Political Revolutionaries, International Conspiracies, and the Fearful, Frenzied Elites

Constitutional reformers, religious dissenters, and simple political enemies.

March 30, 2015

    EDMUND BURKE WROTE of the French Revolution in 1791, “[…] no Monarchy limited or unlimited, nor any of the old Republics, can possibly be safe as long as this strange, nameless, wild, enthusiastic thing is established in the Center of Europe.”

    In 1846, Austria’s Prince Metternich, near the end of a career spent trying to pin down the phenomenon of revolution, described it in similarly shifty terms: “The Revolution is a Protean force which can skillfully change its nature to suit the circumstances.”

    To the European leaders who watched it unfold, the French Revolution was more than a discrete political event. As the new order evolved from constitutional monarchy to regicidal regime to territorially ambitious empire, Europe’s old guard assessed not just the known threats to their borders, but the unknown implications for their nations’ internal affairs. And this wariness continued long after Waterloo.

    Uncertain how to govern a world that had seen the fall of the Bastille and the rise of Napoleon, monarchs and ministers often gave rumors and conspiracy theories the same weight as facts.

    And rumor has been a welcome subject for historical analysis ever since the “cultural turn” in academic history that began in the 1970s. In his book Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Creation of the Modern State, 1789-1848, Adam Zamoyski brings a similar sensibility to the more traditional subject of European diplomacy and statecraft.

    The work makes for a sensational synthesis. Anyone who has studied the politics of this period knows that its elites lived in constant fear of revolution. Zamoyski’s contribution is to transform this fear from a general theme into a more focused object of inquiry. European elites’ paranoia about revolution takes shape as a set of specific beliefs sustained and exchanged by powerful figures like Metternich, the Duke of Wellington, and the tsars of Russia. Capturing the precise effects of the Revolution’s “Protean force” is a significant achievement of both documentation and narrative, but the amorphous nature of the subject necessarily limits Zamoyski’s analysis of its significance for our world today.


    The discourse of paranoia that governed politics in the decades following Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 wore the mantle of the old regime, but in fact was sustained by Napoleonic innovations combined with counterrevolutionary calculus.

    Consider the police. Revolutionary France’s feuding factions had already initiated the politicization of local police forces — every few months brought new rulers as well as new threats to “public safety.” As part of the “administrative terror” that characterized his regime, Napoleon pursued a new kind of political surveillance through police chief Joseph Fouché. While the old regime had long employed tools such as informants and mail monitoring, Zamoyski argues that Fouché systematized the use of these methods, creating the first modern state security apparatus.

    This system was reproduced in every nation Napoleon conquered, but rarely rolled back after the emperor’s defeat. For example, after Waterloo, the restored rulers of Italy attempted to undo nearly every social change introduced since the French conquest — except those that served the state. Pope Leo XII abolished street lighting and vaccinations, but held on to the French fiscal system. King Victor Emmanuel I of Sardinia brought back old-fashioned breeches and wigs to his court, but simply gave the French Gendarmerie a new name. As Zamoyski writes, “Principles crumbled before convenience.”

    A similar spirit characterized the Congress of Vienna, the entity charged with reconstituting the European order after Napoleon’s defeat. The Congress also established a pattern of paranoia that European elites repeated over the next three decades; its iterations form the bulk of Zamoyski’s book. As with the Italians, the diplomats at Vienna chose which features of the old regime to restore; liberals criticized the body as much as conservatives. The conservative philosopher Joseph de Maistre argued that the powers at Vienna had “clearly allowed themselves to be penetrated by the philosophical and political ideas of the age.” To such critics, the Revolution had been not just a reshuffling of the political order, but “a word that epitomized […] a living force, a giant conspiracy on the move.” Zamoyski writes:

    Those who shared [Maistre’s] views saw the Revolution not so much as a past event, but as the beginning of a new era in the struggle between good and evil. If the Revolution which had had such a devastating impact on people all over the world had indeed been brought about by a conspiracy, the danger was by no means past. The conspiracy could not have merely petered out, and its spirit could not have been extinguished by the military victory over Napoleon.

    This conspiratorial view might have remained a marginal one were it not for the apocalyptic ratification of the Hundred Days, the period in which Napoleon briefly returned to power. In one of my favorite arguments of the book, Zamoyski writes that Napoleon’s escape from Elba and the coup d’etat that followed should not be viewed as a mere imperial death rattle, but as an event that completely changed the political calculus of Europe’s rulers for the next three decades.

