People raided the Bastille’s records, taking documents; one person wrote, “There I discovered horrors that would make the most ruthless of men shudder. […] I discovered the depository of the greatest number of plots inside the Bastille itself.” When the bones were discovered, the leaders of the new revolutionary government had them collected and staged an elaborate public funeral for the unknown dead, supposedly victims of a secretive, ruthless network of elites who would do anything to maintain their stranglehold on power and keep the public in the dark. There were any number of more mundane reasons for bodies being buried on-site in a prison in 18th-century France, but a story of government conspiracy and corruption was impossible to resist in the climate of revolution.
In my new book Tracing the Shadow of Secrecy and Government Transparency in Eighteenth-Century France (2022), I excavate the origins of our modern understandings of secrecy and transparency in the political culture of the French Revolution, showing the strange connections between conspiracy theories and nationalism. This era was one of intense political polarization when paranoia about conspiracies was at a fever pitch—an era eerily similar to our own. This was also a time when many were prepared to—and in fact did—use violence against those they believed to be conspirators. Reading the pamphlets and newspapers of the time, one could easily mistake them for the QAnon message boards or the social media posts that spread the Pizzagate conspiracy, theories that are still alive and well both in the United States and abroad.
Among the participants in the actual (if failed) political conspiracy that took place just last December in Germany, several were believers in QAnon, convinced that “deep state” operatives had infiltrated the German government. Arrests have been made across Germany and in other European countries, with authorities discovering a paramilitary wing of the extremist group. Many of the elements of these contemporary conspiracy theories are precisely the same as the 18th-century versions: as part of a vast, powerful network, nefarious and sinister elites, emplaced in the government but pulling the strings from the shadows, are committing heinous acts such as Satanism and child abuse, in addition to using code names, hidden messages, secret sites of collaboration, and, of course, duplicity and false patriotism. For those trying to understand today’s divisive politics, and the rationale of people who believe in conspiracy theories, the history of the French Revolution might offer some surprising answers.
Many of the most radical revolutionaries of the time possessed an abiding obsession with conspiracy theories. Napoleon Bonaparte justified his dictatorial seizure of power by claiming that secret cabals of “anarchists” were plotting the ruin of the nation, and only he could provide law and order. He had in fact come to power through a conspiracy of his own, halting any democratic processes. But by then, conspiracy theories carried serious political weight, and many were prepared to believe him.
Political plots, real and imagined, existed in the premodern world, but conspiracy theories as we know them are distinctly modern because they emerged along with the modern public sphere and nationalism, both products of the Enlightenment and the revolutionary era of the 18th century. Paranoia and the unswerving belief in the secret, sinister dealings of cabals and shadowy networks were hallmarks of the left-wing worldview in the revolutionary period, but people across the political spectrum soon became conspiracy theorists. Many of those who believed in conspiracy theories did not lack intelligence or a familiarity with facts or empirical reality. The explanation for their beliefs in the face of little or no evidence lies not in the nature of their relationship to reality but in their political culture. When the French Revolution broke out, transparency, aversion to secrecy, and vigilance and mistrust of government entities were core values. The government was forced to lift censorship, and hundreds of newspapers mushroomed into existence. Suddenly, the reading public had any number of news outlets that could shape or reaffirm their ideologies. Journalists began to operate in an increasingly Manichaean environment of good versus evil, us versus them. Revolutionaries sometimes vilified and even dehumanized their opponents in the political pamphlets and newspapers of the day.
The French Revolution, along with giving us the political terminology of left versus right, also arguably invented doxxing. The fiery journalist Jean-Paul Marat, who advocated total transparency, often published, in his newspaper The Friend of the People, the home addresses of those he deemed secretly counterrevolutionary or unpatriotic, and his devoted readers would sometimes violently harass his targeted victims. Marat believed that “tyranny sharpens its sword in darkness” and that a free press helped prevent secret government abuses, keeping the state accountable to its citizens. He also, however, made baseless claims and accusations at times, usually of conspiracies and plots against the revolution. Once, Marat wrote to the famous Jacobin Maximilien Robespierre, declaring that they needed five or six hundred beheadings of false patriots to ensure the continued success of the revolution. Robespierre, a radical himself, was bewildered and asked how he had come by that number. Marat could not give a satisfactory answer.
