This is an interesting companion to Zamoyski’s Holy Madness. That book looked at all the leftover idealists of post-Napoleonic era revolutions, their passions, and their repeated attempts at change through coercive rebellion. This book is about governmental paranoia from the French Revolution to 1848.

He starts out with idea of policing being fairly new to the Eighteenth Century and at that point it encompassed a number things not associated with it today (including a lot of civil engineering, as it was supposed to work at the ordering of public spaces for public benefit). He also gives a background of the conspiracy theory of the time: the Illuminati.

And the book goes downhill from there. Well, no, not the book, but the paranoia and repression caused by the conspiracy theories rife in European governments for the next half-century. Zamoyski quotes a fair number of reactionary sources with wild accusations of vast networks of hundreds of thousands of conspirators working for anarchy and the overthrow of all social order.

An interesting part is how consistently liberal ideas are seen as a pathological contagion, which must be stopped and rooted out at all costs. (…Which, I suppose, is actually a primitive form of meme-theory.) This leads into the major theme of the book, which is how the concept of police-state comes out of this period as various governments try to clamp down on public opinion, and more importantly institute ever-wider ranging secret police branches to find and arrest the massive revolutionary conspiracies that they know are out there plotting against them.

Of course, people with little investigative training, paid directly for information they bring in are a great way to get results that would be hilariously off-kilter and transparently fallacious if the results weren’t tragic. Even better, one of the major results of all the internal spying was to make people suspicious and circumspect, and therefore good at hiding if they did start plotting something.

Much of the book is a continual recounting of the various conspiracy theories that these informers invented and governmental authorities convinced themselves were real. One lesson: a good judiciary is a grand thing, as a number of cases get thrown out when they hit the courts and the ‘evidence’ is quickly demolished.

There are weaknesses to the book. Zamoyski is obviously enjoying skewering all these shibboleths of yesteryear, but it’s hard to tell if he’s skipping over some genuine ‘conspiracies’ they uncovered (as unlikely as it seems). He does have some interesting viewpoints on the later revolutions that were largely missed by this activity, and how, quite often, any leadership they had was at least partly accidental. In fact, the book is an interesting take on the entire period and well worth a look.