    The Congress of Vienna was still meeting as Bonaparte captured Paris. No one knew what to think of such an unexpected event, but Zamoyski implies that reconciliation with Napoleon as monarch of France was a real possibility. Talleyrand, the minister representing the restored French monarchy at Vienna, knew that in such an event his goose would be cooked. So he persuaded the representatives of the various powers to declare Napoleon “outside the law” and “outside the human race.” Zamoyski argues that this was a new development: “a political excommunication by a group of powers of not just an individual, but of all he stood for and all those who supported it.” Such tactics were thought necessary because Napoleon’s return “had been clear proof that the forces of revolution were still rampant, and that those who had supported him must be extirpated.”

    The system of international governance initiated at Vienna was known as the Concert of Europe. Though it grew out of the treaties signed after Napoleon’s defeat, in practice it was sustained by the coordinated action of the Congress’s primary actors — the most politically powerful conservative scions of each nation involved. These esteemed characters maintained the system through formal diplomatic activities like summits, but also through informal correspondence and backroom deals.

    The documents they left behind form the basis of the boring old names-and-dates European history we learn in school. Zamoyski intentionally reads these texts for attitudes and beliefs, synthesizing them into something new — not a traditional tale of armies and diplomats, but an account of fearful, frenzied elites who lived in constant terror of the continent they ruled.

    Tsar Alexander I, for example, is the model irrational sovereign, who, from the start of his rule in 1801, based his policy on totally interwoven notions of personal destiny, eschatological reckoning, and quixotic international schemes. It was Alexander who pushed the other powers to agree to a post-war settlement that was about something bigger than politics: the “Holy Alliance,” a personal pact among European monarchs to defend Christianity. Historians have argued over the Alliance’s ultimate significance to international relations (if any); Zamoyski gives us a sense of how Alexander saw it personally, and how his devotion to this ideal shaped his policy. Through such a lens, some of Alexander’s cockamamie plans (like a pan-European military expedition to put down the Bolivarian revolutions in South America) just seem like part of the furniture. The right work of history can do that.


    The Congress of Vienna did not produce the kinds of formal international institutions that Alexander hoped would defend Europe’s altars and thrones. In actuality, the vast majority of such activity was coordinated by a one-man institution: Klemens von Metternich.

    More than a mere diplomat or politician, Metternich and his machinations formed the fulcrum of European policy in the post-Napoleonic period. From his perches as foreign minister and then as chancellor of Austria, he counseled and cajoled the leaders of Europe. If you do not imagine you will enjoy reading about Metternich — his strategems, his schemes, his dalliances — then this is not the book for you. While they manifested in the many other ministers and monarchs Zamoyski examines, the beliefs that structured this period’s politics are most evident in the mind of Metternich.

    Chief among these beliefs was the idea that the French Revolution — and all subsequent political developments that remotely resembled it — were part of an international conspiracy. Metternich saw protest actions and reform movements contemporary to the Revolution in other countries; as described by Zamoyski, the vast majority of these had much more modest aims than the wholesale remaking of society. Britain, for example, experienced unrest in response to the mechanization of labor as well as more polite pushes for constitutional change. But almost no one of any social class sought the abolition of the monarchy, the Church of England, or other key institutions of the British state.

    Nevertheless, conservative leading lights were more than willing to stitch these developments together into a single revolutionary threat. In his Letters on a Regicide Peace, written in 1796, Edmund Burke argued that the Jacobins of France and activist movements at home were both England’s enemies. Zamoyski explains: “[Burke] lamented that ‘our constitution is not made for this kind of warfare.’ ‘It provides greatly for our happiness, it furnishes few means for our defence,’ he wrote, revealing a surprising lack of faith in democracy’s ability to defend itself by standing by its own values.”

    Other conservatives were more cynical; as Zamoyski describes, the government of William Pitt used the Alien Acts and other means to clamp down on constitutional reformers, religious dissenters, and simple political enemies. Similar abuses of power continued through the Napoleonic Wars and the immediate period afterward.

    Metternich monitored such developments throughout Europe with alternating approval and alarm. In a typical instance, he wrote the British Cabinet in 1817, congratulating them on their suppression of an allegedly revolutionary attempt to seize the Tower of London. (In point of fact, Zamoyski writes, this had been a farcical affair in which a few malcontents peeled off from a more moderate reform gathering — the government greatly stretched the truth to make it seem like incipient revolution.)

