Fear in History – what scared us in the past?

In 2012, the academic Steven Pinker wrote a book called The Better Angels of our Nature arguing that in historical terms, violence and murder were in decline. Whereas widespread constant states of fear had been understandable in history – our future would be a lot safer and secure.

What a difference eight years makes! Fear may not yet be banished to the dustbin of history. Crisis after crisis looms – and social media spreads rumour and lies. It seems fear is stronger than ever. History may have the last laugh.

At the moment of writing this, we’re all in Coronavirus lockdown. We tune into the daily news bulletins to hear how many unfortunates have died overnight and how many more are infected.

The Governor of New York state appears in front of TV cameras to plead for emergency assistance. Hospitals and morgues are constructed hastily to accommodate the dying and the dead. Fear is everywhere.

But, as Steven Pinker rightly pointed out, mass fear is nothing new. History is littered with episodes of huge anxiety – where thousands if not millions of people were gripped with terrifying anxiety.

FEAR IN HISTORY: The French Revolution

Yesterday, browsing through some old history books, I came across a month-long episode in French history two hundred years ago when the landed peasantry were suddenly struck by something called The Great Fear. Or La Grand Peur if you prefer the original French.

Mansions and chateaus were attacked by pitchfork wielding landless poor. There were a handful of murders of the wealthy. And all around swirled rumours that the aristocracy were hoarding food supplies and plotting to withdraw what few rights the downtrodden had.

How much of this was true? In reality, the rich were probably no worse than they had been the year, decade or century before. But with an intensified political climate and the neighbouring cities rising up, the rural masses were consumed with a sense that unless they acted, their destruction loomed.

FIND OUT MORE: The London of the Frankenstein Chronicles

FEAR IN HISTORY: The Salem witch trials

A century before the town of Salem in Massachusetts had been the scene of hysterical witch trials. The backdrop was unrest between colonialists and American native tribes – as well as a war between England and France fought on American soil. Into this toxic brew add small town rivalries and Puritan terror of the devil and it wasn’t long before innocent women were being accused of witchcraft.

The Salem episode was depicted by the 1950s American playwright Arthur Miller in his play The Crucible – as a satire of McCarthyite anti-Communist investigations. These were show trials overseen by Senator Joseph McCarthy who accused hundreds of Americans of being secret Communists – ruining their careers and driving some to suicide.

Senator McCarthy in action

At the height of this Cold War paranoia, a movie was released under the initial title: I Married A Communist. It’s a clumsily plotted piece of drivel about a guilt-ridden ex-Communist being blackmailed by his former comrades. Watch it on YouTube – I can’t be bothered to write anymore about it. Except to say, no self-respecting Hollywood director would touch the script so it was directed by British director Robert Stephenson who finally lived that career low down by directing Mary Poppins.

DISCOVER: How to talk like a Victorian Londoner

FEAR IN HISTORY: 1970s angst

As a teenager in the late 1970s, I experienced waves of popular, tabloid-fuelled fear. This was a time of economic crisis and rising unemployment. And there was plenty – allegedly – to fear.

Skinheads were taking over the streets. Old people were being routinely mugged. Racist propaganda claimed jobs were being taken by new arrivals to Britain from Africa and the Indian sub-continent. And on top of all this – young people wondered whether the United States and Soviet Union would reduce the planet to a post-nuclear dustball.

And yet – here I am. The great fear of the 1970s proved to be largely illusory…

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Forbidden History: Insights on Jesus and James Bond!

Theakston

This month, I appear in the new season of Forbidden History presented by Jamie Theakston. You can view it online or download from Sky. So, what can you expect to see me talking about?

  • The historical Jesus. Who was the real Jesus Christ? Forbidden History journeys through the Holy Land to find whether the Messiah really existed and the exact spot where he was crucified
  • The East German Stasi. How did communist East Germany create a ruthless secret police that got one in six of the population spying on everybody else? A fascinating trip back to the Cold War
  • Nazi Art Theft. The astonishing robbery of billions of dollars worth of art by Hitler stashed away in salt mines and other hiding places. And the brave efforts of the Monuments Men to trace priceless paintings and sculptures
  • The real James Bond. Forbidden History asks which actor in the Bond movies comes closest to the real thing? An investigation into what inspired the creation of this compelling character
  • Dead Sea Scrolls. The most incredible biblical discovery in centuries. Parchments written by a fanatical Jewish sect, the Essenes, that could have proven or disproven the existence of Christ. Yet these massively important documents were hidden from public view for decades.
  • Secret societies. All your favourite clandestine organisations under the microscope from Opus Dei to the Illuminati. Who and what are these organisations and do they really control the world?

