'Phantom Terror: The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Liberty, 1789-1848', by Adam Zamoyski - Review

By Davenport-Hines, Richard | The Spectator, October 16, 2014 | Go to article overview

'Phantom Terror: The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Liberty, 1789-1848', by Adam Zamoyski - Review


Davenport-Hines, Richard, The Spectator


Phantom Terror: The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Liberty, 1789-1848 Adam Zamoyski

William Collins, pp.569, £30, ISBN: 9780007282760

There are hundreds of resounding ideas and shrewd precepts in Adam Zamoyski's temperate yet splendidly provocative Phantom Terror . This is the history of European ultra-reactionary repression and police espionage in the half-century after the overthrow of the French monarchy in 1789-93. The instability of popular opinion, the destructiveness of angry, ignorant populism and the wretchedness of timid, suppliant leadership are laid bare by him. Yet his deadliest strictures are against the rigid, fear-driven, authoritarian reaction of the propertied classes, which he demonstrates was lethally counter-productive as well as often absurd. Phantom Terror is full of suggestive instances that will set readers thinking about contemporary constitutional quandaries, threatened liberties, hysterics about border security and inflated evaluations of national sovereignty. Although Zamoyski does not hector his readers with explicit modern parallels, his book is a study in timeless statecraft. He upholds individual liberty without making the egalitarian's error that people of unequal abilities should have similar powers and influence.

The French Revolution spread the shibboleth of the sovereignty of the people with almost religious zealotry. The revolutionaries' mass executions, land seizures and continental warfare made their blood-drenched notions detestable to the old guard. Accordingly, from the 1790s, European rulers and ministers enforced counter-measures against insurrectionaries. Some of them believed in the imminent threat of subversion with fanatical sincerity, but others concocted or exaggerated dangers for their cynical administrative convenience. Most of these national insecurities, Zamoyski argues, 'fell into that grey area of self-delusion in which politicians come to believe anything they have invented out of expediency'.

The unnecessary repression of moderate liberalism arrested the development of European societies, more in some countries than others, and entrenched systems of state surveillance and controls over individuals. The estrangement of young people living under the more repressive regimes produced, after 1848, the growth of real terrorist organisations of the sort that the state espionage had been intended to forestall. The repressions of paranoid rulers, Zamoyski shows, brought economic retardation upon the Habsburg empire and cankered national aspirations in Germany, while the state apparatus of the Tsars facilitated the criminal enormities of the Soviets and of Putin. The ultimate consequences of the ill-judged repressions and xenophobia of 1789-1848 were the revolutions, wars and tyrannous regimes that nearly wrecked European civilisation between 1917 and 1989.

George Cruickshank caricatures the 'Radicals' campaigning for parliamentary reform by means of murder, revolution, atheism, debauchery and every other sin known to man

Undercover agents earned their pay and proved their zeal by inciting mischief, by entrapment, by inventing or inflating evidence of sedition, and by conjuring plots which justified governments in engrossing more powers. The police in Toulouse, for example, manipulated rises in grain prices so as to provoke unrest which they could repress. The low-grade corruption of spies and informers was a unifying factor throughout Europe. Their tittle-tattle was magnified into fantasies of murderous conspiracies hatched by an ever-evolving underworld of hidden enemies. Voluminous dossiers on political suspects were compiled from often worthless sources. All this created a bureaucracy of self-important, blustering ineptitude.

This system of secret policing instilled, Zamoyski argues, a mistaken view of politics and society as 'a permanent conflict between the privileged and the under-privileged' rather than an adjustable balance of discordant interests. …

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