[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.]



After Osip Pianitsky was arrested on the night of 7 July 1937, his wife Julia would in desperation ask what she really knew of him, although both of them had been active and senior in the Party.  She was not of course told where he was or why he had been arrested, or even if he was alive.  He was nearly twenty years older than her.  At the age of sixteen, she ran away from home to enrol as a nurse in the Russian army.  She married a general who was lost in action in 1917.  In the Civil War, she joined the Bolsheviks, and worked as a spy in the Red Army.  Her cover was lost, and she was lucky not to be shot.  She just made it to Moscow, and then she had a nervous breakdown.  She was in hospital when she met Osip.

Osip was something of a professional revolutionary.  When he married Julia, he was the Secretary of the Central Committee at Moscow.  He then went to Comintern, the international office of the party.  He was so tied up with his work that he did not see much of their sons Igor (born in 1921) and Vladimir (born in 1925).  This caused stress with Julia.  She thought that the party was getting too bourgeois and that it was under a dictator.  Sometimes Osip would be moved to say ‘Keep your voice down, Julia’.  In the 1930’s, Osip did not like the direction that  the party was taking outside Russia – he, like Trotsky, believed in a world revolution, and he thought that Russia had withdrawn into itself.  This was not the view of Stalin who had become very suspicious of Comintern.

In June 1937, Osip Pianitsky made a speech to the Plenum of the Central Committee.  He accused the NKVD of fabricating evidence.  Depending on your point of view, this was either heroic or suicidal.  When Osip finished, the hall was dead silent.  On instructions from Stalin, Molotov and others asked Osip to withdraw the statement and to save his life.  Osip said that he knew the consequences, but he said that he had to stand firm for his ‘conscience as a Communist’, and for the purity of the party.  The next day Yezhov, the NKVD chief, said that Osip Pianitsky was a Tsarist spy sent by capitalists to infiltrate the Comintern.  A censure motion was passed with three abstentions.

The NKVD arrived before midnight a few days later.  Yezhov was there personally to make the arrest.  Julia started to swear and scream at them, and Osip apologised to them for her.  When they left, Julia fainted.  While she was at work the next day, they broke into her apartment, and seized just about everything.  His office was sealed with wax.

Julia did not know where her husband was being held until his trial.  He was moved to Lefortovo prison in April 1938 until he was tried in July.  He was systematically tortured every night.  One hundred and thirty-eight prisoners were tried in one day by the Military Tribunal on charges of leading a Fascist spy-ring of Trotskyists and being Rightists in the Comintern.  Yezhov sent Stalin a list of those convicted.  According to Orlando Figes, from whose work this story is drawn, that list is preserved in the Kremlin Presidential Archives.  It has a handwritten annotation: ‘Shoot all 138.  I. St[alin].  V. Molotov.’  Osip Pianitsky therefore died well before Stalin and Molotov completed their pact with Adolf Hitler.

When Osip was arrested, Julia and her sons were evicted from their home and ostracized by friends and party members.  She sought out old friends in the party, and a friend of Osip for thirty years.  No one wanted to know them – it was too dangerous to be seen with anyone who had been even near to someone who had been arrested.  The housekeeper of the old friend rejected her: ‘He is afraid.  He will throw me out if he sees you here.  He told me to tell you that he does not know you’.  Her sons, Igor and Vladimir, were abandoned by their friends.  Vladimir was taunted and bullied at school.

Julia did not know what to believe when Osip was arrested.  What had made him do it?  The boys were angry.  The sixteen year old Igor was isolated from his mates in Komsomol.  The twelve year old Vladimir blamed his father for ruining his dreams of the Red Army.  A teacher told him his father was an enemy of the people and that it is ‘now your duty to decide your relation toward him.’  Vladimir fought with his mother.  When she declined to write to Yezhov about a toy gun the NKVD had taken, he said: ‘It is a shame they have not shot Papa, since he is an enemy of the people.’  When they had an argument about his marks at school, Julia said that it showed that he was the son of an enemy of the people.’  Vladimir said he did not want her as his mother anymore and would go to an orphanage.

Igor was arrested on 9 February 1938.  Two soldiers took him from school and put him in Butykri jail.  This was too much for Julia who had another breakdown.  She longed for suicide, but wanted to keep on for her sons.  ‘It would be best to die.  ‘But that would leave my Vovka (Vladimir) and Igor without a human being in the world.  I am all that they have, and that means that I must fight to stay alive.’

When Igor was put in Butykri jail, neither he nor his mother knew that his father Osip was there.  Osip’s cell was crowded – it had been built for twenty-five but it held sixty-seven.  Osip had on his face the marks left by the belt of an interrogator.  A colleague found him a ‘thin and crooked old man’ (of fifty-six) whose eyes ‘betrayed an immense spiritual suffering.’

Julia did not know that he was in that jail when she joined the queues outside the gates to hand in a parcel for her son Igor.  The longer Osip was away, the harder it was for Julia to believe in him.  She of course did not know that he was transferred to Lefortovo prison.

Julia decided that it was too late to do anything for Osip, but not for Igor.  She decided to renounce her husband to try to save her son.  She spoke to a prosecutor.  He said that Osip had committed a serious crime against the state.  ‘If so, he means nothing to me.’  She said she wanted to work for the NKVD.  He encouraged her to make a formal application, and said that he would support it.

In May, Igor was charged with organizing a counter-revolutionary student group.  This was too outrageous even for that ‘court’, but they gave him five years in a soviet labour camp on the lesser charge of anti-Soviet agitation.  (In 1941, he got another five years, and when he got out in Leningrad in 1948, he was arrested again, and got another five years of which he served eight.)  Julia was told of the conviction of Igor on 27 May 1938.  She was beside herself.  She demanded that the prosecutor arrest her as well.  ‘If he is guilty, so am I.’ That was, perhaps, the truth.

Julia was arrested on 27 October 1938.  She was thirty-nine.  Her diary was of course seized.  The NKVD used it to convict her of conspiring with her husband.  She was sent to Kandalaksha in the far north of Murmansk.  Vladimir – then aged about thirteen – was sent with her.  He was ill, and was getting over surgery.  He was taken from his bed.  He was kept in the barracks and fed twice a day by an NKVD guard while she worked on the Niva-GES hydro-electric station near the camp.  We shall come back later to the story of Julia and Vladimir Pianitsky.

Here and there – Two sanctimonious politicians


Medieval kings had to rule as well as reign.  They had to be much more like our politicians than our modern kings.  Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V, father and son, provide studies in the dark arts and crafts of politics that throw light on the behaviour of our politicians of today.  They also provide a contrast in sanctimony, that is, a pretended or affected decency.  These rulers smack of hypocrisy, and being other than what they seem.  It’s this two-facedness that gets on our quince with our politicians, and the sanctimony here extends over two generations and four plays.

The character of Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) in Richard II is opaque.  He never soliloquizes, and we do not get a window into his mind.  Was he a born schemer before the time of Machiavelli, so that the Crown came to him –

But as an honour snatched with a boisterous hand.  (2 Henry IV, 4.5.191)

Or did Bolingbroke just go with the flow so –

That I and greatness were compelled to kiss.  (2 Henry IV, 3.1.74)

The question is open, and we are left with the impression that Bolingbroke is somehow hollow.  And with an author like this, you don’t treat that result as an accident.

