In the years after the Congress of Vienna, whose final act was signed almost exactly two centuries ago, on June 9, 1815, the flamboyant English Romantic poet Lord Byron had more followers across Europe than any of his contemporaries. Quite a few of them followed him literally: he was being watched by a legion of spies and informers. They noted his “libidinous and immoral” way of life; they denounced his ruinous politics; they claimed he protected himself with artillery; they even observed the seal on his watch chain, with its suspicious secret symbols. In their incompetent zeal they regularly reported his presence in several places at once.
Adam Zamoyski’s Phantom Terror, which makes much of details such as these, can be read as a political narrative of events in Europe between the fall of Napoleon in 1815 and the revolutionary year 1848, prefaced by a sketch of relevant facets of the turbulent preceding decades. It is a vigorous and colorful account of this era of restoration, incorporating significant new research by the author and his team of assistants; and it includes a strikingly effective deployment of Slavic sources by Zamoyski, scion of a noted Polish family. At the same time it’s a book with a thesis, as its title indicates. Zamoyski’s argument involves three intertwined strands: first, that the authorities throughout Europe were totally obsessed by a supposed threat of political subversion; second, that those fears were irrational and fueled by conspiracy theories; but third, that they yielded a new apparatus of tight state control as their enduring legacy. We can begin by briefly considering these propositions in turn.
“The domestic scene in every European country, without exception, is prey to a burning fever, companion or precursor of the most violent convulsions the civilized world has experienced since the fall of the Roman Empire.” Thus Austrian diplomat Friedrich von Gentz, one of the typically extravagant dogmatists of the restored regimes. Gentz and his like discerned a continuing and all-pervasive threat of revolution. They presumed it to be carried and spread by disciples of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, with its existential challenge to established political institutions, religious beliefs, and social norms.
From the start, adherents of the old order had only been able to comprehend its demise in revolutionary France as the result of a sinister plot, hatched by clandestine groups. The very fact of such an open and public rejection of the Bourbon regime fostered the belief among loyalists that insidious forces must have been at work behind the scenes. Freemasonic lodges, which were prominent organizations of enlightened high society, soon came to be principal targets, but the evil could also be readily connected to an underworld of secretive associations given to occult thinking and ritual practices, which, as we now realize,1 coexisted with the Enlightenment and fed off its more extreme manifestations. Indeed, conveniently for propagandists on both sides, new and old modes of thought, rational and irrational, religious and irreligious, were tightly interknit by the end of the eighteenth century. There was for example the notorious German brotherhood known as the Illuminati, whose shadowy dealings in the 1780s and purported continuators thereafter could be represented as a menace to all and sundry.
Zamoyski unearths plenty of evidence about the invasive and repressive policies of the old-new establishments that were returned to power or confirmed in it across the continent from 1815 on. He reviews a motley collection of agencies responsible for control and surveillance. Their chief resources were expanded police forces engaged in extensive undercover operations. They could be answerable to rulers and their courts, to chief ministers, foreign ministers, ministers of war, ministers of home affairs, ministerial secretaries, in fact to any or all of these, together or separately, sometimes on parallel tracks or at cross purposes (as with the conflicting dossiers about Byron). Zamoyski is particularly good on St. Petersburg’s Third Department (Tret’e otdelenie), with its moralizing mission to promote the three supposed principles of holy Russia (Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality) by directing the hearts and minds of all the tsar’s subjects.
Everywhere there were also, of course, regular armies, with enhanced official or unofficial functions in relation to the civilian population. Meanwhile, between armies and police had emerged a new paramilitary force of gendarmes, as they became widely known (carabinieri in Italy), invented in revolutionary and Napoleonic France but eagerly appropriated by its rivals.
The figure of Bonaparte was still very ambivalently viewed in the decades after his defeat. Along with continued fears of him and his family (after all, only three months before the conclusion of the peace accord in Vienna of June 1815, he escaped from his first captivity on the island of Elba in an abortive but serious bid to regain power) there was also grudging recognition of his supreme ability to “control the demons he had unleashed, and order them to do only that degree of harm that he required of them,” as another conservative guru, Joseph de Maistre, put it. Besides, Bonaparte had shown himself the acknowledged master of domestic enforcement and scrutiny: “There never has been a police as absolute as the one which I commanded,” as his formidable minister Joseph Fouché subsequently remarked.
We encounter a gallery of petty autocrats in these pages, all working to maintain authority on their own territory. But the essence of their collective fear was that sedition leaped across state boundaries, that conspiracy was cosmopolitan. Hence the attention accorded in this book to Zamoyski’s two protagonists of the international reach of official reaction.
One of them is Alexander I, the enigmatic tsar who seemingly began his rule as a liberal and ended it as an arch-diehard. Zamoyski doesn’t quite explain this shift. A major factor was Russia’s military triumph in the final campaigns against Napoleon, which enhanced Alexander’s sense of personal power and mission and the wherewithal to enforce his will. “I consider my Army as the Army of Europe,” he proclaimed at the diplomatic summit in Aix-la-Chapelle that had been convened in the aftermath of the Congress of Vienna to review issues of collective security. At the same time troops, especially elite regiments, could be as much a part of the problem as of the solution, as the coup (pronunciamiento) in Spain in 1820 or the mutiny of the so-called Decembrists in Russia five years later demonstrated.