His readers, though, who preferred his radical stance to those of more moderate newspapers, were usually inclined to believe him even with little or no evidence. “[P]lots against the nation are always concocted in darkness,” wrote Marat, and “since princes call no witnesses […] and since they rarely sign their [secret orders], it should be permitted to denounce them on the slightest evidence.” Like Marat’s readers, most French people of the time received their news and current events through the filter of whichever ideology their favorite newspaper presented. (Marat met his end when one of his enemies, a woman named Charlotte Corday, stabbed him to death. She gained entry to his home by claiming that she had knowledge of a conspiracy.)
In addition to being fueled by these conspiracy theories, the political culture of the French Revolution would not have been possible without nascent nationalism. Nationalism is both a political project and a powerful ideology that emerged in the 18th century, at least in the West, and the revolution was one of its major catalysts or crucibles. Nationalism is predicated on contrasts and differences: those who belong versus those from outside, the attributes of the nation versus the attributes of the foreign “other.” In my book, I consider the revolutionary era as a nursery of modernity, partly because of the emergence of nationalism as a driving ideological force that would dominate the coming centuries, sometimes with spectacularly violent results. If we think of the modern world as the child of revolution, we could also imagine the revolutionaries as blood-stained midwives presiding over a difficult and painful birth.
Rather than seeing themselves primarily as members of a family, town, or religious community, revolutionaries forged an identity as citizens of a nation and sought to impose that identity on others, even those little inclined to put aside more traditional ways of relating to the world. Nationalists might occasionally support democracy, but they do not allow a choice in belonging apart from “in” or “out.” Sometimes, the choice is made for you. Many of the German conspirators mentioned above were influenced by the Reichsbürger movement, which is driven by a far-right nationalist agenda and seeks to exclude certain groups from German citizenship.
On top of the demand for radical transparency and the tendency to view situations in black and white, the power of nationalism encouraged citizens to argue that political opponents did not in fact belong, that there were “inner” enemies just as terrible as foreign ones, and enemies were not to be reasoned with but annihilated. A few days after the storming of the US Capitol in January 2021, Darryl Knappen, a pastor who denied Trump’s election loss, declared on Facebook: “There is a need in every one of our localities to have individuals, patriots, who are ready to arm up and be part of a citizen militia to protect our freedoms.” Lack of trust in institutions led people to believe that these enemies—often members of an elite, supposedly hidden within the government or other centers of power—could band together and work in secret.
This lack of trust in the political order led many to grasp at anything that could provide an explanation for economic hardship, political instability, or the alleged unreliability of traditional authority figures. For example, hysteria broke out in Paris in the 1750s when many people became convinced that elites were kidnapping children in order to perform unspeakable acts upon them. Riots broke out, and calm was restored only after the violent lynching of a supposed child kidnapper.
Similarly, just before the revolution, government ministers experimented with a form of free-market economics, lifting price ceilings on grain. This change led to skyrocketing prices and bread riots, with many seeing the price changes as the result not of a fluctuating, unstable market but rather of a conspiracy. With little understanding of economic processes, they found it easier to believe that a clique of wealthy elites was hoarding grain in order to drive up prices and then planning to sell everything when the poor were most desperate, indifferent to the suffering they would cause. When the revolution began, two officials working for the finance ministry were killed by a crowd—two of the many murders of supposed conspirators committed in the streets in broad daylight. Like many victims of the French Revolution, their heads were severed, placed on pikes, and paraded through the streets.
A theory of a wide but hidden network of nefarious elites working in the shadows might sound far-fetched, given how conspiracy theorists often claim that the supposed network has insinuated itself into every sector of society. Believing in a vast and sophisticated network of conspirators, however, offers a more comforting alternative to the idea of simple chaos. Today, as then, many would rather imagine the unlikely prospect of a wide and deep conspiracy than face the uncertainty and discomfort of a chaotic political environment for which no one can provide a convincing explanation.
Nicole Bauer (Twitter: @NBauerHistory) is assistant professor of European history at the University of Tulsa. Her new book is Tracing the Shadow of Secrecy and Government Transparency in Eighteenth-Century France (2022).