But when he attains the crown, King Henry IV gets to upbraid his son for his ways, and we get a clear insight into the politics of this man.  This is a man-to-man chat and we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the speaker.  The father tells the son how Richard II lost his crown.  He did so because he debased its currency by taking up with low life.

The skipping King, he ambled up and down

With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,

Soon kindled and soon burnt; carded his state,

Mingled his royalty with capering fools…

Enfeoffed himself to popularity,

That, being daily swallowed by men’s eyes,

They surfeited with honey and began

To loathe the taste of sweetness…..(I Henry IV, 3.2.60-72)


How apt do those last four lines seem for Donald Trump?  The first line – ‘Enfeoffed himself to popularity’ – might be translated ‘Hocked his soul to Fox News.’  But this description of Richard II, which is fair, applies equally to the conduct of Prince Hal, the heir to the throne.

What then is the sage advice of this seasoned politician who is the father of the miscreant prince?  Make yourself scarce and then put on a front.

By being seldom seen, I could not stir

But like a comet I was wondered at…..

And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,

And dressed myself in such humility

That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts…..

Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,

My presence, like a robe pontifical,

Ne’er seen but wondered at; and so my state,

Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast

And won by rareness such solemnity.  (I Henry IV, 3.2.46-59)

As Bolingbroke, he may not have followed this policy to the letter.  The king he deposed had observed ‘his [Bolingbroke’s] courtship to the common people’ – even to the point of doffing his bonnet to an oyster-wench.  (Richard II, 1.4.24-31)

But we know that young Hal has already worked out a similar trick for himself.

I know you all, and will awhile uphold

The unyoked humour of your idleness.

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,

Who doth permit the base contagious clouds

To smother up his beauty from the world,

That when he please again to be himself,

Being wanted he may be more wondered at….

So when this loose behaviour I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am

By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes.  (I Henry IV, 1.2.182 – 205)


Hal parades as one of the boys, one of the people, but it’s all a game, and a game for his benefit only.  This spoiled royal brat is just a user. ‘When I am King of England, I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap … I can drink with any tinker in his own language.’ (I Henry IV, 2.4.10-20)  But when the game has served its purpose, these human toys, of whom the prince had spoken with such disgust, may be discarded.  The young prince takes people under him into his trust and confidence, knowing that he will then break that trust – because as king he will have to let Falstaff and the rest of the motley go.  It’s one thing to meet the people; it’s another to sow wild oats before becoming weighed down by care – as we are reminded by some reluctant younger members of the royal family now; but it is altogether a different thing to take up and discard your future subjects when it suits you.

Young Hal is a rat and he knows it.  There is something revoltingly clever about a young man wanting to be seen to be paying a debt he never promised.  You may not want a guy like that standing behind you at a grouse shoot.  When they are play-acting, Falstaff says: ‘Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.’  Hal says, quietly: ‘I do, I will.’  (Part I, 2.4.480-1)  When his father accuses Hal of being ‘common’, Hal says: ‘I shall hereafter … Be more myself.’ (Part I, 3.2.92)  When he casts off Falstaff and the whole Eastcheap crowd – the common people – King Henry V does so with one of the coldest lines of this author, a passage that so upset A C Bradley.  The new king went on to say:

Presume not that I am the thing I was

For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,

That I have turned away my former self

So will I those that kept me company

When thou dost hear that I am as I have been

Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast

The tutor and the feeder of my riots.  (Part II, 5.57-64)


So, the new king is saying that he has changed from his former self. But that was not true. As a prince, Hal had only pretended to engage in the gutter – until he allowed his sun to dissipate the clouds.  He had not changed – he had merely dropped the front.

That story might pass in the Court, but it could not do in Eastcheap.  There they said that ‘the King has killed his heart’, the heart of Falstaff (Henry V, 2.1.91) and the King has ‘run bad humors on the knight’ whose heart was broken. (Henry V, 2.1.125-127)

Even if Eastcheap merely thought that the king killed the heart of Falstaff, it knew that he had endorsed the execution of Bardolph.  Bardolph was hanged for blasphemy – stealing plate from a church.  The pious King says that he will not have ‘the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language.’  (Henry V, 3.6.115-116).  And another sometime mate, or pretended mate, goes under, in order that this king can prove his chivalry to his enemy.

There is something both cold and calculating about each these two politicians, father and son.  They are both two faced, but there is something very chilling about the duplicitous cold-bloodedness of the son.  How do you warm to a man who treats his confidants with less heart than he would show to a stray Tom?  Someone compared the prince to a clever shopkeeper who ‘knows how to display the merchandise of his behavior.’  And in the next play, we will see that that this duplicity runs in the family – the brother Prince John will unload an act of bastardry that may have fazed Hitler.

Hotspur, that soul of chivalry, saw in Bolingbroke ‘this subtle king’ and a ‘vile politician’ (Henry IV, 1.3.169 and 239).  The Oxford Edition gives for ‘politician’ a ‘shrewd schemer, deceitful opportunist’ and refers us to King Lear 4.6.172-174 where the mad old king is talking to a man whose eyes have been put out:

…..Get thee glass eyes

And like a scurvy politician seem

To see the things thou dost not.

For ‘scurvy politician’ the Everyman gives ‘vile politic man,’ while the Oxford goes in harder: ‘worthless, contemptible intriguer.’  If all this means that you regard the man who became Henry V as ‘frankly vicious’, then that was precisely the phrase that Sir Anthony Quayle applied to Falstaff – and Quayle was best placed to know the character of Falstaff.  And do I not think that such an equivalence would for one moment have troubled the playwright.

The three plays where Bolingbroke is in the lead are for many the three best plays of this author in the theatre.  The two great scenes for father and son are two of the glories of our stage, and the failings of these two characters are part of the magic of those scenes.  If you see them better done than by Roger Allam and Jamie Parker in the 2012 Globe production, the gods of theatre have truly smiled on you.  There is a lot more than mere politics here.  When you have buried your parents and raised your children, you will find it hard to go through these scenes with a dry eye.




[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.]



It is hard to think of any culture in the West that has ever been in favour of informers.  If the Old Testament bears the mark of Cain, the New Testament is scarred by the mark of Judas.  Judas betrayed his leader, the Son of Man.  The very idea of betraying someone close shocks us; the betrayal is wrong, and diabolically wrong, and it cannot be excused by the lure of specious legalism any more than it can be excused by the lure of actual gold.  But a police state is a dream come true for informers and grudge-bearers.  Such a government offers would-be informers the chance to work off their grudges under maximum security, for maximal returns in the loss and damage to the victim, including death, and with something like carte blanche on the grounds of accusation and the readiness of those in power to accept and act decisively on such accusations.  One function of a police state is therefore to bring out the very worst in humanity.

The poison of informing is seen at its worst in the three reigns of terror that we are looking at because the evidence commonly offered by the informer is put forward to support a most general allegation of lack of loyalty.  The lack of loyalty that matters is loyalty to the regime, but the allegation is frequently dressed up as a lack of loyalty to the nation, and it is loaded up with an invocation of that weasel word patriotism.

