Book Review: Phantom Terror
by Adam Zamoyski
Basic Books, 2015
Adam Zamoyski’s new book Phantom Terror hinges on the enormous upheavals experienced by almost all of the Western world as a result of the linked and eruptions of chaos and violence of the French Revolution and the tyranny of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the book’s smartest move – a gambit common to all Zamoyski’s books – is the delving of intangible levels to the subject, not just the marching of armies and the speeches of statesmen. There’s an abundance of contemporary evidence to construct such such a deeper inquiry, and Zamoyski has mastered the art of putting his readers as close to the thinking minds of his historical subjects as they’re ever likely to get. He’s particularly good at doing this for what we call the Napoleonic era; his 2004 book Moscow 1812 and his 2007 book Rites of Peace are masterpieces of historical insight, and Phantom Terror continues that happy pattern by digging into moods and atmospheres.
In this case he’s examining not just the upheavals of the Revolution and the Revolution’s most notorious son but psychological resonances of those events, as captured in a letter Zamoyski quotes from the London Times shortly before the Battle of Waterloo:
It is not Bonaparte that at present forms the danger of Europe; he is unmasked. It is the new opinions; it is the disorganization of men’s minds; it is the making revolt a calculation of private interest; it is the most deadly of all contagions, the contagion of immorality, of false philanthropy, of a perfidious self-styled philosophy; from all of which the world requires to be protected. This is the true hydra which must be destroyed, or it will destroy all Europe.
Zamoyski’s real subjects here are paranoia and the boiling frustration it produces. He traces the nervousness with which governments watched events in France and the ways they used those events to justify cracking down on the civil liberties of their people in the half-century between the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 and the outbreak of widespread European revolutions in 1848. Through his narrative, we look over the shoulder of people far from the epicenter of Paris and see the social pressures felt by ordinary people as a result of the worry of their rulers. “Give my regards to all my friends, but tell them not to write to me,” warns a diplomat and biographer to his publisher from Berlin, “for it would be critical under present circumstances when every word can be interpreted in a bad sense; paper is nowadays an evil treasure, at any moment it may become a red-hot coal.”
That evil treasure is at the heart of Zamoyski’s thought-provoking book, driving governments to impose censorship and extensive surveillance of their own citizens – with as little discrimination or honor as was observed in similar circumstances during the reign of the Flavians in ancient Rome. Some of Zamoyski’s descriptions could have come from the notebooks of Tacitus:
Information pouring in to the Third Section was not filtered in any way. A wild accusation or a report that proved to be entirely fictitious did not lead to the reprimanding, let alone punishment, of the agent concerned. Informers were not confronted with the accused, and their word carried greater weight. This lack of answerability was complemented by a disregard for judicial procedures: people could be arrested, sometimes in the middle of the nigh or on the street, imprisoned for varying lengths of time, and then released without ever being the wiser as to why.
The miasma of surveillance and suspicion that Zamoyski chronicles seeps into all levels of society and creates anxieties that harden into theories and persecutions, a hard mass of suspicion and paranoia that fitted out even the most intelligent agents on the international stage with a pessimism so deep-seated that it sees its enemies everywhere, as when acerbic Austrian diplomat Metternich watched events unfolding in Italy and automatically linked them to a larger picture:
Metternich felt that his theory of universal conspiracy was being fully vindicated. ‘There is not one event taking place these days whose origin and provenance cannot be easily identified, and the centre of the action can everywhere be traced,’ he almost crowed in October. ‘The revolution in Modena is no isolated event,’ he wrote in February 1831, ‘it is an episode of the vast conspiracy which embraces the whole of Italy …’
Metternich is in many ways the star of Zamoyski’s book, and his frequent allusions to the “enemies of order” speaks directly to “phantom terrors” of the book’s title, terrors that became very real to the generation whose parents’ world had been torn apart by revolution and counter-revolution. That generation lived in a corseted world of professional informants and communication blackouts and wide-scale economic oppression, and Zamoyski brings his gripping account right to the moments when those forces came to fruition – and he points to the resultingly beefed up police-state mind frame that then became a staple of all subsequent societies, free or otherwise. Readers familiar with state-promulgated phantom terrors – and which readers in 2015 are not? – will read Zamoyski’s book with a kind of appalled fascination.