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Home | 2016 | October | Jacobins

Joseph Vinzenz Degen

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

The conspirators went to their nooses, blocks and their dungeons, the contaminated were eventually let off, but their future in the Empire would be ever under a cloud.

Aloys Blumauer (1755-1798), the publisher who was associated with the Viennese Jacobins, died four years later in 1798 with enormous debts of more than 100,000 Gulden. He had been a book censor since 1792, but in 1793, his reputation tainted by association with the Jacobins, that activity ceased and all patronage – the A and O of life in the Empire – was withdrawn.

Joseph Vinzenz Degen (1762(3)–1827), on the other hand, the book publisher who, alerted by Blumauer's loose talk, had not only reported the activities of the Viennese circle to the authorities but had led them with great guile to compromise themselves, had an exceptional career after the Jacobin trials. His anonymity in the Jacobin affair had been guaranteed and his business flourished.

Degen was the son of a carpenter in Graz, went to University there and studied philosophy and law, studied veterinary science finally taking an apprenticeship with a book publisher. His success at this allowed him, now only 28, to take over a book publishers in 1790. After his service to his Emperor as agent provocateur in 1794 his business went from strength to strength.

He made a name for himself publishing Latin classics and luxury editions such as a notable edition of the collected works of Wieland, just the kind of things that Franz II, that enthusiastic book collector, his libraries and his court would buy. He set up his own typefoundry and built a reputation as an outstanding typographer.

In 1804 he was appointed as the first Director of the newly founded Court and National Printers, which was responsible for printing all government publications (including bonds and other financial paper). The establishment of the Court Printers was an attempt by the government to save money and increase security by centralizing the production of all its printed output. It was set up over the protests of the other printers and publishers but petitions to Franz in 1806 and 1807 were rejected. Degen was its Director for 23 years until his death in 1827.

For ten years after its foundation the Press laid golden eggs for Degen: the profits from the fixed price list were shared half and half between the government and Degen, whose company also had a monopoly on the sale of official documents through his own business. That the nark who betrayed the Jacobins to Franz's police should become rich by printing Franz's decrees fails to surprise. In 1808 he presented Franz with a special luxury edition on parchment of the epithalamia written by Clemente Bondi (1742-1822) on the occasion of Franz's third marriage. For that he received a gold medal and much praise.

By now his publishing catalogue was full of the works of the literary eminence of Vienna, particularly Pezzl's later bestsellers. The trajectory of his career continued without pause. In 1811 the carpenter's son was ennobled as Edler von Elsenau and in 1815 bought the impressive but debt-ridden castle of Trautenfels in Styria. In 1824 he was ennobled into the knighthood, becoming Ritter von Elsenau. He had also acquired the title of Imperial Counsellor (Hofrat) along the way. In 1814 the state printer was fully nationalised and, although Degen remained Director, the laying of golden eggs directly in his lap stopped. He did not go hungry though, other golden eggs followed: in 1814, in addition to his directorship, he was given the post of provincial counsellor for Lower Austria.

He died, a 65 year-old, in 1827, rich, aristocratic and highly respected. The modern cliché for such a career is 'stellar'. A few hours' diligent work in the service of his Emperor all those years ago had brought rich and plentiful fruit. He had lived three decades longer than those who, in 1795, had twisted on the hangman's ropes or awaited the stroke of the blade. Others had paced interminable hours in cold, hungry misery in distant dungeons, some never to emerge alive, some to emerge mad. An exception was Andreas von Riedel, who, despite all his sufferings, by some miracle of his constitution outlived his nemesis Degen by ten years.

Franz's government kept its promise to keep Degen's name secret. The files concerning the Jacobin Conspiracy were sealed and not seen again for 150 years. By that time Degen's reputation was secure and even to this day Joseph Vinzenz Degen, the nark who betrayed the Austrian Jacobins to his own advantage so enthusiastically has a respectful biographical entry in the official history website of Vienna that makes no mention of this claim to fame, basing its account on the authority of the Historisches Lexikon Wien.