How They Hunted Down Liberals

Wien Museum Karlsplatz, Vienna/bpk, Berlin/Alfredo Dagli Orti/Art Resource
‘Proclamation of the French Republic’; caricature by Johann Christian Schoeller, February 1848

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…

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