Phantom Terror

Title:                      Phantom Terror

Author:                 Adam Zamoyski

Zamoyski, Adam (2015). Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Creation of the Modern State, 1789-1848. New York: Basic Books

LCCN:    2014949601

D359 .Z36 2015


  • The French Revolution and the blood-curdling violence it engendered terrified the ruling and propertied classes of Europe. Unable to grasp how such horrors could have come about, many concluded that it was the result of a devilish conspiracy hatched by Freemasons inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment with the aim of overthrowing the entire social order, along with the legal and religious principles it stood on. Others traced it back to the Reformation or the Knights Templar and ascribed even more sinister aims to it. Faced by this apparently occult threat, they resorted to repression on an unprecedented scale, expanding police and spy networks in the process. This compelling history, occasionally chilling and often hilarious, tells how the modern state evolved through the expansion of its organs of control, and holds urgent lessons for today.


  • 1. Exorcism — 2. Fear — 3. Contagion — 4. War on Terror — 5. Government by Alarm — 6. Order — 7. Peace — 8. A Hundred Days — 9. Intelligence — 10. British Bogies — 11. Moral Order — 12. Mysticism — 13. Teutomania — 14. Suicide Terrorists — 15. Corrosion — 16. The Empire of Evil — 17. Synagogues of Satan — 18. Comité Directeur — 19. The Duke of Texas — 20. The Apostolate — 21. Mutiny — 22. Cleansing — 23. Counter-Revolution — 24. Jupiter Tonans — 25. Scandals — 26. Sewers — 27. The China of Europe — 28. A Mistake — 29. Polonism — 30. Satan on the Loose.



  • Originally published : Great Britain : William Collins, 2014.

Date Posted:      August 27, 2015

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden.[1]

In the wake of the turbulent French Revolution at the turn of the 18th century, crowns rattled atop nervous royal heads throughout Europe. Was beheading monarchs to become a new continental pastime? Would democratic forces sweep aside regimes whose only claim to “legitimacy” was heritage?

One can quibble with Adam Zamoyski’s use of the word “paranoia” in his subtitle, because the threats facing European royalty were well-founded, and could be ignored only at the rulers’ peril. And let us be realistic: the reflexive response of any established government which is under attack, political or otherwise, is self-preservation, So, at a remove of two hundred years, one finds it difficult to quibble with the monarchs’ attempt at self-.defense.

But that does not equate with defending their methods. And Zamoyski documents, in indisputable detail, a system that relied on bumblers and fumblers, “security: agents” so inept as to make the Keystone Cops look like Sherlock Holmes in comparison. Further, the persons being oppressed often had legitimate economic and political grievances that their rulers would not address.

Perhaps the most repressive system, ironically, was in France, where the revolution had devolved into a de facto police state under Napoleon, with excesses exceeding even those of the deposed Bourbons. The responsible tyrant was police minster Joseph Fouché, who oversaw a surveillance system to insure that “people behaved themselves.” (Fouché insisted on “making vice contribute to the security of the state;” hence he heavily taxed gaming houses and brothels.)

But the spy system, under both Fouché and successors, was strikingly disorderly. Thieves, prostitutes, drug addicts—unreliable and unschooled, with scant political knowledge—were dispatched to ferret out subversion. These amateur sleuths crammed police files with thousands of “dossiers”—wearing the wrong color hat, for instance, could make a person a “subject of interest.” (The color might suggest “revolutionary tendencies,” you must understand.)

A multitude of agents were often dispatched to spy on the same subjects. An example: two agents, one working for the police, the other for military intelligence, unknown to one another, went to the same tavern to check out a “plot.” They stood drinks for one another and professed a longing for the Napoleonic era. Meetings followed with “role-players” on either side, with talk about overthrowing the government. In due course, the military officer was arrested and held for a month before his release could be secured.

And there were mishaps worthy of a comic opera plot. A French nobleman tasked police with investigating his mistress in hopes of finding romantic misbehavior which would warrant jilting her for an actress with whom he lusted. Ooops! The gumshoes confused the names and stalked the actress instead, and the nobleman was “presented with evidence of her infidelities to him.” End of romance.

In terms of spying on other countries, and keeping a watch on putative “enemies” abroad—self-exiled nationals, mainly—Austrian intelligence controlled an extraordinarily valuable asset: the European postal system. Vienna provided “the most efficient postal service throughout the Holy Roman Empire.” Even though the empire had collapsed, most of the mails carried through its former territory still went through Austrian sorting offices. The Austrian foreign minister, Prince Metternich, managed to expand coverage to Switzerland, “a natural crossroads as well as a meeting place for subversives of every sort.” Berne also handled mails between France, Germany and Italy, and made it available to Austrian authorities.

The French were by no means laggards in screening mail. Ignoring a National Assembly decree that postal workers must respect the privacy of correspondence, French security set up a system whereby agents could sort through the mails and select letters for scrutiny. As an admiring official marveled, “It was in vain that the arts of envelopes, seals and ciphers struggled to escape such intrusion.” Agents kept a sharp watch for persons who wore clothing “with revolutionary colors.” Even an old military button with an image of the deposed king could be considered evidence of disloyalty.

In Russia, the tsars Alexander and Nicholas displaced a tendency “not so much as to control the society they ruled over through suppression, as to mould it morally to the desired form.” But Nicholas bristled at reports that schools were “gangrened” with immorality and incorrect political attitudes. So he recruited a scholar named Sergei Uvarov to set things right. Thereafter scholars were fed a steady intellectual diet featuring the supremacy of the Orthodox faith and the “supreme and boundless authority of the tsar.”

Uvarov was a paradox. He wanted young men to read, “but only what he felt was good for them.” He abhorred the printing of cheap books on the grounds that they might “set the lower classes in motion.” Understandably, his minions at the working level often had trouble sorting out the acceptable from the forbidden, meaning that in the end censorship triumphed. As Zamoyski writes, the system was so pervasive that there were “more censors in Russia than books being printed.”

Great Britain, with all its flaws in the era, was perhaps the most responsive of all European nations to pressures for change, especially democratization. Suffrage was widely expanded. So-called “rotten boroughs,” parliamentary seats more or less owned by landed gentry, were gradually eliminated. Parliament gave the populace a voice—a reform that would have saved the crowned heads much grief

In a preface, Zamoyski congratulates himself for not suggesting “parallels between Prince Metternich and Tony Blair, or George W. Bush and the Russian czars.” Then, loyal to the current standard of European “intellectuals,” he takes the cheap shot anyway. A pity, for such nonsense distracts from his work of serious history.

[1] Goulden, Joseph C., “The Latest Intelligence Books,” The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (21, 2, Spring/Summer 2015, pp. 111-112). Joseph C, Goulden’s 1982 book, Goulden, Joseph C. (1982). Korea: The Untold Story of The War. New York: Times Books. [LCCN: 81021262], was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews above appeared in prior editions of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted here by permission of the author. Joe Goulden’s most recent book is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications

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