In a book called The Police and the People, Richard Cobb spoke from hard experience from looking at records of what people told authorities under the Jacobins and in the Empire.  He said you could formulate at least four rules for reports to authority from informants.  The elementary rule is that ‘if you have nothing to say, say it at length’.  Never use plain speech – always use riddles or euphemisms.  Use two adjectives rather than one.  And, always tell your patron something he wants to hear.  Cobb said that ‘one can go from one end of France to the other to hear the same long-winded information expressed in the same ponderous prose.’  We find precisely the same behaviour in informants for the NKVD, Gestapo, KGB, and Stasi.  People have to say something to avoid being suspect and it needs to be what the police want to hear.

Historians now believe that there were not in fact many officers of the Gestapo on the ground – less than 800 in Berlin, a city of four million, at the end of the war.  Only a small part, about ten per cent, of their work came from referrals from orthodox police.  Most of their work came on referrals by party officials – such as the Block Wardens – or V-men, or informants from the rest of the population.

V-men were Vertrauens-Mann, ‘persons of trust’, rather like kapos in the concentration camps.  A typical candidate was someone that the Gestapo had something over, a person who was compromised politically in some way.  He might have had a doubtful political past, such as having been a member of a banned organisation, or he may have been caught offering a bribe.  Some may have been in camps and let out on a form of probation which meant a promise to cooperate with the Gestapo and to rat on others.  The mere fact of their collaboration with the forces of darkness made them complicit in their secret work, and even more compromised.  They became locked in as both victims of and collaborators with a regime that was bent on inflicting pain and loss on any person that got in its way.  This would be a pattern that would recur in dealings between the Stasi and informants in the DDR, perhaps the grimmest and most drab police state ever.

Prosecutions under the Malicious Gossip Law came from members of the Party, agents, and the general public.  In Saarbrucken nearly 90% of these cases came from innkeepers or people in their bars, work colleagues, passing pedestrians, or members of the family.  Even the loathsome Heydrich was worried by the ‘constant expansion of an appalling system of denunciation’.  Richard Evans says that party leaders were dismayed that people acted out of malice!  This is an example of the kind of moral madness or blindness that descended over these fanatics who were becoming so removed from their own world – they wanted to see denunciation as a sign of loyalty to the regime, a kind of badge of purity, or ascension up the ladder, like those claimed by boy scouts.  They did not understand or they had forgotten how hateful the role of an informer is.  They had lost touch with humanity.

Pubs were a real trap.  Two thirds of defendants in the Frankfurt Special Court were tried under the Malicious Gossip Law after action taken by the innkeeper or other drinkers at a pub.  This of course was noticed, and statistics show a sharp decline in reporting from pubs as the regime sterilised yet another part of social life.  Men did most of the denouncing and were most of those denounced. The Reich proceeded on the same basis as our ancient law of libel – the greater the truth, the greater the libel.  They wanted to strike back at anyone who exposed one of their biggest lies – that the people were massively behind the Leader and the Party and were all so much better off.

Criminologists teach that what deters criminals is the prospect of detection; the Reich worked on another view- it was the randomness, the unpredictability, of denunciation that had such a quietening or chilling effect on the populace.  People literally walked in fear.  What was known as ‘the German glance’ developed – there would be a nervous look over each shoulder before saying something dangerous.

Schoolteachers may have been the hardest hit.  In any school you could expect a couple at least of party fanatics on the staff making the common room a very restrained meeting place.  Students denounced teachers they did not like.

It is idle to speculate on how much the actions of the secret police ensured adherence to the Reich.  Anyone who has seen close up the dead hand of the secret police of a totalitarian state knows how much it can shut down people’s lives.  Their purpose is to extinguish humanity, and even jokes about them could get you a beating and six months.

We see similar trends during the Great Terror in Russia, quite possibly with more sinister and painful consequences because the whole idea of civil rights is yet to take root in Europe’s most difficult neighbour.  The priests under the Tsars had informed on their flock.

‘Lenin taught us that every Party member should become an agent of the Cheka, that is, that he should watch and write reports.’  Party members were ordered to inform on their comrades if any private thought or action threatened Party unity.  Invitations to denunciation became central to the purge culture of the 1920’s and would reach hellish levels in China much later.  No part of the private life was safe – there was no private life.

According to one senior official, every fifth Soviet office worker was an informer for the NKVD.  Moscow was heavily policed and there was said to be at least one informer for every six or seven families.  There were millions of paid ‘reliables’, and the law said that ‘loyal Soviet citizens’ were expected to report suspicious behaviour or speech – ‘lack of vigilance’ was a punishable offence, and this doubtless caused many people to collaborate, or just gave them an excuse to do so.  The Party was a vicious self-policing collective like that in China during the Cultural Revolution.




[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.]



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 exercise – to sterilise the individual.

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….. 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.’’

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.  It was 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 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.’  This gave ordinary people the chance to terrify other ordinary people.  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 and the 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…’  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.’

Here and there – Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is not just admired.  He is revered.  He was decent, shrewd and sensible.  He had immense moral and intellectual courage.  Out of the humblest origins, he schooled himself on the King James Bible and Shakespeare, and then the law, and he carved out in marble his written understanding of his nation.  He was a consummate politician while remaining a decent human being – something we sadly find it hard to comprehend now.  He may be the only known exception to the rule that all power corrupts.  He held the United States together by the force of his being.  It would be neither silly nor blasphemous to see in his life and death a replay of the redemption story.  Lincoln gave his life to redeem his people from the original sin of slavery.

Historical novels are not my scene.  I prefer one or the other, and not an ersatz combination of both.  An exception is Lincoln by Gore Vidal.  I have just read it for the third time.  I was first referred to it thirty years ago by a friend in politics.  He said that this book precisely captures the factional strife of party politics.  He was surely dead right.  Some of the plots and conspiracies would make Le Carré jealous and make Yes Minister look tame.  Vidal precisely pictures not just Lincoln, but each member of his cabinet – none of whom thought he was up to the job when he started, and most of whom would plot against him.  It required political genius of the highest order for Lincoln to survive the incompetence if not cowardice of his generals, and the disloyalty or corruption of his cabinet.

The book starts with Lincoln travelling secretly to Washington for what would be his first inauguration.  At the same time, the novel starts to track those would be involved in his assassination.  The issue of the war remains apparently open until near the end.

Here is a scene about halfway through the book.  It is before the battle of Gettysburg, and the emergence of the two generals that would bring Lincoln home, Grant and Sherman.  (Sherman said that he looked after Grant when he was drunk, and that Grant looked after him when he was mad.)  Lincoln goes to the front.  He passes what he is a told is a facility for southern boys who have been wounded.  Over the protests of security, Lincoln insists on going in to see these young men.  Any one of them would have been proud to have killed Lincoln in cold blood.  The sight and stench, even the sounds, inside the tent would have been unbearable to anyone reading this note.  Remember that Lincoln’s portrait was on the greenback.

When the colonel started to call the men to attention, the President stopped him with a gesture.  Then Lincoln walked the length of the room, very slowly, looking to left and right, with his dreamy smile.  At the end of the room, he turned and faced the wounded men; then, slowly, he removed his hat.  All eyes that could see now saw him, and recognised him.