    But the Austrian was not content. He warned the British government that equally dangerous plots were brewing in Brussels and the Netherlands. Zamoyski makes clear that in international gatherings and in diplomatic correspondence, Metternich always kept his colleagues’ eyes on the next international threat.

    The key conspiracy theory that held these beliefs together was the idea that some central but secret body was coordinating rebellions throughout Europe. This notion had some plausibility when the powers were at war with France; suspicion variously fell on French agents, refugees, and prisoners of war. After the Hundred Days, Napoleon became the bugaboo; rumors of his reappearance could rouse both rebellion and repression. But the main character of this shadow play was the “comité directeur,” a cabal that supposedly orchestrated revolutionary action from Paris even after the Restoration.

    Zamoyski argues at length that the comité directeur did not actually exist — certainly no radical body used that name with any consistency, much less pursued such an ambitious mission. But in the mind of Metternich and his counterparts in the Concert, its power was unlimited. In one example that could very well have been plucked from any year of the period Zamoyski covers, Metternich noted with suspicion that on the same day as a massive gathering celebrating the distinctiveness of German culture (viewed as a proxy for a change in Germany’s political arrangements), German exiles in Paris held a banquet where the Marquis de Lafayette (hero of the American Revolution) served as a guest of honor.

    This was taken as proof that the events in Germany had been planned in France. “Everything is connected and can be identified as the attempt at a European revolution,” he wrote to one colleague — while admitting to another shortly thereafter that he was thrilled to have something he could use to frighten Germany’s rulers. On another occasion, he wrote, “I aim to destroy the German revolution, just as I vanquished the conqueror of the world.” The idea of such an eternal enemy seems to have been essential to both Metternich’s personal and political identity.

    While the comité directeur had no real substance, there is every reason to believe that Metternich and his colleagues truly feared it. For example, Tsar Alexander dithered over whether Russia should aid in the fight for Greek independence, because even though the Greeks were fellow Orthodox Christians, he believed the comité was playing a role in the rebellion — what else would explain the interest in the Greek cause from thousands of idealistic Europeans like Lord Byron? The tsar inferred that the comité’s purpose was clearly to distract Russia as they prepared plans for a broader revolution.

    European political developments with some basis in reality were consistently twisted to conform with the conspiracy. The connecting thread was often a tale of some secret society like the Freemasons or Illuminati (whose leadership was often imagined to be coterminous with the comité). From the opening shots of the Revolution, conspiracy theorists suspected that secret societies must have been at the root of it. Long before Alexandre Dumas drew on this legend in his fiction, the former Jesuit Abbé Augustin Barruel told an airtight tale of how the Revolution was the result of an Illuminati plot launched generations before. Zamoyski notes that not only was Barruel’s book a bestseller for decades, but many European leaders were influenced by its ideas.

    Barruel’s account seems to have been based on no real evidence. But unlike the comité directeur, secret societies like the Freemasons and Illuminati were real — even if their reputations have always had far greater influence than the organizations themselves. This mythological power influenced the way European leaders viewed any organization the state did not directly control. Metternich railed against the age’s “spirit of association,” viewing German cultural groups as revolutionary cells, and even discouraging book clubs; his police chief warned that “people would read and read until they became murderers.” In Italy and Russia, when discontent from various military sects boiled over into rebellion, the associational import of these groups was vastly overestimated. Soon other governments were rooting around for allies of the Carbonarists or the Decembrists — groups that barely knew what they stood for themselves.

    Perhaps the strangest of these imagined international networks involved the Poles. The period of the Revolution also saw the effective end of Poland as an independent nation until World War I. Large slices of the country had already been peeled off by Prussia, Austria, and Russia earlier in the 18th century. In 1791, the reduced Polish state passed a reformist yet still relatively conservative constitution — the document enshrined Catholicism as the religion of the land and bore the pope’s blessing. But Russia would have none of this creeping republicanism, and sent in its armies to restore the old order. The constitutionalists fled abroad; their efforts at reform eventually sparked another rebellion, led by Tadeusz Kościuszko in 1794.

    The Russians crushed this revolt as well, and with it any notion of an independent Poland. The Congress of Vienna acknowledged a nominally independent Kingdom of Poland within the Russian Empire, but even this proved too much. After an insurrection in 1831, the country was formally incorporated into Russia.

