ways of spreading the benefit of social membership to those who have not succeeded for themselves.

That last proposition is just a fact of political life – at least in Australia and England.  (The U S is very different.)  Much later we get –

….civil society depends on the attachments that must be renewed and, in modern circumstances, these attachments cannot be renewed without the collective provision of welfare.

Well, given that we do have and will continue to have the welfare state, is there not some Socialism and Conservatism in all of us – and is not the rest of the discussion just bargaining or posturing about the margins?

Scruton spends a lot of time on the zero sum game fallacy.  ‘The great socialist illusion’ is that ‘the poor are poor because the rich are rich.’  That statement does look rather large – but how would I know?  I can’t recall meeting a Socialist, at least recently, outside the National Party – and I think I would remember.  (I should say that I haven’t met Jeremy Corbyn.)

The author must be right to say that we cannot condemn Nationalism just because it can be abused, and he is right to say that people are entitled to protect their national character against invading religions.  It would be shocking to permit the practice of Sharia law in an open society.  My own view is that historians and philosophers have underquoted on the liberation inherent in the Reformation.

When God makes the laws, the law becomes as mysterious as God is.  When we make the laws, and make them for our purposes, we can be certain what they mean.  The only question is ‘Who are we’?

Now, that statement about our being certain about what we mean is sadly unwarranted, and the other question is how do we know which laws were made by God and which by men?  We only get the laws of God from the mouths of men.

The truth in Capitalism is that ‘private ownership and free exchange are necessary features in any large scale economy – any economy in which people depend for their survival and prosperity on the activities of strangers.’  But we are told that ‘Socialists don’t in their hearts accept this.’  Well, Socialists may not, but the people of China and Russia plainly do.  They have both seen the starvation that otherwise comes about.  Perhaps the professor had in mind Cuba or perhaps he foresaw the fate of Venezuela.

Under the heading Liberalism, there is a very good discussion about the two differing concepts of liberty – the positive and negative.  Scruton is in my view plainly right when he says:

For the search for liberty has gone hand in hand with a countervailing search for ‘empowerment’….Hence egalitarians have begun to insert more positive rights into the list of negative freedoms, supplementing the liberty rights specified by the various international conventions with rights that do not merely demand non-encroachment from others, but which impose on them a positive duty.

The author refers to Article 22 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.  Its terms are unsettlingly wide and they bear the hallmarks of people who may not have had to get their hands too dirty to make a living.  It’s hard to write Kant’s concept of dignity into an international covenant – and be taken seriously.

There are also some helpful remarks on the ‘down with us mentality’ in the discussion of Multiculturalism.  Writing in 2014, Scruton said ‘The dethroning of reason goes hand in hand with a disbelief in objective truth’.  He was certainly a prophet new inspired.

But the book is worth the price for the chapter on Environmentalism.  Why don’t Conservatives want to conserve the earth?

the love of home lends itself to the environmental cause, and it is astonishing that the many conservative parties in the English-speaking world have not seized hold of that cause as their own.

At last – someone who shares my astonishment!  Scruton gives two reasons for the conservative heresy – the ascendancy of economics in the thinking of modern politicians and the agitated propaganda of the other side.  We certainly have seen both here, but are we to remain prisoners of history while we ruin Earth for those who come after us?  Later Scruton says (again, in 2014) that the only nation in the world who can lead it out of the crisis is the U S.  God only knows what he thinks of the U S now.

Under Internationalism, we are told that once again ‘a fundamental truth has been captured by people with an agenda.’  We see this throughout the book – and the writer himself has an agenda.  As someone who has spent a lot of time in universities, Scruton may find it hard to recall too many people who don’t have an agenda.  We see it again on gay marriage.  ‘Only someone with nothing to lose can venture to discuss the issue with the measure of circumspection it invites, and politicians do not figure among the class of people with nothing to lose.’

Later we get another entertaining look at the impact of religion on our communal life.  The French revolutionaries were for the most part manically anti-church.  ‘The Revolutionaries wanted to possess the souls that the Church had recruited…’  That is I think the case.  It’s a theme that recurs in revolutions.

Subsequent revolutions have in like manner regarded the Church as Public Enemy number 1, precisely because it creates a realm of value and authority outside the reach of the state.  It is necessary, in the revolutionary consciousness, to enter that realm and steel its magic.