When Lincoln spoke, the famous trumpet-voice was muted; even intimate.  ‘I am Abraham Lincoln.’  There was a long collective sigh of wonder and of tension and of…..?  Washburne [a Congressman and friend] had never heard a sound quite like it.  ‘I know that you have fought gallantly for what you believe in, and for that I honour you, and for your wounds so honourably gained.  I feel no anger in my heart toward you; and trust you feel none for me.  That is why I am here.  That is why I am willing to take the hand, in friendship, of any man among you.’

The same long sigh, like a rising wind, began, and still no one spoke.  Then a man on crutches approached the President and, in perfect silence, shook his hand.  Others came forward, one by one; and each took Lincoln’s hand; and to each he murmured something that the man alone could hear.

At the end, as Lincoln made his way between the beds, stopping to talk to those who could not move, half of the men were in tears, as was Washburne himself.

In the last bed by the door, a young officer turned his back on the President, who touched his shoulder and murmured, ‘My son, we shall all be the same at the end.’  Then the President was gone.

Now, that passage might stand for the dilemma of the historical novel.  How do we know this happened?  Is it true of Lincoln?  Having read the replies of Vidal to his critics, I am confident of the answer to each question.  The book was scrupulously sourced, and vetted by one of Lincoln’s best biographers, and this incident is consistent with all we know of Lincoln.

It’s also consistent with our experience.  We know that some people – some heroes – are of such obviously strong character, and such proven fine history, that their mere physical presence can have an effect on total strangers that is as unreal as it is uplifting.  I have seen this with my own eyes with people touched by merely being in the presence of Muhammad Ali, in a mysterious way that they thought might change their lives.  I have heard about from those who were in the presence of Nelson Mandela.  Some people, a very tiny few, have this magical power.  Some of them, like Joan of Arc and Martin Luther King, would pay the ultimate price for challenging the status quo.

So, in a way, did Lincoln.  His story is one of the great epics of mankind, and in my view it is wonderfully unfolded in this book by Gore Vidal.

Curiously, the attractive power of innocence was explored by Herman Melville in his novella called Billy Budd.  The hero embodies innocence.  Claggart, the villain, embodies evil.  The book is another redemption story.  Melville began his story by describing how sailors when they went ashore gathered around one who was the ‘Handsome Sailor’.  ‘With no perceptible trace of the vainglorious about him, rather with the off-hand unaffectedness of natural regality, he seemed to accept the spontaneous homage of his shipmates.’  That is a reasonable description of Lincoln and his government – when they got to know him.

Here is my note on Lincoln from another publication (Men of Genius).



The problem of slavery was resolved by force of arms and the effect of what might be seen as a failed revolution was stated in terms that still today can produce a tremble in the bottom lip of people who have never even set foot in America.

Abraham Lincoln did not come from the middle class or higher.  He was born in the backblocks in a log cabin in Kentucky.  He learned his law lying on his back with his feet up a tree.  This largely self-taught lawyer practised in Illinois and rode on horseback on circuit when he slept fully clothed head to toe with opposing counsel.

He had one supreme advantage over most of us.  He was better educated.  He was brought up on the King James Bible and Shakespeare, and his young mind was unsullied by tripe or trivia.  Lincoln may well be the most consummate politician who has ever lived, and he may also be one of the very few in all history who was not corrupted by power.  He had, of course, no time for political theory.  It was by the force of his character that the union that we know as the United States of America was held together and then defined afresh.  Without Abraham Lincoln, our world in the West would be very different.  He is the supreme political genius in the history of the world.

To go a little out of order, Lincoln in his second inaugural address left no doubt that the Union was redeeming itself in the course of the Civil War.  He said that at the start of the war, one eighth of the population were coloured slaves.  He went on with some very direct statements about religion:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained.  Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.  Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding.  Both read the same Bible, and prayed to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.  It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in bringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.  The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully.

Lincoln then went on to say that the ‘scourge of war’ would ‘continue until all of the wealth piled up by the bondsmen’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with a lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword …’ The nation that started with the Puritans was therefore redeeming itself from the sin of slavery with its own blood.  Lincoln concluded that inaugural address with the famous passage that begins:  ‘With malice toward none ….’

Less than four months before his re-inauguration, Abraham Lincoln had stated his vision for his nation at the dedication of a cemetery at the site of a three-day battle, one of the bloodiest of a very bloody war, the battle of Gettysburg.  People who have seen the TV documentary, The Civil War, may recall that the late Shelby Foote said that after Lincoln had read his address ‘in his thin piping voice,’ he was worried about it.  He said that it did not ‘scour’.  For good reason, that address is now chiselled into the Lincoln Memorial at Washington, D.C., and it is an essential part of the fabric not just of the American nation, but of western civilization.

Lincoln had a well-oiled logical machine in his mind.  He would as a matter of course build the premises of his argument into the structure of his prose.  There is just one thing to note about that process here.  He starts by referring to ‘a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’.  We know that statement was false when it was first made.  Lincoln goes on immediately to say that the Civil War is to test ‘whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure’. The Civil War was therefore being fought to make good the original declaration of equality.  It is the same redemptive vision, almost a biblical redemptive vision.  The great republic would redeem its original sin with its own blood.

Here then is how the great Abraham Lincoln defined his vision of the free republic of the United States:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.  The world will little note nor long remember what we may say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us –that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. 




[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.]


Secret police

Police are people employed by government to enforce the law.  Secret police are police whose work and identities are kept as secret as possible.  They might sometimes be described as ‘under cover.’  The word Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, the Secret State Police) is now used throughout the world to signify the most terrifying form of secret police.  The word Stasi, from the DDR, is less well known, but stands for a police that is forbidding, intrusive, repressive, and everywhere.

The ‘police’ at large in the French Revolution played a very minor part in the Terror compared to the part played by secret police in Communist (or Bolshevik) Russia and Nazi Germany.  Those two regimes are models of the police state and the totalitarian state, and it is not surprising then that their police agencies, especially the secret police, were at the very top of the pyramid of power, second only to the dictator.  In France, there was no police force as we understand that term during the revolution, and we only get to see police operating at anything like that level under Fouché and Napoleon.

Fouché survived the revolution and Napoleon, and he showed amazing versatility to do so – Napoleon made Fouché his chief of police and later ennobled him, but he never trusted him.  Fouché, like Talleyrand, betrayed Napoleon and lived.  Like Talleyrand, he had a rat cunning bordering on greatness.  Georges Lefebvre says that ‘what really put an end to the attempts on his [Napoleon’s] life was the terror and the perfection of police surveillance.’

Stalin and Hitler ran totalitarian states – everything is controlled by the state.  Power comes from the force realised by channelling numbers.  Stalin saw all government as a ‘transmission belt connecting the party with the people.’  He believed that Soviet greatness came from the ‘cadres’ of the party – the police.  The secret police were the elite of the Party and they were only drawn from the ranks of the party.  Hitler said that sixty thousand men ‘have outwardly become almost a unit, that actually these men are uniform not only in ideas, but that even the facial expression is almost the same.  Look at these laughing eyes, this fanatical enthusiasm and you will discover…..how a hundred thousand men in a movement become a single type.’  This is a horrifying glimpse of the SS, and Hitler only committed suicide after he concluded that the SS had failed him and could no longer be relied on – the ‘best’ of them were blowing their brains out all around him.