Make sure not to miss Forbidden History broadcasting on the Yesterday channel, part of UKTV.

Spying and torture – inside the Stasi – the East German secret police!

Germany

West Germany and East Germany – 1945 to 1990

In 2018, I appeared in the TV documentary series Forbidden History (UKTV, Yesterday) talking about a highly sinister secret police force called the Stasi. This followed a trip I paid to Berlin to see the Stasi prison cells where people were tortured for myself.

Communist East Germany collapsed in 1989. It meant the end of a totalitarian state where the secret police spied on the population using a web of 90,000 paid agents and hundreds of thousands of informers.

I’ve just visited the secret prison of the Ministry for State Security – the Stasi. It’s a grim place where agents physically and psychologically tortured political opponents of the government.

East Germany was created in the image of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. This was at the end of the Second World War when Hitler’s Germany was carved up between the Soviet Union, France, United Kingdom and United States. Berlin sat in the middle of Soviet run territory and was in turn divided up between the four victorious powers.

In Soviet occupied Germany, there would be no democracy, no dissent and no freedom of organisation. The East German communist government took orders from Moscow and created a Kafka-esque nightmare of a society. Show trials and denunciation were the norm, echoing the Stalinist purges of the 1930s.

A culture of informing was encouraged. Neighbours, friends, family members and even husbands and wives would spy on each other. Often with a designated code name, they would ring up the Stasi and snitch on their loved ones. Private scores were settled just by picking up the phone and spilling the beans to a Stasi operator.

Only when Stasi files became public in 1990 did people realise the extent of the secret police activity. One woman, now a German politician, discovered her husband had been reporting on her activity to the Stasi for decades. A punk singer who was seen as a bit of  rebel was in fact a spy. All over the country, listening devices were planted in suspect’s flats or even in bizarre places like nesting boxes, watering cans and even a specially designed bra!!

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The cell inside the supposed delivery van

Once somebody came to the Stasi’s attention, they would be picked up and taken to the prison I visited for interrogation. They might be dragged out of their home or simply accosted in public. The hapless individual was then bundled into what deliberately looked like a delivery van. It could contain up to five very cramped cells.

They were then driven for hours, unable to see out of the window. This would create the impression that the prison was far from their home when in fact, it might have been a mere 20 minute ride. From outside, ordinary people would have just seen a delivery van for groceries trundling past.

They they arrived at the Stasi prison. The van stopped in a holding bay harshly illuminated by strip lighting. The political detainees shielded their eyes and fell to the ground. This was followed by a strip search, an exercise in humiliation. A kind of track suit was then issued with no consideration given to size. If it was ill-fitting – so much the better. Everything was geared to dehumanising the suspect.

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Down in the “submarine”

In the basement of one building is an underground labyrinth of corridors and cells nicknamed the “submarine” – a windowless hell where the first inmates in the late 1940s and 1950s were incarcerated. With no light, prisoners hadn’t any idea whether it was day or night. Twelve or fifteen shared a single cell with one bucket to relieve themselves and a single bed to share on a rota. Many died in that darkness.

Then from the 1950s until 1989, a newer wing was used. The cells there had windows – and bars. Each prisoner had a room to themselves with toilet, bed and sink. But this heralded a new form of degradation.  Physical beatings and summary executions were replaced by sleep deprivation and months of vicious mind games.

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Keep prisoners awake by ratting the cell door

How was sleep deprived? Inmates were ordered to sleep on their back, arms to the sides and staring up a light bulb that flashed on intermittently through the night. If a prisoner fell asleep and turned on to their side, the cell door was rattled until they woke.

Sleep deprivation is a devastatingly effective form of torture. Add to that the horror of solitary confinement for months on end. Prisoners began to relish the sessions with their interrogator who came to be seen as a kind of friend. That was the intention. Bit by bit, it became easier to extract a confession.

It’s incredible to think this all carried on until 1989 and the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe. The Moscow-inspired Stalinist system was hated by most of the Left and Right in post-war Europe. But it had – and still has – its admirers. In recent years, a couple of Stasi agents have very publicly crawled out of the woodwork trying to justify what they did back in those days.

If you want to know more about the Stasi, I recommend this movie: The Lives of Others.