Home/Articles/The Knock at the Door

The Knock at the Door

Given 20th-century scholarship’s interest in all things totalitarian, it is more than a bit surprising that there exists no general survey of one of modern tyranny’s pivotal institutions: the secret police. At least there wasn’t one until Robert J. Stove, a versatile Australian critic, stepped forward to dispel the silence. The result is The Unsleeping Eye, an elegant volume of roughly chronological vignettes drawn from the all-too-thick catalogue of state-sponsored domestic surveillance. As narrative history, it makes for an unfailingly intriguing read. As a lesson in human nature, it provides a chilling warning against complacency in freedom.

Certain historic regimes earn their places in the ignominious litany of despotism by unanimous consent. These are well known and their depravities thoroughly discussed. Stove does treat the most infamous of these, but it is bracing to see him begin his study with an era few normally associate with official repression: Elizabethan England. History being written by the victors, Anglo-American culture instinctively decries the ruthlessness of “Bloody Mary” while in the same breath romanticizing the reign of Gloriana as England’s Golden Age. “Gilded” might be more like it, for as Stove describes, there lay considerable darkness beneath the shiny exterior of Shakespeare and the Virgin Queen.A theme that pervades The Unsleeping Eye is the importance of singular individuals in directing and shaping the character of secret-police organizations. Consequently, Stove’s Elizabethan story centers on three men: Sir Francis Walsingham, William Cecil (later Lord Burghley), and Cecil’s son Robert (later Lord Salisbury).

Walsingham became the prototypical English spymaster. A zealous Protestant, he was well disposed to investigate the prime targets of secret-police attention at the time: unreconstructed Catholics. Thanks to his appointment to the Privy Council in 1573, he could order torture, which he often did, if also with distaste. According to Stove, his network of agents—typically young Oxbridge men of Catholic background—included spooks not only in England but also in nearly every major European country. (Some had a philosophical bent: a young Sir Francis Bacon, and perhaps Giordano Bruno as well, were briefly among those in Walsingham’s employ.)

Among the various intrigues—real and invented—that he stopped, Walsingham’s supreme coup was engineering the final downfall of Elizabeth’s rival, Mary Queen of Scots. Through a courier in his pay, a crack decryption department, and an entrapping note forged in Mary’s own handwriting, Walsingham caught her and her conspirators. She was tried and convicted, but Walsingham required one final stratagem to get her head on the block. As the queen was reluctant to behead her cousin, Walsingham slipped into a stack of Her Majesty’s papers Mary’s death warrant, which she signed unawares. Thus consummated was, in Stove’s judgment, “the sheer trickery and forging of evidence which Walsingham, to ensure Mary’s execution, had carried out.”

To Walsingham’s second successor, Lord Salisbury, fell the honor of defeating the most notorious terrorist conspiracy in English history: the Gunpowder Plot. Officially, Salisbury discovered the plan to blow up Parliament (with King James I inside) when the Catholic Lord Monteagle turned over an anonymous letter he had ostensibly received, warning him to stay away. The authorship of the Monteagle Letter is one of history’s great disputed questions. Stove’s theory is that Salisbury forged the letter himself, having already learned of the Plot by other means. He makes a good case, but it would have been stronger had he considered more rigorously the evidence for other suspects, not least British historian Antonia Fraser’s favorite: Monteagle himself.

From the first “Guy Fawkes Day,” Stove moves across the Channel, and ahead two centuries, to Revolutionary France. This nasty, brutish period of history would seem a natural for a flourishing secret police. And so it was, the demiurgic figure being one Joseph Fouché. Our author regrets that Fouché is little known in the English-speaking world, but in this, he can take heart. Since Stove’s writing (in 2001, for Australian release), Paul Johnson—in a devastating biography of Napoleon—has described Fouché in a fashion Stove would surely endorse. Says Johnson: “[Fouché] was the prototype of Himmler or Beria, … an important element in Bonaparte’s legacy of evil …”

Joseph Fouché, arch-Jacobin and atheist, cut his teeth suppressing a 1793 counterrevolutionary uprising in provincial Lyons. Even by the extraordinary standards of the Reign of Terror, Fouché’s liquidation of townspeople was remarkable for its savagery. Seventy “were killed by cannon and by musket, and their bodies pitched into the river Rhône … subsequent victims were interred on land in a huge ditch. … Altogether 1,910 Lyonnais perished.” After an initial allusion to “anticipating twentieth-century dictatorships’ methods,” Stove gracefully declines to clutter his narrative with every possible Fouchéan adumbration of Communism or Nazism. Here he allows the reader to connect for himself Fouché’s approach with that of the Einsatzgruppen in Eastern Europe and of such individual Nazis as Friedrich Engel, the Butcher of Genoa.

Involved in the plots to overthrow both Robespierre and the Directory, Fouché was, for all his strength of conviction, exceptionally pragmatic and adaptable. Remarkably, he escaped the guillotine and, with a few interludes, maintained power and influence throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. Once—“Jacobin to end all Jacobins” though he was—he turned on his erstwhile comrades to allay the suspicions of the ruling Directory. For Bonaparte, he unfailingly detected would-be coups and conspiracies.