    Each of these events launched a new wave of Polish refugees throughout Europe. Naturally, many of these people continued to work for the liberation of their homeland and found affinity with others working for reform. When émigrés began streaming through Germany, a Prussian officer stationed in Mainz observed, “It seemed to be an affair of honour with the Mayence citizens not to suffer a sober Pole in their city.”

    But Metternich and other European leaders could only imagine the Poles as shock troops for the comité directeur or some other mysterious outfit. “The underground activity which the political émigrés and the sects never tire of carrying on against legitimate governments obliges them to extend their surveillance far beyond their own borders if they wish to avoid the risk of being taken unawares,” the Austrian wrote to his Russian ambassador in 1837, in a weird projection of his own methods on to others. According to the chancellor, a Polish “Cosmopolitan Society” based in London was planning new rebellions in Poland, Germany, and Italy. But as Zamoyski writes, “Research by historians has so far failed to find any trace of the existence of such a body, but its existence was real enough for Metternich.”

    Every current event presented itself to Metternich as an obstacle to his dream of a continental order. But in Zamoyski’s telling, this order was a nightmare. “[T]he pursuit of ‘order,’” he writes, “was to become a self-defeating quest that would transform European societies and help to mould the modern state.”


    That Zamoyski could compile just the right evidence for this kind of a book is a testament to his scholarship. When it comes to this sort of diplomatic history, even a skeptical historian tends to lend the statements of leaders about their own policy decisions a certain kind of legitimacy. The minister or monarch may have been wrong about the events of the moment, but there’s a general expectation that each one was playing some kind of rational game. For Zamoyski to argue that empty-headed paranoia was genuinely driving the masters of Europe requires a confidence that comes only from having written about this subject from many different angles over many years, as he has.

    A similarly pleasing consequence of Zamoyski’s confidence and experience is his narrative authority. Any number of books about 19th-century Europe are organized geographically or chronologically, often reproducing the organizing principles of the period’s politics or simply putting the reader to sleep. Instead, Zamoyski chooses as chapter titles moments and themes that continuously refresh the originality of his narrative. (Chapter 19, for example, is “The Duke of Texas,” a title given to Metternich for his assistance in suppressing a rebellion in Spain.) In this author’s hands, the interminable international congresses that formed the basis of the Congress are reinterpreted as crucibles for the various leaders’ hopes and fears, both personal and political. Details about the nasty weather at a summit venue or the sexual proclivities of Metternich and Wellington are combined in a way that is always enlightening, never unnecessary or salacious.

    A scholarly, ambitious, entertaining work of history need not prove its contemporary relevance. Throughout Phantom Terror, however, Zamoyski hints at how understanding the paranoia of 19th-century Europe ought to inform our view of later history or our own times. Near the end of the book, for instance, he writes, “There had never been any great conspiracy or any comité directeur — but the forces of repression had been given a golden opportunity to consolidate, and the police were there to stay.”

    But what specific conclusions are we meant to draw about “the police” from this period? Which police do we even mean? The surveillance regimes managed by Metternich and the tsars are clearly important predecessors to the Gestapo, the KGB, and the Stasi. But Phantom Terror also includes the creation of London’s Metropolitan Police, a far more respectable force in any era. Without a theory of what the police are and how they relate to the nature of the state, these kinds of claims are difficult to evaluate.

    Zamoyski’s book is more clearly significant for the history of intelligence. As in any era, much of the work of surveillance regimes ends up being self-referential, wasteful, or absurd. Phantom Terror contains too many stories of false reports and agents provocateur to count — they might seem funny if our own intelligence services didn’t commit so many similar misadventures today. Intelligence functions instituted to look after our collective security end up being repurposed in ways that are alternately petty and perilous; their offspring, from the House Un-American Activities Committee to the continuing stain of Guantánamo, remain with us. Phantom Terror doesn’t add any new analytical angle to this story, but it does remind us that it is an older and more persistent feature of the state than one might imagine.

    One important takeaway from this book is a new way at looking at the divergence between Western and Eastern Europe. Immediately after Waterloo, all of Europe was more or less committed to the kind of moral and political order articulated at Vienna. But over the period Zamoyski covers, Western European countries diverged from that order in notable ways. British governments expanded suffrage and liberalized the economy. France eventually saw another revolution, but the regime brought in by the “July Days” was a moderate constitutional monarchy that mainly looked after the interests of the bourgeoisie. Zamoyski notes that in the 1830s, guarantees of political asylum became the norm in Britain, Belgium, and France; by contrast, in 1834 Austria and Russia signed a convention on extradition and heightened coordination between their police forces.