In the hands of Robespierre, the attempted theft was low farce, but the effort was there.  Burke stated the view that we and England adhere to – ‘that government must hold religion at a distance if it is to maintain civil peace.’  Scruton makes a droll observation on the fact that a majority of English people still put down ‘C of E’ as their religious affiliation.

But that did not imply that they attended an Anglican church – only that they were so far indifferent in the matter as to believe that God would not object to their pretending that they did.

When we finally get to Conservatism, we get a reference to Hegel – which in my view is a heroic flirtation with eternity – and we then get:

What emerges from it is the view of human beings as accountable to each other, bound in associations of mutual responsibility and finding fulfilment in the family and the life of civil society.

If that’s what makes a Conservative, how is he or she different to me or the rest of us?

Well, all these labels are suspect, but in the intellectual desert of Conservatism in Australia this book comes up at us like a Ballarat gold nugget.

Here and there – Shakespeare and the mob – and Trump


When the Three Estates convened at Versailles in 1789, the Nobility and the Clergy played hard to get with the rest of France the Third Estate.  Its delegates then wished to constitute themselves as the body representing the nation of France.  What should it call itself?  Assemblée Nationale or Représentants du people?  But if the latter, who were the ‘people’?  Many feared that the King and the Court and the Clergy would regard the peuple as the plebs rather than the populus, or, as Michelet framed it, le peuple inférieur.  So, they went for the name Assemblée Nationale.

Similar questions arise when you ask who is in the populus that populists appeal to?  If you answer that they are the plebs or the ‘inferior people,’ you may get into trouble, if not a fight.  Even the terms ‘commoner’ or ‘common people’ are tricky in a nation that claims to prize equality.

For the purposes of this note, I will say that the ‘people’ that Donald Trump appeals to are those who welcome his pardoning of a government officer who boasted of running a concentration camp for people who he thought were ethnically inferior, who ran up a bill for the people of Arizona of $70 million in defending his racial profiling, and who was then sentenced to jail for defying a court order.  The ‘people’ that Farage appeals to were those who loved that photo of their leader grinning in front of a large poster with a long line of towel-heads threatening to inundate the Fatherland.  These folks didn’t think the poster was racist, and would turn more nastily against those whom they call ‘elite’ if anyone dares to say so.  With Pauline Hanson, you have a smorgasbord, but for Australia generally, you might say that the ‘people’ that someone like Cory Bernardi might appeal to are those who think that Peter Dutton is a good Minister of the Crown and a man worthy to be Prime Minister of this great nation.

What did our greatest playwright have to say about the ‘people’?  Quite a lot – and it is hard to find anything favourable either to the people or those who appeal to them.

In a book I wrote some years ago, I said:

When Banjo Paterson came to stigmatize mindless youth in the then equivalent of our outer suburbs, he referred to gilded youths who sat along the wall:

‘Their eyes were dull, their heads were flat, they had no brains at all’.

This is a recurrent nightmare for us now, made worse on our trains and buses by sullen looks coming from vacant spaces between iPod exit points.  It is not that education has failed them– they have rejected education. There is nothing going on at all there. What might happen if that lot got into government?  The nightmare would be made real.

You can make up your own mind whether you think that that nightmare has become real in the U S or elsewhere, but the figure of Jack Cade in Act 4 of Henry VI Part II does look frighteningly prescient.

Cade is a demagogue from Kent.  We see him first as a pawn of a faction leader in the Wars of the Roses.  Cade appeals to the mob, but he has ideas of his own.  He thinks he can be king.  (He is no democrat, but dictators rarely are.)  Although he says that he is waging a class war, he still wants to be king.  But like Hitler, the ascent of Cade is by carrot and stick: give the masses what they want and purify the rest by terror by killing anyone who gets in the way.  ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers.’ (4.2.75) and ‘make it a felony to drink small beer’ (4.2.66).

The descent into Fantasyland is immediate: ‘Strike off his head’ (4.7.112).  This was the short answer of Robespierre, but at least Robespierre, who was a lawyer, was not terrified of writing.  Jack Cade will kill those who can write: only one who has to apply his mark may be considered an ‘honest plain-dealing man’ (4.2.100).  The Nazis went further and burnt books, but by and large these did not exist at the time of Jack Cade.  How often do we see this victimhood on the part of the mindless, pretending that only they are pure?  It’s as if you have to be a victim to be good.  And Cade can link class vindication to ideological cant:

And you that love the commons, follow me.

