How Conspiracy Theories Take Off

Adam Zomoyski’s Phantom Terrors is timely, as well as elegantly written

Books Politics
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.

Zamoyski rightly draws our attention to the Abbé Augustin Barruel’s Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme, published in London in 1797, as one of the first texts to establish the narrative that the French Revolution was a vast conspiracy led by philosophes, freemasons and other assorted impious sects intent upon nothing less than overturning the twin pillars of throne and altar. As the Jesuit Barruel wrote, the “frightful crimes” of the Revolution were “foreseen, premeditated, calculated, resolved, decreed”. Moreover, the scale of the conspiracy (Barruel estimated somewhere in the region of 300,000 active leaders and more than two million followers) was such that it could be expected to spread across Europe if immediate action was not taken against it.

Zamoyski does not mention that one of the people most impressed by Barruel’s argument was Edmund Burke but he does remark that Burke’s diatribes against the Revolution rapidly degenerated into “hysterical rants”. He also tells us that the arch-reactionary Joseph de Maistre was quick to establish the satanic character of the Revolution. This, Maistre wrote, distinguished it “from everything we have seen and perhaps from everything we will ever see”.

Fear of French subversion, in other words, was very real and widespread. In Britain, Pitt introduced an Aliens Act, suspended the Habeas Corpus Act and hounded the London Corresponding Society into submission. In Austria censorship was extended, religious instruction was brought back into the school curriculum and foreigners were placed under surveillance. What followed was a “war of terror” both at home and abroad, despite the fact, in Zamoyski’s words, that there was almost no evidence to support “the alleged threat of revolution”.

Here is Zamoyski’s sombre description of where Europe stood only a matter of a few years after Louis XVI’s execution: “Almost every state in Europe built up intelligence gathering networks and the surveillance of individuals to unheard-of levels, introduced or expanded the use of informers, spies and even agents provocateurs, encouraged denunciation, made use of dishonest propaganda, branded those it did not like as ‘enemies of the state’, tarred them with the brush of ‘immorality’, and repeatedly tried to use legal processes for political means.”  What existed, Zamoyski writes, quoting a contemporary source, was a form of “government by alarm”.

What is more, in Zamoyski’s view, the politics of repression continued long after any real threat of revolutionary contagion had subsided. In the eyes of Europe’s rulers, beneath a surface of apparent calm lay a seething mass of crazed revolutionaries bent on destruction and murder, the very lack of evidence of their existence only strengthening these suspicions. Somewhere — probably in Paris, the imagined epicentre of revolution and fount of all evil — there was hidden a secret central committee directing and planning a universal conspiracy against the established order. In an age characterised by the moral pollution of Europe’s population, Christian civilisation had to be preserved, and by military intervention abroad if necessary.

And of course Metternich’s Austria and the Russia of Tsar Alexander I were to play a leading role. Little of this was without its humorous elements. If the actions of the Tsar were increasingly driven by a deranged religious and nationalist mysticism, the ever-watchful Metternich rarely missed an opportunity to organise an international conference that might bring his mistress, the Countess (later Princess) Dorothea Lieven, to town. Being honoured with the title of the Duke of Texas by King Ferdinand of Spain no doubt made up for the many dull evenings he spent masterminding counter-revolution.

As for the numerous censors employed by Metternich, they seem to have been largely either stupid or lazy (or, sometimes, simply paranoid). Books were banned for no apparent reason and the list was truly extensive, including works by Bunyan, Disraeli, Walter Scott, Balzac, Fenimore Cooper, and many more. The press was not allowed even to use the word “constitution”. Expensive collected editions of banned works published abroad escaped suppression on the grounds that only the aristocracy could afford them and they, if no one else, could be trusted not to ferment revolution. Erotic literature was scrutinised for lapses of taste (and presumably also for less wholesome reasons). In Italy Rossini’s opera Guillaume Tell could only be performed once it had been reworked and set in Scotland under the title Rudolph of Stirling. The crowds must have flocked in.

The vast numbers of agents and spies employed by Metternich and his allies were similarly amateurish and untrustworthy, often relying only upon rumour and hearsay. Many were themselves petty criminals, prostitutes eager to supplement their incomes or down-and-outs needing to pay off their gambling debts. Some were out and out fantasists. Others were seasoned blackmailers. If they had nothing to report, they made it up, and their paymasters rarely seemed to have checked.

Who were they watching? Foreigners, travellers, refugees, political exiles, university academics, the young, Jews, intellectuals and bohemian members of the literati. And, of course, the working class, the urban poor and the marginalised. The strategy was one of blanket surveillance.

Less easy to grasp is Zamoyski’s assessment of the plotters and the revolutionaries. At times, he suggests that the threat of revolution was real but at others he seems to be of the opinion that they were as amateurish and as incompetent as the authorities who watched over them. Between 1837 and 1845, for example, there were no fewer than eight rebellions inspired either directly or indirectly by the Italian nationalist Guiseppe Manzini. All, Zamoyski comments, ended in fiasco and all managed only to swell the ranks of the martyred. Here I am reminded of Jeremiah Brandreth, who led his men out of Derbyshire towards the capture of Nottingham with promises of free beer and trips down the river Trent. 

But for all the amateurism, the duc de Berry was murdered in 1820. King Louis-Philippe of France narrowly escaped assassination in 1835 (his horse was killed). Elements of the Russian army mutinied in December 1825. The Polish people rose up in 1830. In 1831 on the Italian peninsula alone there were risings in Parma, Modena, Bologna and the Papal States. The secret society of the Carbonari did exist, and for all its bizarre rituals, did have members across Europe.

Moreover, in the failed 1795 Conspiration pour l’Égalité conceived by François-Noël (Gracchus) Babeuf, conspirators the world over were provided with a model of revolution that fed their fertile imaginations for decades to come. At a precisely coordinated moment and upon the orders of its central command, the conspiracy’s agents were to draw upon the discontent of the masses and instigate a popular insurrection leading to the establishment of a revolutionary dictatorship. No sooner would insurrection have commenced than the property of the enemies of the people was to be re-distributed. If Marx saw the inadequacies of such a strategy, Lenin and his brethren were to learn much from it.

And, in the end, barricades in Vienna forced even Metternich to bow out and seek refuge in London (taking with him only a few thousand ducats lent him by Salomon Rothschild).

So did not 1848, the year of revolution across Europe, prove that Metternich, Alexander I, the Duke of Wellington, Pope Gregory XVI, and many others, had been right in their estimation of the dangers of civil unrest and revolutionary conspiracy? “When the dust settled,” Zamoyski writes, “it became clear that the events of 1848 had changed nothing much.” Not only this, but for all the dramatic and sometimes violent events of that year, there had been no secret comité directeur issuing orders and no great international plan or strategy. Nor, according to Zamoyski, had there been an attempt to overthrow the social order. Like the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, for the most part the revolutionaries turned up after the event. But the forces of repression and the police remained.

To be fair, Zamoyski resists the temptation to draw parallels with both our own times and our own political leaders but for a post-9/11 readership it is hard for these parallels not to spring to mind. Are we not also told by government that we face not just isolated acts of violence but a global and well-funded conspiracy intent upon the destruction of everything we hold dear? Have we not been subject to hurried and illiberal   anti-terrorism measures introduced out of panic? Reading my copy of the Daily Telegraph I see that MI5 has smashed a British “Isil terror plot”, among fears that jihadists are returning from Syria to carry out beheadings on British streets. The four people arrested are suspected of being in the “early stages” of planning a “significant” attack. I wonder.