How a clumsy drummer started the 1848 revolutions

18 October 2014 9:00 AM

Students at the Wartburg festival in October 1817, celebrating the tercentenary of the Reformation and the fourth anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig, cause panic in the courts of Europe

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. It created a false paradigm of ‘the rich and influential ensconced in their citadels besieged by a violent, anarchic mass of the poor and deprived, led by mad-dog terrorists bent on overturning the social order’. This fear of lawless mobs endangering privileges has bedevilled Europe ever since, and the United States for the last century.

Zamoyski is perceptive and often amusing about the awkward alliances between intelligentsia and inarticulate riff-raff. The idiocies of the die-hards were only slightly less odious than the gullibility and violence of the ignorant: the King of Sardinia had all the plants in the botanical gardens uprooted and burnt because he thought such scientific pleasances were a corrupting idea of the French Enlightenment. The dominant villain in Phantom Terror is the Austrian foreign minister, Prince Metternich, a figure of superbly miserable pessimism and ceaseless reactionary vigilance, who called himself ‘the great minister of police of Europe’, and was dedicated to preserving hierarchy, punishing malcontents, divining or exaggerating international conspiracies and quelling reform.

A German cartoon of December 1848 satirises the rulers’ views of the events of that year

Phantom Terror is full of arresting details and sharp asides. We learn that Lord Sidmouth, the 19th-century prime minister and home secretary, never went north of Oxfordshire. Metternich was created Duke of Texas by King Ferdinand VII of Spain. Zamoyski shows that the censorship of theatrical performances and operas was often stricter than that of printed words. He guides us through the paraphernalia and rites of secret confederations, and has fun with the excitable counter-revolutionary lexicon, which evoked volcanoes, tidal waves, earthquakes, whirlwinds, maelstroms, sewers and Satan.

Zamoyski is adept at painterly scene-setting. One vivid paragraph shows the Paris revolution of 1848, which sent King Louis Philippe scurrying into exile and ignited populist insurrections across Europe, as caused by a clumsy bandsman with a big drum. After a day of innocuous, anti-climactic Paris demonstrations, a company of soldiers stationed on a boulevard corner tried to retreat from a rowdy but hardly murderous crowd into the courtyard of the ministry of foreign affairs. They were blocked because the musician carrying the drum got jammed in the porte-cochère of the ministry. As a result some soldiers had to turn and face the crowd, grew rattled, and fired shots that left over 30 dead. The mangled corpses were piled onto a wagon, which was trundled through the streets of Paris by rabble-rousers crying for revenge. It was the drummer, rather than the previous uprisings in Palermo and Naples, and the granting of constitutions in Sicily, Sardinia and Tuscany, that triggered the continent-wide uprisings of 1848.

Phantom Terror is that rare thing among path-breaking historical bestsellers — not too long. Many readers will wish that Germany’s petty kingdoms, principalities and grand duchies, Portugal and the rival dominions of pre-unification Italy could have been covered in more detail. England, France, Russia and the Habsburg empire are handled with a rich amplitude that never palls.

Adam Zamoyski writes like a dancer at a court ball: gracious, patrician, masterful, sure-footed. He chaffs monarchs and ministers with easy familiarity, as if they were family friends. At times he seems to personify, in attractive form, the concept of noblesse oblige. For him it is important to discriminate between coarseness and subtlety, suspicion and trust, lies and truth, quick chances and long views. His disdain for stupidity and meanness, his sympathy for individual hopes rather than mass aspirations, his spirit of magnanimity and the good timing of his stories all make Phantom Terror a thumping great pleasure to read. Zamoyski’s cool scepticism, which uses the anxieties and crises of the past to illuminate some of our contemporary assumptions and obsessions, is history at its best.