Now show yourselves men; ‘tis for liberty.

We will not leave one lord, one gentleman,

Spare none but such as go in clouted shoon.  (4.2.180-184)

‘Clouted shoon’ means hobnailed boots.  This is Romper Stomper six centuries ago.  Our nightmare was alive back then.  The reference to ‘liberty’ is moonshine.  Cade is in this only for himself.  He even wants the droit de seigneur (4.7.120-125). But almost immediately, the fickle mob drops him and he is dispatched – unconvincingly – by another more orthodox son of Kentish soil.  ‘Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro, as this multitude?’(4.8.56-59).

Cade loathes literacy.  That and his capacity to hide behind a joke if he gets caught is something else Trump has in common with Cade.  In the destruction of the Savoy and the Inns of Court, and the burning of the records of the realm, Cade prefigures the mob in Paris in and after 1789.

Jack Cade then is the template for the loud, stupid, selfish populism of the Trump brand.  We see the mob being seduced in Richard III; Richard II is worried about the appeal of Bolingbroke to the mob; Henry IV lectures his son on how to present to them; and Joan of Arc has a popular appeal that Henry VI could not even dream of; but I shall confine my remarks to the Roman plays.

The gross political naivety of Brutus and the duplicity of Antony enabled the latter to convert and then unleash the mob in possibly the most famous speech for the stage in Julius Caesar, Act I Scene 2Brutus was silly not to have taken out Antony with his patron.  He was sillier to allow a disciple of Caesar to open his mouth in public about the murder.  Then he was even sillier to accept Antony’s promise not to ‘blame us’ (3.1.245).  Within minutes, Antony is speaking of letting slip the dogs of war.  The speech plays on the words ‘honorable’ and ‘ambition’ – lethally.  Then this masterpiece of political deceit plays on the word ‘mutiny’ – three times.  Inciting mutiny was of course Antony’s sole purpose in making the speech, and Brutus and the other killers would pay with their lives for their political innocence.

Many of those who are familiar with this speech forget its aftermath.  In the next scene, the hysterical mob becomes a lynch mob, and then we are shown the big hitters sharing the spoils of revenge.  They calmly decide which of their families will have to die.  Act 4 Scene 1 commences with Antony saying ‘These many men shall die; their names are pricked.’  Octavius responds ‘Your brother too must die; consent you, Lepidus?’  The murderous cold-bloodedness of these power brokers might remind you of a passage in Antony and Cleopatra. When the world beaters are getting drunk doing their big deal to split up the world, the aide to Pompey asks him if he would be lord of the whole world.  He then offers this amazing but sober proposal:

These three world-sharers, these competitors,

Are in thy vessel.  Let me cut the cable;

And when we are put off, fall to their throats.

All there is thine.  (2.7.73-74)

These rulers not only play with the mob – they kill them as if for sport.

The action in Coriolanus takes place during the class wars that sickened ancient Rome for so long.  We still are inclined to label some people ‘patrician’ and some ‘plebeian’ after the Latin terms for the two classes who were at each other’s throats in Rome.  Neither now is a term of affection.

Coriolanus was as patrician as you could get.  He loathed the plebeians – and he could not help himself from revealing his loathing – indeed, reveling in it.  If you regard the ‘people’ with contempt, and if you are happy to show them that contempt, you can hardly expect to achieve political success if the constitution decrees that you must appear before the people and obtain their assent to your appointment to the office you seek.  Since that’s what the Roman constitution provided, the play Coriolanus is inevitably a tragedy.

A dramatic high point comes when our hero erupts astoundingly when a tribune says ‘shall’ – a plebeian being imperative to a noble! (3.1.87).  Coriolanus spits the word ‘shall’ back at them four times.  The man who takes Coriolanus in and then turns on him knows what the word ‘boy’ will do (5.6.101).  The representatives of the ‘people’ are the ‘tribunes.’  They get a shocking press in this play.  They are like union organizers – Jesuitical or communist, depending on your phobia or fancy.  The film reeks of 1789.  ‘What is the city but the people?’ and ‘The people are the city.’  (3.1.198-9).  That is pure Robespierre.  The tribunes are cold blooded, self-interested, manipulative cowards.  Here is how they go about their work in steering the populus.

