Few things age more poorly than hysterical overreaction, and a 19th-century European manifestation with discomfiting contemporary resonance gets mercilessly skewered in Adam Zamoyski’s Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Creation of the Modern State, 1789-1848. Zamoyski doesn’t substantively differ from the long-established historical consensus about this period, which is that the rulers of Europe, panicked by the French Revolution, incited the very uprisings they feared in the post-Napoleonic years by brutally suppressing any expressions of dissent or suggestions for reform. What sets his stimulating book apart is Zamoyski’s focus on “the degree to which the presumed need to safeguard the political and social order facilitated the introduction of new methods of control and repression” that long outlived their 19th-century targets.
Ironically, though both France and Austria had extensive police forces before 1789, it was the French revolutionaries who made explicit use of the police as a political tool to ferret out enemies of the government. Napoleon and his police chief, Joseph Fouché, throttled down the Reign of Terror’s bloody excesses, but their methods of gathering information and imposing order traveled across Europe with the victorious French army. The Congress of Vienna, which in 1815 attempted to turn back the clock to 1788, eliminated many Napoleonic innovations, but not that one.
Although the representatives of Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain gathered in Vienna hated the defeated French emperor, what they really feared were the French Revolution’s ideas about natural rights and popular sovereignty. They weren’t necessarily wrong. Zamoyski has a good time mocking the conviction of Austrian Foreign Minister Klemens von Metternich, principal architect of the Congress of Vienna, that Jacobin regicides lurked on every street corner, but the war that had consumed Europe for a quarter-century did in fact unloose nationalist and democratic aspirations that challenged the conservative restoration of 1815.
During the five years following the Congress, the kings of Naples and Spain were forced by their armies to accept constitutions, England was roiled by mass demonstrations for expansion of the franchise, a member of the Bourbon royal family was assassinated in France, and a German student knifed to death a writer whom nationalists considered “a traitor to the fatherland.” Each of these events had very particular causes, Zamoyski points out, but all were viewed by the overwrought Metternich, Russia’s erratic Tsar Alexander, and a good many other conservatives as proof of a worldwide conspiracy intending nothing less than the destruction of European civilization, overseen from Paris by a sinister comité directeur. Stymieing this nonexistent entity, Metternich believed, required a pan-European police force “on a scale far greater than any that has ever existed.”
Self-serving police chiefs across the continent happily went along with this fantasy. Zamoyski’s scathing assessment of the networks of spies, informers, and agent provocateurs they created is at time darkly hilarious. In France, where police routinely incited people to join fake conspiracies and then arrested them, agents sometimes found themselves entrapping each other. Surveillance in the Austrian empire was so blatant that state censors didn’t bother to properly reseal the letters they opened. Two British parliamentary committee reports claiming to have uncovered a traitorous conspiracy to overthrow the government flourished such specious “evidence” as a rough sketch of a gate declared to be a “plan of the Tower” and a “Supposed Calculation of military force in Cypher” that Zamoyski, who examined these documents, judges “might just as well be a laundry list.”
It’s not funny, however, to learn that parliament suspended habeas corpus shortly after those reports were presented in 1817. Nor that French generals on two occasions stage-managed insurrections that they then suppressed, one with fatalities, in order to obtain promotions. Nor that the Austrians were capable of incarcerating someone without charge for 21 years, until he died in jail. Meanwhile, legitimate complaints were dismissed and reformers were driven to revolution.
After 1830, when the French threw out the autocratic Bourbons in favor of a constitutional monarchy and Belgium revolted against the Kingdom of the Netherlands to become an independent state (also a constitutional monarchy), some of Europe’s saner authorities began to realize that change did not necessarily bring the apocalypse. “I have never yet known a popular revolution that might not be ascribed to provocation on the part of the Government,” wrote English Prime Minister Charles Grey. He proved his point by shepherding through parliament the Reform Act of 1832, beginning Great Britain’s peaceful transition to a more truly representative democracy. The sovereignty of the people was fast becoming the new legitimacy, Metternich’s longtime right-hand man, Friedrich von Gentz, wrote privately in 1832, and Austrian policy was futilely resisting the inevitable: “If I were to write the history of the past fifteen years it would be one long indictment of Metternich.”
Metternich could not in the end stem the tide of nationalism and (limited) constitutionalism that washed over Europe in 1848. No matter: The vast apparatus of surveillance and censorship he fostered to preserve divine-right monarchy proved an equally invaluable tool for 20th-century dictators, whether fascist or communist, and a perennial temptation to democratic governments, whose resort to police-state tactics has thus far been checked once perceived dangers subside—or their existence is discredited.
Elegantly sardonic but also genuinely outraged by the way Europe’s rulers and ministers “consistently misled and repressed those they governed,” Zamoyski seesaws between ridiculing the police and their political masters as blithering incompetents and condemning them as dangerous reactionaries who set terrible precedents. This two-pronged attack occasionally makes him appear disingenuous, or at least self-contradictory, but incompetence can be dangerous, and history can definitely be messy. Zamoyski’s main point is clear and unimpeachable: Generating fear in the populace may be an excellent way to bolster state power, but it’s a lousy substitute for actual information and realistic assessment of the challenges a nation faces. Viewing the world through a preconceived ideological lens frequently leads to disaster—and Metternich was by no means the last politician to do so.