The object of the secret police is to eliminate the enemies of the state.  All dictators rely on their secret services and for that reason they may be vulnerable to them, as was the case with the Roman Emperors and the Praetorian Guard.  Himmler’s position as Reichsfuhrer-SS and head of German police effectively put the police in the hands of the SS and achieved some kind of unity of party and state.  The SS was the new Praetorian Guard, and the sole armed branch of the party, the elite from which the future leadership would be drawn.  Totalitarian dictatorships invariably become police states.

Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism distinguished between suspects – those who are suspected of breaking the law or of being an actual threat to the regime – and ‘objective enemies’.  People come within the class of objective enemies not because they want to overthrow the regime, but because of a policy of the government to exclude or condemn them simply because they are members of a class – like kulaks for Stalin, or Jews or Gypsies or homosexuals for Hitler.

These targets are not individuals whose dangerous thoughts might be provoked or whose individual histories warrants suspicion, but members of a class who are like ‘carriers of tendencies’, like a carrier of a disease.  The Nazis frequently invoked the analogy of disease when speaking of Jews or Gypsies.  Hans Frank distinguished between those ‘dangerous to the state’ and those ‘hostile to the state.’  A lawyer who went over to the SS said in an obituary of Heydrich that he regarded his opponents not ‘as individuals but as carriers of tendencies endangering the state and therefore beyond the pale of the national community.’    Hannah Arendt expressed this mordant view:  ‘Practically speaking, the totalitarian ruler proceeds like a man who persistently insults another man until everybody knows that the latter is his enemy, so that he can, with some plausibility, go and kill him in self-defence.  This certainly is a little crude, but it works – as everybody will know whoever watched how certain successful careerists eliminate competitors’.

A French historian of the Tsarist Okhrana said that provocation was ‘the foundation stone’ of the secret police.  After 1848 in Europe it may be hard to find much anti-government action for some time that was not inspired, or provoked, by the secret police.  But they hardly have to resort to provocation if they can put people away on suspicion.  And what happens if the agents eliminate any apparent threats and then look like they may have disposed of the objective enemies?

Most civil servants are seasoned at concealing any basis for suggesting that they are superfluous.  Secret police, like arms manufacturers, find ways to generate demand for their services, but the secret police may become entirely dependent on government to identify sufficient targets to keep them in work.  It looks like Hitler was thinking of turning on Germans who were not physically good enough, and that Stalin was looking to turn on the Jews, perhaps as a comradely gesture to his satellites who were predisposed in that direction.

Fouché was if nothing else flexible and financially adept, and during his time and later, secret police would seek to profit from their victims.  A simple way would be to go into partnership in illegal activities like prostitution and gambling.  In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, cadres of ‘chastity commissars’ lived off the earnings of blackmail.  The NKVD lived off the exploitation of slave labour: the labour in the gulag paid for the apparatus that got people inside in the first place.  Himmler first financed his SS through the confiscation of Jewish property.  The SS raised funds the way political parties and cultural institutions do – people who became ‘Friends of the SS’ might ‘volunteer’ donations in return for benefits that might not be so easily defined – perhaps what we call a ‘get out of jail card.’

Stalin’s need for purges extended to the secret police.  People got improved positions when others got shot.  Informers are offered incentives.  Each jobholder becomes complicit in the system, a conscious accomplice of Stalin.  This is likely to turn them into more ardent supporters of the regime.  The wielders of the highest power get to understand the nature of caprice and arbitrariness, and this in no way abates their professional inhumanity and dedicated cruelty.  It is just this randomness that tears away by the roots the very humanity of both the oppressor and the oppressed.

Yet the all-embracing secrecy leaves people with a capacity for denial.  They all know that people disappear, and that they do not come back, and they suspect many of these may be ‘innocent’, if there is such a thing, but they also know that the one way to end up the same is by talking about this kind of thing.  The one thing that you do not talk about is anything that is ‘secret’.  Even a child knows that.




[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.]



According to Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon, the first person singular pronoun meant nothing to his principal targets, the Communists in Russia.  There the secret police say that the word ‘I’ is ‘a grammatical fiction.’

It is not surprising to hear this asserted in a totalitarian state.  The whole object of such a state is to ensure that the individual – the owner and the professor of the word ‘I’ – does not get in the way of the state.  For them, the state is everything, and the individual – the ‘I’ – is nothing.  The sense of self, or a person’s sense of worth – their dignity – is degraded in so many ways.  Representatives of the state or the party belittle people.  The very emptiness of the system and its slogans and symbols reduces people in their own eyes.  Do decent people, even the most incurable addicts of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, really want to bow down before a broken cross, lightning runes, or a death’s head?

And people hear of or see things which debase or degrade them further.  They hear of things that revolt them, and they go into blank denial.  But they see or hear of things that make them complicit in a denial of truth, decency, and even life.  A combination of terror and propaganda plays very ugly games with their minds, and they feel altered and demeaned.  This in turn lowers their inclination to object, and so the downward cycle progresses, sometimes to the finite regress of suicide if the state does not get there first.  By then they have bought into or they have been locked into crimes against humanity that would previously have been unthinkable to them. These regimes have to reduce their people to their level.

We associate the grosser forms of that cycle with Communist Russia under Stalin and with Nazi Germany under Hitler.  It can give you a jolt to see the same forces at work in France during the Terror in 1793.  In Les Deux Amis (Two Friends), a primary source much relied on by Carlyle, there is a long firsthand account of man returning to Paris and after being away for ten months and confronting life under the Terror in Paris.

He is surrounded by ‘sinister faces’ and in a binary or black and white world, only two types of one group matter – revolutionaries or government agents.  He is full of apprehension in this strange, hard new world.  He feels guilty for leaving his family.  Will he ever see them again?  How different is Paris – muted, sombre, deserted at night; even the street names have changed (and they are named after some awful people).  He reads that a friend has been executed – most cruelly, and for nothing.  He calls on another friend who has become a terrorist (Jacobin) for ‘insurance’ and who is terrified to be seen with him and who cannot get rid of him soon enough – the agents raid homes and make arrests at night.  He sees that everyone has been frightened into showing support for the terrorist regime, and he reflects on the mindless banality – the spectral hypocrisy! – of their slogans.  He has to deal with regulations that make Kafka look easy.  You cannot comply with these Byzantine laws.  No one will give him a bed.  Everyone is scared.  He sees police patrols in action – he has been warned not to get picked up – and he hears the anguish of a mother with a child who is another victim of the Great Terror.  It is a random and capricious world of heartless and mindless cruelty to people.  How did France come to this?

Then he has to come face to face with the regime, dirty, rotten people way above their station wreaking frightful revenge on their betters.  Now he feels the full weight of Hamlet’s insolence of office, the proud man’s contumely and the oppressor’s wrong – all those things that Hamlet thought of when contemplating suicide.  He is offered a corrupt out – most police states are rotten to the core, and give an out to those who can afford it.  A person will attest to him for a fee.  But this man keeps laughing about the entertainment offered before the daily batch of the guillotine (only twenty-five, so small a batch that his wife did not think that it was worth his time to go).  He reflects on the public beheading – sneeze into the sack – of a blithe seventeen year old girl.