To the’ Capitol come

We shall be there before the stream o’ th’ people;

And this shall seem, as partly ‘tis, their own,

Which we have goaded onward.  (2.3.267-271)

Coriolanus is a sustained hatchet job of the puppeteers of the populus.  And it is another reason why we regard this playwright so highly for his insight into our politics.  The main lesson from this play for us in seeking to understand Trump is that if a person comes into political office with a character that makes him unfit for that office, you are kidding yourself if you think he might change character on the job.  Indeed, the likelihood is that he will only get worse the longer he stays in the job.  Power rarely improves people it and never makes them humble.

Tony Tanner referred to Plutarch speaking of Coriolanus and saying how an education might lead a man who was ‘rude and rough of nature’ to be ‘civil and courteous.’  He went on:

During the Renaissance, there was much discussion concerning the proper education, duties, and responsibilities of the good prince or governor – what qualified a person to exercise ‘the speciality of rule’.  As Plutarch stresses, it is precisely these qualifications which Coriolanus so signally lacks: he is a prime example of what Renaissance thinkers regarded as the ill-educated prince, a man from the governing classes who is, by nature, temperament, and upbringing, unfitted and unfit to rule.

That is Donald Trump word for word.  From Rome to Washington, and from Plutarch to the New York Times, there is nothing new under the political sun.




[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.]


Common features

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




[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.]


The meaning?

It is obvious that there is no such thing as a revolution.  ‘Revolution’ is a label that we apply to a series of events.  Some people like to use abstract or group nouns to categorise the kinds of people taking part in the violent changes.  These categories have bedevilled discussion of the French and Russian revolutions.  The notorious terms are bourgeoisie, class, elite, kulaks, masses, peasants, proletariat and sans-culottes.  It is obvious that these very loose and broad labels may involve unproductive word-games.  How do you define the criteria for membership?  How do you apply those criteria?  What on earth is a plutocrat?

If you take as given that each of us has an inner worth or dignity merely because we are human, the police state will inevitably work against that dignity, and be opposed to our humanity.  It does so in at least two ways.  It says that the state is more important than the individual – that the government means more than either you or me – and that therefore the individual has to give way to the state.  It goes further and says that if there is doubt, the issue must be resolved in favour of the state.

The other way that the police state is against our dignity is that it judges or assesses people not by their own worth, but merely by the fact of their being a member of a group.  In doing that, it engages in the kind of word-game that we have just looked at.

Both of those failings derive from a kind of arrogance.  Those behind the police state believe that they have used the power of their minds to find an answer to our social problems.  Since they believe that their answer is demonstrably true, if not logically necessary, they believe that they have the answer.  It follows that those who do not accept that answer are demonstrably wrong, and, equally demonstrably, that they are acting against the interests of the whole community, by standing in the way of the implementation of the answer the acceptance of which will benefit everyone.  But, and this is also fundamental to the police state, it follows that the state is entitled to use force to implement the answer because in doing so it will be acting to benefit the community as a whole.

We might recall the two first pillars of the rule of law.  First, the law is supreme over government and any one person or arm of government – government derives from the law, and not vice versa.  Secondly, and relatedly, everyone is equal before the law.  Obviously, rule by one man or the police or simply by ‘government’ above the law contravenes the first, and any regime that adjusts rights by political belief or membership of a group contravenes the second.  .

The first way that the police state puts us down is by putting the state over any one person and therefore over everyone.  It prefers an abstraction to real people.  That is the hallmark of the totalitarian state.  That state must be all-powerful and therefore it cannot give way to any man: no rights of an individual can stand in its way.  The people pushing this line tend to see the rights of individuals deriving from the state, rather than seeing the state as some kind of construct permitted under conditions by the people.

Intellectuals are prey to this kind of thinking, because they put too much faith in the power of their own thinking.  What is critical is the state of mind that says that when in doubt, the individual must give way to the state.  That is not the way that decent states try to proceed.  They think that it is better that some wrongdoers go free than that anyone innocent is imprisoned.