The tsar’s transformation also had a lot to do with the onset of a particularly rigorous kind of private religious devotion, precisely in the years around 1815. Thereafter Alexander exemplified in a uniquely influential way the spiritual upsurge that helped to underpin the ideology of monarchical restoration. Although the tsar’s experience drew on Orthodox values supplemented by evangelical Protestant pietism, it was Catholic hierarchies that, from the first, had inveighed most fiercely against Freemasons and their like. This was the case even though the associated secrecy of such groups as the Freemasons and their ritualized practices held a sinister fascination for many in their own flock, and inspired a countermyth of Jesuit plotting. In a declaration of his own devising Alexander duly asserted or reasserted a “Holy Alliance” of “throne and altar” on lines already prescribed by antirevolutionary thinkers such as the Abbé Barruel and Joseph de Maistre.
The second protagonist, Prince Klemens Metternich, the Austrian chancellor and prime architect of the 1815 settlement, wore his religion far more lightly, but was equally assertive and inflexible in his rhetoric. His voluminous, carefully contrived, and immensely self-satisfied memoirs record his opinions ad nauseam and afford Zamoyski his richest quarry of citations to illustrate the mentality he characterizes as “political paranoia.”
Metternich favored especially the vocabulary of disease: he likened himself as European leader to a physician at the bedside of a sick patient who suffers variously from an “epidemic” or a “fever,” from the “germs of a moral gangrene,” or from “cholera” (this last a highly charged figure of speech, given the devastating epidemic of cholera that struck the continent in the middle of the period). Such bacterial metaphors were linked closely to Metternich’s conviction that he faced nefarious “agents” on every side, members of “secret societies…working in the shadows,” of a “conspiracy hatched in the dark,” all part of a subterranean network directed by a central revolutionary committee based almost certainly in Paris, and penetrating to (as we might expect him to say) “every vein of the body of society.”
Zamoyski constantly stresses how far removed from actuality were the often pathological fantasies of those in authority. He writes far less about real oppositional groups, on the grounds that they were comparatively weak across much of Europe. The absurdity of official concerns was underlined by the fact of widespread disengagement from politics, particularly in the earlier years of the century. Serious disturbances remained rare in restoration France; similarly in Russia, apart from the chaotic Decembrist rising and the more formidable but dysfunctional Polish insurrection of 1830–1831.
In the core Habsburg territories of Austria and Bohemia, the Metternichian regime prohibited all assemblies of more than a handful of people except for concerts. Maybe that helps explain why public musical events enjoyed such popularity. But equally—or so the eminently progressive Beethoven observed in Vienna—all the Austrians needed to keep them quiet was “brown beer and sausages.”
Whatever the truth of this, political trials in the decades from 1815 were conspicuous by their complete absence. Elsewhere in the German lands only a few hundred people, mainly students, took part in the notorious Wartburg festival of 1817, which engaged in a series of provocative nationalist gestures, among them burning the text of the Vienna settlement. The equally celebrated gathering at Hambach, fifteen years later, which was attended by slightly more people, likewise sowed panic among conservatives, though it had all the innocuous character of a modern folk gala. Even in Italy, that mere “geographical expression” as Metternich called the peninsula (and he wished to keep it so), most of the clandestine national societies bore weird and wonderful names that look manifestly sardonic or otherwise fictitious.
In early 1848, however, the ordered certainties of most of the continent’s authoritarian governments were abruptly shattered. From Sicily in the south to Prussia in the north, from France in the west to the Romanian principalities in the east, forces of opposition took over, abolishing censorship, enacting constitutions, abrogating privileges, challenging churches, proclaiming national unity and raising national flags, promoting business interests, liberating peasantries. In fact their triumph appeared short-lived; by the end of the year much of the reform movement had been snuffed out.
Zamoyski uses the events of 1848 to conclude and confirm his overall reading of the period. He is crisp and dismissive of them. Not only was there no conspiracy, but there were no proper revolutions, only an unconnected and episodic series of localized discontents. Thus—he claims—the outcome belied what reactionary regimes had feared. Yet this doesn’t seem to do justice to the implications of his own argument. He rests content with ascertaining the vast gap between perception and reality: a suitably postmodern, but incomplete, inference.
Plenty of clear-sighted contemporaries had long detected the contradiction in the policies of dictatorial governments and had realized how repression was bound to prove counterproductive. When in 1848 Lord Palmerston, the British foreign minister, snubbed Metternich’s approaches on the very eve of Austria’s collapse, he repeated a sentiment already more and more widely articulated abroad, although he expressed it in terms appropriate for the first industrial nation: “Your politics of oppression, which tolerates no resistance, is a fatal one and leads as surely to an explosion as a hermetically sealed cauldron which has no safety-valve.”