Such a life calls to mind no one more than Fouché’s contemporary, Prince Talleyrand, whom the Italian author Roberto Calasso has cast as the impresario of modernity for his seemingly effortless changeability in a time of constant flux. It is therefore surprising to read Stove’s opinion that the two had little in common. This was perhaps true of the conduct of their private affairs, but less so of their public lives. It is Stove himself who makes this fascinating correction to the historical record on Napoleon’s judicial murder of the Duke d’Enghien: “Curiously, the celebrated words [Fouché] uttered on hearing the news— … (“It’s more than a crime, it’s a blunder”)—have almost always … been misattributed in print to Talleyrand.” Indeed, one might go further and say that this exquisitely Machiavellian verdict is, to the non-specialist, Talleyrand’s most famous and emblematic quote. Surely the two must have been more similar in outlook than Stove allows for posterity to have so perfectly confused the words of one with the other.

For the better-known Soviet and Nazi cases, Stove begins his uncensored tour of the grisly and the disturbing with earlier national models. In Russia, this means the oft-reviled tsarist secret police, which at least in later Romanov days comes off more feckless than fearsome. To great effect he cites historian Robert Conquest’s estimates of their respective victim totals to show that Soviet secret policing was different from its tsarist precursor in degree. His portraits of the latter system’s masterminds—Felix Dzerzhinsky, Lavrenti Beria—and the terrible history of the whole alphabet soup of Soviet internal enforcement—OGPU, NKVD, (most famously) KGB—demonstrate its difference in kind. Terror, indeed, was essential to the Communist project.

Germany differs from other nations Stove studies in having, prior to 1871, no centralized administrative state. As he insightfully observes, however, secret policing without such central power is nearly impossible, resulting in few if any prefigurations of the formidable Nazi apparatus. What he does find—Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresia’s censorship and “Chastity Commission”—is not wholly satisfying. Unfashionable though it may be to modern sensibilities, her maintenance of public morality in an explicitly Catholic state is a far cry from the likes of Fouché. To Stove’s credit, he does note that surveillance, such as it was, was stricter under the “Enlightened” Joseph II and rescues the great conservative statesman Prince Metternich from his unfairly black reputation. Still, Stove would have done better to stick to his initial idea—the seed of a trenchant critique of German unification.

His discussion of the Nazis themselves is a useful guide to the surprisingly complicated web of their secret-police network. Few general readers realize that, unlike the Soviet system, there was no unified chain of command for all German security. Its three presiding geniuses—Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Göring, and Reinhard Heydrich—presided over a confusing, but effective, “array of diverse functions,” which, “had been specifically designed to prevent anyone taking decisive juridical responsibility for anything.” Crucial to understanding this, Stove takes pains to note, is to avoid the common misapprehension that the Gestapo alone was synonymous with Nazi domestic intelligence.R.J. Stove throughout The Unsleeping Eye not only displays wide learning in European history and culture but also that confident familiarity with his material which comes from thorough research. His stylish prose consistently delights with illuminating literary references, pertinent anecdotes, and arresting insights. Indeed, only two minor factual errors present themselves: according to the only surviving transcript, Heydrich’s successor, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, did not attend the Wannsee Conference (which adopted the Final Solution); and, as another reviewer has noted, it was the NSA, not the FBI, that produced the Venona transcripts. (One shortcoming that is decidedly not Stove’s fault is his publisher’s failure to convert the text to American standards of spelling and punctuation.)

The lacunae in the book’s coverage are, on the whole, admitted by the author. Space did not permit discussion of, for example, late-medieval Venice’s fascinating, proto-totalitarian Council of Ten—with its anonymous denunciations and summary “disappearances”—which held real power at the height of the Serene Republic. More regrettably, there is little either on the East German Stasi, whose societal pervasiveness was legendary. Stove could fill these gaps in a second book, which he doesn’t rule out.It would also be interesting to hear, in a sequel, more about the literature of secret policing—Orwell, of course, but Kafka and Solzhenitsyn as well—for a glimpse into the psyches of those who live their daily lives under the “Unsleeping Eye.” “Orwellian” and “Kafkaesque” are both, in their distinct ways, adjectives we have adopted to describe the perilous disorientation of such circumstances, and a whole English sub-vocabulary derives from 1984 alone. This is a credit to Orwell’s creative strength, to be sure, but it also says something about the way secret policing transfixes the imagination of free men. Judging by Stove’s literary journalism, he would be more than equal to the task.

The Unsleeping Eye is arguably at its most useful in teaching us the lessons of history before we are forced to repeat them. As Stove’s (largely exculpatory) chapter on J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI shows, liberal democracies are not immune to the lure of surveillance. In a post-9/11 world of the Patriot Act, Total Information Awareness, and the once-mooted TIPS program (which would have enrolled millions of Americans as spies on their neighbors), R.J. Stove reminds us of the dark cells to which such well-intentioned derogations of liberty can lead.

leave a comment

Latest Articles