The second affront to humanity comes from a smallness of mind and meanness of spirit that is sadly common enough to be part of all of us.  It is, if you like, our dark side.  This is our attachment to prejudice – it is the refusal or failure to treat each person on their merits, but our readiness to deal with them merely as a member of a group, where such membership warrants certain treatment by the state irrespective of the merits of any one person in that group.

Examples of kinds of group that are the basis of prejudice seen in this book are class (aristocrats or bourgeois), office (priests and bishops), economic standing (kulaks or other capitalists), nationality (foreigners), religion (Protestants, Catholics, or atheists), politics (royalists or fascist or communists), sex and sexuality (women and homosexuals), infirm (aged or retarded) and race (gypsies).  These groupings have all been used to disadvantage the members of those groups.  When those disadvantages derive from the law, the discrimination contravenes the rule of law by expressly denying the principle of equality before the law.

Sometimes a regime will seek to ascribe dangerous attributes to members of such classes in order to give some warrant to a kind of block condemnation, but ultimately that is not necessary – the whole purpose of the prejudice is to relieve us of the task of facing one person and treating them on their merits.  The disadvantaged are objects of either contempt or fear or both in a failure not just of the mind but of character.  This failure is found more among people whose ignorance comes from a lack of intelligence or education and whose edge comes from a lack of recognition.  This weakness is then exploited by political leaders or their functionaries and their camp followers in the press.  The grossest modern examples are called shock jocks, parts of the Murdoch press, Sky TV, and fringe political parties that exploit fear of strangers like migrants or refugees or those following minority faiths.

The worst part is the evident pleasure that these people take in kicking someone when they are down – this somehow serves to redeem them from their own mediocrity and to comfort them in their frailty.  It is a kind of revenge on the world.  You get the impression that nothing could make them happier than a good clean lynching.

Unhappily the gorilla called prejudice lurks in us all – it is just that some are graced with a better capacity to keep the iron gates shut and stop the gorilla from coming out.  (Someone once said that that the major difference between us and the gorillas is cutlery.  The proposition is instructive.  It may be that the iron gates are properly called courtesy or manners, and that people get these at home rather than at school – or not at all.)

The police state has a circular process under which anyone who denies its maxims or who questions the authority of the current regime is without more an enemy of the people, and an enemy of the people is anyone showing any such behaviour.  The result of this circularity is that the accused cannot, and the accuser does not have to, identify any conduct the proof which would found a finding of a discrete breach of the criminal law.  Because the regime is above the law, it is commonly enough as a matter of fact for the state to act against someone on the ground that that person is suspected of showing such behaviour or otherwise being an enemy of the people.

The phrase ‘enemy of the people’ is of course itself a lie.  An ‘enemy of the people’ is in truth merely an ‘opponent or possible opponent of the regime’ and the regime does not represent the people.  The two propositions are worlds apart, but they are conflated by pride and prejudice.




[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.]


The horror

[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.




[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.]


The numbers

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.’





[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?




[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.]


Propaganda, religion, and cults

These regimes are so full of themselves that there is no room for God.  They eject Him.  That is understandable, but then they try to put something in His place, which is not so understandable – especially when they offer up one of their own for Him, which is at best ridiculous and at worst revolting.  We are used to looking at the worst of these excesses with Stalin and Hitler, but unfortunately for him and his reputation, Robespierre came very close to pioneering their path to becoming the object of a cult.

The French tended to look to Rousseau, the Calvinist from Geneva.  The Russians looked to Marx, the German Jew living in exile in England.  Since Hitler made no intellectual or philosophical claims, he did not look to anyone; Mein Kampf is scarcely literate and barely readable claptrap fuelled by hate.

The Church in France was part of the old regime that would come under attack and fall.  The Church had acted as an arm of government, and bishops, and in many areas priests were viewed with the same hatred as the aristocrats.  This was far more marked in France than in England.  This question was put, and with predictably fearful consequences that continue to this day to resonate within France on the felt need to keep Church and State utterly separate.

