How Conspiracy Theories Take Off
Climate of fear: The assassination of Charles Ferdinand, Duke of Berry, 1920 (image: RA/Lebrecht Music & Arts)
This book is both very enjoyable and timely. Elegantly written, its subject matter is the response of governments across Europe to the violent eruption of the French Revolution and its aftermath. Its central argument is a simple one: the widespread fear that there were dark forces intent on undermining the entire social and political order was "to some extent kept alive by the governments of the day" and "facilitated the introduction of new methods of control and repression".
Adam Zamoyski's conclusion is equally straightforward: in Britain, the Habsburg monarchy, Prussia, Russia, and elsewhere, governments "consistently misled and repressed those they governed, invoking a threat they failed to substantiate". They did so largely because political leaders and heads of state, through self-delusion, came to believe the things they had "invented out of expediency".
Whatever the reason, the damage was done. The "unnecessary repression of moderate liberal tendencies", Zamoyski tells us, "arrested the natural development of European society . . . and helped to create a culture of control of the individual by the state".
In the worst cases, Zamoyski further contends, repression led to the alienation of generations of young people, resulting in the "growth of real terrorist movements" in later years. In Austria, the perceived need to defeat a grand conspiracy put a break on all economic development and effectively bankrupted the state. In Russia, not only were intellectuals driven into moral and artistic, and subsequently violent, opposition, but the repressive instruments of the Tsarist regime formed the basis of the Soviet model of control. As for Germany, repression of the legitimate expression of national aspirations fuelled an embittered and increasingly aggressive subculture "with disastrous consequences for the whole world in the twentieth century".
In short, if Zamoyski is to be believed, when it comes to the near-destruction of European civilisation, it is a clear case of la faute à Metternich.
But did the leaders of Europe's governments really get it that wrong?
One thing that has to be remembered is that at the time no one quite knew where the tumultuous events of the French Revolution had come from or where they would lead. By general agreement — and as the recent writings on the Enlightenment by Jonathan Israel have sought to re-establish — there was a close causal connection between the progressive ideas of the 18th century and what was occurring in revolutionary France. If at first these events were met with enthusiastic approval by the more advanced sections of the European public, when things started to go wrong, as they did pretty quickly, it was also only natural that blame was placed precisely upon those progressive ideas and their propagators.