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National Observer Home > No. 53 - Winter 2002 > Book reviews

The Unsleeping Eye: A Brief History of the Secret Police and their Victims

By Robert Stove

Sydney, Duffy and Snellgrove, 2002, pp. 353 and index.


Robert Stove is one of the most brilliant Australian writers today, and his admirers and also those who approach him for the first time will find this book a delight. Stove’s pungent style is always impressive, so that even when writing on uninteresting topics he is entertaining: and on the present occasion the activities of secret police operations from Elizabethan times to Hoover’s America provide an enthralling and bravura display.

Stove’s chronicle commences with Sir Francis Walsingham, secretary of state and gatherer of intelligence for Elizabeth I, who engineered the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587. He organised and was responsible for a large range of agents, and his efforts were vital for a Protestant queen who was the frequent object of Catholic plots both within England and abroad.

From the relatively straightforward Walsingham Stove moves to Joseph Fouché, one of the ugliest products of the French revolution. Whereas Walsingham had been limited and practical in his attempts to safeguard Elizabeth, Fouché demonstrated a fanaticism and brutality. He had, for example, no hesitation in ordering the death of a nun whose “treason” had consisted of praying to God in public. Stove’s analysis reminds us how misdirected are those who see in the French Revolution an advancement for mankind: in fact, it led to much ugliness and provided in particular an example for the even greater ugliness of the Russian Revolution.

It is Stove’s chapter on Russia which is perhaps the most important. The chapter commences with two quotations. In 1932 Stalin stated “Life has become better, life has become merrier”, and Bertolt Brecht referred to Stalin as the “embodiment of [working class] hopes”. In fact Stalin’s survival owed much to Felix Dzerzhvistry, head of the Cheka, who proclaimed “We stand for organised terror”. Robert Conquest has estimated that between 1917 and 1923 200,000 executions took place, whereas during the last third of the preceding century Tsarist executions had amounted to only ninety-four. But other events began, on a greater scale. With the persecution of the kulaks in 1932 “the truly, deliberately engineered famine began”; at the lowest possible estimate it killed six million. Thus Dzerzhvistry was followed by many able and pitiless successors, of whom the most famous was Beria, whose personal penchant was raping women and girls, “the younger the better”. In the end Beria was himself executed, a fate that has commonly awaited revolutionaries at the hands of their colleagues.

Two-way instruction was gained by Nazi Germany from Communist Russia and by Russia from Germany. The Gestapo, the S.A. and the S.S. were at one time or another ruthless exponents of the powers of secret police, and Himmler became the best known of their leaders. As in Russia, so in Germany, the harbouring of disloyal views was regarded as a crime of the utmost importance, and methods of torture and of execution were often gruesome and macabre.

For many readers the chapter on J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I. will be of particular interest. Of course, the F.B.I. was not an organ of repression or terror as was the K.G.B., for example. But Hoover’s interests carried him into many important areas of American life, and his dealings with the Kennedy’s and against the Ku Klux Klan are especially noteworthy. Jack and Robert Kennedy were venerated as icons of American Democratic liberalism, but time has revealed the unpleasantness of their lives, including Mafia associations — not surprising for those whose father was a successful, large-scale criminal.

Commercial considerations for the publisher unfortunately caused some of the chapters of The Unsleeping Eye to be shortened. (In some instances the more complete analyses have been, or are to be, published in National Observer.) These curtailments are unfortunate, since valuable and interesting material has been lost, and it may be hoped that in a future edition the full text will be set out.

I.C.F. Spry


National Observer No. 53 - Winter 2002