On 12 July 1790, two days short of an anniversary, the Assembly decreed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.  They were attempting to make Catholic worship part of the general structure of public life.  The number of dioceses was reduced to the number of departments.  Parish priests and bishops were to be elected by ‘active’ citizens.  The clergy were to be paid by the State.  They also had to take the oath to the constitution.  Spiritual investiture no longer depended on the Pope.  Louis agreed but the pope did not.  Pope Pius VI was an aristocrat who was advised by a French cardinal who was also opposed to the revolution.  The pope had in secret condemned the principles of the Declaration of Rights.  He then denounced the reorganisation of the clergy.  The Assembly insisted on the oath, and there was a frightful split that led to a cleavage at large in the allegiances of people.  Rebellious priests were suspected of being against the Revolution, and they suffered as much as if not more than the aristocrats.

Fouché launched what would be called de-Christianisation in the Church of Saint-Cyr at Nevers.  He preached a ‘sermon’ attacking ‘religious sophistry’ and unveiled a bust of Brutus.  The republicans were immoderately fond of their Roman predecessors, but did he know how great an insult this was?  Dante put Brutus in the lowest ring of Hell with Judas for the murder of Julius Caesar.  Church vestments were burned, crucifixes and crosses destroyed, and property confiscated for the nation or the war effort.  Fouché even put signs outside cemeteries saying ‘Death is an eternal sleep.’

The absurd cult of the Supreme Being in France in 1794 shows the limitation on the extent of what we call philosophy.  Robespierre and Saint-Just may have read philosophy and sought to state their political position in philosophical terms, but this was worlds away from the blue collar boys, the sans-culottes, and for that matter almost everybody else in the rest of France.  Once again the Government had lost contact with the ordinary people whom it idealized but never understood.  The comparison with Lenin is instructive.  He never understood ordinary people – but he was not disposed to idealize them either.  He, too, was on the way to becoming a cult figure before he became ill.  The Supreme Being died with Robespierre and has not been missed.

The revolutionary government did however take steps toward propaganda of a more lasting kind.  There was a body called, appropriately, the Committee of Public Instruction.  It, obviously, was in charge of education.  It aimed at universal literacy, since knowledge of the truth cured all ills, and by this means to cure the nation of prejudices (other than their own) and wean them off relics of darkness like the monarchy or the church.  The American Revolution was a fit subject, ‘the first philosophical revolution.’  By studying the heroes and constitutional liberties that the Revolution had produced, children at school would become steeped in ‘that national pride which is the distinctive character of free peoples.’

The Soviet Government confiscated all church property without compensation and took away the legal standing of the Church – it was annihilated juristically.  Groups could hire buildings for worship if they hired a ‘servant of the cult’ to perform services.  No other activity was allowed.  Education was of course forbidden to the Church.  The priest was just an employee, a hired hand, and charitable work, social meetings, and even bell ringing were all outlawed.  There was hardly anything left outside the weekly service.

The cult of Stalin was the Russian version of the myth of Hitler.  Every office school factory and farm was presided over by ‘Our Beloved Leader’ – who just happened to be the greatest mass murderer that the world had seen.  Stalin was a successor to Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible.  And, as with Hitler, this deification or mythologizing enabled the myth to develop that anything bad was the work of the minions.  The Russians were often content to say ‘If only the Little Father knew…..’

Hitler admired the Church of Rome, and he also feared it.  He, like Napoleon, struck a deal with the Vatican, a kind of mutual hands off arrangement.  The SS said ‘we live in the age of the final confrontation with Christianity.’  The SS developed its own marriage service with runes, fire, and Wagner.  Himmler said true morals came with denying the individual in the service of the race.  The torch parades, banners, and Wagner offered at least an alternative ritual.  Stalin relished being the object of a cult.  Hitler forbade it.  ‘National Socialism is a cool, reality-based doctrine, based upon the sharpest scientific knowledge and its mental expression’.

We need not pause to look at propaganda under Stalin or Hitler.  Each strived to use all means of communication and repression to control the way their people thought to an extent that would amaze Google and Facebook now.  Truth simply did not matter.

So, each of these three regimes sought to wipe out religion.  Their motives were different, but most governments, especially the very repressive sort, prefer to live with religion and its representatives, on the principle that religion can offer comfort or sedation to the oppressed, or join in helping to keep them that way. Robespierre wanted to set up a whole new religion.  The idea seems so weird to us, but it does suggest a naivety deriving from political immaturity.  Stalin relished being the subject of a cult, but it had nothing to do with religion.  Hitler rejected a cult and settled for a myth generated by the same means; his was the cult of death, and perpetual struggle.  Robespierre rejected atheism for the same reasons that Napoleon would do a deal with the pope.