All this takes place at the end of a century of what we are pleased to call the Enlightenment in Paris, perhaps the most civilized city in the world.  Even allowing for some journalistic licence, how did the people of Paris become so degraded?  How is it that a civilized French couple could sit down for dinner and happily swap notes about peoples’ heads being cut off in public and dropped into a bucket of blood, splashing the pavement?  Was Dickens’ picture of the Terror and the Tricoteuses underdone?

Most people reading this will have experienced countless examples of rudeness and nastiness of people in power, but very few will have experienced it under a regime that has no conception of the rule of law, due process, or basic human rights.  It is precisely that void, which seems to bring with it a general moral vacuum, that is of the essence of a police state.  It is that which makes such a state so frightening and revolting – and degrading.

There is a hideous photo of a kind of crucifixion practised in the Russian civil war.  The Reds have taken a Polish officer, stripped him, hanged him naked upside down, and then beaten, cut and tortured him until death.  About twenty red soldiers are standing around looking sedate and only mildly interested.  In the catalogue of the museum Topography of Terror at what used to be the headquarters of the Gestapo, there is a photo taken from a distance in the market square at Ulm in 1940.  A nineteen year old woman was being publicly shaved because of a relationship with a French P O W.  She was later sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and two years’ loss of civil rights.  Someone had objected to this brutal humiliation.  The caption in the press was ‘Thousands of faces expressed mockery and disgust.’  In fact the photo up close shows people laughing and smiling as if their team had just won in football.  It may be the most appalling photo in the book.  You are watching people degrading themselves.

There is also a photo of SS guards and female administrative personnel at Neuengamme concentration camp in December 1943.  There are more than a hundred seated at well laden tables under the runic slashes of the SS in what the SS called a ‘Yule celebration’.  With all the red and white wines and the holly and the napkins on the tables, there were ‘Yule lights’ produced by the inmates.  This photo, too, is appalling in its own way.  Not one person is smiling.  They might as well be dead.  Their degradation has brought them to the Kingdom of Nothingness.

Degradation by its nature tends to occur over time and often so that people are not aware of how they are being changed for the worse.  The career of a man called Simonov took off during the Great Terror of 1937-1938.  On his death-bed in 1979, Simonov dictated a testimonial that was remarkable for its candour and insight.  ‘To be honest about those times, it is not only Stalin that you cannot forgive, but you yourself.  It is not that you did something bad – maybe you did nothing wrong, at least on the face of it – but that you became accustomed to evil. …You lived in the midst of these events, blind and deaf to everything, you saw and heard nothing when people all around you were shot and killed, when people all around you disappeared’.

People becoming ‘accustomed to evil’ might be close to the heart of the darkness confronting us here.




[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.]


Waves of Terror

The Terror in France was an accident of history, substantially driven by people and events outside France.  In Russia and Germany, Terror was integral to the revolution from the start.  In France, terror was what was thought to be a temporary expedient to keep the ship of state afloat; in Russia and Germany, terror was just one facet of the whole apparatus of the new government.  When either said that terror or the police state was imperative for the security of the state, they were referring to the security of the party or its leader or leaders.  In France, at least at the start, it was the nation that was in peril.

The French reasonably believed that Terror was an emergency condition, and that they could quit it when the emergency had passed.  The Russians may or may not have believed that the state would just wither away, but neither Lenin nor Stalin showed any sign of believing that the Party could quit its methods.  There is no reason to suppose that the Nazis ever thought that the One Thousand Year Reich would ever be able to go without the SS, the Gestapo, or Dachau.  To the extent that they ever thought about it, they presumably thought that they could dispense with Auschwitz only when it had no more work to do.

In France, the demands for what we would call strong government and repression came from the bottom, the sans-culottes (blue collars), as much as from anywhere else.  The reason was simple – their need for protection in their personal security was greatest, and less likely to be deflected by some elevated theories about abstract rights of man or what we call civil liberties.

In France, terror came from the street.  Violence and terror were part of the course of events from 14 July 1789 until Napoleon took over, when a more orthodox version of the Police State was set up

The Assembly initially had conservative members who were looking for a constitutional monarchy and who did not like the more radical and populist leanings of the Jacobins.  These were called the Feuillants and early on they had a majority and they were the source of the ministry.  The popular uprising that saw the downfall of the monarchy and the setting up of the Paris Commune in August 1792 brought an end to the effective office of the crown and the political relevance of the Feuillants.

The next conservative group would be called the Gironde or Girondistes because of their connections with Bordeaux.  These people like Brissot and Vergniaud were very cultivated and capable – and therefore very likely to get up the noses of those not so blessed.  Marat loathed the Gironde.  They more than loathed Marat.  They arraigned him, then the President of the Jacobins, before the Revolutionary Tribunal, but they failed.  The Gironde then sought to overthrow the commune by arresting Hébert and other extremists known as Enragés.  After a popular uprising, the Girondins were arrested and liquidated. When the wheel turned, their executioners would in turn be executed and the Girondins would later be celebrated.

Members of a rival club to the Jacobins, the Cordeliers, and what we would now call the extreme left – the Enragés – were liquidated.  Then it became the turn of Danton and Desmoulins.  Danton was sickened by the bloodshed and this evidence of humanity on his part was fatal.  Camille Desmoulins, who had been there since day one, went in the same batch.  He told the Tribunal that he was 33, ‘the same age as the sans-culotte Jesus Christ when he died’.  The people who had died for seeking clemency, because they were then opposing the regime, are sometimes called the ‘Indulgents’.

The end came quickly.  Fouché, who was to have the honour of intriguing against both Robespierre and Napoleon, was not a lawyer, but he was a survivor.  He mingled among people saying, ‘You are on the list, you are on the list as well as myself; I’m certain’. When the game changed, Robespierre tried to kill himself by shooting himself in the face.  The attempt failed.  When the executioner ripped off the bandage on the scaffold, Robespierre let out a primal scream.  The Terror was over.  There had been about 1,500 executions in seven weeks.  In the wash-up, the acolytes of Robespierre, and the prosecutor and executioner felt the blade that they had dropped on thousands of others.

The Russian Revolution was conceived in hate and born in violence.  Since Russia got nowhere near the rule of law while the Communists held power, and it has never done so before or since, it is not surprising that violence and terror stayed with the regime all its life.  The major terror in Russia is however associated with Stalin in the thirties.  Stalin was naturally given to paranoia.  He knew that Lenin had wanted to warn the party off him.  This was of course kept secret, but it worked on Stalin.  When a comrade roundly criticised him, Stalin wanted to have him shot ‘as a terrorist’.

Professor Hosking has defined the communist mentality:  ‘They had all seen the world as a battleground between good and evil, the good tinged with millennial hopes, and the evil with apocalyptic forebodings.  They and those entering the party from 1917 had forged their new world in the furnace of civil war.  They had adopted the methods, the mentality, and the discourse of the battlefield, including intense self-sacrifice and loyalty to their own comrades, murderous hate of the enemy, and disdain for normal moral standards.  By the early 1930’s all party documents, the speeches and articles of the leaders, were couched in language of this kind and expressed identical sentiments.  The unified rhetoric had become compulsory: anyone who failed to use it might be identified as a ‘deviationist’ and lose any hope of further advancement.  Those who had ‘deviated’ at some time were expected now to confess their errors and swing into step with their comrades’ marching columns.  The rise to power of Hitler in Germany finally sealed this closing of the ranks.  Rhetoric now became virtual reality, perhaps even reality itself.’  The Russians were heading toward the moral and intellectual black hole that we would see in China and North Korea.