Enlightenment had not just been a phantasm invoked by those whom it terrified. It connoted a movement of ideas and practicalities, with a message—however variously interpreted and controverted—that was in some irreducible sense “modern,” a lasting “project,” as its advocates, most recently Anthony Pagden, assert.2 When appropriated by rulers it had given rise to a strong program of state-building, nowhere more than in Austria, under the extraordinary Emperor Joseph II, whose significance for this story is missed by Zamoyski.3 “Enlightened despotism” (as historians often call it) involved tough action in favor of social, economic, and political change, and could itself, when thwarted, lead to more policing and censorship. In 1789 it was storms of popular protest at home in the Habsburg lands (not events in France, as Zamoyski assumes) that provoked widespread disorder and forced Joseph into a partial retreat.
Yet the new initiatives had set processes in motion that could not be entirely arrested. Responses to the French Revolution did not, even initially, reverse all the advances in land tenure and management, trade and commerce, public health, universal education, transport and communications, among many other reforms. There’s no need to be a determinist to see how fruitless in the long run were attempts to build a dam against this current. Denied a more organic evolution, pressure for change was bound to yield distortion and always likely to end in violent convulsions. As Gentz, Metternich’s right-hand man, went on, in the highly emotive quotation cited earlier, “It is the struggle, the war of life or death between the old and new principles, between the old and new social order.”
In the meantime Napoleon’s model of centralized administration made its impact not just in France, but across the continent over which he came so near to establishing hegemony. In the German states reformers continued to burrow away within the expanding bureaucratic system (an aspect Zamoyski hardly considers). That was especially the case by the 1830s in the United Kingdom, which consequently avoided mayhem when the European crisis broke—although it came perilously close, as London’s massed bands of protesting Chartists in April 1848 indicate. In fact, the obstructed development caused by official fears about progress probably saved Britain’s ailing and undeserving monarchy and left an unhealthy bias for the future against popular sovereignty.
The other extreme, of complete breakdown in the crisis, occurred on Metternich’s own territory, and substantially through his own malign strategy. On the one hand, he presided over an era of paternalistic inertia within the Habsburg lands that spurned all forward movement: even Gentz had become alienated from Metternich’s policies by the time of his death in 1832. On the other hand, Metternich committed Austria to a crippling overstretch of power as its troops struggled to act as the gendarmes of Europe. Here the consequences were graver. The Habsburg dynasty proved to have forfeited its last realistic chance to consolidate effective and durable structures of consensual government for its multinational empire.
So there was a palpable enemy. Even Metternich spoke with angst and disdain of the middle classes, “those classes always ready, at any time and in every place, to embrace a career of ambition which offers them a chance to reach for the rudder of government.” And the enemy would not go away. After temporary setbacks following the defeats of 1848, the forces of opposition would swiftly regroup. But official attitudes were constantly refracted through a prism of captivating nonsense about secret societies and conspiracies. Belief in the “phantom” of revolution, or at least in their own propaganda about it, inhibited regimes from any compromise with moderate reformers. Even at the height of his power Metternich could not see beyond a crude Manichaean duality between the “conservation of all legally existing things” and their “overthrow.”
That also helps explain the otherwise puzzling readiness of many bastions of the status quo to throw in the towel as soon as they felt themselves under serious pressure. Successive kings of France, or the Austrian and German establishments in 1848, evidently sensed in their hearts that the game was up. A perceptive contemporary writer cited by Zamoyski observed of King Louis-Philippe’s ignominious flight from France in those fateful days of February 1848: “Was it the phantom of the Terror [hence Zamoyski’s title] and its scaffolds which clouded the natural wisdom of that otherwise sharp and open mind” and robbed him of his courage?
It remains a deeper puzzle that such phantoms could exert such enduring psychological suasion. Zamoyski’s thorough examination of the official mind-set suggests one concluding reason: the bewildering impact of an entire new political vocabulary that circulated in the aftermath of revolution. Words like “Jacobin,” “radical,” “nationalist,” and above all “liberal” were used without any kind of effective representative channels for them to acquire definable public meaning. What, for example, did Metternich mean, or think he meant, when he said in 1820, in response to the murder of a member of the French ruling family, that “liberalism is on the march”?4
Liberals, real or imagined, many excited by growing national fervor, were themselves equally products of an age of Romantic mystification. A prime symbol of that mystification was the cult of the freethinking Byron, whose death at Missolonghi in 1824 in the liberal cause of Greek independence—but from fever, not in combat—symbolized the frustration of reformers. It also reduced the future job prospects of quite a few secret agents.
September 24, 2015
See the recent sophisticated analysis by Paul Kléber Monod, Solomon’s Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment (Yale University Press, 2013). ↩
Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters (Random House, 2013). ↩
Zamoyski does not cite the recent definitive biography of Joseph II by Derek Beales or any of the fundamental work by T.C.W. Blanning on Joseph’s Austria, the French Revolution, and international politics. Altogether Zamoyski’s touch is less sure on central Europe: reference to “Schiller’s Faust” doesn’t inspire confidence. ↩
The immensely complex semantic history of the notion of “liberalism” is addressed in a massive and fascinating exploration by Jörn Leonhard, Liberalismus: Zur historischen Semantik eines europäischen Deutungsmusters (Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 2001). ↩