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Home | 2016 | October | Jacobins

Circles of conspiracy

Posted by Richard on UTC 2016-10-01 09:06.

Secret meetings

With the exception of foolhardy individual hotheads such as Franz Seraph Spaun the visible scrutiny of public utterances just pushed political and potentially troublesome discussions into the private sphere, to be carried on in private houses. Pergen's interest therefore settled on the much more difficult question of the surveillance of private – 'secret' – meetings, meetings in which he was convinced revolutionary unrest was being fomented.

The suppression of such meetings had been the first item of the decree of 9 February 1793 and was regarded as of supreme importance. By the end of 1793 obvious private meetings such as those held by masonic lodges had been eliminated: during the course of the year Pergen had pressured all the masonic lodges into closing down. The discovery of the 'Shoemakers' Plot' was further evidence of the dangers of secret gatherings.

Educated people met to talk about the news of the day, how could this be otherwise? There had been only one item of news for some time: the revolution in France. Now the 'worst of times' were in full flow there, nearly every week brought breathtaking news. As we have seen, such talk was better avoided at salons or in coffee houses or taverns. It was wise also to make sure that the servants –  the secret policeman's best friends  – were not present: pour your own wine.

The issues that were now discussed by educated Austrians over the dinner-table would have been unthinkable a few years before. The legally-trained members of the Austrian bureaucracy were tantalised by questions they had never encountered in their university studies. Was hacking off Louis XVI's head justifiable under the circumstances? Under any circumstances? Enlightened jurisprudence had abolished the death penalty, how could regicide ever be justified? Was there such a thing as the 'general will' and what were its constraints?

And all these intellectual musings –  so amusingly abstract to us moderns, who have experienced the immensely more purposeful Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyite analysis  – slowly but surely turned into the question of Austria: what will/could/should happen here? There were plenty of people who were still full of regret at the abject failure of Joseph, their 'enlightened' monarch. There had been great hopes for Leopold, who had been the model king of the model state of Tuscany and who had even been toying with the introduction of a constitutional monarchy. None of this was to be – death had taken them away. And now we have Franz II, who had put all those colourful toys firmly back in the box and closed the lid and locked it.

Five circles

Despite the campaign against secret meetings, we know of some circles of like-minded citizens who met to discuss events critically. There were possibly many more – in those times it was clearly better not to write things down and for that reason we have no written records of such activity. Even if people did write their revolutionary thoughts down, they would be destroyed in the wake of the events we are about to consider. However, we do have detailed knowledge of the membership and activities of five interlinked circles: in Innsbruck, Upper Styria, Vienna, and Hungary. We know of them only because of the disastrous end to which they came: the Jacobin Trials.

The members of the Innsbruck circle were entirely students, on fire with the new French principles of liberty and equality. Innsbruck is the capital of the Tyrol and we will have cause to return to the revolutionary tradition in that province on another occasion.

In contrast, the Styrian troublemakers were mainly the leftovers of previous unsuccessful attempts to gain representation for the third estate in the province's council, a much more bourgeois and politically aware group.

In Vienna itself there were several overlapping circles, notably containing an easy mixture of different classes. 'Circles' may be a misleading expression, the connections were looser than the word implies. The inner members of the various circles mostly knew each other well. The circles met in private houses and sometimes, during the day, in 'democratic' shops in Vienna. They discussed the latest news from the revolution, read and exchanged books such as Tom Paine's Rights of Man (1791). The meetings were not just political but often also social events such as dinner parties.

The Hungarian circle was the largest and best organized. Joseph with his madcap reforms and Leopold with his forced tactical reaction had managed between them to stir up so much unrest there that there was already a bubbling political goulash in Hungary. The resulting dish would please no one, containing as it did two mutually repellent ingredients: the leaders of the Hungarian circle had promised their nationalistic aristocratic members Hungarian independence, without mentioning that they were also promising their members from the lower orders the overthrow of the aristocracy once independence was achieved.

Samizdat and secret signs

Using the technique that would become known under later repressive Soviet regimes as samizdat, the members of the circles distributed mainly handwritten copies of tracts, pamphlets poems and songs. Only a few of the many that seem to have been produced have survived: after the Jacobin affair became public no one would want to be found with such things in their possession. With a few exceptions, the samizdat circulated mainly within the educated members of the urban classes. The problem of how to involve the rural peasantry in this revolution that was supposed to be in their name remained unresolved. The songs were probably the most effective, followed by the pasquilles, the short satirical pieces. A spy reported of one pasquille that said 'Franz the second was not the first but will certainly be the last'.

Of course, spreading propaganda and recruiting new members was inherently dangerous. There was no risk-free way of staying secret and recruiting others. Oaths were sworn and secret gestures reminiscent of freemasonry were introduced. In Vienna, novice members were to make both hands into fists enclosing the thumbs, hold them forwards and then open the hands, whereas members of the inner circle would reveal themselves by wiping their left eye with their right hand and their right eye with their left hand. The members of the Tyrolean circle had their own extensive set of gestures. You might meet a lot of people in Innsbruck stroking their chins at you. Well, if you want to overthrow the established order you have to start somewhere.

We joke about this behaviour, which we would more expect to encounter in the pages of a Just William book than in use among a group of Austrian professors, barons, counts and other educated adults. It became, however, one of the key pieces of evidence that would be used against the Jacobins. Discussion was one thing; swearing oaths and using secret signs clearly raised the matter from idle chit-chat to the level of sedition.

The war with France

Leaving aside the revolutionary feelings, the Jacobins' most seductive goal at the time was peace with France, perhaps even as result of a French defeat of the Austrian monarchy. It seemed only a moment since Leopold had finally brought Joseph's detested war against the Turks to an end. Now, once again, the 'Cannibals of Europe are going to eating one another again' (©Thomas Jefferson, 1822). Wars were being fought, now against a country that seemingly had freed itself from the despot's shackles and for no more reason than that; there was forced conscription; there were shortages of food and most other basics; all trade with France had stopped; there were cripples begging in the streets and widows and children in the poorhouses. The war was going badly and would do so at least until 1802. In 1794 the Austrian Netherlands – the Empire's access to the North Sea and the Baltic – had been lost and would never be regained. We now call its modern parts Belgium and Luxembourg.

Defeat followed defeat, but Franz stubbornly ploughed forwards with efforts to conscript more soldiers and raise more taxes. Among the underclasses who bore the brunt of these deprivations there was more sympathy for their French equivalents than for their own masters. Soldiers deserted in worryingly high numbers and French prisoners were warmly received by the populace. The 'Jacobin' circles were benefiting from the depressed mood, the war weariness of the people.

In 1794 the inevitable happened: the police became alerted to what was going on in these circles. The events leading to the exposure of the plotting can be described as ranging between the foolhardy and the bizarre. There was one factor, however, that seems to be a constant: the involvement of a passionate, charismatic hothead. We have already met one hothead, Franz Seraph von Spaun, and watched the long downward path of his destruction. On this present occasion the hothead's name was First Lieutenant Franz Hebenstreit and his destruction was much, much quicker.