The party was made the subject of rolling purges.  Show trials were put on before an incredulous world press, with fantastic and induced and concocted confessions.  The purges became cyclical, rather as they had in France.  First you barred someone, and then you exterminated them.  The intelligentsia, or the nomenklatura, got it the worst.  Of the one hundred and thirty nine members of the Central Committee of the Congress of Victors, one hundred and ten were later arrested.  Of one thousand, nine hundred and sixty six delegates, one thousand, one hundred disappeared.  Stalin was getting rid of those who knew him when he was younger, or who may have known of the testament of Lenin.  The cyclical vengeance of the French revolution looks tame indeed.  Even so, Stalin echoed Robespierre: ‘Everyone who arouses the slightest suspicion should be removed’ (murdered).

Seniority in the party carried its own risks – those lower down in the ranks were always on the look-out for an opportunity to denounce a superior in order to get his job, and Stalin must have known that most victims were ‘innocent’, a word of no meaning to him or his cadres.  Stalin said that if just five per cent of the people who had been arrested turned out to be real enemies, ‘that would be a good result.’  Yezhov advised his NKVD operatives that if ‘an extra thousand people are shot, that is not such a big deal’.  Yezhov too would be shot.

All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  When did you last see a dictator resign – or be fondly remembered?

Here and there – Working the Constitution


Walter Bagehot (pronounced as in Paget) is fondly remembered at The Economist.  He edited that journal for some time and in 1867 – just before Disraeli, a Tory PM, enfranchised the working class – he published a book called The English Constitution.  It had great impact, and it still does in Conservative circles.  The author claimed to have found the ‘secret’, between the ‘efficient’ working of the constitution and the ‘dignified’ part.  We might be more wary of such journalistic flare nowadays, especially when it rests on labels, but there is something to the distinction.

The book is now hopelessly passed its historical shelf time.  After about four pages, you are told that if you are not convinced that the lower classes are ‘narrow-mined, unintelligent, incurious’ then ‘you should go into their kitchens’ and ‘try what seems .the most obvious, most certain, most palpable in intellectual matters, upon the housemaid and the footman’ and you will find what he says seems ‘unintelligible, confused and erroneous.’

Dear, dear, dear.  Class then was caste – at the bottom as well as the top.  The author celebrates the distinct constitutional role of the aristocracy, while he maintained that in England they were no separate caste – at least as a matter of law.  And as Richard Crossman pointed out in the Introduction, Bagehot had that centuries old English ruling class fear of educating the lower orders in case that caused them to rock the boat.  They shared this fear with the Church.  Bagehot said that ‘what I conceive to be about the most essential mental quality for a free people, whose liberty is to be progressive, permanent, and on a large scale: it is much stupidity.’  Or, try this: ‘a political combination of the lower classes, as such and for their own objects, is an evil of the first magnitude.’  What kind of political genius, then, was Disraeli?

But the book does offer comment on the malaise of our times.

Bagehot said that the ‘the efficient secret of the English Constitution may be described as the close union, the nearly complete fusion, of the executive and legislative power.’  This of course is banned in the U S.  They rest on a doctrinaire embrace of theory that has never taken hold in the mother country.  Like the French, the Americans – fresh from a brawl with a monarch they neither understood, not trusted – wanted an absolute line of demarcation between legislature and the executive.  That has never been the case in England or Australia.

Crossman thought (in 1963) that the ‘theory of checks and balances….is now a fiction’.  Well, it doesn’t look too fictitious in America where putting a spoke in the wheel has become the main game.  Accordingly, Crossman thought that once ‘elected by the Commons, the Prime Minister exerts powers greater than those of any American President.’  That’s a fair topic for a pub debate.

But there has to be a workable parliament.  Critically for our purposes, Bagehot saw two conditions as ‘essential to the bare possibility of parliamentary government’ – the independence of the individual Member and the moderation of the House of Commons.’  He thought that both would be destroyed by strengthening the party machine outside parliament.

Well, that’s what happened.  The centre of power shifted from the parliament to the party machine outside it.  The individual member lost his independence and the legislature lost its moderation.  And its sense.  Australia has just spent $120 million on a plebiscite that most people didn’t want, on an issue that most regarded as decided, because one faction of a party persuaded the whole party – one nominally committed to the cause of liberty – to ban its members from voting in parliament on an issue as a matter of conscience.  It’s hard to think of a more complete, or revolting, vindication of the prophecy of Bagehot.

What holds together the effective government in England, the Cabinet, is a ‘combination of party loyalty, collective responsibility and secrecy.’  But, again, you need to have a decent parliament, one not composed of ‘warm partisans.’  Now all we see are hot partisans.  In the US, a Republican may lose endorsement from the Party for not being partisan enough – or be attacked by the President for being the wrong kind of Partisan.  The very word ‘moderation’ is suspect, if not dirty.

The powers of Cabinet have been eroded by Whitehall, but it is the dominance of the party that has reordered all that Bagehot described.  Crossman quotes a French observer: ‘Parliament and Government are like two machines driven by the same motor – the Party.  The regime is not so very different in this respect from the single party system.  Executive and legislature, Government and Parliament are constitutional facades: in reality the party alone exercises power.’

These things are matters of degree, but that’s how at least some saw government in England one hundred years after Bagehot wrote his book.  As a result, Crossman says that resignations on principle and dismissals for incompetence have become rare.  ‘Party loyalty has become the prime political virtue required of an MP, and the test of that loyalty is his willingness to support the official leadership when he knows it to be wrong….It is what is said and done in the secrecy of the party meeting which is now really important – though the public can only hear about it through leaks to the press.’

What then was the role of opposition?  In Crossman’s time they played safe and went in for shadow-boxing.  Why?  The alternative was to obstruct over time and so halt the process of government. ‘But by taking opposition to this level, an Opposition lays itself open to the charge of extremism and irresponsibility, and may well lose the support of that mass of floating voters which it must hope to win in order to turn out the government.’

Well, all that, too, has come to pass.  Immoderation is the order of the day for opposition.  The Government determines its policies in secret, and the Opposition does its best to jam the system.  The spirit of the game has just gone.

Now, this may seem silly – but none of that looks very ‘democratic.’  (As an aside, Crossman says that Britain’s decision to explode an atom bomb never reached Cabinet, let alone Parliament – before or after the event.)  Many people feel estranged by and from the process.  They don’t trust the people involved.  They don’t like them.

We are coming to grips with flaws in the two party model – after the public at large has in substance rejected it.  One problem is the fact that we only get to vote for people selected by the party.  We have no control over that process, and we are increasingly despondent about its results.

Our constitutional framework has another big problem that was not about in Crossman’s time.  The whole process of government required a professional and dispassionate civil service.  On various fronts that notion has taken massive hits in Australia.  We have seen the rise of political advisers.  They are neither professional nor dispassionate.  They tend to be people on the make and people who are not easy for others to fall in love with – particularly when, after they flop, they slink off unemployably to share their chagrin on Sky News.  It is both odd and sad that this erosion of this part of our constitutional dispensation has gone largely unnoticed.