The egos of Stalin and Hitler were too big to permit competition from God, and any way, there was all that lucre to be had.  At least when those who are at war with religion now say that it is at best ridiculous and at worst cruel, they might have the courtesy to acknowledge that when it comes to cruelty and ridiculousness, religion has nothing on those that have been offered up in its place.

Dostoevsky on freedom and God


Dostoevsky had a lot in common with Wagner.  Neither was ever at risk of underestimating his own genius, and the behaviour of neither to others improved as result.  Both were prone to go over the top.  You can find forests of exclamation marks in the writings of both.  And both could and did bang on for far too long for some of us.  They both badly needed an editor. But if you persist with either of these men of genius, you will come across art of a kind that you will not find elsewhere.  The Brothers Karamazov, which I have just read for the third time, raises the issue nicely.  In my view, it could be improved by being halved – but you would be at risk of abandoning diamonds.

The most famous part of the novel comes with a sustained conversation between two brothers, Alyosha, who is of a saintly and God-fearing disposition, and Ivan, who is of a questing and God-doubting outlook.  The conversation comes in Part 2, Book 5, chapters 4 and 5, Rebellion and The Grand Inquisitor.

Ivan gets under way with ‘I must make a confession to you.  I never could understand how one can love one’s neighbours.’  The author probably knew that Tolstoy had written a book that asserted that the failure of civilisation derived from our failure to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount.  Ivan’s biggest problem is the familiar one.

And, indeed, people sometimes speak of man’s ‘bestial’ cruelty, but this is very unfair and insulting to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so ingeniously, so artistically cruel.  A tiger merely gnaws and tears to pieces, that’s all he knows.  It would never occur to him to nail men’s ears to a fence and leave them like that overnight, even if he were able to do it.  These Turks, incidentally, seemed to derive a voluptuous pleasure from torturing children, cutting a child out of its mother’s womb with a dagger and tossing babies up in the air and catching them on a bayonet before the eyes of their mothers.  It was doing it before the eyes of their mothers that made it so enjoyable…..I can’t help thinking that if the devil doesn’t exist, and, therefore, man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness….The most direct and spontaneous pastime we have is the infliction of pain by beating.

Well, that attitude is not completely dead in Russia.  Ivan is objecting to the unfairness, and the random nature, of cruelty, and he comes up with a phrase that so moved Manning Clark.

Surely the reason for my suffering was not that I as well as my evil deeds and sufferings may serve as manure for some future harmony for someone else.  I want to see with my own eyes the lion lay down with the lamb and the murdered man rise up and embrace his murderer.  I want to be there when everyone suddenly finds out what it has all been for.  All religions on earth are based on this desire, and I am a believer…..Listen, if all have to suffer so as to buy eternal harmony by their suffering, what have children to do with it – tell me, please?….Why should they too be used as dung for someone’s future harmony?…..And what sort of harmony is it, if there is a hell?….I don’t want any more suffering.  And if the sufferings of children go to make up the sum of sufferings which is necessary for the purchase of truth, then I say beforehand that the entire truth is not worth such a price….Too high a price has been placed on harmony.  We cannot afford to pay so much for admission.  And therefore I hasten to return my ticket….It’s not God that I do not accept, Alyosha.  I merely most respectfully return him the ticket.

That is very strong stuff.  There may be answers, but Alyosha doesn’t have them.

‘This is rebellion,’ Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.

‘Rebellion?  I’m sorry to hear you say that, said Ivan with feeling.  One cannot live by rebellion, and I want to live.  Tell me straight out, I call on you –imagine me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?  Tell me the truth.’

‘No I wouldn’t said Alyosha softly.

Nor would any other sane person.  So much for rebellion – now for the Grand Inquisitor.  Ivan said he wrote a long poem about this functionary.  He had set it in Spain during the Inquisition.

The Cardinal is very old, but in fine fettle.  He has just supervised the public execution by fire of nearly one hundred heretics.  But his peace is disturbed by the arrival of a holy man.  ‘In his infinite mercy he once more walked among men in the semblance of man as he had walked among men for thirty-three years fifteen centuries ago.’  The crowd loves him.  A mourning mother says ‘If it is you, raise my child from the dead.’  The only words he utters are in Aramaic, ‘Talitha cumi’ – ‘and the damsel arose’.  And she does, and looks round with ‘her smiling wide-open eyes.’  The crowd looks on in wonder, but the eyes of the Cardinal ‘flash with ominous fire.’

