Conspiracy Theories

Spectres Haunting Europe

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Conservatives often claim that the total state was born in the ashes of 1789. That's truer than they may imagine: While the Jacobins were certainly pioneers of political policing, the same was true of the Old Order regimes that responded to the threat of revolution by building up police states of their own. Adam Zamovski's magnificent Phantom Terror (Basic Books) tells this tale, showing how governments across Europe reacted to revolutionary activity—and, much more often, to entirely imaginary revolutionary conspiracies—by erecting systems of surveillance, censorship, and control.

Figures like Prince Metternich come across as reactionary fantasists jumping at shadows: They see the hand of the Illuminati or some other subversive secret society behind anything that might erode their power, yet are caught unprepared when real revolts finally break out. In the meantime, networks of informants keep finding creative ways to feed their rulers' fantasies by telling officials what they want to hear.