So, what Bagehot and Crossman said does bear on our political ill health.  We are witnessing a collapse of decency and sense in public life across the West.  The mot de jour is ‘polarised.’  Moderation is out.  The centre cannot hold.  We look with Yeats upon those who lack all conviction and at those who are full of passionate intensity.  In England, a movement promoted to return something called ‘sovereignty’ to the Parliament is at risk of surrendering just that sovereignty to something called the ‘people.’  While the people of the U S and the U K are losing faith in their governments, the standing of those nations among others has collapsed.

The collapse of faith and trust was described by Thucydides in Greece thousands of years ago.

To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings.  What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely one way of saying that you were a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; an ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.  Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence.  Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect.  To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching.  If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of the fear of the opposition.  In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all.  Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership….Revenge was more important than self-preservation…..Indeed, it is true that in these acts of revenge on others men take it upon themselves to begin the process of repealing those general laws of humanity which are there to give a hope of salvation to all those who are in distress, instead of leaving those laws in existence, remembering that there may come a time when they, too, will be in danger and need protection.

The fact that we have seen it all before is not much comfort.  For me, working with the law, and in particular the common law, comes down to a state of mind.  I know that answer will disappoint or infuriate the theorist or scientist – or, for that matter, the fanatic – but it’s the best I can do.  I think the same goes for government.  The problem is that that’s where I think we have lost it.




[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.]


Civil War

In dealing with the conflict between Loyalists and Patriots during the American Revolutionary War, Churchill said there were ‘atrocities such as we have known in our day in Ireland.’  An American general said that each side ‘seemed determined to extirpate’ the other.  There would be nothing new in atrocities, massacres, or depopulation in a fratricidal civil war in France or Russia in the course of or as a result of their revolution.

The Terror in both countries was driven by fear of two things, disintegration from within, and attack and subjection from without.   Any regime that has come to power with violence is apprehensive about its standing.  If they had won power with the gun, might they lose it to the gun?

Lyon was the second city of France, almost a rival capital.  When it rose as a city against Paris, the Committee of Public Safety sent an army to put it down.  After a siege of two months, Lyon capitulated.  The Convention, not just the Committee, decreed its destruction.

A commission extraordinaire was set up to punish the rebels.  The name Lyon was to be struck from the map.  ‘Lyon made war on liberty; Lyon no longer exists.’  Hitler or Himmler could hardly have improved on the covering instruction:  ‘A revolutionary agent may do anything.  He has nothing to fear, except failure to reach the level of republican legality.  He who anticipates this or goes beyond it or even seems to have passed its goal may not yet have reached it.’

One commission could try twenty prisoners an hour.  Using the firing squad as well as the guillotine, they managed to kill twenty-eight a day for two months.  Worryingly for posterity, they experimented with alternative modes of mass killing.  The commission did something that has not been attributed to the Waffen Death’s Head SS – it ordered batches to be killed by shellfire from cannons.  The condemned were blown into open graves after which revolted infantrymen had to move in to finish off the screaming wounded by bayonet or bullet.  One witness wrote home to Paris: ‘What a delicious moment!  How you would have enjoyed it!  What a sight!  Worthy indeed of Liberty!   Wish bon jour to Robespierre.’

The rebels in La Vendée were peasants and farmers led by nobles and priests.  Their revolt struck fear in Paris for a long time, and the retribution was frightful.  The victorious general said: ‘I have crushed children beneath my horses’ hooves, and massacred the women, who thus will give birth to no more brigands….We take no prisoners, they would need to be given the bread of liberty, and pity is not revolutionary.’  Even by the standards of the times, what murderous banality lay there?  Pity is not revolutionary.  What is?  Heartless cruelty?  When most of the fighting men of the Vendée had been finished off, the area was to be cleansed of rebels by a series of colonnes infernales or ‘hell columns’ marching in parallel across the terrain.  Their commander had express written instructions.  They were clear and there is no problem in sourcing them: ‘All brigands taken under arms, or convicted of having taken them up, are to be run through with bayonets.  One will act likewise with women, girls, and children….Those merely suspected are not to be spared’.  The troops equalled the bestiality of Napoleon’s troops in Spain or the Soviet peasants in Berlin in 1945.  About a quarter of a million perished, half at the hands of the Republic.

Many were killed by the noyades, or drowning, another macabre experiment with mass killing.  Barges were towed into the river full of manacled prisoners – they were then sunk, leaving their human cargo to drown.  Others were said to have been bound up in pairs naked, and then thrown into the Loire in ‘republican marriages.’

The Revolution in Russia, as in France, had brought not liberal democracy but anarchy and war.  It was fought with that animal savagery for which this part of the world is known.  The political struggle between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks became a war between the Reds and the Whites.  The efforts of the Red Army in battle were backed up by the efforts of the Red Guards as militia-police.  There was a complete breakdown of order.  One Russian writer described Petrograd as a city of ‘icebergs, mammoths and wastelands’ where ‘cavemen, swathed in hides, blankets and wraps retreated from cave to cave’.  Peasants sought to protect themselves from whichever group sought to control them, or just from hungry locals.  Many peasants, about eighty per cent of the Russian people, who the Communists regarded as the main beneficiaries of the revolution, just wanted to defend their way of life – the Russian way of life – against Communist rule.  Hunger and famine were so bad in some areas that peasants were driven to cannibalism.

Trotsky led the Reds, but the dirty work was done by security police.  The Cheka executed hundreds of people.  At one time, in memory of the French drownings perhaps, they drowned their victims from barges in the Volga.  They applied principles of ‘class justice’.  The judges were to come from the workers.  ‘For the exploiters, the only right that remains is the right of being ‘judged’’.  So said The ABC of Communism: ‘….the greater the number of representatives of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we succeed in executing for this reason, the better. We must teach these people a lesson right now, so that they will not dare even to think of any resistance for several decades.’  There is Lenin speaking, with the distilled froideur of Saint-Just and Robespierre.

Martial law was imposed, and Trotsky’s military unit became the supreme organ of the State.  They had to call up the peasants, but the Communists did not relate to peasants.  They were a hostile and foreign lot.  Marxism gave a veneer of logic to a base gut reaction – its ‘laws’ of history ‘proved’ that the peasantry was doomed.  Lenin had proved that there would be two classes of peasants – the poor, who were the allies of the proletariat, and the ‘capitalist’ farmers, called ‘kulaks’.  The poor were just despised; the kulaks were loathed and hunted down.  It is no surprise that the Communists reduced Russia to starvation.

The Cheka was its own state.  The Commissariat of justice tried to contain it for a while and then gave up.  It practised the knock on the door in the middle of the night, interrogation and imprisonment without charge, torture, and summary death – it was its own universe.  ‘The Cheka is a fighting organ on the internal front of the civil war…..It does not judge, it strikes’.  That is a reasonable job description of the SS.  One of its earlier tasks was the murder of the whole royal family.  Here was the Terror made flesh – no one was immune to death at the hands of the Cheka.  Trotsky had said: ‘We must put an end once and for all to the papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life.’

Lenin said that it was better to arrest a hundred innocent people than to run the risk of letting one enemy of the regime go free.  That comes close to getting to the heart of the matter.  What mattered was not the welfare of people at large, but protecting the life and way of life of those at the top.  Their methods of torture don’t bear describing.  They were lower than the beasts.