He knits his grey, beetling brows….and stretches forth his finger and commands the guards to seize HIM.  And so great is his power and so accustomed are the people to obey him, so humble and submissive are they to his will, that the crowd immediately makes way for the guards, and amid the death-like hush that descends upon the square, they lay hands upon HIM, and lead him away.

That sounds like the Saint Matthew Passion – doubtless, deliberately so.  The Cardinal visits the prisoner in the cells.  ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’

Do not answer, be silent.  And, indeed, what can you say?  I know too well what you would say.  Besides, you have no right to add anything to what you have already said in the days of old.  Why then did you come to meddle with us?  For you have come to meddle with us and you know it……Tomorrow, I shall condemn you and burn you at the stake as the vilest of heretics, and the same people who today kissed your feet will at the first sign from me rush to take up the coals at your stake tomorrow.

Ivan, brought up in Orthodoxy, explains that that in his view the fundamental feature of Roman Catholicism is that ‘Everything has been handed over by you to the Pope, and therefore everything now is in the Pope’s hands, and there’s no need for you to come at all now – at any rate, do not interfere for the time being’.  Ivan thinks this is the Jesuit view.  Ivan says the Cardinal went on.

It is only now – during the Inquisition – that it has become possible for the first time to think of the happiness of men.  Man is born a rebel, and can rebels be happy?  You were warned.  There has been no lack of warnings, but you did not heed them.  You rejected the only way by which men might be made happy, but fortunately in departing, you handed on the work to us.

Then comes a crunch.

You want to go into the world and you are going empty-handed, with some promise of freedom, which men in their simplicity and innate lawlessness cannot even comprehend – for nothing has ever been more unendurable to man and to human society than freedom!….Man, so long as he remains free has no more constant and agonising anxiety than to find as quickly as possible someone to worship.  But man seeks to worship only what is incontestable, so incontestable indeed, that all men at once agree to worship it all together….It is this need for universal worship that is the chief torment of every man individually and of mankind as a whole from the beginning of time…

Ivan comes again to the problem of freedom which is discussed in conjunction with the three temptations of Christ.  It’s as if the Church has succumbed to the third temptation and assumed all power over the world.

There is nothing more alluring to man than this freedom of conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either.  And instead of firm foundations for appeasing man’s conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was exceptional, enigmatic, and vague, you chose everything that was beyond the strength of men, acting consequently, as though you did not love them at all…You wanted man’s free love so that he would follow you freely, fascinated and captivated by you…..But did it never occur to you that he would at last reject and call in question even your image and your truth, if he were weighed down by so fearful a burden as freedom of choice?….You did not know that as soon as man rejected miracles, he would at once reject God as well, for what man seeks is not so much God as miracles.  And since man is unable to carry on without a miracle, he will create new miracles for himself, miracles of his own, and will worship the miracle of the witch-doctor and the sorcery of the wise woman, rebel, heretic, and infidel though he is a hundred times over…

How will it end?

But the flock will be gathered together again and will submit once more, and this time it will be for good.  Then we shall give them quiet humble happiness, the happiness of weak creatures, such as they were created.  We shall at last persuade them not to be proud….We shall prove to them that they are weak, that they are mere pitiable children, but that the happiness of a child is the sweetest of all ….The most tormenting secrets of their conscience – everything, everything they shall bring to us, and we shall give them our decision, because it will relieve them of their great anxiety and of their present terrible torments of coming to a free decision themselves.  And they will all be happy, all the millions of creatures, except the hundred thousand who rule over them.  For we alone, we who guard the mystery, we alone shall be unhappy.

The Grand Inquisitor does not believe in God.

A swipe at one church by an adherent of another?  A reprise of the fascism latent in Plato’s Republic?  A bitter denunciation of the Russian hunger for dominance by a strong man like Putin?  A frightful preview of 1984?  It could be some of all of those things, but it is writing of shocking power that gives slashing insights into the human condition.  It is for just that reason that we go to the great writers.  They may not have the answer, but they ask the big questions.