    This version of events seems to deliver the liberal Western Europe we know — yet because Zamoyski is tracking themes of fear and surveillance, it is difficult not to see the evolving Western regimes as merely more efficient ways to maintain the order Metternich desired. For instance, the July Monarchy in France appointed as prefect of police Henri Gisquet, a banker and liberal activist. Zamoyski writes of Gisquet, “He firmly believed that he was not dealing with an organized conspiracy, merely a number of identifiable interest groups which needed to be confronted and disabled by various means.” The spy networks Metternich cultivated tended to exaggerate all threats; the new French police downplayed their revolutionary significance as an aspect of their management of public opinion. Assessing the threat of conspiracies in the army, the police functionary Lucien de La Hodde wrote: “The troops supposedly gangrened by the democrats consisted of a handful of ignorant or drunken soldiers easily indoctrinated with a few fine phrases and some glasses of wine.”

    In some sense, the regime had come to understand that revolutionary rhetoric was an easily managed aspect of the modern world. In one of the book’s best stories, Zamoyski explains how this sensibility had seeped into the French royal family itself:

    The extent to which people had learned to live with the riots is well illustrated by the behaviour of the heir to the throne, the duc d’Orléans, when he was caught up in one while on a mission of gallantry. He was busily engaged with a young lady in her humble lodgings in the rue Tiquetonne, situated in the poor Mouffetard quarter, when he heard distant sounds of riot, followed by the roll of drums and the crackle of gunfire. The sounds grew louder, and soon the street was filled with people tearing up cobblestones and overturning carts in order to build a barricade. He put on his clothes — he had dressed in a manner appropriate to the area he was visiting — kissed the young lady goodbye and went down into the street, where he lent a hand with the building of the barricade. Choosing a moment when nobody was looking to slip over it, he made his escape, and an hour later he was on horseback in full uniform directing the troops storming it.

    Revolution was a game even princes could play.

    Meanwhile, while Metternich and friends were still chasing after the mysterious comité directeur, a very real international network for change was forming in London. After his exile from Italy, the city became the home of the Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini. More than any other thinker of his day, Mazzini argued that free and independent nation-states should be the foundation of international order. His primary concern was the unification of Italy, which had long been divided into a number of smaller political units that other European powers often controlled. But in addition to his own “Young Italy” group, in the 1840s Mazzini encouraged the development of “Young Germany,” “Young Switzerland,” “Young Poland,” and any number of other movements dedicated to the nationalist idea. (They even amalgamated under the umbrella organization “Young Europe” and were eventually imitated by the infamous “Young Turks.”)

    That the nation-state exists for the sake of a culturally or ethnically distinct people was perhaps the most influential idea to emerge from the 19th century. This model runs through Woodrow Wilson’s Points for Peace, through Mein Kampf, and into the separatist movements of Europe today. The concept and its corollaries so changed the nature of the “modern state” invoked in Zamoyski’s subtitle that it is difficult to relate the surveillance systems of Napoleon and Metternich to those of Hitler or Stalin. I didn’t discern a strong enough theory of the nation-state from Zamoyski to make such connections.

    I don’t want to leave the impression, though, that the lack of such a structuralist conclusion connecting past and present makes Phantom Terror any less satisfying. In a way, I actually found it refreshing. Just as much as we need insights into the nature of the modern international system, we also need historians willing to seek out human themes like hubris and pride or paranoia and fear. Telling those kinds of stories about 19th-century monarchs and ministers can too often feel blasé — an implicit endorsement of the Great Man theory of history, or a game of Risk with footnotes. The theme of paranoia reframes the actions of these figures while also making them more human and accessible. It reminds us that leaders of nations, whether they lived during the Napoleonic Wars or the Cold War or the War on Terror, hold irrational beliefs like anybody else. No matter what you think about the nature of the state, Phantom Terror reminds us that we need a politics that accounts for the failings of human nature, too. That emphasis above all makes Phantom Terror a ghost story worth retelling.


    Andrew Benedict-Nelson is a founder of GreenHouse.


    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!