A magnificent and timely examination of an age of fear, subversion, suppression and espionage, Adam Zamoyski explores the attempts of the governments of Europe to police the world in a struggle against obscure forces, seemingly dedicated to the overthrow of civilisation.
The advent of the French Revolution confirmed the worst fears of the rulers of Europe. They saw their states as storm-tossed vessels battered by terrible waves coming from every quarter and threatened by horrific monsters from the deep. Rulers’ nerves were further unsettled by the voices of the Enlightenment, envisaging improvement only through a radical transformation of existing structures, with undeniable implications for the future role of the monarchy and the Church.
Napoleon’s arrival on the European stage intensified these fears, and the changes he wrought across Europe fully justified them. Yet he also brought some comfort to those rulers who managed to survive: he had tamed the revolution in France and the hegemony he exercised over Europe was a kind of guarantee against subversion. Once Napoleon was toppled, the monarchs of Europe took over this role for themselves.
However, the nature of their attempts to impose order were not only ineffectual, they also managed to weaken the bases of that order. As counter-productive as anything, for example, was the use of force. Reliance on standing armies to maintain order only served to politicize the military and to give potential revolutionaries the opportunity to get their hands on a ready armed force.
The wave of revolutions in 1848 might have embodied the climactic clash that many had come to expect, but it was no Armageddon, lacking the kind of mass support that rulers had dreaded and revealed the groundlessness of most of their fears. Interestingly, the sense of a great, ill-defined, subversive threat never went away, indeed it lingers on even today in the minds of world leaders.
Adam Zamoyski’s compelling history explores how the rulers and governments of the time really did envisage the future and how they meant to assure it.